From the opening sentence, this novel held my attention:
‘In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.’
It didn’t take me long to appreciate why Alice might want to set her father on fire: Clem Hart is an abusive, violent man who controls Alice and her mother Agnes. When tragedy strikes the Hart family, Alice is sent to live with her paternal grandmother: June. Because Clem was estranged from his mother, Alice did not know her. Imagine: a nine-year-old child, having to move away from the place she knew as home, to live with a grandmother she did not know existed. I kept reading. June Hart farms Australian native flowers, with the help of a group of women known as the Flowers. Each of the Flowers has her own story, and we’ll learn some of them. It’s a supportive environment for Alice, who grows to adulthood learning about the language of flowers. There’s a future for Alice, if she wants it, running the farm.
‘Speaking through flowers had become the language she most relied on.’
But life is complicated, and Alice leaves the farm and makes her way into the central Australian desert. Will she find what she’s looking for? Is it a place she needs, or simply the time and space to remember? Each chapter is linked to a native flower, each flower is significant in Alice’s journey.
‘Trust your story. All you can do is tell it true.’
I’d like to write more about the story, but my descriptions and interpretations could well spoil a first time read. I found it difficult to put this book down and yet I had to sometimes in order to try to integrate what I’d read. I wanted Alice (and June) to make different choices at times: I wanted the road to be less tortuous, the choices to be simpler. I wanted Alice not to have to repeat mistakes to learn from them. In short, Alice got under my skin in a way that few fictional characters do. I finished the novel wanting more, but confident that Alice had found her own way.
This is Ms Ringland’s first novel: I hope it is the first of many.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. The cover and internal illustrations by Edith Rewa Barrett are beautiful and I’ll be buying my own copy of this novel.
‘I told meself this was the best day of me life .’
Jackson (‘Jaxie’) Clackton is a survivor. He’s survived his mother’s death and he wishes his father was dead too. In the meantime, he tries his best to keep out of his father’s way. One day he goes home to find that he really is alone. Jaxie panics. He knows that there is one person in his world who understands him, but he’ll have to travel across some inhospitable parts of Western Australia to find her. Jaxie grabs a few items and heads off. Can he survive? Will he make it to his destination?
Jaxie has learned not to trust anyone and not to rely on anyone. He has learned the power of violence. Jaxie is impulsive, insular and isolated. He’s confident (sometimes) but vulnerable. As I travelled with Jaxie through the heat and the dust, searching for food and water I wondered how he would survive. I wondered whether Jaxie’s survival mattered, whether the rough teenager could become anything other than a violent man. Could his experiences gentle him in some way? We kept travelling. Me, worrying as parents should, him focussed on his destination. It’s brutal, confronting stuff. Jaxie is not likeable, but I’d like to think that he’s not beyond redemption. Yet.
What happens next? You’ll need to read the book to find out. Tim Winton’s words are much better than mine. I read this novel quickly, wanting to know what would happen next, wanting to intervene. Just wanting. I finished the novel hoping that Jaxie would find what he needed, knowing that want and need are very different things, and that abused children so often become abusive adults. I found this an uncomfortable novel to read because Jaxie emerged from the pages as a fully realised person. And I despair.
‘He saw me coming before I knew I was even there .’
‘In the process of remembering, I discovered that memories draw on both reality and imagination to recreate the dramas that make up what remains of our past.’
In 1972, Paula Keogh meets Michael Dransfield while both are patients in the psychiatric ward (known as M Ward) of the Canberra Hospital. Paula is both delusional and grief-stricken. Her close friend Julianne Gilroy had died in a Sydney psychiatric institution in 1968. Michael is being treated for drug addiction. Michael and Paula fall in love. They find a safe space, hidden from the world, under one of the willow trees lining Lake Burley Griffin near the hospital. This is the ‘Green Bell’ of the title.
‘When I was a small child, I knew that another world existed beyond the one I was familiar with.’
Paula finds a less fractured self, while Michael is inspired to write more of his poetry. Together, in the comparative safety of the Canberra Hospital’s M Ward, they plan for a future together.
This memoir is an account of the brief period (less than two years) that Paula and Michael had together. It’s an account of madness, from the perspective of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffering from hallucination, lost in delusion, revisited some forty years later. It’s an account of optimism, of two vulnerable but kindred spirits briefly sharing a path.
I found this memoir unsettling: I have my own recollections of psychiatric institutions during the 1970s, my own ghosts to settle. I also found this memoir uplifting: Paula Keogh has survived and made a life for herself. It must have been difficult for her to return to 1972, to these memories and the associated pain. I moved to Canberra in 1974 and am familiar with the Canberra Ms Keogh describes, and some of the poets named. I can visualise ‘The Green Bell’ and remember M Ward. And as I move through those memories, I think I need to revisit some of Michael Dransfield’s poetry, now that I have a deeper understanding of the circumstances in which it was written.
‘Listening to this concerto, I come to understand madness in a new way. In one of its guises, madness is bondage to a reality that’s insular and personal. It offers you the kind of truth you see when you’re in pieces: a broken, defeated sort of truth.’
‘Lane & Co. think they have a portrait of a pretty but unknown girl by an unknown artist.’
An unsolved murder is at the centre of this accomplished debut novel by Katherine Kovacic. In the early hours of 21 November 1930, Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean was brutally murdered in a laneway in Elwood, Melbourne. Molly was a young teacher and an aspiring author.
While the novel re-imagines events leading up to Molly’s murder, Ms Kovacic starts her novel by working back from the discovery of a painting in 1999. Alex Cole is an art dealer who believes she has found a painting of Molly Dean by her lover, artist Colin Colahan. Alex buys the painting, knowing that it will be worth considerably more once she can have it restored and establish its provenance. Alex’s path leads her to the daughter of the detective who investigated Molly’s murder in the 1930s.
The story unfolds over two timeframes: Molly’s in 1930, and Alex’s in 1999. In Molly’s world, we are reminded of the restrictions that applied to most women trying to make their own way in the world. We also get a glimpse of the bohemian lifestyle of some in the art world at the time. In Alex’s world, we see a different perspective of the art world almost seventy years later: restorations, valuations, establishing provenance.
But Alex wants to find out more about the painting, about what happened to Molly. And there are certainly many inconsistencies and some curious aspects to the investigation undertaken in the 1930s. And in the present? Someone else is also after the painting of Molly.
At the end of the novel, Ms Kovacic provides a set of author’s notes distinguishing fact from fiction. I was grateful for those notes (and glad I read them at the end of the novel). Why at the end? Because I didn’t need to differentiate fact from fiction until the end. In my reading, most of Ms Kovacic’s novel was entirely plausible and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Bonnier Publishing Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.
Australia is now undergoing its third great wave of population growth, putting pressure on infrastructure, services and the environment. During the past two waves of growth, in the late-19th and mid-20th centuries, cities implemented visionary responses. It’s largely because of these past phases of planning and investment that our cities have until now been able to sustain their liveability and a reasonably healthy natural environment.
A third wave of planning and investment in open space and green infrastructure is now needed to underpin liveability as our cities grow. The past offers important lessons about what made Melbourne, in particular, so liveable.
Can we repeat the leadership of yesterday?
In the early 19th century, European settlers ignored and displaced the Indigenous knowledge and connections with country. What grew in their place were initially little more than shambolic frontier towns.
In the Port Phillip colony, the gold rush, the subsequent population and property booms and the lack of city services led to Melbourne gaining an international reputation as “Smellbourne”.
But then, over several decades, visionary plans set aside a great, green arc of parklands and tree-lined boulevards around the city grid.
Melbourne constructed one of the world’s earliest sewerage systems. The forested headwaters of the Yarra River were reserved for water supply. Melbourne is today one of a handful of major cities in the world drawing its natural water supplies from closed catchments.
And so, together with profound social and cultural changes, the shambolic frontier town transformed into “Marvellous Melbourne”. Sydney and Australia’s other capital cities followed similar trajectories.
Then came the world wars and intervening Great Depression. These were times of austerity and sacrifice. Remarkably little investment in open space and green infrastructure occurred over these decades.
The 1956 Melbourne Olympics was perhaps the event that signalled the awakening from that somewhat bleak period. It was again time for optimism and vision, with the post-war population boom well under way.
The 1954 Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme reflected this growing optimism and highlighted the potential for a network of open spaces across the rapidly expanding city. But it took time to build momentum for its implementation.
By the 1970s sprawling development had virtually doubled the metropolitan area of Melbourne. Services such as the sewerage system had not kept up. The Yarra and other waterways and Port Phillip Bay were becoming grossly polluted. There was community pressure to tackle pollution caused by industry and unsewered suburbs.
The city’s planners revived the earlier vision for Melbourne’s open space network, along with the idea of green wedges and development corridors. Greater prosperity and community expectation secured the investment needed to deliver it.
The 1971 metropolitan plan identified open-space corridors for waterways including the Yarra. Land began to be acquired to build this green network and the trail systems that connect it. Victoria became known as the “Garden State” in the 1970s.
This period stands out as the city’s second great wave of visionary planning and investment. It created the wonderful legacy of a world-class network of open space, much of it around waterways and Port Phillip Bay.
Where to today?
Sustaining or improving urban liveability is a massive challenge. It calls for a new vision and a commitment by governments to deliver it over many decades. Do we have policies and institutions capable of doing this?
Rather than “shaping” our cities, many state institutions are dominated by cost and efficiency goals that drive a “city servicing” mindset.
Melbourne, for instance, is in danger of exhausting the legacy of the last “city shaping” phase of visionary planning and investment. This all but ended in the 1980s.
By 1992, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works had been abolished. It once had responsibility for town planning, parks, waterways and floodplain management as well as water and sewerage services. It used the Metropolitan Improvement Fund (raised from city-wide property levies) to plan and deliver the city’s green infrastructure, including land acquisitions.
Where is the equivalent capability today? Our practitioners have the knowledge, skills and understanding to better plan for complex city needs, but this is not enough to shape a better future for coming generations. Without a vision and effective policies and institutions to deliver it, we risk ad hoc and wasteful decision-making and investment. The result will be poorer community well-being and less economic prosperity.
The entrenched cost-efficiency or “city servicing” mindset is an all-too-narrow and short-term policy setting in an era of unprecedented urban population growth.
Expanding suburban fringes will lack amenity and a healthy environment, which may entrench disadvantage. Existing suburbs also need to improve quality, access and connectivity of public open space.
Green streetscapes, open space and tree cover are important for amenity. This includes countering urban heat in a warming climate. Co-ordinated investment in green infrastructure can also unlock new economic opportunities for our cities.
But, as the past has shown, little will happen without an effective city-shaping capability. Significant policy and institutional reforms, guided by a new vision, are essential to ensure a healthy environment, community well-being and the liveability and prosperity of our cities for decades to come.
Alternatively, we may find ourselves tumbling down the ranks of world’s most liveable cities. Our best and brightest will be drawn to greener pastures while the world asks in astonishment, “How did they let that happen?”
Thanks to Selena Gomez and Dr House, most of us have heard of lupus. But most of us don’t know what it is, and until recently, none of us were sure whether stress could be a risk factor.
The simplest way to understand lupus is “your immune system gone wrong”.
We have evolved powerful immune systems to detect, attack, and destroy invading microbes. But if the immune system makes an error in the “detect” stage – incorrectly recognising some part of us as foreign – it will attack it with all of the tools at its disposal.
This self-directed, or “auto”-immunity, is the basis of countless diseases, from juvenile diabetes to multiple sclerosis. But unlike those examples, in which the immune system attacks just one tissue, in lupus all tissues of the body can be targeted.
This can mean anything from a rash and arthritis to the immune system disrupting the function of the brain, heart, and kidney. Some sufferers may have minor symptoms such as tiredness and joint pain that resolves within a few months, but for some the disease can last for years and require transplantation of damaged organs.
These symptoms can arrive in any order at any time, and cause a severe loss of quality of life and reduction in life expectancy. As lupus mostly affects young adult women, the impact of this is great.
Why does this happen?
We are much closer now to being able to answer this question, thanks in part to being able to analyse gene expression in people with the disease.
We know from genetic studies that at least some risk of lupus is inherited from our parents, but we also know that inheritance explains only a fraction of the risk of getting lupus. So other factors must contribute.
It now appears that a large subset of lupus patients’ disease is caused by mechanisms the immune system normally uses to combat viruses. The immune system produces virus-fighting hormones (called “cytokines”) such as interferon – which activates the production of antibodies and destructive inflammation intended to kill the infection. When this happens by error, and is directed at the self, tissue inflammation and damage occur.
Current treatments are limited to non-specific immune suppressant drugs “borrowed” from other diseases such as arthritis, and drugs used to stop an organ recipient’s body rejecting the donor organ. Although life-saving in many cases, these drugs have major side effects and don’t control all patients’ disease.
As a rheumatologist I treat patients in hospital with musculoskeletal diseases and autoimmune conditions. A patient of mine suffering from lupus had, some time prior to diagnosis, been the victim of an assault, which caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This case posed to me, and more importantly to the patient, the question of whether stress could have led to the development of lupus. Until recently this question has been effectively unanswerable.
A new study looked at data reporting on the association of trauma and PTSD with the incidence of lupus. It found that PTSD was associated with a nearly threefold increase in risk of subsequently developing lupus.
A past history of trauma, regardless of carrying a PTSD diagnosis, was associated with a similar threefold increase in the risk of lupus.
These findings confirm a previous study of ex-service personnel, in which PTSD was both disturbingly prevalent and also a powerful risk factor for the development of autoimmune diseases, including lupus.
The association of stress and the immune system dates back to the 1930s, when pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye found that there are distinct changes in the body in response to a threat. The term “stress” was also attributed to Selye, albeit coined much later.
Crucially, Selye also observed that stress results in disturbances in steroid hormone production. As we now know, the body’s naturally occurring steroids act through the same pathway as steroid drugs used to treat lupus. This provides a possible mechanism for the connection between stress and the control of immunity.
Intriguingly, some organ manifestations of lupus, such as severe skin or blood disease, are notoriously resistant to steroids, and recent laboratory studies suggest interferon activation in lupus may be responsible for this steroid resistance. Thus, stress, changes in steroid production, and failure to suppress interferons may represent a chain of events influencing the development of lupus.
So this new study means we’re a little less unsure about the causes of auto-immune diseases. And while sufferers can’t change past life events, knowing the causes brings us closer to understanding, and to better treatments.
‘As life briefly changes purpose, so do the rules by which we live.’
In each of the ten short stories contained in this book, individuals need to make difficult choices. A husband, desperate to keep his wife, makes a deal he knows is morally wrong. A collector chooses a priceless work of art knowing that a life will be lost. A man meets a woman and is so desperate to know about her past that he destroys any prospect of a shared future. At her father’s funeral, a woman reflects on the past, on relationships, on inner lives and memories, on a mask. A woman revisits the past, and then rushes to (re)join the real world.
Each story is self-contained, but I found invitations in some of them to think about the different choices characters could have made. The shortest of these stories has fewer than ten pages, the longest is just over thirty pages. And, as I removed myself from each of the different situations, I thought about the skill involved in creating ten quite different situations. Sometimes choices seem clear, but somehow, they are not. With a few deftly chosen words, Mr Swinbourne creates complications.
Stories to read, think about, and perhaps to reread.