The Red Door by Rosa Fedele

‘He’s watching me.’

Glebe, Sydney, 1983. ‘Rosalind’ is a beautiful old mansion, divided into apartments, gradually being restored by its new owner. The new owner, a woman whose name we don’t learn until near the end of the novel, is herself a bit of a mystery. One amongst many. Renovation of the mansion has challenges, some inexplicable occurrences, as well as a reclusive resident in Apartment 3.
And when the owner discovers that the man in Apartment 3 has the same surname as two teenage sisters brutally murdered over thirty years earlier, she is concerned. Can he be connected to the murders? They’ve never been solved. She becomes obsessed with the crime, obsessed with the tenant, and in danger of destroying her own newly-formed friendships.

I needed to concentrate while reading this novel: there is a lot of action, there are many different characters, with different perspectives to follow. The perspectives change frequently and can be confusing, especially as some of the characters have secrets to hide. All of this serves to heighten the suspense. I thought I’d worked out key parts, such as who had murdered the sisters, only to find that I was wrong. Sigh. I did work out other elements, though, and I found the actual solution more satisfying.

One element of the novel frustrated me: I could see no reason why the reader shouldn’t know the name of the protagonist much earlier in the novel. Why did that need to be a mystery, or was it simply a distancing technique? Overall, I enjoyed Ms Fedele’s debut novel, beautifully enhanced by her original artwork. Most of the different threads are brought to a satisfying conclusion. And, for those who wondered what the future might hold for some of the characters, Ms Fedele’s second novel ‘The Legacy of Beauregard’ is about to be published (in July 2018).

If you enjoy mystery novels and novels set in Sydney with more than a few interesting twists, you may well enjoy this.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

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Public Art in the ACT

I went searching for some information about pieces of public art in the ACT after a friend asked me about ‘Ainslie’s Sheep‘.  I discovered that there is a lot more public art in the ACT than I’ve seen, and I also discovered that some of the art I’ve seen isn’t what I thought it was.  For example:  Moth Ascending the Capital   does not look like a Bogong Moth bursting into flight to me.

One of my favourite pieces is: Winds of Light  which I walk past when I walk around Lake Ginninderra.  I also like The Owl

For those interested, here’s a list  ACT Public Art

Do you have a favourite piece?  What do you like, and why?

Abandoned Women by Lucy Frost

‘Abandoned women, the Scottish convicts were called by an eminent twentieth century Australian historian—worse than the English, even worse than the Irish.’

In this book, Lucy Frost follows the lives of women convicted of crime in Scotland who were subsequently transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Atwick in 1838. Of the 151 women transported on this ship, 78 were Scottish. Where did those women come from? What were their crimes? What do we know about them after they reached Van Diemen’s Land?

‘Proud though the Scots were of retaining their own independent legal system after the Acts of Union joined the kingdoms of Scotland and England, the sentences to transportation pronounced by their supreme criminal court, the High Court of Justiciary, were implemented by the English.’

In the 1830s, when this account starts, Scotland was industrializing. Many people from rural areas moved to Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in search of work. But work was difficult to find, especially for the unskilled. Life in cities is particularly difficult for the poor. Many of the women who appear within the pages of this book were transported for stealing. Single or married, with or without children, the women sought food and shelter by whatever means available to them.
But once they reached Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the women’s lives varied considerably. While some of the women disappeared completely from public records, the lives of others are well documented. Some of the women died soon after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Some of the women served their time and then became part of the free community. Others resisted authority, or refused to conform to colonial ideas of femininity, and spent years moving between assignment and being sent back to the Female Factory as punishment. Some of the women turned to alcohol, which caused other problems for them.

‘But for many of the Scottish convicts, the fracture caused by transportation offered an opportunity to break with a thieving way of life pointed invariably towards incarceration.’

Elizabeth Williamson was one of the women who made the most of her opportunities. Within three years of arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, she was granted her ticket of leave. This enabled her to work for wages. She married twice, and twenty-three years after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict, she left the colony and sailed back to London. A wealthy widow. By contrast, Ann Martin from Edinburgh was brought before the authorities ten times within fifteen months of her arrival. Ann Martin’s record would eventually include twenty-two charges.

For me, one of the saddest aspects of this account concerns the children of these women. Some were left behind in Scotland and were unlikely to ever see their mothers again. Other children travelled to Van Diemen’s Land with their mothers. Some of the children were abandoned by their mothers in the colony’s orphan schools.

I found the accounts of these women very interesting, especially the accounts of those such as Margaret Alexander (Boothman) who had made the transition from convict in 1838 to be a respected member of the community when she died in 1912, aged 93. If you are interested in Tasmania’s 19th century colonial history during the transportation era, then I recommend this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Australian Foreign Affairs Issue 2: Trump in Asia The New World Disorder

‘Unpredictability is as central to this president’s approach to international affairs as resolve and clarity were to his predecessors.’

I admit it. I picked up this journal because of the title: ‘Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder’. I wanted to read something a little more detailed than a superficial comparison of two powerful men with idiosyncratic hairstyles or the relative size of their nuclear buttons. I wanted some thoughtful analysis and these days, as far as Australian print media goes, Schwarz Publishing provides some of the best analysis available. I read The Saturday Paper, The Monthly and Quarterly Essay when I can, and I’m happy to add Australian Foreign Affairs to the list. Why?

Foreign policy is important. Especially for Australia, an essentially European country located in Asia. We are a relatively small country (in economic and population terms). We can no longer rely solely on our connections with European countries and with the USA for either export markets or for our defence needs. And, in the era of President Trump, we can no longer be sure that American interests are the same as our own. We need to consider our relationship with Beijing, as well as our responsibilities as a nation located in the Asia-Pacific region.

The journal also includes a correspondence section and book reviews. I found that this journal gave me a few things to mull over. Australian Foreign Affairs is published three times a year, in February, July and October.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss

‘What is it like? What does it mean to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?’

I picked up this anthology, wondering how many different experiences it would contain. I wondered, too, whether there would be a generational difference, whether the experiences of younger people might be more positive. The answer to my first question is that this anthology contains more than 50 contributions, and each one is different. The answer to my second question is, sadly, no. Some young people may have experienced less discrimination and disadvantage, but others have not. Reading through these accounts, I’m made aware of some of the less obvious forms discrimination takes. It’s a difficult and at times confronting read.

Anita Heiss writes:

‘There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.’

Each contribution, each account of growing up Aboriginal in Australia is unique. The writers are of different ages, have different writing styles and approaches to addressing the question. I found Don Bemrose’s ‘Dear Australia’ essay thought-provoking, and was inspired by Evelyn Araluen’s statement: ‘We are the dream of our ancestors.’ I agree with Adam Goodes: ‘I believe in having a dream and setting goals to achieve it.’ And then, in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s contribution, I read: ‘People ask me sometimes if I experienced any racism when I was a kid. Questions like that always make me wonder where the other person is living.’ Clearly, there is (still) more than one Australia.
I am saddened to learn that one contributor, Alice Eather (born in 1988) took her own life in June 2017. Alice wrote: ‘there’s too much negativity said and written about Aboriginal people in communities.’ Sadly, Alice was right. What can we do to change this?

There are some many different accounts. Some contributors grew up with their families, others did not. Some grew up with immediate families, but away from their Country and away from extended family networks. Some grew up in cities. Some grew up knowing which mob they belonged to and speaking their language, others did not. It’s obvious that there is no singular experience of growing up Aboriginal. Yet it’s clear from these accounts that elements of Australian society have a preconceived idea of what Aboriginal people should be. And if an Aboriginal person does not fit into that stereotype, then it is the person who is questioned, not the stereotype. One of those stereotypes relates to judgements made on skin colour as the only determinant of whether a person is an Aboriginal.

There are so many different lives, many different identities in this anthology. Contributors include children, parents, musicians, sports stars, teachers and writers.
I found this anthology both heartbreaking and inspiring. I think that all Australians should read it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 #AWW 2018

Tracker by Alexis Wright

‘A Western-style biography would never do for Tracker.’

‘Tracker’ is a biography of Tracker Tilmouth (1954-2015). It’s no standard, linear biography. Instead Alexis Wright has composed a collective memoir, drawing on interviews with Tracker as well as with family, friends and colleagues. It’s a life recounted in a series of stories, of reminiscences. I started reading the book knowing a little about Tracker Tilmouth, I finished the book wanting to know more.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in central Australia in 1954. He was taken from his family as a child and, with two of his brothers, was brought up in a mission on Croker Island. When he returned home, he set about transforming the world of Aboriginal politics. This book contains some of what he set out to achieve, the why and the how of it, from a number of different perspectives. It’s the telling of Tracker’s story that held my attention: the different memories people had, the recounting of anecdotes, Tracker’s drive, Tracker’s vision. His ability to make connections and communicate.

‘How do you tell an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book?’

Ms Wright has grouped the stories into five sections:
Trying to Get the Story Straight
Becoming Dangerous
The Inspirational Thinker
The Vision Splendid
The Unreliable Witness.
In addition, the book also includes a list of People, Places and Organisations, Contributor Biographies, as well as Acknowledgements.

I found myself reading a contribution, and then (if I didn’t know who the contributor was) looking for more information about that contributor. Sometimes that gave me context, sometimes it didn’t. But the more I read, the less I cared about trying to fit all the components into some logical whole. It didn’t matter, the words seemed to be telling me, just accept. Just listen. And as I read, I learned more about some of the negotiations, understood better Tracker’s vision of economic independence, appreciated more of the cultural aspects, heard more of the voices involved.

‘Wrighty, I just want to bookend this. Let others tell the story. Let them say what they want.’

This is not an easy book to read, especially for those of us used to conventional Western biographies. Some of the contributors found him difficult to work with, some found him annoying. Many found him inspiring. I found myself reading parts aloud, imagining a conversation. I wondered about the reliability of memory, cringed occasionally at some of the anecdotes but finished with a deep respect for Tracker Tilmouth and what he tried to achieve.

This book has recently been awarded the 2018 Stella Prize. The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2018