After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

Five essays, reflections on life

In this book, published in 2010, Raimond Gaita revisits the world he writes of in ‘Romulus, My Father’ of the events after the book (and film) were released. There are five essays in this book:

‘A Summer-Coloured Humanism’ about Hora;

‘Character and Its Limits’ and ‘Truth and Truthfulness in Narrative’

Both touch on the philosophical debt he owes his father and Hora;

‘From Book to Film’ is about the making of the film ‘Romulus, My Father’; and

‘An Unassuageable Longing’ is about his mother.

As indicated in his introduction, Mr Gaita wrote these essays at different times, and they have different styles. The five essays are united by Mr Gaita’s search to understand the people he is writing about and to represent them (and their influences) as accurately as he can. While his father Romulus is central to his life, others (especially Hora) were important.

‘It is bitterness rather than pain that corrodes the soul, deforms personality and character and tempts us to misanthropy.’

But these are not simply autobiographical musings about individuals and influences. Mr Gaita invites the reader to think, to reflect on what constitutes truth, on the complexities of existence (especially for those with mental illness). And in the background always is Romulus himself, with his principles of integrity, truthfulness, and ethical behaviour.

I read these essays slowly, from a biographical perspective as well as trying to appreciate some of the philosophical issues raised. When reading ‘An Unassuageable Longing’ I felt for the small child who had such limited opportunity to know his mother. These are essays to read and reflect on, to revisit.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Hush by Sara Foster

Publication date: 27/10/2021

‘The babies demonstrate no signs of pain, and no will to stay in the world.’

Six months ago, in a post pandemic UK, a healthy newborn baby is stillborn. The first of many: close to 1 in 3 pregnancies is ending in stillbirth. Why? Expectant mothers are being closely monitored to see if a cause can be identified.

This is another challenge for the UK, still recovering from the effects of the pandemic and grappling with floods and rising sea levels because of climate change. The government’s response to these issues is to restrict individual freedoms. Citizens are required to wear smart watches, initially to monitor their health and wellbeing during the pandemic, but now the watches monitor an individual’s location, track their spending, and can record their conversations. All of this is supported by new laws passed by the government. And now young pregnant women are going missing. What is happening?

Emma is a midwife, trying to do her best in these difficult circumstances. She’s a single parent: her daughter Lainey is 17. And when Lainey finds herself pregnant, both women are in danger. Emma’s estranged mother Geraldine may be able to help but contacting her has its own risks.

Conspiracy theories abound and social unrest increases. The parents of the missing women are unable, unwilling, or afraid to speak out. And the stillbirths continue.

This is a fast-paced dystopian thriller in which a few heroic women work together to try to uncover the truth. Aspects of this novel are uncomfortably plausible in our current pandemic world, and Ms Foster brings her story to life through well-developed very human characters.

An uncomfortable, engrossing and thought-provoking read.

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

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The Crying Place by Lia Hills

‘How does a man choose where to die?’

Saul, a restless traveller is seeking to settle down when he receives the devastating news that his friend Jed is dead. Saul is in Sydney when he receives the news and sets out for Melbourne where Jed was living when he died. Family and friends want Saul to travel to Hobart for Jed’s funeral, but he cannot bring himself to attend. Instead, after sorting through Jed’s belongings in Melbourne, he sets out on a journey of his own. He has found a photograph amongst Jed’s belongings, of a woman. And Saul believes that if he can find this woman then he may be able to find the truth about Jed’s death.

Saul sets off alone, in his trusty Subaru, for Alice Springs. Here he finds the information he needs to find the woman, Nara, in a remote Aboriginal community. Along the way, Saul remembers Jed, the adventures they shared, and wonders about the mysteries of life and death.

‘A story is like a river. It has a source. It has tributaries, some as far reaching and expansive as memory, others a thin trickle, so tenuous their influx is barely noticed.’

The story moves through beautifully described landscape, into spaces and experiences beyond Saul’s experience. He has with him a copy of ‘Voss’, Patrick White’s metaphysical novel about a man and the woman he secretly loves. Once Saul arrives at his destination, he starts to learn about indigenous culture and folklore, about the different forms of grief, and about family ties. He is following Jed to try to understand his death, but his own journey will lead him to appreciate life differently.

This is a story to read slowly both to appreciate Saul’s journey and the importance of family ties and grief in the community where Saul finds himself. What does home mean for Saul? Is it a place, or a feeling? What can he learn about Jed by meeting with Nara and her extended family?

Saul’s restlessness, his inability to find a place to settle indicates that he does not know where he belongs. While I wonder about Jed, his relationship with Nara and where they each belong, it is Saul’s journey that captured and held my attention. So many questions to consider, amidst the heat, the dust, and the flies.

Grief and loss are universal parts of the human condition, but our reactions are not.

I found this novel incredibly moving, a story I will revisit.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

 ‘Maybe this is it. The sky is too big, the land is too big. Too many places for secrets.’

Finnigans Gap, a fictional mining town in outback New South Wales is the setting for Mr Hammer’s latest novel. The opal mines aren’t quite as productive as they used to be, which has encouraged some miners to go ‘ratting’: stealing opals from the mines of others. And one night, a group of ratters find the crucified body of a miner in his mine. An anonymous call alerts the police. Who killed the miner, and why?

Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lukic is sent from Sydney to investigate. His senior partner, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore is unable to accompany him, and his assistant is Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, who previously worked in Finnigans Gap in uniform. Nell’s experience in the town is helpful, but there is some history as well. And Ivan Lukic has some preoccupations of his own.

There’s more to Finnigans Gap than opal mining. There is a strange religious cult located outside town, a pair of delightfully named billionaire mining magnates throwing their weight around and several involved family dramas. And it is very, very hot.

There are several threads to this story: an internal investigation into Morris Montifore involves Ivan Lucic, Nell’s previous life in the town causes some complications and soon it seems like Ivan and Nell are fighting to save their careers. The more they dig, the more complicated the case seems to become. There are people with longstanding grudges and there is a complicated history to navigate.

I read this novel in one day because I had to know how it would end. While this novel is a standalone, if you have read Mr Hammer’s other novels, you’ll recognise a couple of the characters.

What can I say without introducing any spoilers? This is a complex, well-plotted thriller which held my attention from beginning to end. Each of the twists fits into the narrative perfectly, and elements of the ending left me with a smile.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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None Of Us Alone by Jonathan Shaw

‘This is just to say …’

I have, thanks to Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog | For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature, a copy of this chapbook.

Before I read the poems, I had to remind myself what a chapbook is, and where the term came from. I am easily distracted these days. I read that chapbooks were sold by peddlers known as chapmen. Chap comes from the Old English for trade; therefore, a chapman was a dealer who sold books.

This particular chapbook contains 24 poems covering a variety of different forms and contemporary topics.

Those topics include climate change, some political comments (‘Dear Tony’ indeed) as well as acute observations on life.

I have three favourites in this collection:

’10 March 2020’ which starts:

‘Drought, fire flood, and now this virus.

Covid-19 tops the bill.’

‘This is just to say’ which starts:

‘We walked out of you play last night

from front row seats. We’d hung in there

for five whole scenes.’

And ends:

‘Last night had timing, lines that sing

and sting. It’s heart that wasn’t there.

Sometimes a pause is just dead air.’

And finally,

‘If not now, when?’

With two lines in the middle which have grabbed my attention and taken up residence in my mind:

‘The place was old, and I was new.

I didn’t hear its age-old stories.’

A short collection of poems to read, reflect on and read again.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Mother’s Fault by Nicole Trope

Publication date 15/10/2021

‘Beverley watches Riley spoon cereal into his mouth …’

Beverley is a single mother who is deeply protective of her eight-year-old son Riley. Her boyfriend Ethan is very fond of Riley as well, but when he asks Beverley to marry him, she ends the relationship. As much as she loves Ethan, Beverley has secrets she cannot share with him.

But life for Beverley and Riley becomes complicated when a series of expensive anonymous gifts start turning up for Riley. Beverley has told Riley that his father is dead, but he wonders if he is sending the gifts. Beverley assumes that Ethan is responsible for the gifts but her attempts to contact him are unsuccessful.

We (the readers) know that someone is watching Riley and Beverley, but we don’t initially know who.

Then, late one afternoon while Beverley is preparing Riley’s favourite spaghetti dinner, she looks out the window. She cannot see Riley: he has disappeared from the yard. Where could he be? A check with his friends and around the neighbourhood reveals nothing. Beveley calls the police.

‘What kind of mother loses her child?’

The story unfolds through the eyes of Beverley and Riley’s abductor. There are a couple of twists as we learn the truth about Riley’s parentage and the background of both Beverley and the abductor.

While the story held my attention from beginning to end, aspects of the abductor’s story left me uncomfortable. Perhaps that was Ms Trope’s objective: to remind us that parenting is complex and not all parents are good at it.

‘I thought I had a plan, but all I had was an idea and a wish. That’s not the same as a plan, not at all.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Our Shadows by Gail Jones

‘So who was this old Paddy, dying in Melbourne in 1925?’

In this novel, Ms Jones explores the lives of three generations of a family living in Kalgoorlie. Her story begins with Irish-born prospector, Paddy Hannan who discovered gold in 1893, and ends with the stories of Nell and Frances who were raised by their grandparents Fred and Else when their mother Mary dies in childbirth. Fred, who suffered the horrors of war, was close to Mary and is diminished by her death.

The narrative ebbs and flows: between generations, between past and present, between life and death. Nell and Frances were close as children, both enjoyed Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and had a favourite sentence, which they passed between them:

‘It was not a mere phosphoric phenomenon.’

But as they grew older, Nell and Frances move to Sydney, and they became estranged. Frances is grieving for her husband Will who died from mesothelioma, while Nell struggles with mental health issues. And Else, central in their lives becomes diminished by dementia. And as Else recedes, Frances and Nell want to know more about their past, about the mother they never knew and the father who abandoned them. Their mother’s older sister, their Aunt Enid, is in Kalgoorlie.  Does she hold some of the answers that Frances (particularly) is seeking?

Frances travels to Kalgoorlie, to Jack and Else’s home, where she grew up and where Enid now lives. It is in the (fictitious) Midas Street, close to the Super Pit. Mining overshadows everything, together with the reminder of land expropriated from the original inhabitants.

‘Enid had refashioned their lounge room in the spirit of erasure.’

I became caught up in the story, in the impact of the mines on the different characters. For Paddy, the mines were a source of wealth, for Jack they were a place of refuge from the memories of war. For many others, they were a source of death through accident or disease. And what about those who occupied the land before? As the story unfolds and refolds, our perceptions change as we see different perspectives of the characters.

I finished the novel, sure that I have only understood part of the story Ms Jones is telling. I may have to reread it. This is Ms Jones’s 9th novel. I have not yet read them all.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Dead of False Creek (Journal Through Time Mysteries #1) by Sarah M. Stephen

‘What was the journal a sign of?’

A nineteenth century detective, a twenty-first century archivist and a journal which connects them.

In 1897, Detective Jack Winston is trying to find a missing man. In 2017, Riley Finch is working as a museum archivist in Vancouver, cataloguing police files from the nineteenth century. She comes across Jack Winston’s journal.

The story unfolds in alternate chapters: Jack trying to solve a missing person case which, when a body is found, could be an accidental death or might be murder. And Jack discovers that more than one man has disappeared. Riley is torn between her work as an archivist and a desire to research the cases Jack is investigating. Somehow, the diary enables them to communicate with each other. Neither Jack nor Riley accepts this portal of communication easily but once convinced it works, they embrace it.

Jack is filled with self-doubt. The disappearance of his older brother Ellis has changed his life, and while his family connections have landed him a position as a detective, he wants to prove his worth. Riley’s research in the present provides Jack with some additional information, enabling him to investigate more thoroughly.

I quite enjoyed this novel with its dual storylines and mystery. I wonder if Jack would have (eventually) identified the culprit without Riley’s help? In a neat twist at the end, Riley contacts one of Jack’s descendants.

This is the first book in Ms Stephen’s Journal Through Time Mysteries: the second book is planned for publication in 2022. I am keen to read it.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

If Not Us by Mark Smith

‘Hesse slipped his board into the rack on the side of his bike and swept down the Russell Street Hill.’

Seventeen-year-old Hesse Templeton lives with his mother Imogen at Shelbourne, a small coastal town in Victoria. The town is dominated by an ageing coal-fired power station and a coal mine which are two of the town’s major employers. The power station is for sale. Some members of the community, increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change, would like to see both the coal mine and the power station closed.

Hesse’s mother, Imogen, is a member of the local environmental group lobbying for closure. Hesse’s major interest, outside his weekend work at the surf shop and keeping up with his schoolwork, is surfing (and dodging the town bully). That is until he meets Fenna de Vries, a new exchange student from The Netherlands. Along with his interest in Fenna, Hesse’s awareness of climate issues is growing.

‘He was writing an essay on climate change for English. The more research he’d done, the angrier he’d become.’

But as Hesse knows, closure of the mine and power station will lead to job losses. And those job losses will have a direct effect on some of his friends and their parents. Hesse is initially reluctant to get involved in the campaign but decides that he must make a stand. Fenna encourages him. A protest meeting is arranged, and Hesse agrees to speak:

‘My name’s Hesse, and I’m part of the generation that’s going to have to’—he stopped to clear his throat and swallow hard—to live with the effects of climate change.’

The town divides. Hadron, the owner of the power station has been a supporter of many activities in the town, and job losses loom. A brick is thrown through Imogen’s window, and Hesse is threatened with violence. But footage of the meeting (filmed by Fenna on her ‘phone) is shared to social media and goes viral. Suddenly the issue of the pollution caused by the Shelbourne coal mine and power station is no longer local.

This is a terrific YA novel which deals realistically with the local challenges of climate change. I can imagine how those locals employed by Hadron would feel, and I liked the way the teenagers made their feelings known. There’s a touch of romance as well, and humour, as well as evocative descriptions of surfing.

This is the first of Mr Smith’s novels I have read, and I’ll be seeking out his earlier novels.

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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Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard

‘I followed the nun in a haze of exhaustion.’

Calabria, Italy, 1936. Guilia Tallariti lives with her family (parents and four siblings) in a remote farming village. She dreams of being a healer, like her grandmother, but her father is determined to see each of his three daughters married. Guilia spends some time at a monastery where, unknown to her father, she learns some of the skills of healing with a famous herbalist. But after she returns to the village, she is married at seventeen and then widowed two years later.

Beyond Calabria, Mussolini and his National Fascist Party are in power in Italy and the world is edging towards World War II. Calabria is no longer safe from the fascist agenda of northern Italy and Guilia’s family will be torn apart. Guilia remarries: her husband, father and brother are called up to serve in the armed forces. By now, Guilia is a trusted healer: even her father has accepted her skills.

And after the war, many of those who have survived can no longer make a living on their farms. Many will emigrate.

Ms Blanchard has drawn on her grandfather’s life in writing this novel: deftly drawing history into fiction and enabling the reader to experience the customs of Calabria and the challenges faced. I enjoyed this novel and learned more about the impact of Mussolini and of World War II in this part of Italy. The characters and story held my attention from beginning to end.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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