In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

I first read and reviewed this novel at the beginning of 2015.

‘As she spoke, she had an impression of something not pleasant happening to her, something irreversible and magical and inevitable.’

The first part of the novel opens just after the end of World War II, in Sydney, where the Howards live in their house on the north side of Sydney Harbour. Mr and Mrs Howard are both biologists, and ‘Mrs Howard was a useful example of a woman who combined a successful career with a happy home life. Whenever such a phenomenon needed illustration, journalists and producers were as likely to think of Alice Howard as anyone in town.’

Their son Russell has returned home in one piece after a period as a prisoner of war. Their 17 year old daughter, Zoe, was considered by family and friends to be remarkable. Perhaps she is: Zoe is an excellent student, captain of the school, editor of the school paper, a competent sailor and photographer who can handle a car better than her father.

‘To live without the interest or attention of other people, without making an impression: in her mind, Zoe groped to imagine such a state.’

Through the Howards, we also meet another brother and sister, Stephen and Anna Quayle. Stephen and Anna have been orphaned, and live in Parramatta with an uncle and his seriously disturbed wife. The uncle is preoccupied with his wife and doesn’t have much attention left for Stephen and Anna. Stephen, who intrigues Zoe, works as a salesman and Anna will be a clerk. Zoe is destined for Paris, to study film or photography. Russell will marry the well-educated Lily, and will open his own publishing company. Such a contrast between the lives of, and opportunities for, these four young people.

‘You can’t explain anything to a rich, lucky person. They don’t know.’

The second part of the novel opens eight years later, when the death of Alice Howard brings Zoe home from Europe. Zoe is now a successful photographer, in a relationship with a film director, with a career ahead of her. But once she meets Stephen again, she decides to marry him and remain in Sydney. Anna is widowed: her husband David, a musician, died less than two years after they married. Russell and Lily married, as expected, and have twin daughters.

‘Be satisfied. Be satisfied. This is what you wanted. This is what you’ve got.’

By the late 1960s, in the final part of the novel, Zoe is forty. She has devoted herself to trying to make Stephen happy. Anna has found success making pottery, while Lily has sacrificed her academic career for her daughters. None of these younger women has had the same success that Alice Howard had in combining a career and marriage.

‘He shook his head. Zoe checked an impulse to speak. Once so impulsive, she was now very skilled at checking impulses.’

The relationships in this novel – between individuals, between those with power and those without can be both straightforward (when individuals have a clear idea about what they want) and complex (when individuals make choices without fully appreciating the consequences). And even clarity about the future can be obscured when an individual world view is based in ignorant naivety. Can any of the younger generation move beyond the barriers of class and power, beyond the expectations of others to find their own place in the world?

In this novel (and in fact) Australia is not as egalitarian as it pretends to be. And that is an uncomfortable truth which I’d like to ignore, but can’t. I enjoyed the way Ms Harrower constructed this story, and I wondered why the novel was withdrawn from publication after it was completed in 1971. In some ways, I think Australia has become even less egalitarian since then. I’ll be adding Ms Harrower’s other novels to my reading list.

‘It occurred to her that there might be nothing braver in the world than to allow yourself to be understood.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020)

I read and reviewed this novel back in 2015.

‘Now that your father’s gone – ‘

Laura and Clare Vaizey are at boarding school when their father dies, and the lives they had anticipated for themselves (especially Laura) are changed forever. Their mother removes Laura from school and sends her to business school to learn shorthand and typing. Laura, no longer able to dream of pursuing a career in medicine, becomes responsible for her sister Clare. Mrs Vaizey decides to return to England and, on the last ship bound for England as World War II breaks out, abandons her daughters.

Laura finds work in a factory, where the owner Felix Shaw pays attention to her. Although Laura is unsure about Felix, she agrees to marry him, partly (at least) to prevent Clare having to leave school.

‘I think you’d better just marry me, and both of you come to live in the new house. I’ll fix everything.’

Felix’s way of fixing everything is through controlling Laura. He belittles her, he manipulates her, and he crushes her. In the claustrophobic environment that Felix controls, neither of the sisters can relax. And over time, Laura begins to reflect Felix’s values.

‘She had achieved this state with much painless suffering, committing murder by proxy.’

Although Clare sees Felix for what he is, she cannot persuade Laura to leave him. Laura has almost entirely lost any sense of herself as an independent person. Can Laura be saved? Or will Clare have to abandon her in order to save herself?

For me, two tragic themes are central to this novel. The first is the warping of Laura’s spirit as, oppressed by Felix, she becomes more like him. Gone is the clever independent girl who dreamed of being a doctor, replaced by a fearful woman reflecting Felix’s views in order to find an uneasy peace in her world. The second is the awfulness and power of manipulation, where people seek (whether physically or psychologically) to impose their wills on others. Laura has been doubly unfortunate: a narcissistic self-serving mother, and an insecure controlling husband.

This is a thought-provoking novel. It is uncomfortable and confronting, raising questions about choices, and imbued with an undercurrent of malicious destruction. I am uneasy with aspects of the story, they reflect a reality I have observed.

This novel was first published in 1966, and was reissued in 2012. The setting may seem dated, the issues raised are not.

‘It is a wonder of the world to notice how fundamentally people change from one second to the next when they are given their own way.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Devil Inside by D.L. Hicks

‘It’s the smell of incense that always takes me back.’

In the small Australian coastal town of Gull Bay, a young woman is found murdered.  Detective Charlotte Callaghan takes the call.  The young woman is holding a religious quote in her hand.  Detective Callaghan’s half-brother, Father Joseph Callaghan, is asked about the quote:

‘As for that piece of paper and the quote printed on it, it was stapled to the top of the newsletter that was handed out to my congregation two weekends ago.’

And then another young woman is found murdered, with another biblical quote.  Could the murderer be someone within Father Joseph’s congregation?

The novel shifts between present and past.  In addition to Charlotte and the murder investigation in the present, it also includes the experiences of a ten-year-old altar boy in 1987.

Charlotte herself has secrets she is trying to hide from both (most of) her work colleagues, her brother, and her boyfriend.  But there are worrying developments in the murder cases: could her brother be involved?

‘The worst day in Charlotte’s working life had arrived.’

While some aspects of this novel are predictable, that certainly did not stop me turning the pages as I was very keen to find out how it would end.  Who is killing young women, and why?  Who can Charlotte trust? 

Which takes me to the ending.  One aspect, while sad, was expected.  The other element, less expected, was unsettling.

D.L. Hicks is a serving police officer, and this is his first novel.  It touches on some painfully topical issues, introduces some memorable characters, and left me wondering.

I hope that Mr Hicks keeps writing.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland

‘The dog must have been howling for a good twenty minutes before Hal climbed up on the back fence to look for it.’

1966.  Hal Humphries and his younger brother Evan, together with their parents Corrie and John, have made the move to Moorabool in regional New South Wales.  A new start for the family, a job promotion for John.

Hal and Evan are exploring the area near their home when they find the body of a dog.  A dog that has only recently been killed and mutilated. 

Probationary Constable Mick Goodenough has also recently arrived in Moorabool.  And one of his dogs has gone missing.  When he finds the dog’s body, he is concerned.  Someone who tortures and kills animals might move onto other crimes.  But Mick’s superior, Sergeant Bradley, is not interested.  Mick may have once been a detective in Sydney, but he is in Moorabool on probation, under sufferance.

Hal’s father spends a lot of time away from home.  While he is away, Corrie starts receiving anonymous calls, and there is a prowler around the home.  Mick is the only one of the town’s policemen who take this seriously.  More crimes are committed: is the dog killer escalating?

Moorabool has a dark past.  Hal is fascinated by the murders that took place in the abandoned caravan and talks to his new friend Allie Tenpenny about them.  But after Allie tells him something he does not want to believe; they have a falling out.

The narration is shared between Hal and Mick, who form an alliance while trying to work out what is happening.  There are secrets in Moorabool: cover-ups and corruption have made it easy for some criminal activity to be ignored, and racism compounds that.

Mick learns about more animal deaths, and Hal finds the body of a murdered woman.  Who killed her?  Sergeant Bradley believes it was her husband: he has a confession.  But there is something not right, and then Hal goes missing.

Can Mick find him?

There’s plenty of tension in this novel, and some memorable characters (especially Hal, Allie and Mick).  And who is ‘The Night Whistler’?  You may be surprised.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

The Second Biggest Nothing (Dr. Siri Paiboun #14) by Colin Cotterill

‘At the end of 1980, Vientiane was a city still waiting for something to happen.’

Dr Siri Paiboun, the former national coroner of Laos, is getting ready to negotiate the bureaucracy to make a film.  Once he and his good friend Civilai can establish agreement over the script and work out how to operate the camera.  But their plans go seriously awry when Dr Siri receives a death threat.

There is a note, in English, tied to his dog Ugly’s tail.  Dr Siri is not concerned immediately: after all, he cannot read English.  But once he knows what the note says, he mobilises his forces.  The death threat is not only against him, and he has two weeks before it is carried out.

Who would hold such a strong grudge against him?  So, together with Dr Siri, we take a trip into the past.  There are three noteworthy incidents:  Paris in 1932, Saigon in 1956 and Hanoi in 1972.  In each of those incidents, Dr Siri was threatened.  He has two weeks to try to work out who is threatening him, his wife, and friends.

‘It’s called brainstorming,’ said Siri. ‘You just say things for no apparent reason until you accidentally stumble upon a truth.  It’s like politics.’

This is one of the best of the recent Dr Siri novels and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The flashbacks to the past include an attempted assassination in Paris, a visit to an art museum in Saigon and a prisoner of war negotiation in Hanoi.  And in the present, Dr Siri must wrestle with his spirits as well as look out for his friends.

Will they work it out in time?  The answer may surprise you.  Yes, you could read this novel as a standalone, but I strongly recommend reading the novels in order.  There is a lot of character development and a world of quirky investigation to explore.

‘People are basically stupid,’ said Siri.  ‘We’re easy to dupe.  Nobody asks for proof anymore.  A lie told with confidence is indistinguishable from the truth.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Mrs Osmond by John Banville

‘It had been a day of agitations and alarms, of smoke and steam and grit.’

An exceptionally long time ago, I read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James.  I loved the writing, was frustrated by Isabel’s choice, and wondered ‘what if…’.

In this novel, John Banville gives Isabel an alternate path.  A path that I find much more satisfying.

 In this story (as in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’) Isabel disobeys her husband Gilbert by travelling from Italy to London to be with her cousin Ralph Touchett on his deathbed.  This will become the first step in her quest for freedom.  She meets with old friends and tells (some of them) of her husband’s betrayal.  She also withdraws a large sum of money from the bank and thinks about the future.

‘The world, our world, takes from people what it wishes to have of them—company, amusement, diversion—and blithely ignores the rest.’

After a couple of months away, Isabel returns to Italy via Paris.  Will she return to Gilbert, to their farcical marriage or not?  And if not, what will she do?  A woman in her situation is not meant to make choices: polite society will be outraged.  But John Banville’s Isabel has a confidence that Henry James’s Isabel did not:

‘Isabel rose to her feet.  ‘You married me for my money,’ she said, making of it no more than a matter of fact.  ‘Now our marriage is at an end, and I am taking the money back.’

Brava, Isabel!  But there is more to it than this.  Isabel’s newly practiced confidence enables her to make other decisions.  Still, as her sister-in-law reminds her:

‘None of us can escape what we inherit, not even you.’

And so, I finished the novel satisfied, but wondering what Isabel might do next with her newly found freedom and confidence.

This is a beautifully written novel.  While I don’t think you need to have read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ to enjoy and make sense of it, you might want to.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Treacherous Country by K.M. Kruimink

‘How came I to a place like this?’

Gabriel Fox has travelled to Van Diemen’s Land on a quest.  The novel opens with Gabriel in the company of a man he calls his Cannibal travelling from Hobart-town.  Gabriel’s head is full of questions, such as:

‘… can the season truly be called winter, if it is at the wrong time of the year, and the leaves have not fallen?’

Gabriel and his Cannibal are travelling.  Gabriel is hopeful of selling two harpoons he bought in Sydney-town at a whaling-station, north-east of Hobart-town.  Once he gets rid of the harpoons, Gabriel wants to find the woman he has been despatched to find, and for whom he has a letter, and return to England.  He has a letter of credit to use for his expenses.

The story unfolds slowly: we are in Gabriel’s head and that is the only perspective we will have.  He has been tasked with finding Maryanne Maginn, who first set foot on Van Diemen’s Land some thirty years earlier. Why this is important and who has tasked him will gradually become known to us.  But it is not Gabriel’s quest as much as his description of the land he is travelling through and the people he meets which held my attention initially.  A day’s travel north-east of Hobart-town will take him to a whaling station on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land.  The whaling station is for sale.  Sadly, the whales have already been hunted to near extinction.

Gabriel and his Cannibal arrive at the whaling station and take part in a whale hunt.  Gabriel’s harpoons are used successfully.  But a man dies, and Gabriel becomes part of a group which takes the body back to his widow in Hobart-town.

The descriptions in this novel are so vivid: I can picture the whale hunt (even if I don’t want to); I can see the poor horse Gabriel bought and which is subsequently stolen from him; I can feel his discomfort in his dirty, wet clothes.  Gabriel has several different challenges to meet, before a somewhat surprising ending.  Surprising, but strangely satisfying.

If you enjoy nineteenth century historical fiction set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania since 1856) you may enjoy this as much as I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

The Light at the End of the Day by Eleanor Wasserberg

‘Are you leaving?’

The novel opens in Kraków, Poland in 1939.  Jewish families are starting to leave.  By the time the wealthy Oderfeldt family decides to flee, it is too late for them to travel together, too late for them to take their possessions.  Of all the possessions they must leave behind, Alicia’s most prized possession is a painting.  It is a portrait of her that her father commissioned, painted by Jozef Pienta. The family: parents Adam and Anna, sisters Karolina and Alicia, are separated by the war.

Anna, Karolina, and Alicia travel together, trying to find refuge and safety. Their life of luxury in Kraków becomes a distant memory.  After the war ends, Alicia wants to recover the painting.

There are several characters with different stories in this novel and, sadly, not all endings are happy.  Once I started reading, I found it difficult to put the novel down. The contrasts between the Odefeldt’s life in Kraków and the indignities and horrors of war, the courage shown by Anna, Karolina and Alicia.  The significance of the painting to Alicia, and the journey to find it and reconnect with others is the heart of the story. Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#BRPreview

When She was Good (Cyrus Haven #2) by Michael Robotham

‘She said, “Nobody can protect me.”’

Did retired Detective Superintendent Hamish Whitmore commit suicide?  Criminal psychologist Cyrus Haven does not think so.  He thinks that Whitmore was murdered, and he thinks that the murder was related to an old case which Whitmore was unable to close.  There’s a tiny notation in the corner of Whitmore’s whiteboard: ‘Angel Face.  London.  2013.’

‘They don’t know the whole story.  The real story.  How it began …’

Six years ago, after a brutal murder, Evie Cormac was found hiding in a secret room.  Nothing is known of her past, and her real name is unknown.  Cyrus Haven wants to help her recover the past: he is convinced that it will help her.   But the past is dangerous for Evie: she is the witness to events that people would kill to keep secret.  Evie is in Langford Hall, a secure children’s home, waiting to be released.  But she finds that nowhere is safe, and she runs away.

‘There is no such thing as forgetting.’

If you have not yet read the first book in this series ‘Good Girl, Bad Girl’, I suggest reading it first.  This book builds on the story established there, and (ultimately) will provide some answers to questions raised there.  Who is Evie?  And how did she end up behind the wall?  Is Cyrus Haven right: will uncovering the past help Evie?

‘I survived, that’s enough.  I’m the proof.’

This novel is action-packed and (at times) almost heart-stopping.  I vacillated between wanting to know exactly what happened and wanting Cyrus Haven to stop meddling.  Evie has been damaged by her experiences and cannot trust anyone.  In Evie’s experience, some secrets must be kept.  And the ending is brilliant!

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

Don’t Eat Me (Dr. Siri Paiboun #13) by Colin Cotterill

‘Life sped by in Vientiane like a Volkswagen van on blocks.’

Dr Siri Paiboun, the former national coroner of Laos, and his friend Civilai want to make a movie. They have a film camera, which they’ve managed to purchase and smuggle into the country, and they have a plan.  But there are two problems:  the first is learning how to operate the camera, the second is obtaining script approval from the Ministry of Culture.

‘Every elderly person deserved a period of insanity to combat the boredom of decay.’

But things suddenly get complicated (they always do in a Dr Siri novel).  A woman’s skeleton is found in a public place: who put it there, and how did the woman die?

Inspector Phosy investigates.  Nurse Dtui helps, and so does Dr Siri.  They establish quickly that the woman’s death was comparatively recent, and it seems that small animals have been gnawing at her bones.  Their search for more information leads them to uncover illegal animal trafficking and corruption.

‘We only blackmail you if we think you’re wandering off the path of righteousness and into the brambles of evil.’

Everyone gets involved: Madame Daeng, Mr Geung and his girlfriend, and many of those who frequent Madame Daeng’s noodle shop.  Dr Siri infrequently (but annoyingly) vanishes when his spirits take over.  It takes him a little while to understand the message(s) being delivered, but fortunately he gets there eventually.  Just as well, because Inspector Phosy is charged with corruption and he needs all the help he can get.

This is the thirteenth instalment in the Dr Siri Paiboun series, and while I didn’t enjoy this one as much as most of the others, the series is worth reading (in order, because character development and backstory are important).

Mr Cotterill tackles the uncomfortable but important issues of animal and people trafficking in this novel.  But the last word really belongs to Mr Geung:

‘… wish this day, is that we all stop comparing the size of our brains and learn to see the size of each other’s hearts.’ (Well said, Mr Geung!)

I now have the fourteenth book in the series to read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith