A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline by Glenda Guest

‘Time was cut, dried, and nailed to the wall of the tiny wooden railway office.’

Cassandra (Cassie) Aberline has been estranged from her family for over forty years. But her recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia has her thinking of the past, of why she left Western Australia for New South Wales. Cassie undertakes a journey by train: back to the Indian Ocean from the Pacific, on the Indian Pacific. There’s an urgency to this journey, a journey Cassie needs to make while she still can, before she loses more of herself to Alzheimer’s. There’s a promise Cassie made to someone, before she left Western Australia, and a package she was given. While we find out, early in the story, what the parcel contains, it takes much longer to get to the promise. Cassie’s physical journey to Western Australia takes time, which enables her to remember aspects of the past mainly through different memories of her life on the east coast:

‘Do these memories tell Cassie anything new about herself? Do they reveal what needs revealing? Of course not—they come too late in the story of her life, and are all about doing, reaching, achieving, and, of course, concealing—mainly concealing. They show her only the mask she had donned, on that first long journey from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, and had never taken off. With me, what you see is what you get. How often has she said it —to her colleagues, to her students? It is a lie, but one she considers true.’

Who is Cassie Aberline? Cassie has been an actor, and a drama teacher at university. Her specialty is Shakespeare. What from her past is important, and why? There’s unfinished business in Cassie’s life, a need to revisit the past to try to determine whether leaving was the right thing to do. If she wasn’t right, then Cassie wants to (somehow) make amends. But this need to put things right is less about the people Cassie left behind than it is about making sense of events and actions to determine what was truth. This is about Cassie’s understanding: her memory of life with her sister and father especially after her mother died, of her close relationship with the Blanchard family on the neighbouring farm.

‘She is trying to understand herself, the life she has created, but all she has to work with are disconnected fragments—half-remembered lines from long-ago scenes she can barely recollect. That is all the malevolent magic of memory allows.’

I picked this novel up after reading a review by a fellow book blogger. I am glad I did: I read it over two days as I could hardly bear to put it down. I was caught up, both in Cassie’s physical journey across Australia and in the journey through her mind as she tried to understand a life and memories that she thought she’s left behind. Life is never simple. Memories are never perfect, even when they are accessible.

‘The mind is a false creation, Mary says, and it’s not always true to us. We can’t worry about what is, or what is not. We just have to be who we are at the time.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

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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

A Map of the Gardens by Gillian Mears

‘Not even the old dog likes Alyssa, the second wife.’

In this collection of eleven short stories published in 2002, Gillian Mears explores illness and death. She also explores transitions through different life phases: the strong become weak, frail as Ms Mears herself did in her battle with multiple sclerosis before her death in 2016.
I read these stories slowly, sure that I was missing aspects of the messages contained within but certain that each story needed to be read more than once. My favourite story, on this first reading, was ‘The Friendship Garden’:

‘The day of the Friendship Garden’s virtual end, Muriel came into the kitchen as if she’d never gone silly.’

Muriel Reilly, suffering from dementia, is blessed with a lucid day. And on that day, with her husband Ron’s help, she removes plants from her garden. These were plants she’d accepted (it was a friendship garden) but no longer enjoyed or perhaps in some cases never liked at all. Muriel’s friendship garden had become a burden, a trap, an overwhelming obligation. How many of us become trapped in similar ways?

My least favourite story was ‘Sad Quarrion’. Dr Pagent Took may love his trees, but it is not enough. I am uncomfortable in his story. He may be trapped, but I feel no empathy for him or his situation. It’s my least favourite story because of the way it makes me feel, not because it is told any less well than the other stories in this collection. Ms Mears had a gift for developing an extraordinary story from what are sometimes quite ordinary situations.

I will reread these stories in future, but not yet. I want to read Ms Mears’s other collections of short stories first, and I’ve yet to read ‘The Mint Lawn’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen

‘First person is a very narrow and limiting point of view.’

A five-part novel, with five different narrators. The stories are linked: the last narrator, Liv has a role in each part of the novel. Where to begin? This is erotic literature, and sex is prominent and explicitly described. Each character has a different role, along a spectrum of sexual experience and identity. And it’s that exploration of identity, of the limiting expectations of gender that kept me reading. Caspar, in Part 1, experiences sex from the perspective of Liv, with whom he’d had a sexual relationship. It’s a very different perspective from his own. Each part of the novel introduces a different character: a convicted paedophile; a synthetic boy; L who is in transition to a state beyond gender; and Liv. I kept reading, wondering. Wondering about the role of gender, experiences of sex, and just how fictional the world of this novel is. Wondering about possibility, and what makes me uncomfortable and why.

By the end of this novel, Liv is 129 years old. Somehow, that length of life seems entirely possible in Ms Kneen’s world, as does the medical and scientific possibility she introduces. While I found this novel an uncomfortable read in parts, I admire the way in which Ms Kneen invites the reader to think about aspects of sexuality which we generally do not discuss.

‘Maybe I’m too old for all this after all. I don’t know how to tell anyone’s story without gendered pronouns.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton

‘The suitcase washed up on the North Shore in the early hours of Saturday morning, 17 November 1923.’

When opened, the suitcase reveals the body of a dead infant. A baby girl. This baby was just one of many infants (abandoned or dead) turning up all over Sydney: in the Harbour, on trains, in other places. But the difference between this baby and so many others is that her mother was tracked down and tried for murder. In this book, Ms Brotherton writes about this specific case and the trial of Sarah Boyd (the baby’s mother) and her friend Jean Olliver for the baby’s murder.

No, it is not fiction. This is a true story and represents a social tragedy. If Sarah Boyd had not been identified, her daughter would have been just another statistic of infanticide. Because Sarah was identified, tried and found guilty, the focus was on her crime. Should part of that focus have also been on what led Sarah to murder her daughter? Would it have made any difference? I suspect it was much easier to condemn Sarah for her actions than it was to try to understand how murdering her daughter could seem to be the best solution to the situation Sarah found herself in.

I found this a difficult book to read. Made more difficult because the story is complex, because the murdered baby was not the only victim, and because I find it difficult to move beyond an abhorrence of infanticide. And while I was thinking about Sarah Boyd’s poverty, her desire to belong and to have her own place in society I was reminded of how hypocritical society can be. Sarah Boyd was unfortunate on so many levels. There were very few options available to her, and while that does not justify the murder of her baby it does make it possible to understand why she felt she had no other choice.

What can I say about this book? Ms Bretherton has presented this complex, difficult case well. It’s more than the story of Sarah Boyd and her daughter, it’s a focus on the contradictions of life in the 1920s. Beneath the frenetic glitter and apparent glamour of the 1920s, many struggled in poverty. And pregnant, unmarried women often had both poverty and prejudice to contend with.

I finished this book, wondering about how Sarah Boyd’s life ultimately ended. Sarah had a son as well, Jimmie, born before her daughter. Jimmie was also a victim in this tragic case. I wonder, too, how much society has progressed in the last century.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

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

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