The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll

Steven Carroll is one of my favourite Australian authors.  I read his work slowly, because reflection is important.

‘A shop, is, in short, the flag of settlement.’

One summer day in 1970, Peter van Rijn as he drives to work, realises that his Melbourne suburb is one hundred years old. He realises this because he drives past a building, a shop, built in 1870. The same morning that Peter, who owns a television and wireless shop, gathers this thought, Rita is awakened by a dream of her husband Vic.  But Vic moved north years ago.  Their son Michael has moved into the city to teach and is falling in love.

‘One minute you’re twenty and it’s all there before you, the next it’s gone.’

A celebration is planned for the suburb, an artist friend of Michael’s is commissioned to paint a mural of the suburb’s history.

And while the planning goes on, and people wonder what the mural will reveal, we explore the past through the musings of Rita, Vic, Michael and of Mrs Webster the widowed factory-owner.

‘Love can be won and lost, lives come and go, everything that may matter in someone’s life may be contained in a moment – just as whole worlds can turn or crumble in one.’

This novel is a beautifully constructed reflection on change, life, and progress at both an individual and collective (suburb) level. As I read, I became annoyed with Vic (for essentially just waiting to die) but recognised others (in real life) doing the same thing.  I marvelled at how Rita, whose world seems so constrained, seemed to have a motive force that others lacked.  I agonised for Michael, learning that change can be imposed as well as sought, and I wondered how much Mrs Webster knew about Mr Webster’s world.

‘The remains of the old life mingle with the new.’

What can I tell you about this novel, about how it made me think about the spaces I’ve occupied and the passage of time?  Buildings usually outlive original purpose and occupants, people grow older and change. This, for me, was a novel to read slowly, to savour, to reflect on. Mr Carroll’s writing always holds my attention.  Three of my favourite quotes from the novel:

’That lost tribe.  At once exotic, strange and utterly familiar.  Gone.  Wiped away by time and speed.’

‘The suburb had grown, its children had left home, the factory’s workers had aged with the factory and the suburb didn’t need it anymore.’

‘We were Progress, only we didn’t know it then.’

This is the third novel in Mr Carroll’s Glenroy series.  It was originally intended as a trilogy but grew to six novels.  I’ve not read them all yet, and I’ve not read them in sequence, but this has not reduced my enjoyment.  I still have a couple to look forward to.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


‘And all the time, the living suburb is constantly evolving, through night and day, weekend and working week, sunshine and rain, ever forward, ever onward, until that perfect day arrives, surely not too far away, when the straight line of History can lie down its perfect summer gardens and pronounce its job done.’

How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly

I’m a big fan of Paul Kelly’s songs.  I’ve been listening to them for a long time.

‘A book that sings and talks and plays.’

Back in 2013, I went to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and saw an exhibition entitled ‘Paul Kelly and The Portraits’.  While I was wandering around, checking out the portraits, I realised that there was a lot I didn’t know about Paul Kelly and his music.  On the way out of the Gallery, I saw copies of ‘How to Make Gravy’.  I borrowed a copy a few weeks later, then bought a copy of the book and a copy of the CD boxed set ‘The A to Z Recordings’.

I’ve only read the book twice, but I play the music frequently.  It’s my ‘go to’ music for driving and for writing book reviews.

So, what can I tell you about the book (or the music)?    The book grew as a result of a series of concerts first staged in 2004.  Over four nights Paul Kelly performed, in alphabetical order, one hundred of his songs.  In between the songs he told stories about the songs, and together the stories and the songs became ‘How to Make Gravy’.  If you are a fan of Paul Kelly’s songs, then this book will give you some insights into how he writes.

‘Writing songs is a magpie business.  You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye.  You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so.’

It’s a fascinating memoir: there’s a bit of family history, some personal reminiscences, life on the road while touring with the band, some of the things that matter to Paul Kelly.  I learned a little about the man behind the musician, about sources of inspiration.  And along the way, I was listening to the songs, making my own connections.

‘When you’re young you think everything’s possible.  All of a sudden you’re past the middle of your life, you’ve done only a fraction of the things you could have, and the field of possibility grows smaller each year.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan

‘I have been granted visions – grand, great, wild, sweeping visions.  My mind rattles with them as they are born to me.’

Aljaz Cosini and Jason Krezwa are river guides, taking a group of tourists on a raft trip down Tasmania’s Franklin River. Rain falls, and the river is in flood.  Flowing rapidly, the Franklin is more dangerous.  One of the tourists falls overboard and drowns.  Then Aljaz becomes trapped under a rapid, and as he drowns is beset with visions.  It is said that drowning men will see their life flash before them.  But Aljaz’s visions are not confined to his own life, not just a replay of a life about to end.  Aljaz’s visions include the lives of his parents and their ancestors, they also include other aspects of human impact on Tasmania.  Life and death, action and consequence.

‘Slowly people appear around me, faces of people I have never met but about whom I know everything.’

I found this novel both challenging and uplifting.  Challenging because Mr Flanagan manages to describe aspects of Tasmanian history that many of us would prefer to forget or ignore, and uplifting because the language he uses to do this is so rich in imagery. This was Richard Flanagan’s first novel, published in 1994.  While I didn’t like it quite as much as his second novel, ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’, I suspect this is because ‘Death of a River Guide’ makes me far more uncomfortable about the past.  It is not an easy read, but I found it rewarding.

‘A river can grant you visions in an act at once generous and despicable, but even a river like the Franklin in full flood cannot explain everything.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Lightkeeper’s Wife by Karen Viggers

I first read this novel a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it then, I liked it even more this time around.

‘We are all just a breath away from memories.’

Mary Mason is an elderly woman in poor health, living alone in Hobart, Tasmania.  The delivery of a letter acts as a catalyst: she chooses to return to Bruny Island and to memories of her past.  Mary has a decision to make, about a secret she’s kept for decades.  And while she’s considering whether to destroy the letter or pass it on to the person it’s addressed to, she’d rather be on Bruny Island where she once lived as the lighthouse keeper’s wife.  She feels closer to Jack, her long-dead husband, there.

Mary’s three adult children Jan, Gary and Tom and her grand-daughter Jacinta are worried.  Leon Walker, a ranger on the island, has agreed to look in on Mary each day, but the rest of the time she’ll be alone.

The novel alternates between Mary and Tom. Mary has memories and secrets from the past to consider, while Tom has some issues of his own.  Tom’s marriage foundered while he overwintered in Antarctica some years earlier, and he’s yet to find his way back to a happy life.

I first read this novel a few years ago.  I liked the story then, but I liked it much more this time.  What did hold my attention on both reads were the beautiful descriptions of both Bruny Island and of Antarctica.   This time around, I was more caught up in Mary’s struggles and paid more attention to Tom’s story.  This was Ms Viggers’s second novel, I’ve read her third ‘The Grass Castle’ but not yet her first ‘The Stranding’.  It’s on my list.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Tobruk by Peter FitzSimons

‘It was one of those things I suppose …’

In his introduction to this book, Peter FitzSimons writes of how seeing ‘… a framed certificate of some kind, featuring the title Rats of Tobruk Association’ on the wall of the spare room in his aunt and uncle’s home in Tamworth led him to write this book.  I’d heard of the Rats of Tobruk: a family friend was one of the Polish Rats of Tobruk.  But when I picked up this book, I knew very little about Tobruk itself, or its significance.  By the time I finished the book, I had a much better understanding.

Mr FitzSimons approaches Tobruk through the experiences of a handful of individuals.  Before reading this book, I knew that Jack Edmondson had received a posthumous Victoria Cross, but I knew little about the man or his family.  By including Elizabeth Edmondson, Jack’s mother, in the book, Mr FitzSimons broadens the story of the soldier into an account of an only son, close to his mother, a good mate to those who knew him.  Through Mrs Edmondson’s eyes, I get a different view of the cost of war.  There are others whose stories were not known to me, such as John Johnson.  There’s detail as well, about Leslie Morsehead.  And on the other side, Mr FitzSimons includes details about Adolf Hitler and about Erwin Rommel.

This book is written in a series of short sharp bursts: most chapters are short; the focus moves between the key characters.  We might move from Elizabeth Edmondson on her farm outside Sydney, then to Leslie Morsehead (perhaps via letter to his wife Myrtle).  Then we might be with Jack Edmondson in Tobruk, or with John Johnson’s family.  I found this distracting at times, but it kept me reading.  I wanted to know what would happen next.

It took me a while to warm to Mr FitzSimons’s style of writing.  Did the Australian soldiers always refer to British artillery as ‘Pommy guns’?  I suppose that they probably did.  What Mr FitzSimons achieves so successfully in this book is giving the soldiers (on both sides) voices and human faces. He also puts the defence of Tobruk in its World War II context.  I finished the book wanting to know more (especially about the Polish Rats of Tobruk) but feeling that I had a good starting point for any further reading.  I also appreciated the information about the families at home, especially Elizabeth Edmondson and John Johnson’s wife Josie and their children.  Mr FitzSimons used diaries and letters to provide us with glimpses into the lives of both the soldiers and their families.  As one soldier wrote to his mother:

‘I’m proud to be an Aussie. The Hun fights with grim determination, the Tommies fight by number, but the Aussies tear about like kids at a picnic, swearing and laughing the whole time.’

I found this book both interesting and informative.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood

‘Love is stronger than death .’

There are four parts to this novel, as it touches on the lives of Martin and Jocelyn.  The key years are 1963, 1964, 1975 and 1984.

In 1963, Martin and Jocelyn meet, and fall in love.  Jocelyn has a home in the mountains, Martin has a home near a Sydney beach.  While Jocelyn is happy to live with Martin, she doesn’t want to marry.

‘She held out her own hand and put it into his, and he held it fast, and  as she stepped across that gap she knew her childhood was finished.’

Martin is a doctor. Jocelyn has a contract to proofread ‘The Completed Illustrated Encyclopedia of Australia’.  She is halfway through her contract and up to volume six. Those parts of the Encyclopaedia dedicated to Australian fauna particularly interest Jocelyn and inspire her to create a garden.  Martin and Jocelyn are happy together, in their own form of paradise.  And then, Jocelyn receives a letter.  Her older sister Ellen is coming home, bringing her small daughter and is three months pregnant.  Ellen is leaving her husband.

Jocelyn returns to the mountains and, while Martin visits, Jocelyn’s focus on Ellen and her daughter leave little time and space for Jocelyn and Martin.  Ellen decides to return to her husband in the UK, Jocelyn decides to go with her.  She tells Martin.  What happens to two people who are meant to be together but are separated?  The first part of the story occupies the first half of the novel. In the remaining parts of the novel we see first Martin and then Jocelyn as they struggle to find meaning in their lives.  Martin seeks isolation, Jocelyn undertakes a form of pilgrimage.

Years later, Jocelyn returns to Australia and finds a place to establish her garden.  And Martin?

This is one of those beautifully written novels where each word seems to have been perfectly positioned.  I needed to read slowly, to absorb the writing, but wanted to read quickly to find out how it would end.  At various stages I was angry with each of the main characters (and especially with Ellen).  I wanted Martin and Jocelyn to find happiness without some of the painful journeying that each was required to do.  I wanted images of barren desert, an absence of belief (in self) and the sense of desertion replaced with fruitful gardens, with beauty and a sense of belonging.

This is a novel which invites the reader to feel, to experience what Jocelyn and Martin are going through, and to think about why.  It is also a novel which, one day, I will reread.

‘Is a garden always a gift?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


My Home in Tasmania by Louisa Anne Meredith


‘Nine Years in Tasmania ‘

Louisa Anne Meredith (née Twamley) (1812-1895) married Charles Meredith (1811-1880) at Old Edgbaston Church, Birmingham on 18 April 1839.  They arrived in Sydney in September 1839. In 1840, together with their young son, they went to Oyster Bay in Tasmania, where Charles’s father owned an estate named Cambria.  The Merediths bought an adjoining estate, Springvale, and in August 1842 moved into their new home.

Mrs Meredith wrote an account of her life in Tasmania up until February 1850, which was originally published as two volumes in 1852.  In her preface, she writes:

‘The great amount of misconception and the positive misrepresentations relative to the social condition of this colony, now prevalent, not in England only, but wherever the name of Van Diemen’s Land is known, also determined me to enter more into domestic details than otherwise I might have thought it pleasant or desirable to do.’

And it is precisely the detail which makes this book such a delightful read.   Reading Mrs Meredith’s accounts of travel, her observation of the flora and fauna makes me yearn to have a conversation with her.  There’s her account of trying to keep a possum named Willy as a pet.   And a description of the Tasmanian Devil:

‘The “Devil” is the name universally given here to the Dasyurus ursinus, and, as I have never heard  any other appellation applied to this very ugly, savage, mischievous little beast, I must be permitted to use the one hitherto bestowed on it.’

Mrs Meredith writes of convict servants:

‘I have now lived above nine years in the colony, the wife of a “settler”, and the mistress of a “settler’s” home, and during that time we have been served by prisoners of all grades, as ploughmen, shepherds, shearers, reapers, butchers, gardeners, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, shoemakers, house-servants, &c., &c., and (with one or two exceptions) served as well and faithfully as we could desire.’


Her account of George Robinson’s ‘capture of the natives’ reflects the views of the time:

‘The debt of gratitude the colony owes to Mr Robinson can never be overpaid; by his capture of the natives, he saved the lives of thousands of defenceless persons, and was the means of restoring that prosperity to the colony which the accumulating number of murders was fast undermining.’

I may not agree with Mrs Meredith’s views here.

Reading this book led me to read more about the Merediths.  Charles Meredith served in Tasmania’s first House of Assembly, and in a number of colonial offices until 1879.  Louisa Anne Meredith wrote several books: fiction, non-fiction and poetry and won medals for her drawings of wildflowers.  She was also an honorary member of the Tasmanian Royal Society.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Tasmania’s colonial history.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



For anyone looking for more information about Louisa Anne Meredith, this link (which takes you to a .PDF) may be of interest.

Louisa Anne Meredith – Glamorgan Spring Bay Historical Society


Country Houses of Tasmania by Alice Bennett and Georgia Warner

‘Behind the closed doors of our finest private colonial estates.’

Although I grew up in Tasmania and am aware of many of these twenty-five historic homes, the only one I’ve visited is ‘Highfield’.  In 1982 the Tasmanian Government acquired the Highfield property with funds from the National Estate and has carried out extensive restoration works. The Highfield Historic Site is open for public inspection from 9.30am – 4.30pm seven days a week during September to May, and from Monday to Friday between June and August. There are other historic homes in Tasmania, open to the public, but many of the homes included in this book are privately owned. With the permission of the owners, Ms Bennett and Ms Warner have been able to photograph aspects of these properties and include a little of their history.

I’ve dipped into this book a few times since I’ve owned it, but more recently my reading of Louisa Anne Meredith’s ‘My Home in Tasmania’ (first published in 1852) had me looking more closely.  I was delighted to find that ‘Cambria’ was one of the homes included.  ‘Cambria’ belonged to Louisa Ann Meredith’s father-in-law, and is located near Swansea on Tasmania’s east coast.

These homes were built by Tasmania’s early pastoral settlers who, with access to convict labour in the early years, were able to build these imposing mansions.  Tasmania thrived for most of the nineteenth century, and these elaborate Georgian and Victorian mansions reflected the wealth of those who became Tasmania’s landed gentry.

I enjoyed reading about these homes, learning something of their history and admiring the glorious colour photographs.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

‘For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick. To be opened only in the event of my death.’

Cecilia Fitzpatrick is one of the three women at the centre of this novel. Cecelia is one of those amazingly well organised women. She is a successful Tupperware consultant and serves on the P&C at St Angela’s, where her three daughters attend school. Her home is spotless, everything in its place. Until the day Cecelia goes looking for her piece of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall has just replaced the Titanic as her middle daughter Esther’s latest interest. Cecelia’s husband, John-Paul, is the man with a secret. A secret which he was committed to a letter. A letter which he had only ever intended be opened by Cecelia if he was dead. A letter which he’d misplaced. A letter which Cecelia finds while looking for her piece of the Berlin Wall.

The other two women central to this novel are Tess O’Leary and Rachel Crowley. John-Paul’s secret has an impact on all of them. Tess has returned to Sydney (and moved her son Liam to St Angela’s) ostensibly to look after her mother but, in reality, to think about her marriage to Will. It seems like Will has fallen in love with Tess’s cousin Felicity. A situation made more awkward by the fact that the three of them work together. Rachel is an older woman who works at St Angela’s as the school secretary.

So, what is John-Paul’s secret, and how does it impact on the lives of these three women? You’ll need to read the novel to find out. The secret itself is revealed early on, the consequences play out over the balance of the novel.

‘Did one act define who you were forever?’

Ms Moriarty is a gifted story-teller. This novel invites you to wonder about how well you might know your partner, and to think about how you might react in a similar set of circumstances. Some secrets are small and insignificant, others (like this one) are massive and life-changing. And against the backdrop of this huge secret, everyday life continues for the characters.
So how does it end? Can there be a satisfactory ending (or endings) to this story? While sad about one aspect, I really admire the way in which Ms Moriarty pulled it all together.

‘Some secrets are meant to stay secret forever. Just ask Pandora.’

I am working my way through Ms Moriarty’s novels in order of publication. So far I’ve enjoyed each one.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

‘Understanding human behaviour doesn’t make life any easier.’

Joe O’Loughlin receives a call, advising that his father is in hospital in a coma. His wife is by his side. Joe rushes to the hospital to find a strange woman by his father’s side. Who is she? Joe’s parents William and Mary have been married for sixty years: he was a celebrated surgeon, she was a devoted wife and mother. So, who is this woman crying by William’s bedside? Who attacked William O’Loughlin, and why?

While Joe often assists the police in his role as a clinical psychologist, this is not a case he should be involved in. Joe has ordered her from the room, but he is determined to find out more about her. Joe’s investigation, assisted by his friend former policeman Vincent Ruiz, uncovers some uncomfortable truths.

While Joe is trying to find out more about his father’s mysterious double life, he’s dealing with several issues of his own. His twelve-year-old daughter Emma is struggling, and his older daughter Charlie returns home from university to help. Joe is still grieving the loss of his wife and grappling with the increasing impact of Parkinson’s Disease on his life.

The more Joe digs into his father’s past, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile the father he thought he knew with the man he is learning about. There are few twists in this story, and more than a few people with reason to want to harm William O’Loughlin.

What can I say about this novel? I thoroughly enjoyed it and while I thought I’d worked out who injured William O’Loughlin and why, I was wrong.

‘A week ago, my father was the great provider and part of a medical dynasty. Now he’s a bigamist and an adulterer who may never recover his faculties.’

This is the ninth book in Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith