The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau

I’m slowly reading my way through the books short-listed for the 2016 Stella Prize.

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau

‘Can you really hope to help or save anyone but yourself?’

‘The World Without Us’ is set in and around a busy town some hours north of Sydney.  An alternative lifestyle commune was once located on the outskirts of this town.  While the commune was destroyed by a fire some years earlier, many of the people have stayed in the area. The novel’s central characters are the Müller family: Stefan, originally from Germany, his wife Evangeline, and their daughters Tess and Meg.  There was once another sister, Pip, but Pip died of leukaemia.  Each member of the family is grieving her loss in their own way.   Six months ago, Tess Müller stopped speaking.  But Tess and her younger sister Meg are primarily concerned about where their mother, Evangeline goes to each day pushing an empty pram.  Especially as Evangeline returns home dishevelled, muddy and wet.  Their father Stefan, a beekeeper, has taken to drink and has other concerns.  His bees are disappearing, and he doesn’t know why.   A fragile family, marking time.  Then Stefan makes a discovery on their farm.  A car wreck, with its own secrets: the past is never very far away.

Making sense of this story, of the parts each of the characters has to play, of the past and of the present threats to the community posed by deforestation and mining takes concentration.  The characters are only part of this story, the environment is important, as is the past.  Consider Jim Parker, Tess’s teacher.  Jim has tried to escape from his own problems in Sydney.  As part of leaving Sydney in his past, he focusses on Evangeline as a mystery, as a puzzle to be solved.  Jim knows that Evangeline was raised in the commune that was destroyed by fire: she bears the scars of that fire.  Jim and Evangeline become close.  Are they able to console each other?  Can the Müller family survive?  And what about the bees?

This was not an easy novel to read.  I had to slow down my normal reading pace, both to appreciate the richness of Ms Juchau’s writing and to try to make sense of it.  The central theme for me was of loss (life, lifestyle and nature) but there is also hope that the future could be different.  If people want it to be, and make some changes.  It isn’t only the bees whose communities can fail.

This is Ms Juchau’s third novel, and has been short-listed for the 2016 Stella Prize.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2016

The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann

I’ve read quite a few books about murders (including by poison) and found this book fascinating.  While my focus in the past has been on particular cases, this book looks at the popularity of poisoning, and why, as a mode of murder in the 19th century.

The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

‘Poison murders are, with few exceptions, usually planned and rarely the result of an altercation or a sudden fit of temper, as is so often the case with crimes of violence.’

Murder by poisoning in the Victorian age was comparatively easy.  Poison, in various forms, was both cheap and readily available.  In this book, using particular cases, Linda Stratmann writes about the availability of poison, about advances in detecting poison, and about developing controls over the availability and sale of poison.

It was, as Ms Stratmann points out, difficult to prove the act of poisoning even if the cause of death seemed clear.  Identifying the cause of death wasn’t always easy: some poisonings would not have been identified, others would have been (mis) diagnosed as cholera.  With poisoning, unlike most other forms of murder, it is possible that the cause of death could be considered natural.

But who are the poisoners?  Given that the murderer needs both the ability to obtain poison and the opportunity to administer it, the closeness generally required in preparing food or administering medicine would provide opportunity for introducing poison.  Women poisoners, according to analysis for the period between 1750 and 1914, are most likely to be the mother, wife, other family member or servant of the victim.  Men are most likely to be husband, father, medical attendant, lover, son or friend.

I found this book fascinating, especially reading about the advances in detecting the presence of poison.   It’s not for the squeamish: there’s a lot of detail provided.   I’d not previously read about some of the cases Ms Stratmann has included in her book.  Consider Christiana Edmunds, a spinster living in Brighton, who became obsessed with her doctor, and in 1870 tried to kill his wife with poisoned chocolates.  Her attempt failed, but she tried to divert suspicion onto the chocolate sellers, Maynard’s, by leaving packets of their chocolate creams (laced with strychnine) around Brighton.  She was eventually apprehended, but not until after a four year old boy, Sidney Albert Barker, had died.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

sing fox to me by Sarah Kanake

Sometimes I pick up a book, it draws me in, and refuses to let go.  Sometimes, I find it hard to define where magic begins and reality ends.  Sometimes, the inability to find this distinction troubles me.  But not this time.  What an intriguing debut novel this is.

sing fox to me by Sarah Kanake

‘Clancy Fox waited on the back verandah, his eyes fixed on a horizon just visible beyond the edge of his mountain.’

In 1986, fourteen year old twins Samson and Jonah travel with their father David to a remote location in Tasmania where they will stay with their paternal grandfather, Clancy Fox.   Clancy lives near the top of a mountain, which the locals call Fox Hill.  It was once sometimes called Tiger Mountain, but in 1986 the Tasmanian tiger was officially declared extinct.  Samson and Jonah have never met Clancy Fox before, and while Samson is interested in his new surroundings, Jonah is not.  Their stay is meant to be temporary: the plan is that their mum will come after Christmas and they will move to a new house in Brisbane.

Clancy is obsessed with finding his missing daughter, River.  He maintains her room as a shrine, and it is off limits to Samson and Jonah.   David leaves.  While Samson finds a lot to interest him on the mountain, Jonah’s focus is different.  He finds his way into River’s room, feeding into his own obsession.  Does he understand what he is doing?  Samson, who has Down syndrome, seems to have a better understanding of many things than Jonah does.  He may have to rely on his brother or Clancy to cook for him, but in many ways he is far more adaptable than either of them.

‘The tiger was Clancy’s secret, but it also had something to do with his dad.’

The story continues: Clancy’s dog Queenie has disappeared and he searches for her, a kookaburra named King has vanished.  When another child disappears on Fox Mountain, past and present combine and seem to overwhelm Clancy.

Ms Kanake’s writing took me into this story and held me there, albeit uncomfortably at times.  I was too busy keeping pace with what was happening on the page to stop to try to analyse the actions of some of the characters.  But once I’d finished the novel, I was left wondering about how Clancy and David could be so indifferent to each other and how David could so casually take Samson and Jonah to Fox Hill, and leave.   The past has a way of claiming the present for Clancy.  There are other people whose lives intersect with Clancy, Samson and Jonah, and the location and weather both have their own part to play.

And Tasmanian tigers?  Do they still live on Tiger Mountain?  What is real, and what is not?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2016

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

I loved this book.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

‘We all have our unspeakable pasts here.’

At the end of the 19th century, Harry Cane is a shy elder son, bound by British convention.  He marries, as is conventional, fathers a child, and spends his time as a man of leisure.  Harry’s life is quite comfortable, if not especially fulfilling, until he embarks on an affair.  But this affair will cost Harry dearly, and forces him to leave his wife and child and emigrate to the Canadian prairies.

‘It was only as he was before the Dominion Lands agent himself, entering his claim on the acres for which Varcoe had just filed his deed of abandonment, that the rashness of what he was about – committing himself to three years on a hundred and sixty acres he had only seen on an entirely unhelpful map – was brought home to him.’

After a year in Canada learning how to farm, Harry is allotted a homestead in a place called Winter.  Can Harry survive in this isolated place?  Can he escape from his demons, and make a new life for himself?

It’s hard to review this novel without introducing any spoilers which, while they’ll provide context, will completely ruin the impact of the story as it should (in my view) be read.  I found myself completely caught up in Harry’s story, unable to put it down, wanting some aspects to be different.  I admired Harry and was often irritated by his passivity in some circumstances (sometimes simultaneously) but admires his courage.  And, as the story unfolded, moving between an uncomfortable present and a shadowed past, I wanted Harry to find happiness.

I understand that this novel is loosely based on a real family mystery.  In some ways that made the novel more difficult to read, in other ways more satisfying.  And the ending?  You’ll have to read it for yourself.  I loved this book.

 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

I read this novel back in 2008, and have read each of the novels in the series so far published. Now that the books are available through Amazon.com.au, I’ve posted my review there.  Highly recommended.

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

`I’ve never done an autopsy in my life.’

Dr Siri Paiboun is a surgeon in his seventies and is keen to retire. The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos has a different view:

`Of course, Comrade Siri, we have to have a coroner because, as you well know, any organised socialist system must be accountable to its brothers and sisters. Revolutionary consciousness is maintained beneath the brilliance of the beam from the socialist lighthouse. But the people have a right to see the lighthouse keeper’s clean underwear drying on the rocks.’

And so it is that without any formal training, Dr Siri becomes the Chief Coroner of Laos. What may have been a routine existence of making do with scarce supplies and managing the officious requirements of bureaucracy becomes rather more complicated when a senior official’s wife turns up dead and the bodies of Vietnamese soldiers start surfacing in a Laotian lake. Who is covering up what, and why? Could these deaths be linked in some way?

This is a delightful novel. It combines mystery, humour and wonderfully subtle observational wit about the ways in which people rebel against authority in order to assert their individuality. Dr Siri himself is as fascinating as the cases he is solving, and this novel is a splendid gallimaufry of people, situations and circumstances. There may even be some red herrings to identify.

If you like mystery with elements of mayhem, then you may well enjoy this novel. This is the first of a series featuring Dr Siri Paiboun, and it is well worth reading them in order.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Van Diemen’s Women: a History of Transportation to Tasmania by Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden

If you are interested in transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and particularly in the transportation of women, then this is a very interesting book.

Van Diemen’s Women by Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden

‘The story of the Tasmania (2) and its human cargo is one of remarkable resilience and survival.’

On 2 September 1845, the Tasmania left Kingstown Harbour on its second voyage as a convict ship.  On board were 138 female convicts and 35 of their children.  The journey to Van Diemen’s Land took just over three months.  During the voyage, one woman (Ellen Sullivan) died, as did one child.  One child was born en route.  Note: In the book, the authors refer to the ship as ‘Tasmania (2)’.  This is because this book is about its second voyage as a convict transport.

‘The ship arrived in the River Derwent near Hobart Town on 3 December 1845 and on 9 December 1845 it unloaded its human cargo of 137 female convicts and their children.’

The average age of the women on the Tasmania (2) was 29 years.  The oldest woman was 64 years old, the youngest just 16 years.  This book is about the women who were transported aboard the Tasmania (2), but it focusses on two women in particular: Eliza Davis and Margaret Butler.

Eliza Davis was transported for life (from Wicklow Gaol) for infanticide after her death sentence was commuted.  She married twice, with her second marriage taking place just a week before her death.  She was aged 68, and had nine children in Tasmania.

Margaret Butler, a widow from Carlow, was transported for seven years, for stealing potatoes.  Only two of her six children went with her on the Tasmania (2).  Sadly, Margaret was murdered by her second husband in 1855.

The authors, Joan Kavanagh based in Ireland and Dianne Snowden in Tasmania, met at a conference in Melbourne in 1998.  Dianne Snowden is Margaret Butler’s great-great-great granddaughter. This book, written using original records, shows that, for at least some of the women, transportation provided the possibility of a better life.  Especially given that the Irish Potato Famine began in 1845 and continued until 1849.

This book is not a comprehensive history of transportation.  It looks at the Irish women transported on the Tasmania (2), the crimes they were convicted of and what happened to them.  The case studies are interesting, as are the illustrations.  Reading this book, it’s easy to feel sorry for many of the women transported.  So many of the crimes – from this distance – seem trivial.  I find it impossible not to see some of these women as both perpetrators and victims.

I found this book very interesting.  While the details of the women and their crimes was informative, I was much more interested in their lives once they arrived in Hobart Town.  If you are interested in the experience of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), especially for women from Ireland, then this is a book you may wish to explore.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2016

Private Lives, Public History by Anna Clark

This book is written about Australian history, but I think its application is broader.  What does history mean?

Private Lives, Public History by Anna Clark

‘What does Australian history mean?  How does it function in our lives?  Does it matter?  We know it matters for Australia because its contested narratives are publicly debated all around us.’

And what is Australian history?  Is it the history of this country since 1901? Is it the history since European settlement in 1788?  Or is it the history encompassing the many thousands of years since Indigenous peoples first migrated to Australia?  How many histories does Australia have?

I don’t usually start a book review by listing questions, but reading this book made me think about what history is important to individuals ( as well as why and how).  Mostly, when I think of history I think of big events, of the well-known figures that influenced those events, and of how interpretation of events is so varied.  About how individual perception can be coloured by background, culture and the impact of events in the past on family.

‘We need to understand what ties us to the past, as well as encourage the capacity to critique it.’

But this book invites me to also consider why some histories are passed on, while others are not.  Why?  Because this is so often a factor in what becomes seen as important, or as justification for particular actions.  How many of us are now discovering that we had convict ancestors, after almost a century of such detail being ‘forgotten’ or withheld?  How many of us now question policies of taking Indigenous children from their parents?  How many of us are (or were) divided over the question of apology to those who are members of Australia’s Stolen Generations?

‘After all, the act of passing on is also an act of reception.’

In this book, historian Anna Clark explores how our individual personal pasts intersect with broader historical questions.  She has done this by drawing on interviews with Australians from five different communities: Marrickville, Chatswood (both in Sydney), Brimbank in outer-western Melbourne, Rockhampton (a regional hub in Central Queensland) and Derby (a remote town in far north-western Australia with a large Indigenous population).  These interviews provided her with some insight into how the individuals interviewed think about the past, how it relates to their communities and themselves, and the role that history plays in their lives.  In total, she spoke with 100 people.  Indigenous people made up 10% of all the participants.

I found Anna Clark’s conclusions interesting rather than surprising.  It seems that official narratives (such as about Australia Day) are less important to individuals than personal connections and memories are.  But, as Anna Clark acknowledges, her project was limited in time and scope and it is possible that individuals from different backgrounds may have responded differently.  For me, this book is a starting point for a conversation about history and its importance rather than an end point.  To whom outside academic and political circles are the ‘history wars’ important?  How important is the (at times heated) political debate about our history?

This book didn’t provide me with any answers, but it did invite me to think about what is important to whom, and why.  How important is history, really?  One question, many different answers.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Melbourne University Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2016

Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

 

Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

‘You can’t go back and alter the past, but you can go forward, become a person who remembers.’

For those who have read ‘You’, ‘Hidden Bodies’ is the sequel, read on. For those who haven’t read ‘You’, stop.  Read ‘You’ first.

Still here?  You remember Joe Goldberg, who manages Mooney’s Rare and Used Bookstore in New York, the serial killer whose last relationship – with Guinevere Beck – ended so badly?  Well, Joe has a new girlfriend: Amy Kendell Adam.  Joe has learned a lot from his relationship with Beck, he knows exactly how to make his relationship with Amy succeed. They are even collecting copies of one of their favourite books – ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ – together.  What could possibly go wrong?

‘In this bar, lying to these strangers, there has never been more honesty between us.’

Joe is devastated when Amy disappears, and he vows to find her.  His search takes him to Hollywood.  And while he’s there to track down Amy, Joe has to fill in his time somehow.  Joe’s life in Hollywood becomes complicated.  He’s still searching for Amy, but he’s found Love (and her brother Forty) and his life becomes even more interesting.

Will Joe find Amy?  Has he escaped the consequences of his murderous past, or will some evidence he left behind be his downfall?

This novel moves at a cracking pace, and while every moral fibre of my being wants to see Joe brought to justice, I’m worried that I find him generally likeable.  Immature and impulsive, but likeable. How does that work?  Ms Kepnes has created a character who fits perfectly within the pop culture he inhabits.  How much easier is it to be a serial killer in an internet-enabled world?

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Beloved Poison by E S Thompson

 

Welcome to Victorian London’s grimy underbelly!

Beloved Poison by E S Thompson

‘I stood on the threshold of my room, my hand on the door knob.’

St Saviour’s Infirmary is a crumbling, cramped, noisome old building awaiting demolition.   The building is to make way for a railway bridge, and its graveyard is to be emptied in preparation.  St Saviour’s staff represent both the best and worst of nineteenth century medical practice: some doctors attempt to introduce hygienic practices while others continue scorn change.  Jem Flockhart is an apothecary at St Saviour’s Infirmary, an observant outsider with a secret or two to hide.  William Quartermain, a junior architect, has been sent to St Saviour’s to oversee the emptying of the graveyard.  William Quartermain is to share Jem Flockart’s room, much to Jem’s disgust.

Jem comes across six tiny coffins inside the infirmary’s old chapel, and is intent on discovering where they came from and what their significance is.  But Jem has stumbled across something which others wish to remain secret, and for which they’ll commit murder.

Jem’s search encompasses the grisly, bloody world of the surgeons, from the operating theatre to the dissecting table, as well as the squalor of Newgate.  Jem has a dangerous adversary, and a number of different mysteries to try to solve.  In the meantime, St Saviour’s end draws nearer.   A doctor is murdered.  The dead are exhumed from the graves and the living try to make sense of some awful choices.  In some ways, this novel reminded me of ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller: both share the horrors of exhuming mass graves, of the impact of change on those least able to embrace it.  But the stories, and the secrets, are very different.  In ‘Beloved Poison’ Jem Flockart’s quest is driven by a sense of loss (past, present and future).  The exhumation of mass graves is an important peripheral event, whereas in ‘Pure’ it is a central defining event.

Ms Thompson has created an unforgettable story: I can almost smell St Saviour’s, feel the dirt in Newgate and envisage the death on the gallows.  It’s also a difficult book to put down: what will happen to Jem next?  What is the truth behind the tiny coffins?  The various doctors become clear (and differently flawed) characters, while William Quartermain tries to make sense of a very different world. There are many different forms of poison in this novel, many ways of encountering harm in a world which I’m sure that William Hogarth would have recognised.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith