I am certain that this will be one of my favourite books of 2020. It will be published on 2 June 2020.
‘A farmer lived, but not well.’
In an unnamed country, the children hear about the rain heron, associated with both abundance and destruction. Landscape and climate provide the setting for this novel: three apparently separate stories set in fields, forested mountains, and the ocean. A balance with nature undermined and then destroyed by greed, followed by tragedy.
‘Soldiers have come to the village.’
Somewhere in a country devastated by a coup, Ren lives on the forested slopes. She survives by hunting and trading and trying to forget. But soldiers arrive. They are in search of a myth, of a means of control. They have heard of the rain heron. They want to capture it.
‘Men want things. They hear about something and pretty soon they’re convinced it belongs to them.’
Gradually, the separate stories are drawn together. Ren’s resistance is overcome, Lieutenant Zoë Harkness gets what she is looking for, medic Daniel tries to help. But this is the beginning of a story not the end.
This is Mr Arnott’s second novel, and I love it. It is magical, both in scope and execution. If I try to analyse it, break it into components, explain what works and why, I’ll destroy the magic with logic. Read it for the beautiful descriptions, the use of language, the possibility that the natural world might survive despite us.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Text Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.
Nine people gather at Tranquillum House, a remote health resort for ten days. They each have a reason for being there, they each hope that to find the answers and the change they are looking for.
The nine people are Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romance author; Ben and Jessica, a young couple struggling with relationship issues; Napoleon, Heather and Zoe Marconi, grieving for their lost son and brother; Lars, who has an important issue to consider; Carmel, whose self-esteem is non-existent after her husband left her for a younger woman; and Tony, a former football star who is lonely and is trying to turn his life around.
Mindfulness and meditation. Silence. Tailored diets. Masha, the director of Tranquillum House, has it all worked out. Does she have all the answers? How will she change the lives of these nine perfect strangers?
I’ve enjoyed some of Ms Moriarty’s other novels (I haven’t read them all) and I picked up this novel looking for a little light relief. And, reader, I got a little more than I bargained for. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, getting to know each of the characters gradually and learning what they were trying to change. And then, the story took a turn which almost had me abandoning it. While I never really came to terms with that turn (no spoilers here) I kept reading because I needed to know how Ms Moriarty would finish the story. I mean, I know these nine people now, and I needed to know how their stories would end.
There’s some great humour, some terrific observations and some very human characters. While I’m not reconciled to the turn that almost had me abandoning the read, that’s a personal reaction, not a reflection on Ms Moriarty’s writing.
I did enjoy the story, and I’m still thinking about a couple of aspects of it. But no, I won’t be booking into a health resort any time soon.
‘I first saw Harry Kitchings leaning from a basket which had been lowered over the Katoomba Falls.’
Blue Mountains, Australia, 1907. A world full of promise and magic, of love and possibility. A place of rarefied air. Eureka Jones, a pharmacist’s assistant in Katoomba, watches the tourists as they travel to and fro. Eureka falls in love with Harry Kitchings, waiting of a declaration of love, and proposal of marriage. And the town watches and waits with her.
But Harry chooses to marry a widow from Sydney, and Eureka becomes an object of derision.
‘It was as if my own history had ended.’
Eureka commences work at a tuberculosis sanitorium at Wentworth Falls, where Matron Coan tells her that she has historical eyes. At first, Eureka finds this an enormous comfort but then begins to doubt the virtue of detachment. But it is this detachment which makes the novel so readable: Eureka observes the decline of Katoomba, the changes as World War I approaches, and then afterwards. Eureka does find affection, briefly, but it is her unrequited love for Harry Kitchings which is at the centre of this novel.
I found this an engrossing story: a world in transition, with the power of photography to capture memories as images. And everywhere, the clouds and the mist.
In the expansion of its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto blasted the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 – Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These sites had deep historical and cultural significance.
The shelters are the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.
The mining blast caused significant distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama traditional land owners. It’s an irretrievable loss for future generations.
Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance, and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.
But the destruction of a culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.
In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.
But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and a disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.
Not an isolated incident
The history of large developments destroying Indigenous heritage sites is, tragically, long.
A $2.1 billion light rail line in Sydney, completed last year, destroyed a site of considerable significance.
More than 2,400 stone artefacts were unearthed in a small excavated area. It indicated Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1830 to manufacture tools and implements from flint brought over to Australia on British ships.
Similarly, ancient rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project. The site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs) across 36,857 hectares.
This area is under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.
But a Senate inquiry revealed emissions from adjacent industrial activity may significantly damage it.
The West Australian government is seeking world heritage listing to try to increase protection, as the regulatory frameworks at the national and state level aren’t strong enough. Let’s explore why.
What do the laws say?
The recently renamed federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for listing new national heritage places, and regulating development actions in these areas.
At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides a legal framework for their management and protection. It is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing.
But many ancient Aboriginal sites have no national heritage listing. For the recently destroyed Juurkan gorge, the true archaeological significance was uncovered after consent had been issued and there were no provisions to reverse or amend the decision once this new information was discovered.
Where a site has no national heritage listing, and federal legislation has no application, state laws apply.
For the rock shelters in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto was abiding by Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 – which is now nearly 50 years old.
Section 17 of that act makes it an offence to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter any Aboriginal site without the ministerial consent.
But, Section 18 allows an owner of the land – and this includes the holder of a mining licence – to apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee for consent to proceed with a development action likely to breach section 17.
The committee then evaluates the importance and significance of the site, and makes a recommendation to the minister. In this case, the minister allowed Rio Tinto to proceed with the destruction of the site.
No consultation with traditional owners
The biggest concern with this act is there’s no statutory requirement ensuring traditional owners be consulted.
This means traditional owners are left out of vital decisions regarding the management and protection of their cultural heritage. And it confers authority upon a committee that, in the words of a discussion paper, “lacks cultural authority”.
There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee, nor is there a requirement that at least one anthropologist be on the committee. Worse still, there’s no right of appeal for traditional owners from a committee decision.
So, while the committee must adhere to procedural fairness and ensure traditional owners are given sufficient information about decisions, this doesn’t guarantee they have a right to consultation nor any right to provide feedback.
Weak in other jurisdictions
The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is under review. The proposed reforms seek to abolish the committee, ensuring future decisions on Aboriginal cultural heritage give appropriate regard to the views of the traditional Aboriginal owners.
NSW is the only state with no stand-alone Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, a similar regulatory framework to WA applies in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.
There, if a developer is likely to impact cultural heritage, they must apply for an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit. The law requires “regard” to be given to the interests of Aboriginal owners of the land, but this vague provision does not mandate consultation.
What’s more, the burden of proving the significance of an Aboriginal object depends upon external statements of significance. But Aboriginal people, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area.
As in WA, the NSW regulatory framework is weak, opening up the risk for economic interests to be prioritised over damage to cultural heritage.
The federal minister has discretion to assess whether state or territory laws are already effective.
In fact, a 1995 report assessed the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
It recommended minimum standards be put in place. This included ensuring any assessment of Aboriginal cultural significance be made by a properly qualified body, with relevant experience.
It said the role of Aboriginal people should be appropriately recognised and statutorily endorsed. Whether an area or site had particular significance according to Aboriginal tradition should be regarded as a subjective issue, determined by an assessment of the degree of intensity of belief and feeling of Aboriginal people.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart offered a new compact with all Australians that would reset our national identity and enhance our political legitimacy. But its poetic vision and pragmatism proved its death knell.
Trying to reconcile two historically divergent if not hostile ideas – Indigenous sovereignty and the sovereignty of the Commonwealth – asked the nation to embark on a project of rehabilitation: “Voice, Treaty, Truth”.
The proposed constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament was rejected; treaty remains a dream, and the Australian people appear generally indifferent to historical introspection.
The Uluru Statement offered nation-building for a nation that seems content with itself.
It was an easy target for conservative politicians.
The great lie of the Turnbull government – that the Voice would be a “third chamber” of parliament – prevailed over Indigenous truth because to enough ears it sounded right.
The appearance of Indigenous people enjoying rights not shared by other Australians was cast as offensive to liberal principles. Indigenous advocates had no simple answer to the bumper-sticker slogan that they were putting race in the constitution.
They were left to try to convince Australians with complicated, long-winded arguments about the scientific fiction of race. The Voice would not be a veto; the “truth” would set us free.
The Uluru Statement was junked and Australians, hitherto generous to the idea of constitutional recognition, barely raised a whimper.
What should have been a high watermark of Australian liberalism became instead a victim of Australian liberalism.
It poses an existential question: can liberal democracy meet the demands of First Nations people?
For classical liberals the answer is no, if it means privileging group rights over the individual.
Even Native Title – a group right – was a legislative response to rein in the scope of the historic Mabo High Court decision amid concerns among pastoralists and miners, and a scare campaign that Australians could lose their backyards.
Indigenous rights challenge the Australian identity as egalitarian, multicultural, and tolerant: the fair go does not mean a better go.
Australians can support assimilationist projects of equality as they did overwhelmingly in the 1967 referendum when they were told Aborigines “want to be Australians too”.
However, mischievous politicians miscast the Indigenous Constitutional Voice as quasi-separatism. The inference was it was not just illiberal, but un-Australian.
To change Australia, Australians must want to change.
Consistent polling shows healthy support for the concept of constitutional recognition, but history reminds us how goodwill can dissolve against a fear campaign.
Ivison and other like-minded liberals make a heroic attempt to renovate Australian liberalism, but the people seem content with the liberalism they have.
To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: what do you want to do, elect a new people?
Like Ivison, I believe liberalism is an idea worth preserving.
The Uluru Statement was a clarion call for all Australians to walk together for a better future.
To find our way, we may first have to lift some of the blindfolds of our liberalism.
‘They’re still going on about that superflu on the radio.’
Jean Bennett is a tough middle-aged woman who works as a guide at a wildlife park in the Australian outback. She likes a few drinks (except when she’s looking after her granddaughter Kimberley) and she hopes, one day, to be a fully-fledged ranger. Jean likes the animals and talks to all of them, but a young dingo called Sue is her favourite. Kimberley’s mother, Angela, manages the park.
Life is disrupted. There’s a pandemic sweeping the country: called ‘zooflu’, it is no ordinary flu. One of the first symptoms is that victims begin to hear the animals speaking. First it is just the mammals, but as the flu progresses, they hear birds and insects. A cacophony of unstoppable voices: people are overwhelmed.
Jean’s son, Lee, arrives at the park. He’s infected, he takes Kimberley and heads south. Jean follows him, taking Sue the dingo with her.
What follows is a surreal road trip. Jean can make sense (mostly) of what Sue says but most people she meets are terrified, many have been driven insane. Will Jean find Kimberley and Lee? Is Sue helping her or hindering her?
It is easy to become lost in this novel: trying to make sense of what the animals are saying while trying to understand the human reactions. The human view of the world is challenged: even where individuals think they understand the animals. We humans make a lot of assumptions, and once those assumptions are challenged, our thin veneer of civilization is disrupted.
I’ve never read a novel quite like this. Ms McKay manages to steer this quite unique story through some challenging territory. And, when I could not make sense of all of it, when I became discombobulated, I thought that would probably be how it would feel if I could hear the voices of animals.
I am not entirely sure how Ms McKay makes this story work so well, but it does. It is simultaneously clever and disturbing. What an impressive novel!
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Scribe UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.
‘Farming was a business: a cutthroat business masquerading as a community project.’
‘Dimple’ (Dillon) and Ruth Travers run a mixed property in New South Wales: crops and cattle. The property is severely drought affected; the future is uncertain. Their two sons, J and Finnie are grown, have left home and live in the city. One day Finnie might like to return to the farm. Ruthie and Dimple have a routine which governs their lives, provides structure and predictability even as they struggle to obtain enough feed for their remaining cattle and to make planting decisions.
And then, two things happen. While helping one of his cows, Dimple hears a wealthy landowner on the radio. Wally Oliver it is. Dimple knew his father. Wally has a message for small farmers like Ruthie and Dimple:
‘.. that drought could be a good thing because it removed the bottom rung of farmers.’
Ruthie receives a letter. She needs treatment. She decides that waiting a couple of days won’t matter. She doesn’t tell Dimple straightaway: she wants time to think.
Ruthie and Dimple decide to take a brief break from the farm. They are going to confront Wally Oliver: someone has to tell him that he is wrong.
Ruthie and Dimple set off on what becomes a two-night trip, a journey to see Wally Oliver. This is a journey which tests them as all the routines that simultaneously shield and occupy their marriage are put to one side. They talk, they share their feelings.
We travel with Ruthie and Dimple, as they revisit the past and make plans. They talk about life off the farm, and make a decision seems right (after all, change may be necessary) but then regret.
I really enjoyed this novel. Both Dimple and Ruthie are finely drawn characters. Theirs is a long-standing marriage, with routines largely dictated by the farm, where self becomes subjugated by responsibility, where the uncertainties of the future can become overwhelming. And absent of routine, opportunities arise to explore the possibility of change. Restlessness is not confined to the young.
I’m sharing a review of mine from almost 13 years ago. Why? Because recently some acquaintances have been discussing the awfulness of this book, and how this awfulness should stop anyone from reading it. I can understand these reactions and yet I still think it is a novel worth reading. Why? There’s a power in the writing, awful as the content is. But more importantly, for me a reiteration that man’s inhumanity to man takes many forms and vulnerability is often relative rather than absolute.
If you’ve read the novel, what did you think?
Here’s my review from 2007:
‘Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?’
‘The Painted Bird’ was first published by Jerzy Kosiński in 1965, and revised in 1976. It is a fictional account of the personal experiences of a boy aged six who could be Jewish or might be a Gypsy taking refuge in Eastern Europe during World War II. It is a fictional account filled with hate for Polish peasantry and packed with excruciating, horrifying detail of rape, murder, bestiality and torture.
‘The Painted Bird’ depicts a journey through a very brutal and brutalising hell. There are no safe places, really, for this boy. He may have escaped with his life but he can never escape his experiences.
There are good reasons to not like this book: it is not, as has been thought, an autobiographical account of Kosiński’s own experiences. Additionally it relies on the proximity of the Holocaust to intensify its own horror; it demonises Polish peasantry as both cruel and backward; and it wallows in violence. But for all of that, it has its own haunting power.
I’ve first read this novel at least 20 years ago and recently revisited it. I do not like the graphic, seemingly unending violence. The point is made and reiterated: man’s inhumanity to man takes many forms and vulnerability is often relative rather than absolute. Did Kosiński really regard the world as being beyond redemption? Is that the question he was posing in this novel? Is that why he committed suicide in 1991? Did he write this novel to give voice to his own despair as a consequence of the events of World War II? For me this novel raises far more questions than it answers. And some of those questions about the author and his intent colour the way I read this novel. I cannot ‘hate’ it: it is far too well written for that. I cannot ‘love’ it: it is far too ugly and there are far too many questions unanswered. Instead, I ‘like’ it in an uneasy sort of way because it makes me wonder about the world.
‘Kate could not decide whether the woman before her had a keen sense of humour, a deep-seated social autism or both.’
‘Double Agent’ picks up where ‘Secret Service’ left off. Senior MI6 Officer Kate Henderson’s husband, Stuart, identified as a Russian spy, is now living in Moscow. Kate and their children manage to meet him in Venice for a brief family visit. Kate’s children are struggling with the separation: her son Gus is surly; daughter Fiona is barely eating. They would like Kate and Stuart to reunite. Kate herself is vulnerable and struggling.
The children are with Stuart and Kate is on her way to join them when she is kidnapped by a Russian agent. The agent offers evidence that the British Prime Minister is a live agent working for Moscow. There is both a scandal and a financial paper trail, but the agent wants a deal. There is a change about to occur in the Kremlin, and the agent and his family want to defect. The stakes are high: can Kate find the truth?
Kate takes the information back to London. Both the politicians and other more senior people in MI6 are hesitant to act. Can Kate authenticate the information? In the meantime, time is passing, and the Russian agent may well offer the information he has to other governments if the British hesitate.
The tension rises. Kate is running on near-empty: not enough sleep, needing to try to second-guess her own decisions as well as those around her. The stakes, already high, become higher just when success seems close.
And the ending? Well, it’s not a neat conclusion and it has me wondering what might happen next. Highly recommended, but best read after ‘Secret Service’.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.
London, 1960s. Remember the Cold War? MI6 spy Joe Wilderness has had some interesting experiences, and in this novel (the third in the series) will travel full circle. The story opens in 1948 in East Berlin, where Joe Wilderness (real name Joe Holderness) is combining spy-craft with a little black-market activity. It’s easy money, until things go wrong.
By way of punishment, Wilderness is then posted to remote northern Finland under the guise of a cultural exchange program aimed at promoting Britain abroad. There’s not much to spy on there, or so it seems, until Wilderness finds another way to make money. There’s a vodka shortage in the USSR, and Wilderness is able to use this to his advantage with the help of a Russian, Kostya, he had dealt with previously in Berlin. Why is Kostya in Finland? A connection is made, and then Wilderness is withdrawn to London.
‘Nothing undermined Intelligence like complacency.’
But his adventures continue, making it very difficult to put this novel down. There’s plenty of tension and some wry humour, there are contacts from the past and some very interesting new characters I hope to see more of. And then, there’s a twist at the end. What will happen next?
While this is the third Joe Wilderness novel, it is possible to read it as a standalone. If you enjoy spy novels with a touch of humour, like political intrigue (and especially if you remember aspects of the Cold War), you may enjoy this novel as much as I did.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.