Here in the After by Marion Frith

‘It was so quiet, so very, very quiet.’

Anna, aged 62, is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack in Sydney. Eleven others were murdered.  Nat, aged 35, is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. Both are suffering because of their experiences; both have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Once Anna is well enough to leave hospital, she retreats into herself, into her home as a fortress. Anna is widowed with adult children and while they try to help her, the only comfort she can find is with her young grandson. Nat’s wife Gen is worried about him. He has outbursts of anger which he cannot explain. Why can’t he tell her what is worrying him?

Nat’s initial approach to Anna is rebuffed: she thinks he is just another person who does not understand what she has been though. But a chance meeting on the beach leads to a tentative friendship. And as their friendship builds, Nat takes what he believes is a terrible risk: he tells Anna his story. There is more to the story than this as you will find if you read it for yourself.

‘They told us we were going over to stamp out terrorism and keep Australia safe … and … well, we didn’t.’

Reading this novel barely weeks after the US and its allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving the country once again in the hands of the Taliban makes this an even more uncomfortable read. Ms Frith’s novel takes us beyond the impact of terrorist acts on the individuals concerned into an appreciation of the concomitant impact on their loved ones. Anna’s family feel helpless, as does Nat’s wife. Anna and Nat (eventually) can talk to each other because their shared experience gives them understanding. Words are sometimes not enough.

There is no happy ever after ending here but there is hope that with the right support the future will be more comfortable for both Anna and Nat and their families.

I was deeply moved by this story and after finishing my review copy, bought a copy for myself. This is Ms Frith’s first novel, and I recommend it highly.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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When Things are Alive They Hum by Hannah Bent

This is Ms Bent’s debut novel, and will be published on 28/7/2021. I am certain that this will be one of my most memorable reads for 2021.

‘This is the sound of my heart talking to me.’

I picked up this book and was taken into a world of both heartache and wonder. Sisters Marlowe and Harper share a deep connection. Marlowe has left their home in Hong Kong to pursue studies in the UK. She is poised on the edge of winning a prestigious award: the Royal Zoological Award when she receives news from home. Harper, born with a congenital heart defect, lives with their father and ‘stepmonster’. Marlowe returns home when she receives the news that Harper’s heart is failing. She will do anything, everything she can to save Harper. Harper is ruled ineligible for a heart transplant because of her disability, but Marlowe cannot accept this.

Marlowe and Harper tell their story in alternate chapters. Marlowe’s distress is heightened by Harper’s quite different perspective and her wonder about the world. Harper has a story to tell, of life with what she calls ‘Up Syndrome’. She and boyfriend Louis have their own special place in the world, a place which not everyone accepts or supports.

This is Ms Bent’s debut novel, a beautifully written story, which demonstrates both the power of love and the need for acceptance.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Scales of Gold (The House of Niccolò #4) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘To those who remembered him, it was typical that Nicholas should sail into Venice just as the latest news reached the Rialto, causing the ducat to fall below fifty groats and dip against the écu.’

In 1464, Nicholas vander Poele returns from Cyprus to Venice. His stay is brief: he has financial concerns and is under threat by several powerful business rivals. He sets sail for Africa:

‘The country where there is gold in such abundance that men prefer to barter in shells.’

 Nicholas is intent on trade and exploration, and Africa offers possibilities. Africa: the legendary home of the Fountain of Youth, the myth of Prester John, descendant of Sheba and Solomon. It will prove to be an arduous journey, full of danger and hardship for Nicholas and his companions. They will make it (some of them) to Timbuktu, a great Muslim centre of learning and trading. Not all aspects of the mission will be successful, suffering will accompany discovery for some.

This, the fourth instalment of the House of Niccolò, will end in Europe with a cliff-hanger which had me tearing my hair and gnashing my teeth. And so, I moved straight onto book five, ‘The Unicorn Hunt’.

I loved this book, with its journey of self-discovery (for some) and exploration. Nicholas continues to develop, as do the intrigues around him. Another complex, intricately plotted novel in a series which is best read in order. I have read this series at least three times, and each time I discover new possibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson

‘Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them.’

In this book, Ms Wilkerson frames the treatment of African American people in the USA as being part of the same caste system which still governs India, and which infected Nazi Germany. So, racism is less about what a person looks like and more about where they are seen as belonging in the hierarchy.

I was drawn into this book from the first page, considering the ramifications of caste, about the assumptions we make and the consequences.

‘As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theatre, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.’

Ms Wilkerson draws on history, on the stories of others and on personal experience in writing this book. It is an uncomfortable and at times confronting read. I had to read it slowly.

‘While all countries in the New World created hierarchies with Europeans on top, the United States alone created a system based on racial absolutism, the idea that a single drop of African blood, or varying percentages of Asian or Native American blood, could taint the purity of someone who might otherwise be presumed to be European, a stain that would thus disqualify the person from admittance to the dominant caste.’

And there is this. In 1944, the public school district in Columbus, Ohio, decided to hold an essay contest challenging students to consider the question ‘What to do with Hitler after the War?’

‘It was the spring of 1944, the same year that a black boy was forced to jump to his death, in front of his stricken father, over the Christmas card the boy had sent to a white girl at work. In that atmosphere, a sixteen-year-old African-American girl thought about what should befall Hitler. She won the student essay contest with a single sentence: ‘Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.’’

By including stories about people, some well-known and others unknown, Ms Wilkerson illustrates the challenges and double standards applied in a world where caste assumes a bottom rung of humanity. These assumptions have costs in health and economic productivity and clearly influence politics. But how does any country move beyond such entrenched divisions?

‘Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.’

I read a review of this books somewhere recently and wanted to read it for myself. I am still thinking about caste and its ramifications. Ms Wilkerson writes from an American perspective, but I think that much of what she writes applies in other countries as well.

Because of the content this is not an easy read but it is a book I would definitely recommend to others.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women, Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, Sarah Wright, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kate Lloyd

Welcome to a very different journey.

The Gay’wu Group of Women (or the ‘dilly bag women’s group) are a group of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north. In this book, they invite us to join them on a journey:

‘We want you to come with us on our journey, our journey of songspirals. Songspirals are the essence of people in this land, the essence of every clan. We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.’

This is an incredibly generous book, full of cultural concepts that I find challenging, but which begin to make sense when I step back from the words to appreciate the context. A vibrant oral culture, with some similarities to the storytelling tradition which once prevailed in parts of my heritage. But the Yolŋu songspirals are more vibrant, more connected to place, to Aboriginal concepts of Country which many of us struggle to appreciate or try to understand.

The women share particular songspirals in the book as a way of welcoming us, of giving us a glimpse into their culture and enabling us to explore and to try to understand their importance.

Songspirals are profoundly different ways of explaining the relationship the Yolŋu women have with Country. In order to understand more, I will need to reread this book.  But right now, while I may not understand fully, I begin to understand and appreciate the complexity and vibrance of this oral culture. Thank you to the Gay’wu Group of Women for their generous gift.

I recommend this book to anyone who seeks a better understanding of Aboriginal concepts of Country.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

‘No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.’

Glasgow, 1992. We meet Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain working at a supermarket. He has just turned sixteen and is trying to combine schooling with a part-time job. He does not receive adult wages and struggles to keep his things neat in the boarding house where he lives. But Shuggie has dreams.

‘Tomorrow was something to look forward to.’

But what about the past? The story shifts back to 1981, to public housing in Sighthill, Glasgow, to Agnes Bain, Shuggie’s mother:

‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.’

Unemployment is rife, housing is scarce. Agnes is used to getting what she wants, but it is never enough for her. She craves different, excitement, more. She left her first husband for Shug Bain (‘Big Shug’) a philandering taxi-driver and dreams of having her own house. Agnes is bored, and when she is bored, she drinks.

Things become worse when Shug moves her to Pithead in 1982. She is away from family and friends. Living in a house in an area mostly occupied by unemployed miners and their families. After her older children leave, Shuggie tries to look after her. He feels, as so many children in his situation feel, responsible. He is sure that he can make her better if only he tries harder. He knows how to help her:

 ‘Shuggie arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork. He knew that this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones.’

If Shuggie is 16 in 1992, then he can only be 6 in 1982. He is carrying the weight of responsibility for his mother and of being different from the other boys. Agnes makes a sad attempt to get one of her male neighbours to be a role model for Shuggie, trading in the only currency she has. To no avail.

This is a heartbreaking story of addiction and love. Agnes is not unaware of the impact of her drinking, but she is in the grips of an addiction. She manages to stay sober for a period, which makes her eventual relapse even harder to bear.

The best advice given to Shuggie is from his brother ‘Leek’ (Alexander):

‘Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better.  When the time is right you have to leave.  The only thing you can save is yourself.’

What does the future hold for Shuggie? I’d like to think that his story continues on, he acquires the education he wants and finds a place for himself.  He did his best for Agnes, but she was beyond help. Addiction is a devastating, destructive, sneaky condition. Especially alcoholism, where some vulnerable people can slide from acceptable social drinking into the abyss of dependency.

This is such a powerful novel with origins in Mr Stuart’s own experience. It’s a novel based in a sad, gritty reality.  It’s a novel that will stay with me.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Hook’s Mountain by James McQueen

‘And now, forever, Blue Hill had gone, and it was Hook’s Mountain.’

Arthur Blackberry has lived near the (fictional) town of Myola all his life. He does odd jobs for people, scavenges form the local tip, and observes. Arthur lives on the periphery of people’s consciousness: he is short, he is different, easy to ignore. His life changes when, in the autumn of 1978, Lachlan Hook, a veteran of World War II, buys a block of land nearby and builds a simple home. He is an outsider. He and Arthur get on well together. Hook builds his home to look out across towards Blue Hill: surely, the loggers will not remove the trees from Blue Hill?

Stop for a minute to imagine the setting. I imagine this novel’s setting is in north-east Tasmania, where logging changed the landscape forever. A relentless assault on native forest, replaced by pine plantations. The removal of habitat for native species. An upheaval, a destruction.

How does Blue Hill become Hook’s Mountain? Over five chapters, each opening with a verse from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Last Year’s Man’ – from ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (1971) – the story unfolds.

Lachlan Hook has a past and, for a while after he meets Ellen and her son Stephen, the future looks promising. But Hook cannot let go of aspects of the past, and Ellen and Stephen leave. From his perspective, with nothing left to lose, Hook decides to try to stop (or at least slow down) the destruction of the forest on Blue Hill. The Hill becomes a position to be defended. Arthur helps Hook: he can do this because no-one notices him. And, although he is later suspected of helping Hook, nothing can be proven. Arthur Blackberry becomes witness to Hook’s story.

This is the second time I have read this novel. This time, as I listened to ‘Last Year’s Man’, I thought about some of the levels of dispossession Mr McQueen addressed: the impact of the destruction of the native forest, the ‘othering’ of Arthur Blackberry because of his difference, the failure to address a soldier’s transition back into civilian society after the horrors of war. I wondered where Ellen and Stephen went. I wondered whether Hook could have survived if they had stayed.

A brilliantly written and profoundly moving novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Mother Tongue by Joyce Kornblatt

‘When you were three days old, I took you from the newborn nursery in Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh, in America.’

In middle age, Nella Pine learns that she is not who she thought she was.  She grew up, thinking she was the daughter of Eve Gilbert, a widow who had left her grief behind in the USA to establish a new life in Australia.  But when Eve dies, she finds a letter.  Eve Gilbert was a nurse, called Ruth Miller, who stole baby Naomi from the newborn nursery and fled to Australia.

Why?  What can Nella do with this information?  Can she find her birth family?  Where does she fit? What about baby Naomi’s family in Pittsburgh?

So many questions to consider while reading this contemplative short novel.  What would Nella’s life have been, if she had grown up with her sister Leah and her parents Deborah and Paul?  What compelled Ruth to take Naomi and change both their identities?

There are other stories woven through this narrative: Alex (once Nella’s husband) with his own experience of lost identity; Leah who always believed that Naomi would make contact; and Deborah whose world changed forever when Naomi was stolen.

I finished this book wondering about the different paths that lives can take.  The shocking theft of one child, the forced adoption of another.  The ripple effect of an action on so many lives.  How do we know who we are, how do we find our place in the world?  What is the balance between nature and nurture?

This is a novel I will reread.  It is an extraordinary story, beautifully presented, full of complex questions.

‘You give each other the stories.  They haven’t been lost.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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The Disorderly Knights (The Lymond Chronicles #3) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘On the day that his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt.’

From border skirmishes in Scotland in 1548, to Malta in 1551 and back to Scotland in 1552, be prepared for a complex, involved and exciting journey!

In the summer of 1551, Francis Crawford of Lymond is in Malta.  Here the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta should be preparing to defend the island from an invading Turkish fleet.  But, under weak leadership, the Knights are divided.  Lymond meets Graham Reid Malett, known as Gabriel, Knight Grand Cross of the Order.  A man famed for his leadership, courage, and saintliness.  A man who wants more from Lymond than he is prepared to give, a man who seems to have an agenda of his own.  Gabriel has a sister, Joleta, who also has a role to play in Gabriel’s scheme.

Welcome to Lymond’s world.  Where intrigue and politics dominate, where different factions compete, and where people often become pawns in a cruel and brutal game.  Lymond knows that there is more to Gabriel and his sister than most others see, but he needs time to collect the evidence required to prove it.  And in the meantime, his own men are torn.

This is the third book in The Lymond Chronicles and finishes with a cliff-hanger.  Naturally.

I am rereading The Lymond Chronicles for at least the third time.  I can read more slowly now because, knowing the structure of the series, I can stop to appreciate the details.  These are detailed novels with complex plots and should be read in order.

If you enjoy beautifully written, energetic historical fiction and you have not yet read this series, then I can strongly recommend it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith