The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

‘The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland.’

Two hundred years ago, British explorer John Oxley travelled west in Australia looking for an inland sea. He never found it, but myth of an inland sea led others to explore, and some to their deaths.

Now, in the present, John Oxley’s great-great-great granddaughter is drifting. She works as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney answering and directing triple zero calls. In the wider Australian world, disaster follows disaster: heat, flood, tremor, and wildfire. In her world, she drifts between self-destructive behaviours. She (we don’t learn her name) might feel safe in the water, but her world is increasingly unstable.

‘A look of doubt came across my mother’s face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and each the lifebuoys.’

She treats her anxiety by self-medicating with alcohol, by risky encounters, by seeking detachment. If the world is dying, what hope do people have? What will the future look like? Will her happiness be as elusive as the inland sea?

The novel finishes, with our young narrator preparing to flee from Australia. Will she find what she needs?

What an uncomfortable, thought-provoking read this is. I am left wondering …

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Wingmaker by Mette Jakobsen

To be published 3/8/2021.

‘The abandoned hotel comes into view. Derelict, windswept.’

Vega has an ambitious restoration project, and her father Vince has offered her the use of a hotel he has bought. It has plenty of space and will be quiet, which is what Vega needs as she is still recovering from a heart operation. But when she arrives at the abandoned ‘Seafarers’ Hotel’, she finds that she’s not the only resident. The hotel may be abandoned, but it is not totally uninhabited. One of the rooms is occupied by Gunnar, a handyman with some issues of his own, who is apparently undertaking some restoration work, there are canaries in the chandeliers, and occasionally a group of locals use the ballroom for dancing. Vega despairs of finding the peace and quiet she craves, and of making sense of the pieces of marble which constitute the angel’s broken wings.

Rebuilding the angel’s wings is a painstakingly slow process, and Vega makes little headway at first. But as she gradually lets down some of the barriers she has erected, some things become clearer and easier to deal with. Some relationships need to be nurtured; others need to be re-examined. 

And slowly, as the angel is restored, Vega rebuilds her life.

‘It feels as if I’ve spent my whole life letting the tiniest things come between me and other people.’

I enjoyed the quiet contemplative nature of this novel: about love and loss and moving forward.

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

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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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In Her Own Name: A history of women in South Australia from 1836 by Helen Jones

‘An important history of changes.’

This book was first published in 1986, with a second edition in 1994 and this, the third edition, published in 2020. I had earlier read the second edition and have noticed that this edition has grown. Ms Jones starts her history in 1836 and writes of the changes that have helped women move towards equality. We may not be there yet, but we are much closer than we were.

While there are several important changes, the achievement of women’s suffrage in 1894 is perhaps the most important one. This is a fascinating book, a political and legal history filled with personalities, issues, and events. Legal changes usually lag behind social changes, but it is interesting to follow the changes to both marriage and property acts.

Ms Jones documents her history, showing how women were able to develop their lives, assuming roles and responsibilities once considered taboo. While at times I felt overwhelmed by the data, I was fascinated by the personalities involved. Catherine Helen Spence is a particular favourite of mine, and there are plenty of others. Ms Jones also points out that men and women frequently worked together in progressing the rights of women.

While I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of women in South Australia more broadly, I was particularly interested in the period between 1836 and 1901.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis

‘Love sings in any language.’

Contained within the beautiful cover of this book are fourteen short stories. They are linked, sharing common characters and the symbolism of birds. The stories are set in Australia and the Philippines and pay homage to kindness and kinship.

The fourteen short stories are:

Note: I have copied this detail from the Spinifex Press website (The Kindness of Birds — Spinifex Press) because I wanted to include a synopsis of each of the stories so that the links between them can be seen and appreciated.

‘O Beautiful Co-Spirit.’ At a Belconnen funeral parlour, Filipina-Australian Pilar and Malaysian-Australian Farah dress Farah’s deceased lover Lucia, an Italian-Australian, while trying to make peace after a fight over noisy cockatoos. As they lay the dead, both remember rituals from their respective Catholic and Islamic traditions, and their shared belief in kindness for all who pass.

‘When the Crow Turns White.’ During the 2020 hailstorm in Canberra, in the Parliament House courtyard, a crow is injured. The elemental develops into a magical story about grace and kindness that overturn politics and spin, and domestic violence. This event changes the life of Corazon, a Filipina-Australian who cleans the chamber of the House of Representatives with her friend Orla, an Irish-Australian.

‘The Kindness of Birds.’ After the death of her parents, Filipina-Australian Nenita and her Latvian-Australian husband Arvis walk along Lake Burley Griffin comforted by a host of birds real and remembered between Legazpi (Philippines) and Canberra (Australia), especially the orioles who sang to her father as he was dying. This comfort inspires her to believe that ‘She’ll be apples, she’ll be birds.’

‘The Air of the Times.’ In a Manila hotel, poet Remy and sister Belen, a revolutionary, reconnect. Their touchstone is a bottle of Nina Ricci perfume L’Air Du Temps (“The Air of the Times”) with a cap of intertwined doves: a gift from Remy’s friend, 86-year old Werner who just died in Sydney. The German Jew lost his family in the Holocaust. Between his and the sisters’ story of loss and war in the Philippines and Germany, the air of time flows with the hope for peace.

‘Candido’s Revolution.’ In 1800s Broome, indentured ‘Manilamen’ pearl divers, Candido and Francisco, win the lottery and donate their winnings towards buying a printing press that assists the Philippine revolution against colonial Spain. They turn revolutionaries and are executed by the Spanish in 1897. With these historical facts, in 2019 Remy researches Candido’s story in Broome and conjures a love story set in 1893 between Candido and Mary, a Noongar woman. It’s Remy’s way of coming to terms with the assassination of her sister Belen in Manila in 1996. Birds from these different periods hover around the layered storytelling.

‘My Tender Tender.’ At The Roey’s bar in Broome, Nenita and Arvis meet 91-year old Aboriginal Uncle Freddy, a Filipino-Javanese-Yawuru who’s one of the last remaining hard-hat pearl divers of Broome and Darwin. The meeting reveals kinships in story and grief: Nenita’s father has just died at 91.

‘My Father’s Australia.’ It’s the wake of Nenita’s father in Legazpi. In the coffin, he’s dressed in a blue suit that she bought from DJs years ago, so he could fly “looking nice” when he visits her in Australia. The visit never happened. In this story of loss and broken family ties woven across Legazpi, Canberra and Charles de Gaulle airport, Nenita is sustained by remembering kindness, notwithstanding the lack of it.

‘Naming the Flowers.’ After her mother’s funeral, Nenita cleans up the family house in Legazpi. She finds a poem written in her mother’s longhand and the photos of the flowers in her mother’s garden, and those that friends in Canberra gave her after her father died. Between the memory of naming the flowers with her mother in this house and with her friends in Canberra, she tries to name her grief. In her chest, a bird tries to fly out.

‘The Sleep of Apples.’ As the bushfires rage in New South Wales and Victoria, friends Nenita and Ella drive around Tasmania after not seeing each other for more than ten years. Amidst ripening apple orchards and Tassie’s irrepressible birds, they remember Robert, Ella’s ex-husband and Nenita’s friend, who hanged himself in early 2000. This unresolved loss threads other losses across the Philippines, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and the US with a restorative idyll in Penang.

‘My Love, My Nerūsē.’ COVID-19 lockdown. Nenita and Arvis affirm “kindness both ways” in relation to their histories of loss and the ongoing grieving around the world, as weebills visit the cedars outside their apartment. Nerūsē: “does not rust”, like love from Latvia to Australia, the Philippines and around the world.

‘Singing Back.’ Filipino international student Andres, an indigenous Agta from Bikol, is doing a PhD on Avian-Human Kinship at the Australian National University. He’s a casual cleaner at a Canberra hotel where he meets receptionist Sinéad, an Environmental Science student at University of Canberra. Both just lost their jobs (COVID lay-offs) when Andres learns that grandmother in the Philippines is sick with COVID. As they have their last lunch together in Haig Park, Andres’ family history on the slopes of Mayon Volcano is revealed as intertwined with his PhD on birds. The revelations weave with their “almost love story”.

‘Grandma Owl.’ Filipina-Australian Luningning and her six-year- old grandson Victor are self-isolating in Wollongong after returning from the Philippines on a flight with a COVID case. They survive the quarantine with the help of Matilda, their Chilean-Australian neighbour, and a collection of owls. But Luningning is trying to survive something deeper: her unresolved grief over the death of Victor’s father.

‘Angels.’ COVID time. Nenita is diagnosed with cancer. This is her cancer journey amidst the kindness of nurses, doctors, carers, and birds — angels all!

‘Ode to Joy.’ Nenita re-traces her vexed life in Wollongong in the 90s that leads to her breakdown and aborted suicide. Her memories are threaded by the constancy of water, birds, and kindred souls from different places and cultures — all that kept her alive and returned her to joy.

Each of these stories spoke to me, but my absolute favourite was ‘Grandma Owl’.

‘Kindness cannot self-isolate. It moves both ways and all ways, like breath.’

I borrowed a copy of this book initially to read, but I will be buying my own copy. I loved much of the imagery and the connectedness of these stories.

And my thanks, to Lisa for her review The Kindness of Birds, by Merlinda Bobis | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, which led me to read this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar

‘The last time I saw my mum alive, she was vibrant.’

In March 2015, Amani Haydar’s father killed her mother, Salwa Haydar. He also injured his youngest daughter, Ola, during his frenzied attack. Pregnant with her first child, Amani had to go to the Kogarah Police Station to give a statement. Her father had turned himself into the police.

Why did Haydar Haydar kill his wife of 28 years, the mother of his four children? While the Haydars had recently separated after an unhappy marriage, Amani recalled that while her parents had fought a lot, her father had never bashed her mother.

In this memoir, Ms Haydar writes of her family’s experiences of war in Lebanon, of her parents arranged marriage, of her grandmother’s brutal killing during the 2006 war. Culture and context are important, as is the complexity of intergenerational trauma.

In the six years that have passed since Salwa Haydar was murdered, Ms Haydar has reassessed what she knew of her parents’ relationship, and the different faces and layers of domestic violence. She wonders if she should have realised earlier that her mother was at risk? There may not have been an history of what she recognised as physical domestic violence but there certainly was of emotional abuse and of coercive control.

How can Ms Haydar’s book be both terribly sad and tremendously uplifting? How can anyone move beyond the trauma of losing two parents to looking for ways to make a difference for others as well as for herself? And, importantly, how does Ms Haydar negotiate the ‘othering’ experienced when negative stereotypes (both in relation to domestic violence and to Muslims) are applied? Ms Haydar and her sisters have also had to deal with being ostracised and abused by family members who support her father.

‘Storytelling cracks the crust of shame imposed on victims and shifts the burden to where it rightfully belongs: spitting and smouldering in the palms of the abuser.’

This is a difficult book to read, and I admire Ms Haydar’s courage in confronting so many issues to write it. There is despair here and grief. There is also hope, support, strength, and resilience. Ms Haydar invites us to look at the stereotypes of victims as well, reminding us that it is okay to be angry. Ms Haydar recounts the trauma of her father’s trial, with its victim-blaming and false accusations against her mother.

In 2018, Ms Haydar had an entry in the Archibald Prize. Her painting is a self-portrait in which she holds a photograph of her mother, who holds a photograph of her own mother. I find this moving and uplifting. Three strong women, together.

This is not an easy book to read, but it is important. Highly recommended.

‘We are in a process of breaking cycles, and we are imperfect.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Painting by Alison Booth

‘The painting stands for home. And you gave it to me.’

Anika Molnar flees from her home country of Hungary to Australia just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. She cannot take much with her, but her father insists that she take a painting: a small portrait of an auburn-haired woman in a blue dress. Her father tells her that the painting belongs to her Aunt Tabilla in Sydney. Anika moves in with her aunt and the painting, which her aunt gifts her, is hung on her bedroom wall.

Neither Tabilla nor Anika know much about the painting. They do not know who it represents or who painted it. So, when an opportunity arises to take it to Art Gallery of New South Wales to learn more about it including whether it is genuine or a forgery, Tabilla is keen for Anika to do so. The curators are interested in the painting but want to know more about its provenance. They think it might be a work by French Impressionist Antoine Rocheteau.

Anika takes the painting to a gallery owner, an old friend of Tabilla’s, for advice. His reaction is strange and sudden, and he questions ownership of the painting. Anika is perplexed and takes the painting home. Not long after, the painting is stolen from Anika’s bedroom wall. It seems, from the press coverage after the theft, that the painting is valuable.

Thus begins an intriguing journey. What is the story behind the painting? How could Anika’s family have afforded such a painting? Who took it from Annika’s wall, and why? Anika’s quest for answers will take her into her family history, into Hungary’s turbulent past. Anika has an opportunity to return to Hungary and she does so to try to find answers.

Anika’s quest will not be easy. Sydney and Budapest represent different worlds: many in Sydney are there having fled the past whereas those in Hungary are surrounded by it. The need to survive with an inherent mistrust in authority can result in uncomfortable choices and secrets.

I kept reading, wondering how this story would end, thinking about the choices people made and wondering what I would do in similar circumstances. And the ending? It was perfect.

This is Ms Booth’s sixth novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the Jingera trilogy (‘Stillwater Creek’, ‘The Indigo Sky’ and ‘A Distant Land’) and will add ‘A Perfect Marriage’ and ‘The Philosopher’s Daughters’ to my reading list.

Note: My thanks to Ms Booth and RedDoor Press for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Lily’s Little Flower Shop by Lisa Darcy

 ‘I’d forgotten how to breathe and observe. I’d forgotten how to sit quietly and just … be.’

Lily’s living in Sydney with her boyfriend Matt. She is in line for a promotion and is looking forward to it. Except … the promotion is awarded to someone else. That same day, Matt is offered a job overseas and assumes that Lily will be happy to accompany him. And Lily’s mum Daisy is certainly pushing her to go.

But Lily wants a change. Impulsively, she decides to resign from her job, to move to coastal New South Wales near her Aunt Iris and establish a flower shop. Lily completed a floristry course years ago, and she used to help her Aunt Iris in the flower shop she once owned. This is a big move for Lily, and one with its own set of challenges. Can Lily find a place in this small close-knit coastal community? Do she and Matt have a future? And importantly, how will Trouble the rabbit settle in?

Lily works hard and she enjoys her work, but she has financial issues as well as a few unresolved personal issues to deal with. She is making friends in Clearwater, but not everyone is friendly. And Matt still wants to be part of her life, which complicates matters when Lily meets Ben, the owner of a local winery. And there’s Andy, a nice man with a few challenges of his own.

I really enjoyed this novel, which I picked up after reading another review. It is light-hearted in places while dealing with some sensitive issues including domestic violence and mental health. There are some lovely characters and one or two villains as well.

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson by Leah Purcell

‘And there is no one here who cares for her opinion. She’s just a woman.’

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the heart of Australia’s alpine region, Molly Johnson lives with her four surviving children. Her husband Joe is a drover and is away for months at a time. Molly’s eldest son Danny, just turned twelve, is effectively the man of the house. Molly has another child due soon and is trying to make the necessary preparations. Life is tough: the Johnsons are isolated, but Molly often finds it easier when Joe is not around. Her children are important to her, and she looks after them as well as she can.

‘Joe Junior would ask, ‘Tell us those trials and triboolations, ‘ is how he would say it, ‘Ma, please?’ He’s heard them stories many times – they all have. But that’s what life stories are for: to be told and retold.  To remember. The memories livin’ on long after you’re gone. Family history.’

And in Britain, Louisa and Nate Clintoff are preparing to travel to Victoria to establish a new life with their son Samuel. Nate is to provide the police presence in the town of Everton in the same alpine region where the Johnsons live. Louisa is keenly interested in the rights of women.

Two quite different families whose lives will intersect, first when by chance and then through tragedy.

In preparation for childbirth, Molly sends the younger children away to Everton to be cared for. Danny will return to help her. But before he returns, Molly has a visitor. His name is Yadaka, an Aboriginal man. He is wounded and on the run from authorities. He helps Molly, and she provides him with shelter.

All these threads will be drawn together.  A prosperous white family has been murdered, and Yadaka is seen as a suspect. Prejudice seems more important than evidence. Molly learns some history from Yadaka but struggles to accept it. And then Nate Clintoff arrives, looking for Joe Johnson.

And so, we have a story with the unsettling ingredients of violence and poverty, the subservient roles of women and Aboriginal people, and secrets. Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ provides a starting point for Ms Purcell’s novel (and her earlier play of the same title) but her story evolves far beyond Lawson’s short story.  There are uncomfortable twists, reminders of prejudice and inequality, and of what people are driven to, sometimes, to survive.

Louise Clintoff seemed a little too modern at times, with her talk of global economic depression (page 23) and could Molly really have known about hormones in 1893 (page 18)? And we had no senators before federation in 1901. But while anachronistic, these are relatively minor points which (while they should have been picked up in editing) did not interfere with my appreciation of the story.

‘A life’s story untold is a life not lived, missus.’

I recommend this novel to anyone who would like to revisit some of the legends we Australians tell ourselves about the past.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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