by John Kinsella
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Can art make things happen? John Kinsella says ‘yes’. ‘Poetry functions more directly in cultures at different times, but it is part of most things we do. Consciousness of poetic language informs reading the newspaper as much as it does listening to songs on the radio.’ (Watts 2013) Kinsella’s most recent novel, Lucida Intervalla, is set in a frantic and failing world almost indistinguishable from our own, except that the things we fear happening – coastlines that are no longer coastlines, fire hail raining from the sky – are already happening. Lucida Intervalla might be read as a deliberative novel, one intended to provoke discussion and inform change, or it might be read as a novel resigned; to climate change and climate denial, to fallen cities and interminably displaced refugees, to an end ‘…without style. So bland. So fated.’ (233)
The world may be plummeting ever closer to self-destruction, but Lucida grants it little attention. As a child, she creates self-portraits in vomit and menstrual blood, the latter for which she is expelled. References to rising temperatures are rife and the planet seems on the precipice of collapse, if not already there. If this novel is a bildungsroman describing Lucida’s trajectory from troublesome child to super-celebrity; it is also one reflecting the gradual and uncomfortable movement of humanity toward accepting what is has done: to the earth, to the animals, and to ourselves, ‘…drowning and choking on its own goo and efflatus’ (219). This is unsurprising from Kinsella, a self-proclaimed anarchist pacifist vegan (link to Kinsella’s blog provided below) who coined the terms ‘pleasurism’ and ‘leisurism’ to describe acts of environmental degradation for, you guessed it, the purposes of pleasure and leisure. Uneasy and destructive relationships between humans, other species and the natural environment appear often in this novel. Wildlife is synonymous with road kill and forests only exist in conjunction to bulldozers. Young Lucida keeps mice as pets, one of which aggressively procreates and then eats its own offspring (32). Although mice are identified as herbivores and it is true that they can exist as such, they are opportunistic eaters who feed on what is available, much like humans. The incorrigible Pinkie, then, with the blood of his own and others’ infants on his snout, is the harbinger of society in this novel as in life.
This is the battle that rages between the old and new world in Lucida Intervalla, foregrounded by measured references to Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Lucida’s big break comes in the form of a trip to interview an aging and reclusive artist who has rejected the brave new world and retired to Centralia – a state which thus far does not exist, but is borne from the tentative idea raised by former Territory and federal MPs to merge parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory into one state. This move is touted as being a significant opportunity to reinvigorate this part of the country by taking advantage of its relative proximity to Asia, but Centralia as represented by Kinsella is as weary and shrivelled as the artist who has taken up residence there.
‘He is an artist and he should be in his prime…but his brushes dried with the wet and he’s not even done a sketch. It’s gone, whatever he had and whatever he hoped for. In the open, he is confined. In the open, and the blue sky, he is isolated. The birds are thoughts flitting by, or pecking at their stems. The heat haze shimmering within a few metres is the mirage he’ll never reach, never have.’ (50)
Centralia is hot, dusty, uninhabitable but for the regular delivery of water and other resources. The earth will not provide, not for aged celebrities nor ‘stray cows with calves, nibbling at the thin sheen of dead grass soon to be skin and bones…’ (54) yet it is from this dead earth that Lucida mines her fortune, capitalising on the fame that comes with proximity to celebrity. ‘Industrialism, consumerism, greed and general rapacity seem universal wrongs to me,’ says Kinsella (Watts 2013).
Lucida is an anti-heroine in that she actively profits from these things. At one point, envious of an author’s success, Lucida along with her team of managers and creators put together a book branded with her name which is published ‘…in a first print run of three million copies which took out a large chunk of forest’ (173) while the e-version ‘ate the energy from a dozen power stations around the world’ (173). Trapped and unable to cope with a conversation concerning indigenous land rights, she interrogates the speaker about the ways in which rodents are poisoned on his farm (183). This refusal to participate in imperative discussion concerning the future or lack thereof of postcolonial society repeats often throughout the novel, as each reference to climate change is followed by the increasingly desperate responses of deniers, each person willing to make positive changes stymied by the raising of a separate topic that successfully halts progress of any kind. This distraction away from imperative discussion of indigenous land rights toward an altogether unrelated – and comparatively unimportant – topic is an apt example. These kinds of unproductive conversations where significant issues are countered by irrelevant rejoinders abound in the media. Perhaps Kinsella, a vegan of many years, has participated in fruitless discussions with those claiming that the growing movement toward rejecting animal agriculture is pointless when rats continue to be poisoned in the process of wheat production.
Passivity is a violent act in Lucida Intervalla. Pro-Green artwork is funded with mining magnate dollars, activism is inefficient and often tainted with that which it seeks to reject and overall, things seem fairly hopeless. The characters are frogs sweating in water fast coming to the boil, unable or unwilling to leap out. And yet, perhaps Kinsella’s forlorn imaginings are deliberative. Perhaps the call-to-action is to jump from of the pot as quickly as possible, in any way possible. Lucida is an antonym to John Kinsella. He notes ‘[Lucida] …doesn’t like me much, and would disagree with most of what I have to say. She determines her own paths, many of which I find frightening.’ (Acknowledgements) Lucida is not a likeable character, but she is painfully familiar to anyone who has chosen to circumvent the difficult conversation and engage in behaviours we probably shouldn’t. She’s familiar to us all.
Humans should leave well enough alone, according to Kinsella. ‘People don’t have to occupy every square metre of the planet. Some places should just be left to do their ‘own’ thing.’ (Watts 2013) Reading is to be enjoyed, and books don’t need a takeaway to be satisfying, but if Lucida Intervalla is to continue to be speculative fiction rather than contemporary fiction, we need to do better.
Ryan, Tracy, and John Kinsella. 2019. “Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist”. Poetsvegananarchistpacifist.Blogspot.Com. http://poetsvegananarchistpacifist.blogspot.com/.
Watts, Madeleine. 2013. “Interview With John Kinsella”. Griffith Review. https://griffithreview.com/articles/interview-with-john-kinsella/.
GABRIELA BOURKE is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at USYD
by Lindsay Tuggle
Reviewed by HELEN GILDFIND
The striking title of Lindsay Tuggle’s poetry collection is immediately defined in her preface:
A fever incident to sailors within the tropics, characterised by delirium in which the patient fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it. (ix)
This title, Tuggle’s preface, the book’s dedication to her dead sister, Kate Middleton’s introduction, and the notes that complete the text, provide an intriguing and welcome frame through which readers can ‘leap into’ Tuggle’s darkly beautiful worded-world.
Tuggle’s preface notes that: ‘Every elegy needs an author. And then, an autopsy’ (ix). The themes and impulses shaping her book are thus clear, and she describes her collection as an:
ossuary to a constellation of deaths, some sudden, all strange. It is also a catalogue of medical and mercurial oddities, curiosities that call forth the exquisite corpse hard at work beneath our living flesh. The echolalic duet between what is lost and what is left behind. The phantom limb. The wandering womb. The book bound in skin. The face that ghosts itself. The fever dream that ends in drowning. (ix)
Tuggle clearly loves language that is ‘diagnostic, archaic, hysteric, mesmeric’ (ix). She writes knowing that the ‘management of thresholds / is perilous business’ (49), and her collection thus maps the obscure imaginative landscape that joins the living to the dead, the personal to the universal, and the abstract to the concrete.
Tuggle’s collection is divided into two suites. The first shares the title of the book, and is introduced by three eerie quotes, including ‘We need a dead woman to begin’ (Hélène Cixous), and ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted’ (Emily Dickenson). In this suite, we meet a woman who cannot live ‘within her limbs’: she feels ‘on fire’ and ‘cut to pieces’ (34). We meet another woman (the same woman?) who ‘wakes to remember / her garnet cluster of early deaths’ (9). We glimpse ‘wrists / graced in the master’s hand’ (8), ‘mouthfuls of gravel’ (41), ‘bruised’ and ‘bandaged’ tongues (3, 5), and ‘feral anorexics’ (5)—including ‘the concave half of a sister’ (5).
This reference to ‘a’ sister shows how it is never quite clear who the subject and object of these poems are. This ambiguity is elaborated by the poems themselves: ‘Some days her face obliterates my own’ (15), and ‘we wear / each other’s faces’ (4), and ‘I trespass her name as my own’ (25). Of course the reader assumes, as they’ve been directed to, that such phrases refer to an actual ‘sister,’ and Tuggle’s ambivalence towards this relational identity is expressed when she refers to the ‘ambiguous wound’ (19) of her loss, to the ‘old grievances’ (‘shame’ and ‘blame’) that riddle such relationships (20, 21), and to the archetypal sibling emotion of jealousy—expressed when she looks upon a female corpse and wonders: ‘do I covet her still / diluted by sleep.’ (5) The narrator chillingly concludes: ‘I love the dead more than you / always will’ (6). Tuggle’s ambivalence towards the ‘biological gift’ (21) of a sister can also be read from the poems’ most common structural constraint of couplets—two lines, coerced into a relationship, across time and space.
More ambiguity is built into this first suite by reference to other deaths, including that of a man who lay ‘lay unfound’ for days (27), and the ‘integral burial’ of a flooded town where the ‘measure of loss’ lies in the ‘submergence of trees’ (31):
in the vanishing tendency
of the object
is watery and burns.
The wet are pretty. (33)
This deadly flooding is mirrored in a later poem, when a woman ‘walks in blindfolds’ into ‘bitumen tributaries,’ where ‘drowning ends in a glassy sprawl’ and roadside altars whisper ‘fire soars’ (41). As above, such vivid and violent references to suicide, death, drowning, burning, basalt and glass are often juxtaposed against the ostensibly trivial notion of ‘prettiness.’ Is drowning ‘a pretty way to die’ (19)? The ‘pretty suicide guide,’ would say so: ‘beauties never harm their faces’ (27). Of course, there’s nothing benign about the value of feminine beauty. This is made clear when the narrator looks upon a female corpse and thinks: ‘she’s prettier now / in coffined silhouette’ (5). Isn’t this the ideal woman? Pretty—and inert, silent, and surrendered to others’ devouring gaze? The narrator defies this value system: the female which dazzles (3) her gaze is a ‘raving’ (39), ‘ungroomed and carnivorous’ (3) ‘slattern’ (41).
The second suite of poems responds to the work of anatomist and naturalist Joseph Leidy (1832-1891), and the poet and naturalist Arsène Houssaye. Both men shared a bibliophilic ‘fetish’ for ‘anthropodermic’ books—that is, books bound in human skin. These books were normally created by surgeons, with Houssaye’s own book of essays bound in skin sourced from the ‘unclaimed’ body of a French, female mental patient (63,64).
The woman (women?) alluded to in this second suite call out to the women-sisters of the first—relating the latter’s more personal specificity to the more universal history of ‘the diasporic womb’ (56). In the first suite, the very ambiguity of the poems’ subject-object allows them to enlarge on their own anyway, especially in the poems referring to medicine and asylums, like in ‘Asylum, Pageantry’ (‘it is best not to dream for long / here medicine disallows her florid stutter,’ 3), and ‘The Heretics’ Asylum’:
The physician knows nothing
of angels with proper names.
Reverence is permitted only
toward unseen patients,
an innate distrust of that
which can be embodied
in a creed. (24)
In the second suite, we enter a world where a woman is literally disembodied—torn from her skin:
A splayed book attracts all the gazes.
You are the title closeted gazelle.
Just another posthumous seduction
To best display her character
no other decoration is placed. This
book deserves its own human cover. (53)
Sickened, furious—and utterly entranced—the reader asks: what does the woman deserve? This ‘brutal homage’ (54)? Here, the woman becomes another version of the inert ‘pretty’ female corpse in the first suite—one which others can literally ‘open’ and inscribe their own ‘creed’ into. This ‘echolalic duet’ between the first and second suites thus evokes the notion of an everywoman—an anywoman—who literally fights-to-the-death against patriarchy’s reduction of her to ‘flesh / toying architecturally with bone’ (56).
What Flannery O’Connor says of prose, surely applies to poetry also:
‘The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning… A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.’
In Calenture, two sisters are absolutely more than the sum of their parts, and the sophistication of Tuggle’s tightly crafted, cryptic and compelling ossuary—her home for the bones of the dead—becomes evident with each reading. Like the best poetry, this book is first and foremost an experience—one which no analysis can do justice to.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970 (c. 1957), pp.96-102
H.C. GILDFIND (hcgildfind.com) is the author of The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press.
Stone Mother Tongue
by Annamaria Weldon
Reviewed by LINDSAY TUGGLE
Resurrecting the Oracle: Stone Mother Tongue
Annamaria Weldon’s luminous fourth collection returns the poet to the archipelago of her birth. Stone Mother Tongue begins in prehistoric Malta, where Weldon mourns the “goddesses we trample[ed]” across the centuries. The poet guides us through shifting incarnations of her homeland, where “Recollection is mapped country folded backwards / along familiar creases” (50). Weldon’s poetry enacts a uniquely feminine divination; she calls forth a goddess oracle unbound from history, a statuary tongue unloosed from time. Ancient relics —museumed, looted, or abandoned—are portals to haunted islands where “pre-history seems just offshore . . . time’s lost coast in stone, not words.” Weldon elegantly negotiates the fraught territory between conflicted and conflicting histories: collective and personal, traumatic and resilient, human and divine.
At first glance, Stone Mother Tongue is arranged geographically and chronologically: Part 1) Prehistoric Malta, Part 2) Phoenician Malta, Part 3) Anthropocene, Antipodes. Yet Weldon’s mesmeric slight of hand is already at play. Within each section, her poetry unsettles both geographical borders and linear time, paradoxically disturbing the author’s own system of organization. Weldon’s readers cross and recross liminal thresholds, inhabiting poetic interstices where boundaries and clocks have no sway.
In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) signifies the ambiguity of middle rites, when the seeker has shed her pre-ritual status but has not yet completed her rite of passage. Arnold Van Gennep integrated the concept of liminality into anthropology in his 1909 study Les Rites de Passage, which outlines three distinct phases of ritual progression: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Van Gennep’s ritual trinity is relevant not only to Weldon’s poetically resurrected antiquity; the anthropological concept of liminality also captures the elegiac melancholy of her work. At once preciously specific and sweeping in their historical resonance, her poems mourn the erasure of deities, landscapes, selves and beloved others.
In a land where “asteroids once smashed to earth,” language remains as eroded as geological history: “Each remnant’s recorded by era, / but Beta counting only calculates rates of decay, / a relic’s meaning remains cryptic (50, 23). This curated vacancy creates space for illumination and divination. Weldon calls on “incantatory” stones to resurrect an ancient, maternal language, born of a time “When everything was the Goddess /and stone was our mother tongue.” Her elegiac “undersong” mines the blank spaces beyond and between words, the inability of language to capture the most enigmatic aspects of human history: our ancestors and their deities. Yet, she insists that the oracle’s translation can only ever be partial. The Goddess speaks “a language [as] untranslatable as stars in daylight.” Despite the poet’s efforts at resurrection, “a relic’s meaning remains cryptic” (23).
The first section in Part One, “Divining the Neolithic,” shows us that even when ancient matriarchal rituals and relics have been ravaged by time and violence, traces of divinity linger. “Geomancy” reconfigures the “broken altars” of abandoned temples.
Time and weather, the ploughman’s husbandry
and urban sprawl effaced them, leaving us to guess
the geomancy, gutted now from enigmatic temples. (32)
Agriculture, exposure, and expansion have “effaced” this holy site, but the final desecration is rendered as an anatomical wound: the temple has been “gutted.” Part of Weldon’s poetic magnetism lies in her capacity to evoke visceral responses through language that is often violently acute: “History’s survivors have heard it all before / the sound of invasion that some call arrival.” Yet, Weldon asks far more of her audience than simply outliving the open wounds of history. Survival, she tells us, “is not endurance alone” (20-21). As an (inevitably partial) antidote to the unceasing escalation of gender violence across the centuries, she conjures divine maternal voices from the deep past, a chorus that both harrows and heals.
Goddess, when your body was worshipped
as holy matrix of the world incarnate
no clerics or sceptics mocked our devotion
and love conjured more power than hate. (18)
Throughout Weldon’s work, divination is disturbed by the arrival of new wounds, both personal and cultural. The deconsecrated temple has become a tourist destination, its deities reduced to ancient curiosities.
Inside the sanctuary walls, torba floors endure
as bone-white ground, broken as the silence now
deities are curios, gift shop souvenirs. (31)
While it may not be possible to resurrect the goddesses that once inhabited this hallowed ground, Weldon compels us to try. She invites us to listen beyond the gaudy white noise of our century, for the low hum of an oracle who keeps the secrets of her own survival well guarded, despite the hoards of curiosity seekers who trample her grave. Yet, Weldon’s poetry is far more nuanced than directive. While she argues that survival entails more than mere endurance, she does not reveal the resilient alchemy for surviving history’s ravages. That mystery belongs to the deity, alone.
Catalogued as myth, in time She was denied
all ceremonies, those rituals that temper
time’s lapse to entropy. (45)
This inquiry underpins the poems of Stone Mother Tongue: How do we, as a species, survive “time’s lapse to entropy”? Could the resurrection of ancient, maternally-embodied rituals help us to “temper” the technologically-saturated ennui of late capitalism? These questions are integral to Weldon’s work, even as they are revealed as unanswerable. The goddess’s stone tongue remains immobile, her “silence mystical and terrible” (33).
“In Geotherapy” Weldon’s archival poetics turns inward, enigmatically curating personal wounds alongside antiquity’s ravaged aftermath:
Enlist a devoted archivist to polish history.
When topography frames experience, you will accept
the residual changes heartache left in its wake. (50)
The poet becomes her own “devoted archivist,” preserving histories that are at once personal and collective, ever-present and archaic. In “Devotion’s Aftermath,” the Goddess shines as an elusive specimen of antiquity, “hidden in plain sight” (45).
In “Borderlands,” Weldon guides us into the liminal “Interstice” between the living and the dead. “Disarticulated by its darkness, we / have traversed all the stations of being / from birth to the excarnation of bones.” The portal of “sympathetic magic” is guarded by the “gaze of ancestral protection” — a hollow skull “watching all our futures.” (56). Under the protective eyes of this this spectral guard,, women gather, “as if willingly entombed,” crooning not in mourning but in celebration: “mantras of maternal consolation that rise / and fall with the birthing cries of the woman crouched on the cusp of deliverance.” Now, after the desecration and (partial) resurrection of ancestral deities and their followers, a birth arrives, and “the boundary between worlds is breached” (57). A new divinity — human, this time– emerges from “the cocoon of smooth deliverance. . . / a priestess / is not made, nor merely / born, but recognized” (59).
The poems of Part 2, “Phoenician Malta,” document the atrocities inflicted on the Maltese people by “colonizers, slavery, trade, cruelty” (70). Weldon interrogates what the Phoenicians brought with them as well as what they stole or destroyed, treating the islands merely as a “stepping stone settlement” (73). “Entire seashores, bays and beaches made middens” by an insatiable hunger for beauty that demanded destruction:
A quarter million snails sacrificed
for one ounce of dye.” (69)
In “This Precious Stain,” Weldon questions “What stories lay– still lie–beyond beauty!” and whether, “if we knew / their true cost, would their magic be dispelled / or the enchantment deepen?” Other poems elegize the human cost of quarrying the islands’ precious stones (formerly the source material for the statues of maternal deities who dominated Part One, “Prehistoric Malta”). These stones are now subjected to a “violent separation.” “Enormous slabs” are quarried and “prised open with fire, sanded smooth to elide the trauma / of calving rock.” The colonizing labour of unsettling these relics of geological time is equally violent: “Boys died here from a moment’s slippage, manoeuvring the masonry.” “Crushing has many sounds,” including “an exhalation / vaguely human, hanging in the air / hauntingly as final breath.” (71)
Alongside the desecration of the islands’ people and resources, the Phoenicians left something behind: an alphabet. “Newly designed Phoenician letters” gave those who survived the invasion and its aftermath the words to record their trauma: “incised on clay / or inked on papyrus. Before their invention / thoughts that could only be wept / sank unmarked into the dark water.” (67) In “A Shoreline Scripted for Heartbreak” we follow the “arrivals and departures” of the “Literate, captive women . . . assigned as scribes to passing merchants.” Starkly rendered in sparse language, the poem elegizes the “Ill-fated, unrecorded, charged encounters” these women endured in the “ceaseless maritime traffic” of “colonisers, pirates, naval flotillas, hospital ships, refugee boats, cruise liners, smugglers.” Weldon once again holds our hand to the flame, forcing us to see the harrowing similarities between the human trafficking of their century and our own.
Part Three, “Anthropocene, Antipodes,” merges Australia’s cultural amnesia with the aphasia of personal grief. “What I Saw at the War Memorial” articulates the national tendency towards historical erasure with the compulsion to create monuments that privilege nationally sanctioned deaths, while participating violently in the erasure of other, marginal massacres.
Grief is the gap where words
won’t meet. Time is a stone-cutter
quarrying rocks for monuments.
Memorials are what we build
to limn the invisible, mark thresholds
we can’t cross [.] (101)
In the 21st century’s amnesiac liminality, such thresholds of grief remain invisible and impossible to cross, rendered in fissures of language and memory. The poems of this final section embody an enigmatic loss of unity, sketching a deliberately fragmented picture of “grief’s blurred peripheries” against the hazy backdrop of “memories that rise like mist” (99). Weldon’s final poems elegize a multiplicity of losses, including a harrowingly beautiful tribute to her father’s remaining memories as he struggles with dementia:
when all that’s left
of your former life are those memories of the journey,
sightings and oracles remind me who you are — had been
before your mind soared to where there are no maps. (103)
In the end, Weldon brings us full circle, the poet herself becomes an oracle in “Leaning Back Towards the Neolithic.” Returning to her ancestral homeland, divination is not invoked or invited, but embodied:
From village to hamlet, the valley path from Gharb
to Birbuba has become my pilgrim’s way, each step
rephrasing me as I walk it. Words come unasked,
immersive as the weather of prayer, heartache
like a fig tree’s barren longing to bear fruit.
In her “Epilogue,” Weldon shows us that even when the statues of ancient dieties have all been effaced, the oracles silenced for centuries, poetry can offer a portal into the liminal threshold of harrowed divinity — if we only are willing to seek out the ruins, and to listen to the halting echoes of our Mother’s stone tongues.
LINDSAY TUGGLE is the author of The Afterlives of Specimens (The University of Iowa Press, 2017) and Calenture (Cordite Books, 2018) which was commended in the Anne Elder Award and shortlisted in the Mary Gilmore Prize. She has been a fellow at the Library of Congress, the Mütter Museum / College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Jill Jones has published eleven books of poetry, and a number of chapbooks. The most recent are Viva La Real with UQP, Brink, The Leaves Are My Sisters, The Beautiful Anxiety, which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2015, and Breaking the Days, which was shortlisted for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work is represented in major anthologies including the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Ed. Nicholas Jose and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. In 2014 she was poet-in-residence at Stockholm University. She is a member of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide.
Patience Without Virtue
Everyone loves the female voice.
Am I forgiven for having one?
I wait patiently, hoping it’s only
to do with simple flowers. It never is.
I dissent again, the moon goes as it came.
There’s nothing transcendental within reach.
What must I do amongst sweat
grey flannel, car parks, and theories?
I can only be a certain kind of lunatic
and women are vaster than history.
It’s the way I don’t step forward politely.
No point sitting on the fence.
It’s the way I have to fix things
by painting a sign. ‘I can’t believe
I still have to protest this fucking shit.’
I can’t put the leaves back.
My affinity is always a question.
I can’t recall when these things didn’t happen
in my cells or beaten-up memories.
I’ll never be as dead as a man.
Jungle Without Water and Other Stories
by Sreedhevi Iyer
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
The good things in this collection of short stories, Jungle Without Water, are very good indeed. But before talking about some of them in detail I want to briefly touch on the major theme of this book, which is the migrant experience in many of its different phases. In each of the stories mentioned in this review the main subject of the work is the way that people fit into society when they, or their antecedents, come from somewhere else. In some of the stories the main characters are people from India living in Malaysia but the title story, for example, takes as its subject an Indian student living in Brisbane, in Australia.
While it’s easy to thus find a unifying theme for the book, the narratives Iyer creates are not totally dominated by it. The clash of identity and custom that in one of her stories troubles an Indian-Malay living in Kuala Lumpur might be equally relevant for an Anglo businessman living in a house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. In fact, where Iyer stumbles it is where the standard postcolonial narrative gains unnecessary prominence and politics overshadows art. The best stories here focus on the seeming-random details of lived experience.
The second story in the collection, which is titled ‘The Lovely Village’, is written as a fairytale and it takes as its subject the treatment of migrants who want to come into a village where there is equality for all. This story stood out for me in that it seemed not to be as deeply rooted in lived experience as the other stories in the book, and I found it to be rather weak in conception and lacking in the kind of impact that characterises many of the other stories.
After finishing several of the stories I felt a physical thrill on the skin of my neck, which is always a sign to me that the work I have just completed was particularly successful. I more often get this kind of sensation when reading a good short story or a good poem, as such methods of storytelling tend to conclude on a strong tonic note that reverberates once the final word has been consumed. Novels do not usually finish in this way and their impact tends to be spread out over longer stretches of text, with less sudden impact.
The first story in the collection, which I have already mentioned, is its title story. It deals with a young man named Jogi who is living in the Queensland capital with the aim of studying at university. His links with his family back in India remain strong, and one day after he has arrived in Australia his mother, who has stayed behind in his homeland, asks him to say a prayer for her husband who has to undertake a transfer for work. She is worried about how the transfer will affect Jogi’s father and family tradition maintains that prayers Jogi says are particularly effective.
Jogi relies on his friend Sandeep, who has lived in Brisbane for three weeks longer than Jogi, to help him carry out his assigned task. They visit a holy man in a place of worship in multicultural Brisbane but when Jogi sits down to pray nothing comes out of his mouth. They visit another holy place, this time one run by Westerners who follow Krishna, and they tell him that the particular prayer he wants to say is not permitted. Once again Jogi leaves a place where he should have been able to perform his familial duty, without being able to do so. He eventually fulfils his obligation but it happens, almost by accident, with the aid of a teenage girl who does nothing more than talk to Jogi one day on the street.
I won’t say anything more, as I feel as though I have already given away more than I should, but I felt that this story served to say important things about multiculturalism and about the migrant experience, things that other types of document would struggle to say. The words of the title, “a jungle without water”, pop up at two places in the story and they function to bring together disparate parts of the narrative, making the interstices between things so narrow that what happens seems like fate. This is an elegant story that functions to convey truths about immigration in a way that everybody can understand.
The context of that story is local for an Australian and so the way into the narrative was easier for me than it was in some of the other stories in the collection, for example ‘The Man With Two Wives’. This story is focalised entirely through the consciousness of a Indian-Malay who runs shops in Malaysia retailing food and it is written using the kind of language that the man, who is not badly educated but who uses Malay, Indian, and English words in his daily conversations, would normally employ. It is a small tour-de-force that says much about the culture that underpins the story. You feel as though you know this man well and when you hear his story of starting a course of study in accountancy, and there meeting a young woman named Lata, you get to experience his feelings in a way that vividly brings his world to life.
The protagonist is never named and neither is his wife. His daughter is Malathi and she ends up gaining prominence at the end of the story. His relationship with Lata, which causes so many tongues in his town to wag, is one of great importance to the protagonist and it is clear that while he married for the sole purpose of satisfying his mother’s wishes, with Lata things are different. His wife is only interested in buying gold jewellery and sarees, but Lata listens to what he has to say and her attention serves to justify an interior existence that the man’s daily business and family life does little to fulfil.
One day, the protagonist attends a job interview that Lata has encouraged him to go to. He enters a tall building by the sea and sits down in a room in front of a group of men, one of whom is a Westerner. The way his wife and the way Lata behave once the interview is over, however, tell him things about his world that he didn’t understand before. This is an effective, thoughtful, and powerful work of fiction that efficiently performs the tasks the author has set for it.
I will take a quick look at one other story in the collection, and it is also one that appears in the first half of the book. This is ‘Green Grass’, and it deals with a man named Mohan and his wife, who is a Westerner named Rachel, who come back to India to visit family. The event is an important one for the whole village where Mohan grew up. The way people living in the village treat Rachel, because of where she comes from and because of her relationship with her husband, contains the dramatic material the story relies on to communicate its messages about globalisation. It is focalised entirely through the consciousness of one of the villagers.
Each of these stories is different from the others in so many ways: in the way the narrative evolves, in the kinds of characters portrayed, and in the plot devices that each relies on to fulfil its purpose. There is a wry and knowing candour in many of Iyer’s stories. It not only helps to give the reader confidence in the author’s sincerity and intelligence but it also, paradoxically, allows Iyer to set herself apart from the drama and to view the events that unfold with a dispassionate eye. Even as you sense she cares very much about her creations, she also situates herself at a certain distance from them as they go about their business in her narratives. And despite their differences, each story mentioned here is excellent because it communicates a large amount of information in a small space.
I found other stories in Jungle Without Water to be less powerful than these and there are others too that I have not mentioned that I also thought good. There is plenty in this collection, which was first published two years ago, for any reader, and especially for an Australian one. After all, we are living in an Asian nation.
I want to finish with a note about the cover illustration used for the book. The watercolour employed is by Julian Meagher and his gallerist is Edwina Corlette, who has her shop, appropriately for the collection, in Brisbane.
With my mother I lived up north for five-and-a-half years. On one occasion I drove her when she was elderly down to the capital to see Corlette’s shop. Corlette’s parents had lived in the same suburb in Sydney where I grew up and she remembered mum because of our family’s gift shop. In fact everybody living there knew about Miss Phyllis Caldecott’s Home Accessories – the name used for the shop was my paternal grandmother’s – and we did a roaring trade at Christmastime, when people give presents to family members and to friends. Among the items mum and granny sold in large numbers were Indian cotton print dresses; this was the 60s and these kinds of garments were all the rage.
The use of Meagher’s painting for this collection seemed to me to be something, therefore, like fate, like what happens in its title story. A small sign of a kind you sometimes come across telling you that there are things in the world that cannot be understood entirely through reason.
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.
The short story of you and I
by Richard James Allen
Reviewed by Kyra Bandte
At first, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen seems to exist in the liminal space between awake and asleep; the space where your psyche turns the familiar sound and scene around you into something altogether unfamiliar; the space where love and death coexist in the same ghostly breath.
The epigraph to The short story of you and I includes a black and white photograph of the poet, Richard James Allen, along with the imploring words: “My poems are sleeping in these pages, waiting for you to rouse them.” This connection between writer and reader continues throughout the book with Allen’s use of second person “you”. Whoever the poet truly speaks to, the persistent use of second person draws the reader close in a faceless kind of intimacy.
The book’s dedication whispers “for you”, and the first poem of the collection, ‘Delicate Awakening’, shows the poet’s persona vulnerable in sleep like a lover in a bed, needing to be woken “delicately / like raising an ancient shipwreck” (10).
The short story of you and I is, ultimately, a story of love and life (and death) from the moment the book is opened; from the moment the reader rouses the poems, gently awakening the sleeping poet in the opening stanza.
We slip through time and dreams in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, in “the long tail of a tall tale” (12) where “you were fairly certain it would be a normal sleep… but on the contrary” (13). We awaken into poems rich with seemingly everyday moments that Richard James Allen expertly transforms to spin a yarn so familiar it aches. One poem, ‘Espresso’, is a single exquisite line that holds a well of subtext within it: “There is no such thing as an innocent cup of coffee” (38).
But these everyday occurrences converge with the unreality of dreaming in ‘A Party in Small Moments’, which seamlessly slips between the macro and micro of our lives, asking “How can we have survived so many generations… and yet still come back to the tinkle of a spoon in a china bowl?” (17). Allen repeats the words “every moment” and the motif of tea cups and tinkling spoons, bringing the reader home with these everyday domesticities before asking “did you follow your dreams / or did you just fall asleep?” (20).
Using prosaic sentence structure and constantly addressing the “you” in the reader, Allen turns his poems into the little fictions of our lives. “I think maybe you thought your life was going to be a wall-size narrative painting… but somehow it turned out to be a quietly reflective line drawing” (23), Allen writes in ‘how life turned out, or Details of the Now’, making the reader feel quite insignificant for “this miniature of your life” (24).
A beautiful example of the way Allen uses colloquial prose in his poetry is in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the poet’s persona tells the story of how Sydney’s Central Station used to be a cemetary, now filled with ghosts “peering out from their unresolved darknesses / at the relentlessly colourful parade / of generation after generation” (33-34). This poem feels like a conversation, a casual story told from one commuter to another on one of Central’s suffocatingly humid underground platforms.
The poem not only demonstrates Allen’s articulate use of everyday scenes but brings two of the book’s main themes to light: life and death dance together in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the ghosts of the past drift alongside the “newer and newer Australians / right up to the drag queen in the hijab / standing nervously next to you” (34). The reader even becomes a ghost themself in ‘How we met’, where “The taxi stopped to let out its ghosts. / You were among them” (71).
The haunting middle between life and death is most obvious in one of the book’s final poems, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’; a phrase referring to the sicknesses of consumption and pneumonia. The poem encapsulates the collection’s key themes of life and death while showcasing Allen’s technical poetic skill using language, structure and white space.
Filled with metaphysical, rhetorical questions (“What stands between you / and your dreams? [p93], “What can one patch of blue teach an overcast sky?” , “Who knows anything about souls anyway?” ), the poem is one of the most introspective in the collection. The shroud of everyday moments and conversational prose falls away in this long poem of constant questions, repetition and the grim motifs of body parts, sickness, trees and dreams.
Allen implores “you” to find un/consciousness: “You must understand now. You must understand now. / You must imagine now. You must sleep now. You must remember now, old friend.” (101) Then revives the reader with the state of familiarity that the rest of The short story of you and I presents, telling us to brush our teeth, shower, dress, step outside and “become just another metaphor for incompleteness” (102-103).
The collection shows the variety in Allen’s writing style, with the contast between seemingly simple poems (like ‘Espresso’ or ‘How we met’) and the more complex or sprawling poems like ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’. But more than that, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen is an exploration of binaries and the ghosts between them; life and death, love and hate, you and I. It all starts with awakening the poet, and slipping into his dream.
KYRA THOMSEN lives and works on Dharawal Country. Her fiction and poetry have been published most recently in Cordite, AntipodeanSF, and Seizure, and she has reviewed books for Mascara, RABBIT Poetry Journal, the NSW Writer’s Centre and Writer’s Edit. Kyra was selected for the ‘Slinkies Under 30s’ program by Spineless Wonders in 2016, and co-won the Questions Writing Prize in 2012.
The Red Pearl and Other Stories
By Beth Yahp
Vagabond Press, 2017
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Australian, Malaysian-born writer Beth Yahp’s short story collection The Red Pearl and Other Stories (2017) navigates between different locations and time periods. It is resolutely transnational and transhistorical in nature. At times, the collection veers towards the metaphysical and abstract. Yahp also experiments with different forms, styles, modes and genres of writing. The title story draws its suggestive force from what a specialist in Asian Australian fiction, Tseen Khoo, had defined as “Oriental grunge” in her analysis of Lillian Ng’s novel Swallowing Clouds. As often in Asian Australian women’s writing, the “sexotic” is deployed as a strategic (al)lure. The cultural politics of the collection’s cover page is relevant in this matter. A young Orientalised woman appears dressed in a crimson cheongsam, looking passive, her lips closed, with the top of her face cropped out from the cover frame. In so doing the Orient comes to be marketed and packaged as a desired object of fantasy deprived of the basic attributes of subjecthood, such as the power to think and reflect, as well as to see and develop a critical worldview, or speak of its own volition. “The Red Pearl” is a love tale between a sailor and a dancer met at the Shanghai Bar. Located in an unnamed Asian port city (most likely Singapore), the story bears “the promise of anonymity, abandonment, delirium, dream,” (Yahp 43) as well as poetic grace. Counter to what might be expected from the book cover, the lover clearly has an agency and power of her own, as proven by the fact that “when she agrees to dance, the sailor lies mesmerised.” (44)
Male-female relationships are also addressed in Yahp’s introductory story in the collection, entitled “The Other Room,” about a woman apparently gone mad. From her side of their adjoining wall, she observes through a peephole a man fashioning doll-like female faces made of clay or glass that he hangs on the wall. This “other room” adjacent to hers is in many ways a product of her imagination and a metaphor for the mind. The female narrator’s mind is utterly alienated and colonised by her obsession with faces and inability to move beyond her “imago.” The term in psychoanalysis stands for “an unconscious idealised mental image of someone, especially a parent, which influences a person’s behaviour.” (Oxford Dictionary of English) I am here reminded of Lyn Jacobs’s literary essay, “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home,” concerned with fiction that may indeed remain about face unless women authors of colour have a creative room of their own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. The mysterious, unnamed craftsman situated in the other room “shapes faces in the dark. In the sweltering dark he traces the outline of my face, the roughness of my skin, and his hand is sometimes cold, sometimes burning.” (9) On display in this brief extract is the surgical care for symmetry and balance used by Yahp to craft her sentences. Yahp’s streamlined style matches in turn the man’s plan to rectify the narrator’s psyche: “You are in my image although you are other than I. You are not perfect. You are a scar. You watch and listen but you cannot speak. You watch through a crack in the wall like a thief. You are a slur, yet you are nearest to me. I will make you perfect.” (11)
The theme of gender oppression runs throughout the collection, as befits current debates in the West and beyond over sexual violence and predatory behaviour in the wake of the #metoo movement. It is made particularly poignant in “Point of no Return,” a story that tackles the Malaysian youth’s relation to sexuality in the face of a highly conservative society. As Nicholas Jose notes in the collection’s afterword, Yahp keeps returning to her native country, “realis[ing] how deeply and passionately she is invested in Malaysia as sometime citizen and activist,” (217) although Yahp left her homeland as a student for Australia decades ago. This Nietzschean eternal return of the diasporic back to its roots is a gesture I have observed before in this literary journal amongst more mature Asian Australian writers. Such writers do not so much aim at reconnecting with their origins as they intend to shed new light on the neighbouring Asian region for Australian readers, beyond Orientalist clichés. For Yahp, this preoccupation with Malaysia is nothing new but has indeed remained a constant in her work, from her award-winning novel The Crocodile Fury (1992) — a foundational literary text in Asian Australian fiction — to the publication of her family memoir Eat First, Talk Later (2015), which to a large extent discusses contemporary Malaysian politics and the resurgence of grassroots contestation from the late 1990s onwards. Yahp’s valuable contribution to demystifying Asia in the eyes of Australian readers challenges the widespread view that Malaysia is a successfully democratic, multiracial society similar to other multicultural nations such as Australia.
“Point of no Return” is a phrase that refers to a woman’s loss of virginity. Malaysia turns out to be a religiously intolerant, deeply divided country that polices its citizens and in particular its youth over private sexual matters and mores, in the same way that other hardline Islamic nations such as Iran do elsewhere. Yahp forcefully demonstrates the extent to which in Malaysia, the dominant, state-controlled media have played a decisive role in moulding the youth’s mindset and desires. Interwoven into the main narrative are newspaper clippings that the two protagonists, Bel and Deen, start collecting in a desperate bid to seam back those cut out pieces metaphorically standing for mutilated female body parts. As the postcolonial feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak warns, “couture carries the echo of the coupure or cut — the cut from the place or origin.” (172) These clippings (coupures in French) tragically project onto the young couple an image of their shared future with no outlet in sight but death, rape, murder, or the necessity for the youth to abstain from sex as a means of self-protection. These clippings constitute a most brutal rite of initiation into adulthood, a lesson that perhaps only the anecdotes or self-help sections of newspapers or popular magazines could teach them concerning violence (to gloss Frantz Fanon’s classic anticolonial essay) and the policing of youth deemed “deviant” or “sexually offensive;” the arrest of female teens at nightclubs for wearing “provocative” clothing; how there persists a strong incentive for Malay girls to remain virgin before marrying; how murdering a woman is deemed a lesser crime if she is not a virgin, based on a forensic examination of her vagina; the State’s repression of queer minorities; cases involving young girls or students or even women who, being unwed, decide to get rid of their babies; or the lingering taboo of divorce; plastic surgery and racial bleaching. In this regard, the irony consisting in forbidding plastic surgery and Botox injection under Islamic law, on the one hand, while tacitly condoning the disfigurement and dismembering of women by sexual predators, on the other, is not lost on Yahp:
She read: Two Syariah Law lecturers [stated] that the use of Botulinum Toxic A (Botox) to enhance beauty is haram (prohibited)…[since] Botox injections [were] not part of general regulation governing beauty process and procedure as allowed by Islam… [They] based their finding on the fact that the use of Botox would alter one’s look permanently and this could be considered as an act of deceit.
He read: Bone fragments of a Mongolian model who was shot twice and her body blown to bits with explosives were found on a hill near the Empangan Tasik Subang…Sources said [she] was shot in the head…before explosives were taped to her body and detonated. (103)
Yahp’s collection contains multiple instances of violent rupture changing the course of history and interrupting the main thread of the narrative, as in “Time and Again,” or constituting its chief fabric, as in “In 1969.” In “Time and Again”, the female protagonist, who happens to be a writer sojourning in Paris, like Yahp, bears witness to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which terrorists opened fire on the headquarters of a satirical newspaper, killing dozens in the name of jihad. This resulted in the implementation of a more or less permanent state of emergency vindicating the curbing of press freedom and freedom of speech, the widespread use of preventive detention and house arrest of all types of dissidents — a situation, proportion wise of course, that Yahp would have been familiar with, having lived under Malaysia’s authoritarian regime. 1969 is an allusion to the Malaysian race riots, a historical event officially described as a case of Sino-Malay sectarian violence that led to hundreds of casualties, but which effectively marked the start of bumiputra rule (or ethnic Malay supremacy) in areas of employment, education, or the administration, and the ensuing relegation of other minorities — Chinese, Indians, Eurasians — to a second-class status. In both of these instances of violence, those who have had to suffer consequences have not been the perpetrators but the victims instead; the French population as a whole, on the one hand, and the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, on the other, who represent the overwhelming bulk of those lynched to death in the riots, so that it would be more appropriate to call these a pogrom. It is in the midst of such a terminal atmosphere that the protagonist’s fellow writer in “Time and Again” reminds the reader of the enduring power of literature: “It’s there, and will never leave. No one can take it away, even if the ink dries in its pen, the pages rot, the buildings crumble, the stony ground turns to dust.” (187)
Yahp’s collection conveys other elements of violence still that are in some sense far more insidious than being the target of anti-Asian racism in a suburban train, as happens to Lisa, a freshly arrived migrant and university student in Sydney: “In one carriage someone has drawn large anti-Asian signs, like anti-smoking signs, an Asiatic face cancelled out.” (160) The story where this incident is narrated, “So we walked down Abercrombie Street,” takes on a nostalgic tonality for Yahp, by featuring a group of tertiary students in creative arts who share a flat in the largely immigrant outer Sydney suburbs, using it as a kind of bohemian haunt. In their film-making project, Janie and Lisa freely embrace a Kantian view of art — purposeless, disinterested, immanent — yielding to the pleasure principle of communion and communication: “Form is content. The telling of a story is the story. The film is about boredom and escape, they write. If form is content should the film be boring, escapist? And they draw a vase the shape of a heart and they fill it with flowers. They talk about everything except the film.” (154) Violence, then, consists in the abandonment of youthful innocence, of the ability to dream and of the will to resist to growing disillusionment born out of the pressure to conform and access relative material security.
In “The Beautiful Hour,” migration is initially experienced as an epiphany by its central character, Prabhu, who left Malaysia for Australia in 1958, after Australia somewhat eased out its immigration policy regarding non-white applicants. Yet Prabhu actually epitomises the “reluctant migrant,” an allusion to Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, since Prabhu is not grateful towards his adopted country, as might have been expected from him. He prefers to cultivate Meursault’s position of the Stranger in Albert Camus’s eponymous novel, who refused to cry on command at his mother’s funerals, as decency and convention would have required. Both Changez, the protagonist in Hamid’s novel, who left Pakistan for New York in the midst of 9/11, and Meursault, a pied noir, a person of French origin living in colonial Algeria under French rule, retain a critical, detached outlook towards the respective societies in which they have remained outsiders. Prabhu’s vehement views of Australian society, as being struck by “cultural poverty,” excess “freedom” and the lure of opulence and stability, must be placed in the context of the White Australia Policy and Australia’s ignorance of its indigenous past and Asian neighbours. Instead of the Lucky Country, Prabhu dubs Australia the “Great Southern Lassitudes.” Prabhu refuses to let himself put to sleep by the slow, quiet drone of the status quo as questions keep buzzing back to him in the manner of a fly, a flea or gnat. Here, to “resist” (145) means withstanding the false appeal of pacified domestication and middle class bliss from Sydney’s ethno-proletarian urban sprawls, where Prabhu now lives. It also means recalling the violence upon which White Australia as a settler colony was founded.
The last story title in the collection, “Dogs in Love,” can be understood as a metaphorical description of the academic workforce, or what Yahp calls the “lowest common denominator.” Yahp draws a parallel with the impassioned yet pauperised figure of the Clerk in Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic medieval epic poem The Canterbury Tales, from which she quotes this pentameter: “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” (202) Lecturers and researchers are often passionate about what they do, yet their job has become increasingly absurd and dehumanising in the face of the onslaught of a market-driven nature on universities across Australia and around the world. Many Asian Australian writers, perhaps compelled by the precariousness of their position on the literary market, must complement their revenues with an additional occupation. Some, like Yahp, have joined academia as creative writing lecturers. In this regard, “Dogs in Love” demonstrates how lecturing has been downsized to an accounting, managerial logic. As the narrator’s ill-named HR explains to her:
‘That’s what the numbers say,’ she tells me. She taps on her keyboard, gives me a bonus of twenty percent here, five percent there in a different column, but my overall numbers are still too low.
‘You’ve got to make the percentages up in teaching,’ she sighs, adding three tutorials to my workload, over three courses I haven’t taught before. It’s a week before the new semester begins. She says: ‘Yours is a teaching contract anyway.’ If I reduce my hours, she tells me, I’ll lose my bonuses, and I’ll have to teach the old full workload, at half pay. (208-9)
There is violence in numbers, just as there is violence in certain words that are hammered in by those performance review jargonauts of the newly corporatised higher education system. Overall, Yahp may be considered an itinerant writer, not so much because she happens to be an experienced traveller who has lived across several continents, but rather because she has moved in and out of the academic profession, as well as in and out of the business of writing, publishing and marking other people’s work. Significantly, Yahp’s collection was published by a small, independent publishing house, Vagabond Press, which specialises in Asia-Pacific literatures and has headquarters in both Sydney and Tokyo. More than two decades stand apart between the publication of The Crocodile Fury and Yahp’s family memoir Eat First, Talk Later, aside from essays and short stories, some of which appear in The Red Pearl. A mode of living and being in the world encapsulated by Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth figure of the Parisian metropolitan flâneur (Yahp 182), itinerancy seems especially suited to the short story format and to this collection in particular — stories directly drawn from Yahp’s rich, multifaceted imagination and life as a creative writing practitioner, traveller, and committed activist.
Jacobs, Lyn. “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home.” Australian Literary Studies 20(3), 2002.
Khoo, Tseen. “Selling Sexotica: Oriental Grunge and Suburbia in Lillian Ng’s Swallowing Clouds.” Journal of Australian Studies 24(65), 2000.
Spivak, Gayatri C. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard University Press, 2012.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
Down The Hume
by Peter Polites
Reviewed by HAROLD LEGASPI
There is not a simple matter of homogenous ‘queer’ voice, literary or otherwise (Hurley, 2010). As poststructuralist theorists have contended, for various historical and social reasons, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are discursively unstable and contested categories (Jagose, 2002) and homosexuality is ‘a performative space of contradiction’ (Sedgwick , 1990). In highlighting Polites’ engagement through his noir, i.e. of the thornier breaches of the queer-racial diaspora, I seek to explore the ideals behind his proposed definitive ‘queer’. Are bodies racialised erotically? Can queer love be normative? The answers to these questions, as the chapters of Down The Hume have argued, is yes, and the implication is that a radical tension and a central paradox is characteristic—are queer relationships driven by sex?—and perhaps even definitional—of the very term “queer” (Sedgwick, 1990).’
I have felt, time and again, that the boundedness of Polites’ queer imaginations suggests delimiting factors. While at times, Polites novel outruns many heteronormative cultural constructions, thereby placing his work within the queer realm; his championing of a protagonist in Bux, a second-generation Greek-Australian lad, often horny, distinctly off-beat and mostly impotent, strips Polites’ voice from ideologies or institutions that might give queers a less troubled life, albeit one that is ‘mainstream or normative’: life-long marriage and offspring.
Down The Hume portrays Bux and his Aussie ‘boyf,’ Nice Arms Pete through a masochistic (and at times clandestine) relationship fuelled by addiction to ‘little moons’ (street name: Syrinapx), amidst violent outbursts and sexual encounters with other men, juxtaposed with Bux’s traditional Greek upbringing, marking him as an outsider. It is an attempt to ‘reconfigure the blinding whiteness of suburban history’ by taking us on a ‘flâneur’s tour through the Western suburbs of ‘Lebs, wogs, and reffos’, with streets evoking memories as he laments the disappeared places of his youth, his observations filtered through an urgent patois of clipped sentences’ (Caward, 2017).
Down The Hume and other novels within its constellation, e.g. Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995, Random House) position ‘queer’ hegemony that feels disenchanting by depicting characters who ‘lack a sovereign mind’, yet to ‘wake up’ from the consequences of their nihilistic fury. In a sense, the queer representations may promulgate homophobia by way of its self-indulgence, its construction of alternative values and ceaseless hopelessness. While this ‘queering,’ serve Eve Sedgwick’s notion of ‘making-strange of identities’ through ‘derangement and reconfiguration of conventional taxonomies,’ (Davidson , 2004) more than anything, it exposes the dark crevices, the shadows that lurk within the ‘thematic trinity of class, race and sexuality’ (Andersen, Collins, 1997) discourses that are a quintessential part of the narrative of suburban Western Sydney.
Down The Hume reads like an essay on tribalism (Caward, 2017). The community structure in Western Sydney is a device in achieving this narrative. One of the features of a queer noir is that the protagonist often does not have a solid family structure around them, as evidenced by the flailing tapestry of Bux’s relations with his parents (he is an only child). Down The Hume broadens, deepens, and complicates the kind of purgatory these characters are in, particularly Bux, who loves irrationally, but cannot justify his queer love as normative on the grounds of his dysfunctional family life.
Polites cautions: ‘a lot of people from a queer background first identify themselves culturally, then they label themselves as queer.’ (Polites, 2017) In an Althusserian sense therefore, one is ‘born into a nation, not just a nation…but into a ‘nationness,’ the ideology of nation as category of identity, a category that is continually reinforced by the state’ (Ashcroft, 2009). Bux in particular, identifies himself as Greek first then gay second, as a measure of ‘saving face’ with his parents. Even against his better judgement, Bux finds himself feeling proud, or more often, ashamed of his ‘nation.’ This is because, whether he likes it or not, it is his. Though when his Greek heritage and queerness are taken together, certain paradoxes are revealed, of the underlying psychology and politics of his racial eroticism.
Polites uses philosophical theories from the ‘F-fathers’—Freud and Foucault to demonstrate the trajectory of desire, fantasy and sexuality of his plot. Freud’s theory that male homosexuality developed from an ‘unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex’ aligns with Bux’s psychology of seeking ‘male sexual objects whom he might love as he had been loved by his mother’ (Freud, 1933). Freud’s notion of only one kind of libido, i.e. the masculine one focused on the phallus, pays attention to hyper-sexed portrayal of Bux and Nice Arms Pete. Moreover, the masochism between them, and their compulsion to repeat aggressive impulses, ‘succeed in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards (Robinson, 1972):’
‘How can you sell it if you don’t fuck him?’ I just said it, my eyes scanned the surface of Nice Arms Pete’s face. It was slowly contorting and puffing up red. Tops of his eyelids creasing, lips slamming against each other. His fist shot out. Struck the side of my face. Nostrils got pushed down, my neck clenched taking the blow, and my eyes expanded post impact. I spun around away from him, put my whole arm on the wall and slumped into my body. I held up the walls with my arm because if I didn’t the whole house would have crashed. I breathed into my lungs but the worry beads spun around in a tornado’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites’ queer imagination exhibits a prejudiced, often complex set of power-relations, which oscillates: Bux feels, at times, superiority as well as a disenchantment of his Whiter counterparts.
‘Dark Rum just a bit older than me; Lakemba Street light wasn’t generous enough to get a make on him. Pretty shitty skin. Oily forehead, dry cheeks and already had laugh lines and frown lines all over his face. The other one was younger, a scumbag Aussie, a dirtbag colonial. Sturdy legs with red stubble and a rat’s tail he’d been growing from birth…Scumbag Rat’s Tail let out a laugh. A high femme laugh…When that scumbag Aussie laughed, it changed the distance between us. Only one or two feet away but I could feel their breath, noticed how their trackpants fit around their waists. Their fingers were calloused with dirt underneath. I realised they wanted to unwrap me’ (Polites, 2017).
Bux subjugates the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ whom with his ‘femme laugh’ he deems a ‘dirtbag colonial,’ typified by Bux’s awareness of Britain’s colonial history. Foucault’s notion of power is therefore evoked, that the ‘individual is a result of power turning upon itself,’ (Rozmarin, 2005) when Bux derives a ‘focal point of resistance’ (ibid) to the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ which is affected by ‘specific historical power relations,’ formed by governmental, economic, and cultural institutions’ (Deleuze, 1986). I want to suggest that Polites’ positions Bux as a Greek queer ‘maverick’ with a special perspective on sexual and class norms, especially as the narrative consolidates around race, which might also be said to particularise his brand of class-racism rather than to remove him from the its grip’ (Brim, 2014).
Paradoxically, Down The Hume non-chalantly if not ironically pokes fun at clichéd ethnic stereotypes: from ‘Viet dudes’ with their ‘God complex’, ‘muscle Indian gay boy doctors who (speak) with phony deep voices,’ ‘Persian hotties’ from the north side who evade local Iranians to ‘copper Spanish Filo’s’ with their ‘Filomerican drawl.’ There’s slang, reversions to Greek, SMS texts, queer appropriations and ESL diction that exemplify the isolating force of language, These classifications, central to this novel, fuel Polites’ engine of divisiveness but can also be used to establish identity and inclusion. It has driven the relevance of Western Sydney in the zeitgeist of contemporary Australian literature.
That Down The Hume’s protagonists ingest a haul of painkillers as a form of escapism, is symptomatic of the jaded possibilities of the ‘kind of life’ they couldn’t have—‘being some wog fag way out west…limited money…housing insecurity…never having a wedding that (their) parents would dance at (Polites, 2017).’ The story portrays these men as victims, unconscious of the possibilities of their imaginations. The characterisations are such that they illicit a base depiction of young gay men, insecure, addicted and broken, in their plight for a just existence. It’s not the sex they fight for, it’s the lifestyle. This book is a silent plea, most evident in its final pages—‘I didn’t want a fight for gay marriage – all I wanted was a clean house (Polites, 2017).’
What there is then, is this quixotic striving for a normative outcome, evidenced by Bux and Nice Arms Pete living together, as well as with Bux’s journey to his origins in Greece in the final pages, where the protagonist sinks into a literal arrest. Here, Bux resolves his existential dilemma by delving deeper into his ancestral village, but concedes that the streets are his real home—Haldon, Park, Caldwell, Brunker Road, Burwood, Lakemba, and others. Like a vagabond, he questions their relevance, but derives their meaning as the places that have ‘wrapped themselves around (him)’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites has articulated such a fragile but sordid voice in Bux. Bux’s voice lacks direction but is uninhibited. Polites’ queer imagination fluctuates as it seeks to transgress the bounds that queerness tests, penetrates, and fails to penetrate. The readers can revel in Down The Hume’s noir posturing of a complex psyche. In as much as this, Polites’ voice sometimes feels frustrated, bereft of spirituality, as it oozes machismo among the white noise inhibiting his troubled existence. Down The Hume has remnants of the queer struggle for conformity and is best read upon brooding or with an apprehensiveness to the state of Sydney’s queer culture, an openness to the complexities constituting queer formations, or at least an appreciation for suburban pride and the evolving institution of marriage.
- Brim M, 2014, ‘The Queer Imagination and the Gay Male Conundrum’, University of Michigan Press.
- Hurley M, ‘Gay and Lesbian Writing and Publishing in Australia, 1961-2001’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2010, Web: https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c2b14e180e, [Accessed: 2 May 2018].
- Jagose A, 2002, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence, New York: Cornell UP.
- Sedgwick E, 1990, Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: U of California P.
- Caward C, 2 Mar 2017, Down The Hume review: evocative, if flawed, urban debut’, Sydney Morning Herald, Web: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-review-evocative-if-flawed-urban-debut-20170301-guny1q.html [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Davidson G, 2004, ‘Minor Literature, Microculture: Fiona McGregor’s Chemical Palace’, Southerly: a review of Australian Literature, 64 (3).
- Polites P, 2017, Down The Hume, Hachette, Sydney.
- Andersen M L, Collins P H, eds., 1997, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Polites P, Scott R, 12 Dec 2017, Down The Hume, Sydney Writers Festival Podcasts, Web: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-bookshelf-abc-rn/id499762704?mt=2 [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Ashcroft B, 2009, ‘Beyond the Nation: Post-Colonial Hope, The Journal of European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol. 1, ISSN 1988-5946 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona.
- Robinson P, 1972, ‘The Modernisation of Sex’, Harper and Row, New York.
- Freud S, 1933, ‘Femininity’ in Strachey, J. (1933) editor, S.S., London: The Hogarth Press.
- Rozmarin M, 2005, ‘Power, Freedom and Individuality: Foucault and Sexual Difference’, Human Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1.
- Deleuze G, 1986, Foucault, S. Hand (Trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
HAROLD LEGASPI is a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction and essayist who migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1989. He has lived in Manila, Sydney, London, Taipei and Beijing. His writing has been published internationally and in Australia. More of his writing can be found here.
by Tom Lee
ISBN : 9781925336900
Reviewed by JAKE GOETZ
Ever since the Little Athletics of my youth, I’ve always felt Australia to be a sporting nation. One that if viewed from an alien planet, could be mistaken as preparing for war through daily gym appointments, jogs and football. From my earthly confinement though, it is perhaps easier to consider this nation’s love of sport, or fitness more generally, as a type of religion: one in which people seek a ‘higher’ (endorphin-fuelled) meaning in life, or at least, a communal sense of belonging bought on by the routine devotion to a particular activity. Reading through Tom Lee’s debut book, Coach Fitz, it was hard for me not to reflect back on such feelings, and to then also look forward, following Lee’s ability to craft a narrative around a national fixation not often found in the pages of Australian literature.
Coach Fitz is narrated from the first-person perspective of the main character, Tom, who like the author himself, grew up near Orange in regional New South Wales. From the outset we come to understand Tom through his youth – as a boy plagued by self-consciousness and struggling to come to terms with his masculinity:
I began with a small body. Late to mature, I measured myself against my thicker, hairier peers. I sought advice from the magazines that displayed the bodies I desired. I needed muscle, a good layer of it, to make up for my lack of pubic hair (1).
Living in Sydney’s inner-city, Tom is now in what we gather to be his late 20s, and finds himself in a similar ‘emotional rift’ (3). Spurred on by thoughts of his once supportive, and recently deceased, grandfather, and the inner-crises provoked by the time he spent abroad with his ex-girlfriend, Alex, he again seeks to ‘use exercise to bring focus’ to his life (3). Employing the efforts of Coach Fitz – a middle-aged woman ‘rumoured’ to have once been an exceptional long-distance runner, as well as a student of psychoanalysis in the UK – Tom becomes immersed in her ‘training philosophy: a dynamic relationship between exercise of controlled intensity and a steadily growing curiosity about places, buildings, aesthetic and history’ (10). Fields which no doubt draw from author Tom Lee’s own interest in ‘landscape, technology and the senses’, and his experience as a lecturer in the School of Design at the University of Technology, Sydney (Author bio, back-cover).
If exercise can be considered a type of religion, then the book’s key activity, jogging, is the main form of prayer, or perhaps more apt, meditation: as Coach Fitz equips Tom with his very own mantra or ‘breath friend’: ‘hick-a-chee’ (25). The first half of the book centres around the pair indulging in the act of jogging and provides the narrative (to use the words of Tom) with a ‘direct, unmediated, sensory immersion’ in the micro-environments of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets (44). A narratological approach that harks back to Modernist texts such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses. On their first jog through Centennial Park, for example, we are taken through a ‘gauntlet of Moreton Bay figs, their roots a web of tripwires in the sandy soil’, before climbing a hill from where Tom sees a ‘pavilion through the trees sitting like a UFO from ancient Rome in the fields’ – drawing attention to the alien-like nature of colonial architecture in the context of the Australian environment (8). On a later jog the pair find themselves on Botany Road, running ‘past the remnants of brick factories converted into apartments, self-storage facilities and car dealerships’ – what coach Fitz is quick to quip as aspects of a ‘postmodern city’ – with ‘the ‘heritage-listed brick shells of industry giving birth to minimalist apartment blocks distinguishing themselves in a contradiction of gaudy minor flourishes …’ (77).
Through the pairs observations and conversations, Lee’s narrative finds itself balanced by richly-cinematic and critical evocations of the places the two pass through; the pursuit of ‘lasting delight, psychological expansion and nourishment of the spirit’ through jogging (13); and the ‘failings’ in Tom’s personal life, which Coach Fitz seeks to remediate and turn into strengths. One of the finest expressions of such psychological mentoring occurs during their run along the soft sands of Curl Curl Beach, when Coach Fitz remarks to Tom that ‘Adolescence is just perceived as this problematic, disagreeable thing that arrives and then stops … What I reckon happens is that young men don’t recognise they need to transform in order to live well’ (38). She goes on to meditate on how a flawed cultural understanding of masculinity has led to ‘raising generations of man-children who suckle on entertainment as a mild source of amusement’ (39). Feeding on such insights, Tom feels a renewed sense of empowerment, and goes on to reflect how such advice could have aided his past relationship with Alex, which saw him flee London in a state of ‘emotional turmoil’ (46).
Within such place-based dirges, surprising historical snippets also often emerge. During their jog through Sir Joseph Banks park, for example, Coach Fitz details that the area once housed a zoo, as well as a track renowned for foot races in the 1880s: the ‘golden age of sprint racing’ (28). This observation then leads into the story of Indigenous runner, Charlie Samuels, who ran ‘134 yards in 12.3 seconds in this very spot in 1888, barefoot, complete with the nicotine and alcohol addiction that was one of the many gifts bestowed on his people after white settlement’ (28). In light of such historical engagements, and for a text that is so attuned to the nuances of place, I could have only hoped for more aspects of Sydney’s Indigenous history to be elucidated – allowing for a more multi-faceted understanding of the places the two absorb themselves in. However, this aspect is not the key topic in the book, and perhaps Tom’s narcissistic desire to improve his own mental and physical health could act as an appropriate reflection of contemporary Australia’s inability to look past their own wants and needs in an un-reconciled country.
Plodding through Sydney’s varied ambiances, I couldn’t help but think of Coach Fitz as a type-of Antipodean feminising of French Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, who instead of walking a city’s streets, has been forced to run to keep up with the frantic nature of contemporary life. This psychogeographic, or physical and mental engagement with the world, coupled with Fitz’s belief in using ‘history, memory and imagination’ (30) to inform her jogging practice, enables Tom and Fitz like Debord, to criticise the shortcomings of capitalisms use of space, transcend the ‘métro, boulot, métro, dodo (subway, work, subway, sleep)’ of everyday life and nut out what it is to be a ‘man’ beyond the expectations propagated by mainstream culture (Waxman 2010, p. 87). Such a claim is illustrated in the book’s second section, where Tom feels that their jogging elongates time ‘and refreshes a sense of the city’ (22). Even earlier in the book, following their first meeting, Tom is so enthused by Coach Fitz’s practice and the idea of becoming ‘faster on foot, sensitive to the environment and mentally resilient’ that he takes on extra work and moves from his Balmain house into his beloved Honda Odyssey in order to save the money to pay Coach Fitz (11). This drastic transition into a car-sleeping and fitness-obsessed bohemian is rolled out in just over one page of the book, and was perhaps a part of the narrative that I felt could have been better realised.
Through Coach Fitz’s attempts to remedy Tom’s ‘failings’, Tom too eventually uncovers cracks in the mental and physical make-up of Fitz, such as her smartphone use during practice, which goes against her spatially immersive training exercises, and the ‘grog-lover’ scent she often carries on their jogs (59-60). Following a bout of beer-drinking and novelty games at Coach Fitz’s house in Annandale one afternoon, a drunk and naked Fitz embraces Tom in her bathroom. Tired of the ‘discrepancies’ in Coach Fitz’s ‘theory and practice’ (106), and feeling confident enough in his own devices, Tom flees the scene and his relationship with Fitz: seeking to refine his own spatially-engaged and psychologically-charged fitness training methods. This leads into the second half of the narrative, which centres on Tom mentoring his ex-girlfriend’s brother, Morgan: providing him with the opportunity to put his own methods into practice. It isn’t long though, before he again feels plagued by a self-consciousness reminiscent of his youth – recalling Fitz’s advice, that men fail to understand they need ‘to transform in order to live well’ (38). The situation is only made more troubling by his perverse attempts to infiltrate Morgan’s family in a somewhat demented longing for Alex, and to, in his own words: ‘observe their phenotypical relatedness and share in the general effervescence of their group behaviour’ (192).
In addition to the complex and often humorous relationships on display in Coach Fitz, I feel the book’s greatest merit lies in the steady jogging rhythm of Lee’s prose, the ode-like evocations of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets, and a philosophy of remaining open, aware and engaged with one’s environment. I like to think of it as a wake-up call to all those locked in a passive discourse with the world, and a critical engagement with what it is to try and truly see, hear, taste and feel a place. As (the character) Tom ruminates after a swim at Bondi: ‘I spent the afternoon swimming and uttering expressions of deep thanks to the climate and geography’ (140). Anyone interested in exercise and its psychological imperatives; the complexities of masculinity and male adolescence; or Sydney’s geography, history, ecology or architecture, will find a point of immersion, and a rewarding read, in Tom Lee’s debut book.
Waxman, L 2010, ‘Writing A Few Steps in a Revolution of Everyday Life’, PhD Thesis, New York University, viewed 15 April 2017, via ProQuest database.
JAKE GOETZ lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Creative Writing from Griffith University. His poetry has most recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Tell Me Like You Mean It Vol. 2, Rabbit, Pink Cover Zine, past simple, Otoliths and Cordite. His first book, meditations with passing water, a long-poem written alongside the Maiwar (Brisbane River) was published by Rabbit in 2018. He edits Marrickville Pause.
The Artist’s Portrait
by Julie Keys
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, is not an easy novel to categorise. It’s not exactly a page turner but it simmers along with a slow sense of intrigue. It’s not quite a murder mystery, not quite drama, not quite historical fiction. Its switching perspectives and the knowledge that a key protagonist is self-editing her history make it a challenging but rewarding read. Not all is as it seem, facts are not immutable and character motivations are far from clear-cut. The novel is a debut for Keys, a writer from the Illawarra region on the NSW South Coast, who has worked as a tutor, registered nurse, youth worker and clinical trials coordinator before a nasty car accident motivated her to swap her career for full-time writing. Whilst conducting research for a PhD in Creative Arts, Keys has delved into gender and prestige for Australian writers.(1) The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, under its then-title, Triptych.
The Artist’s Portrait intersects the worlds of aging artist, Muriel Kemp, and nurse, Jane Cooper. The pair meet when Jane, battling late-night nausea and subsequent insomnia takes to pacing the suburban Illawarra streets at dusk in the 1990s. Their first meeting is abrasive and confusing. In Jane’s own words “whatever drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.” (333). In the work, Muriel’s sharpness but also her evasiveness when it comes to questions she doesn’t wish to answer intersect to make her a compelling enigma while Jane herself is somewhat of an every woman, with writing aspirations that set the scene for Muriel to suggest she write her life story.
As Muriel and Jane’s paths continue to intersect, Jane becomes an unwitting but dedicated biographer, soon drawn to know more about Muriel as her own research unearths mysteries around her life and her identity. Newspaper accounts tell her that the artist Muriel Kemp died in 1936 and what’s more, that she was accused of murder. Her art is shrouded with controversy, scandal and harsh criticism and there’s the matter of some paintings that went missing decades ago. The more Jane tries to grasp the truth, the more slippery it becomes. At times the entire narrative seems slippery and hard to keep a handle on, perhaps a reflection on how so much of people’s personal histories are entwined with the teller’s perspective and what they want us to know.
Keys plays carefully with the concept of the unreliable narrator, drip feeding the reader details as the story progresses through the tapes Muriel records for Jane, but never quite lifting the veil to show the full picture. Much like Jane, I found myself being pulled into Muriel’s orbit, trying to puzzle her out. The tale begins in 1914 but much of the main action takes place throughout the 1920s. The depiction of Muriel’s early life in the tenements with its gritty realism brings to mind Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the same slum streets or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 10 Muriel is caught between a childhood playing tag along “Samuel Street, with its scabby terraces of sandstone and weatherboard and iron, and balconies that looked like eyelids slumbering above the backyard patches of dirt”(8) and her first job in an artist’s studio that “stunk of cats, Lysol and turps” (3).
Keys goes on to deftly paint a picture of the 1920s Surry Hills art world so vivid that it is entirely possible for the reader to believe some of the figures she breathes life into once walked the streets of Sydney. This sense of gritty realism is highlighted by faux-quotes about Kemp’s works from authorities such as celebrated artist Norman Lindsay, whose epigraph quote describes Kemp’s paintings as having “the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless, barren- a reflection of the artist, no doubt”(1).
The historic sections of the novel are imbued with vivid characters… Muriel’s quick buck-seeking father, established artist Max Jenner with “his rat’s face” (21) and harsh words, Muriel’s artistic rival and fairweather acquaintance Adam Black, her childhood friend Alice Cooney and society darling cum arts patron Claudine Worthington.
The novel abounds with roughness as Muriel spends time around brothels and captures coarser elements of the Surry Hills scene. It is soon clear that the art world disdains her and her works are frequently written off once critics know who painted them. One young artist tells Muriel that she, as a young woman, is “taking up a spot that could be filled by somebody who’s serious about the whole thing”(20) and she baldly states to Alice in the earlier stages of her career that “being good isn’t as important as being noticed”. However, it seems that when Muriel’s work’s are noticed, critics tend to appraise them negatively, with opinions ranging from her pictures being “ vulgar and contemptible”(1) to “the banal”(1). Notably Muriel promises herself at one stage to only paint women, sparking her Working Women series. “It wasn’t something you saw; waitresses, teachers, housewives, nuns, barwomen, shop assistants, nurses, women catching trams, walking, on the back of horses and sitting in traps- hanging out clothes sweeping. There was an abundance of subjects. Women who ran brothels and sly grog shops. I’d paint them all” (59).
Muriel quietly scorns “portraits with women with sugary lips and unshed tears” (23), instead honing in on light and shadows and “dark and violent subjects” (156).
Structurally, the delineation of perspectives becomes less clear as the narrative progresses, just as the murkiness of Muriel’s past seems to grow. Muriel’s voice on the tapes increasingly digresses, telling Jane what to leave out and dodging from one subject to another. At one stage in the book, Jane tells Muriel she’s “not much of a storyteller” (67) and the meandering tale only serves to cement that impression.
Biographer’s notes in italics interspersed throughout the text pulled me out of the narrative flow, reminding me each time of Jane’s own note to herself “do not believe everything Muriel says”(72). The writing itself is peppered with rich descriptions and clever metaphors- Muriel’s injured Nan is “a lump moulded into the rocking chair, her leg raised like a busted snag on a fruit box”(89), while on another page “two crossed branches rubbed together like cicada legs”(170).
In the 1990s narrative strain, Jane is struggling with morning sickness and the life changes wrought by her pregnancy. Throw in the reemergence of a childhood friend, now “tantalising but dangerous”(113) and her own past tragedy and you’ve got a personal history that could easily hold up a plot on its own, but ultimately it pales in comparison to Muriel’s conflicted past. Again the connection between gender and creative work is a significant theme as Muriel warns Jane that “if you were serious about being a writer… you’d get rid of that baby”(42) as they stand on the doorstep of her turps-scented house.
The 1990s setting also works particularly well as the addition of Google or online history archives would change the pattern of Jane’s research significantly. But there are no convenient buttons Jane can press to expedite her fact-finding, helping to keep the pace at a slow simmer throughout, making every big revelation feel precious, even while vital puzzle pieces remain lost.
As the novel progresses, much as a sketch might become a full blown artwork, Muriel fleshes out her past but there are still gaps and uncertainties. There is no deus ex machina here to wrap it all up with a neat bow. A second reading adds further depth but the same puzzles remain. I found myself craving more, thinking of the questions I would have liked to ask Muriel, ultimately leaving a lingering impression. The Artist’s Portrait is a great addition to the Australian literary scene, a quiet, thought-provoking achiever, that doesn’t overstate its case when it comes to gender and creative work, but still manages to say so much.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.