I’ll Leave You With This by Kylie Ladd

‘At first he thinks it’s fireworks, a quiet popping in the distance.’

Ms Ladd’s novel deals with some complex issues including family relationships and organ donation.  There were five children in the O’Shea family: Allison, Bridie, Clare, Daniel, and Emma. Both of their parents are dead. Allison is a busy obstetrician, trying to balance work with the demands of her young family. Bridie, a prizewinning film director, is looking for her next directing opportunity. Clare is devasted when her wife leaves her after their latest IVF failure, while Emma finds that her church fills the loneliness in her life. And Daniel? His life was tragically cut short.

After Daniel is killed, the sisters drift apart. Over lunch on the third anniversary of Daniel’s death, Clare suggests tracing the recipients of the organs harvested after Daniel’s death. While such contact is not encouraged, it is possible.

Allison is not in favour of the idea and Bridie is, initially at least, indifferent. That is until she considers its potential as a documentary. Emma is happy to support Clare, but only Daniel’s former lover, Joel, is enthusiastic.

As the story unfolds from the different perspectives of the sisters, we learn more about each of them, their relationships with each other and the issues they face. We also learn about Daniel’s beloved dachshund John Thomas. Poor John Thomas. He’s been looked after by different sisters since Daniel’s death, but he’s not really become part of anyone’s family.

This is a terrific, thought-provoking novel. We meet some of the recipients of Daniel’s organs and learn how their lives have changed. I particularly enjoyed the way that Ms Ladd made each of her characters real and individual.

‘It’s possible up to twenty individuals have had their lives changed by Daniel’s generosity’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Fire and the Rose by Robyn Cadwallader

‘Eleanor has no parchment, but she does have three quills and a pot of ink.’

If you have read Ms Cadwallader’s novel, The Anchoress (2015), you have already met Eleanor, then a child who was taught to read and write by Sarah, the Anchoress. Twenty years later, in 1276, Eleanor has moved to Lincoln where she works as a housemaid for a wool merchant. Eleanor is independent and stubborn, and well aware that her prospects are blighted by the port-wine birthmark on her face. Eleanor dreams of working as a scribe, a profession that is not open to women.

Thirteenth century Lincoln is a dangerous place, divided by religious prejudice. The Jews, forced to wear a yellow badge, are frequently subjected to violence. They are accused of the kidnapping and torture of a boy called Hugh.  Now known as Little Hugh the Martyr, his tomb in the cathedral is visited by crowds of pilgrims, resulting in huge profits for the church.

While Eleanor initially shares antisemitic prejudices, her need to buy spices for the house where she works results in frequent visits to Asher, a widowed Jewish spicer. Asher and Eleanor share a love of books and words, and Eleanor becomes interested in learning the Hebrew script.  A covert relationship follows, a relationship forbidden both by religion and law, resulting in pregnancy. Eleanor is dismissed by her employer, leaving her both homeless and penniless. The friendship of other women, especially of Marchota a Jewish businesswoman, enables Eleanor to survive.

‘Some stories must be told.’

This novel is both a love story and a witness to the antisemitism that led to the expulsion of the Jews from England by King Edward I in 1290. Part of the witnessing comes in the form of verse in which the stones of the wall around Lincoln lament the horrors of the persecution unfolding within.

Both Asher and Eleanor are caught within the restrictions of their own religions: Eleanor is publicly shamed by the Church as an unmarried mother, while Asher is under pressure to marry within his community. Both are made ‘other’ by religious difference, by societal expectations that prevent either following their hearts (and in Eleanor’s case at least, her dreams).

I opened this novel and stepped into thirteenth century Lincoln, to the sights, sounds and smells of medieval England, to prejudices which still exist, unfortunately.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams

‘Scraps. That’s all I got. Fragments that made no sense without the words before or the words after.’

Oxford, 1914. Twin sisters Peggy and Maude Jones work in the bindery at Oxford University Press in Jericho.  Peggy, using the bonefolder that once belonged to her late mother Helen to fold pages, dreams of studying the books she is binding at Oxford University. Peggy considers this dream impossible: she needs to look after her sister Maude and, in any case, the divide between ‘Gown’ and ‘Town’ is too wide for Peggy to cross.

‘Your job is to bind the books, not read them…’

But the advent of the Great War brings change, together with heartbreak and (for some) opportunity. The reality of the war is brought home to both sisters when refugees from Belgium arrive in the community. And Peggy starts to realise that Maude is not as dependent on her as she thinks.

This novel, described as a companion to ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ takes the reader into the world where books are made. A world in which the efforts of the women who assembled the books is passed over, or forgotten in history, much like the word ‘bondmaid’ in ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’.

‘There is satisfaction in sewing the parts of a book together. Binding one idea to the next, one word to another, reuniting sentences with their beginnings and ends.’

In their home, the narrowboat Calliope, Peggy and Maude are surrounded by books and manuscripts. While many of them are damaged and unfit for sale, they provide Peggy with a view into a world she would love to occupy. The Great War, suffragism and the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic each have an impact on Peggy and Maude’s world. Can Peggy cross the bridge between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’?  And what of her relationship with wounded Belgian soldier, Bastiaan?

Ms Williams has peopled her novel with wonderful characters. Prickly, ambitious Peggy and her quieter, observant sister Maude are accompanied by Tilda, by Belgian refugees Lotte and Bastiaan. There are others who provide opportunity and support. And, as Ms Williams brings the world of book binding to life, there’s a reminder that we only learn the history of those who are deemed important enough to write about.

Yes: I loved this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

‘The king stood in a pool of light, unmoored.’

The death of a famous actor on stage during a production of King Lear coincides with the beginning of the collapse of civilisation.  A rapidly progressive contagious influenza wipes out 99% of humanity. Those who survived did so because they escaped from the cities or were able to isolate effectively because they had sufficient food and water to last for several weeks. But then what? Imagine: a world without electricity once the grids failed, cutting off the internet, telephones and running water. Imagine: a world without motorised transport once fuel ran out, without functioning hospitals or law and order.

The story moves between the actor’s early life as a film star to fifteen years after the pandemic. The people who were alive at the time of the pandemic have memories of how the world was, and an airport terminal becomes home to three hundred people and the Museum of Civilisation. A theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams around the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region bringing classical music and Shakespearean theatre to those who remain. There are several main characters: the actor; the man who tried to save his life; the actor’s ex-wives and his son; his oldest friend and a young actor with the Travelling Symphony. And, twenty years after the pandemic, people wonder whether they should teach children about what has been lost or focus on what is needed to create a new world. What is important? What can we save? What should we save? There’s a prophet in this world (of course there is) who tries to impose his own rules on survivors. And a twist.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this story, but then I was enthralled. The various connections between people, place and items kept reminding me of what was lost and made me wonder about my own priorities in such a world. And Station Eleven exists to remind us of possibilities.

A novel I will reread.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

‘The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged: and when they died within a few weeks of each other during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.’

Published in 1932 and set in the near future, sometime after the ‘Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ’46’, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ is a witty and satirical look at contemporary life in both London and the country.  Flora Poste, who does not wish to work, has decided to impose on her relatives. She writes to them and chooses to live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. She could, of course, have stayed with her good friend Mrs Smiling in London. Perhaps she didn’t share Mrs Smiling’s interest in the search for the perfect brassiere?  Anyway, Flora Poste travels to Sussex, to Cold Comfort Farm where her relatives, the Starkadders, have always lived.

What does Flora find at Cold Comfort Farm?

The household at Cold Comfort Farm is ruled over by the matriarch, mad Aunt Ada Doom who saw something nasty in the woodshed as a child and must be humoured lest she become even madder. Her daughter Judith is sunk in gloom and Judith’s husband Amos spends his time preaching hellfire at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Their elder son Reuben tries to keep the farm going and worries about how many feathers his chickens have lost while their younger son Seth lounges about with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, seducing the housemaids. Their daughter Elfine writes terrible poetry, communes with Nature and is secretly in love. The ancient farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, cares for his beloved cows ( Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless), and Mrs Beetle the housekeeper looks after Ada Doom (amongst her other responsibilities). There are others as well. The Starkadders feel obliged to take ‘Robert Poste’s daughter’ into their home because of some unspecified wrong committed against him.

It’s a good thing that Flora enjoys a challenge. She sets out to improve the lives of her relatives: to conquer encrusted porridge, the erotic effects of sukebind, as well as enriching the lives of the cattle (including Big Business the bull).

I must make special mention of Mr Mybug, who is convinced that Branwell Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights:

‘You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff…’


Cold Comfort Farm is a parody of the doomy, tragic, close-to-the-earth gothic novels of writers like Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence. While in Hardy’s novels (which, incidentally, I love) a misstep or sin inexorably predicts misery, Gibbons enters the tragic landscape and sorts it out. Brilliantly.

‘Tomorrow would be a beautiful day.’

I first read ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ over forty years ago, and was inspired to reread it after reading this review at The Australian Legend. Thank you, Bill, I am so glad I revisited ‘Cold Comfort Farm’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

‘What you have to remember is that Ajay was just a boy. Eight years old and malnourished. Barely literate. Watchful inside the sockets of his eyes.’

New Delhi, 2004. At 3am, a speeding Mercedes jumps the curb and kills five people. It’s a rich man’s car, but the only person in sight is a servant, reeking of alcohol and unable to explain what has happened. Meet Ajay. He is imprisoned.

Thirteen years earlier, in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, we meet Ajay again. An impoverished eight-year-old, forced from his home when his family’s circumstances change. Ajay’s journey takes him from Uttar Pradesh, eventually to New Delhi where he is employed by the wealthy Wadia family. Ajay is devoted to his employer, Sunny Wadia. Sunny, young and powerful, dreams of outshining his father. And then there’s Neda Kapur, a curious journalist. She is entranced by Sunny but is also concerned about reporting corruption and abuse of power.

Ajay, Neda, and Sunny are the three main characters, and it was Ajay’s story which captured my attention. The contrast between the poverty of Ajay’s family and the excesses of Sunny, observing Neda caught between fact and cover-up kept me reading, wondering how justice could be defined and what shape it might take. Neda vacillates:

‘I’m going to stop writing now. I’m done. I’m left alone in this lonely gray city in the dark, far from home. Can you do anything with this? Or will it just cause more pain? You can use it if you like. I allow it. I don’t know if I’ll be around to face it. I’ve already decided to leave. If you use any of this, just remember, nothing will change, this is Kali Yuga, the losing age, the age of vice. The people on the road will remain dead. The baby will still be unborn. The Gautams of this world will thrive. The Ajays of this world will always take the fall. And Sunny? I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. The wheel will keep turning toward the dissolution that will swallow us all.

Her finger lingers on the trackpad, moves the cursor over SEND. But she lacks the courage again. She discards the draft. She still won’t take a stand .’

And while Ajay is imprisoned, Sunny’s life continues on a dark, downward spiral. Ajay adapts and becomes harder, but at what cost? Neda seems to escape physically, but not emotionally. While Sunny takes self-indulgent self-destruction to new depths. The contrast between rich and poor is sickening.

This is a long novel, and it took me a week to read it, and now it has ended I want more. The story ended but is not yet complete. Absorbing, engrossing and eye-opening.

‘No one ever gets it back. Life just runs away from you. It never comes back, however hard you try, however much you want it to. This is the lesson you should know. You have to adapt or die .’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Meanjin Summer 2022 Vol 81 Issue 4

The coverline is ‘Australia Where’. Okay, so this is the last edition of Meanjin with Jonathan Green as editor. Different essays address some of the elements of Australian national character and direction. Two essays in particular held my attention: Mark McKenna’s ‘Australia in Four Referendums’ looks at recent history since 1967. In that referendum, 90.77% of Australians endorsed two constitutional amendments. The first removed Section 127, whereby ‘Aboriginal natives’ were not counted when ‘reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth’. The second altered Section 51 (xxvi) – the race power – to allow the Commonwealth to make ‘special laws’ concerning Aboriginal people.

But then: ‘In 1999, we effectively told our First Nations’ people that addressing the republic was more important, more urgent, and potentially more nation-defining, than their exclusion from the constitution. It has taken twenty-three years to see how wrong that decision was, and how it reflected a deeply ingrained colonial mentality from which we are still struggling to emerge today.’

With respect to the forthcoming referendum, Prime Minister Albanese has advised that the Referendum Working Group had landed on the question:

‘A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?’

As well as that, it will be put to Australians that the constitution be amended to include a new chapter titled ‘Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’.

Will this referendum be successful?

The other essay that held my attention was written by Darumbal/South Sea Islander Amy McQuire entitled ‘The Act of Disappearing’. It is frightening to think that we do not know how many Aboriginal women have gone ‘missing’ in this country. This essay is well worth reading and considering.

Yes, there are plenty of other essays as well, including by Alexis Wright, Paul Daley, Bernard Keane and Claire G Coleman.

And now I look forward to the next edition of Meanjin.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller

‘Maggie – writing is no cure for insomnia, though it is, I suppose, a use for it ‘

Stephen Rose, an ex-soldier and recovering alcoholic, has been trying to avoid the past for a long time. And, after being absent for much of her life, Stephen is trying to build a relationship with his daughter, Maggie. But a letter, summoning him to an inquiry in Belfast about an incident during the Troubles, threatens his fragile sense of peace.

Stephen’s story, written as a letter to Maggie is both an attempt to buy time before responding to the letter and an account of his life, an attempt to explain his actions. Stephen is wracked with guilt, ashamed of the one incident in 1982 which he sees as defining his life. Alcohol provided him with a temporary refuge at the cost of his health and his relationship with Maggie’s mother.

Writing to Maggie is a form of catharsis, but the past is uncomfortable and full of ghosts.

‘Maggie, I know I’m labouring this but I want you to know I was once someone others could speak well of.’

We read of Stephen’s life, of how, as a young man with a Quaker upbringing he joined the Army. And then how things went horribly wrong. We learn, towards the end of the story of the incident, about which Stephen feels so guilty. And we wonder, until near the end, how his daughter will react.

As I read this novel, I felt pity for Stephen as well as for those affected by the incident.  People are complex, life is rarely straightforward, and all actions have consequences. I wondered how I would have lived my life if I was Stephen and how I would feel if I was his daughter Maggie. But mostly, I wondered about the people caught up in the Troubles.

This is the third of Mr Miller’s novels I have read, and I want to read them all.

‘These words are a river and they cannot be turned back.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Paper Targets: Art Can Be Murder by Steve S. Saroff

‘Memories are the most difficult codes to break.’

Enzi is a gifted coder, a dyslexic loner who finds himself caught in two separate awkward situations which merge into one. First, there is Kaori, an artist he barely knows but bails out of jail, and then there’s Tsai a man for whom he has done some coding.

Kaori murders her (ex) boyfriend and his new girlfriend. The pictures she draws show that. But Kaori draws other pictures as well, including one of Enzi accepting a suitcase from Tsai. And when Enzi tries to withdraw from an arrangement he has with Tsai, others are killed to show him the error of his ways. How can Enzi escape?

Enzi finds an ingenious and totally appropriate solution to his problems. And the reader accompanies him on his journey through the present, back into the past and then (hopefully) on the brink of a better future. I came to like Enzi, but my absolute favourite character is Pascal Ameto, the bondsman. A fella needs to know that.

‘Crazy is crazy, but lonely is lonely. I do not know which is the saddest.’

Congratulations, Mr Saroff, on your accomplished and intriguing debut novel. I enjoyed reading it.

Note: My thanks to the author who provided me with an electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Freedom, Only Freedom: The Prison Writings of Behrouz Boochani by Behrouz Boochani, Moones Mansoubi (Editor), Omid Tofighian (Editor)

‘Here in these pages is everything we must face if we are to save ourselves from the horror of repetition.’ (From the Foreword by Tara June Winch, 2022)

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist and refugee activist was detained on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea for several years. He now lives in New Zealand. This book contains a collection of essays and poems that provide a first-hand account of his experiences in detention, and the struggles faced by those in offshore detention seeking asylum in Australia. Behrouz Boochani’s own writings are accompanied by essays written by other activists and by historians and journalists.

‘If we wanted to describe life in the Manus Prison, we could sum it up in just one sentence:  A prisoner is someone who needs to line up in order to fulfil even the most basic needs of every human being.’

This is a powerful and confronting work. Behrouz Boochani writes about individuals, about people. He tells us their stories, their hopes and tragically in some cases their illnesses and deaths. We may be able to ignore people anonymised as numbers, but how many of us can ignore the stories of individuals and the impact detention had on them?

Behrouz Boochani writes of a kyriarchal system, a term borrowed from feminist writing, which he describes as ‘best described as interlocking and mutually reinforcing structures of violence obsessed with oppression, domination and submission, structures also characterized by their replication and multiplication.’ (page xviii)

I found this very uncomfortable reading. Australia’s colonial past should be history, uncomfortable as it is. Australia’s colonial past should not be shaping the institutions we build now and thereby influencing the decisions we make about the future. The people of Papua New Guinea and Nauru also deserve better treatment.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 5 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Politics and Government’.