Book Review

The Handmaid’s Tale – A season too far already?

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll go into the draw to win Jen’s slightly second-hand copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Post by Jennifer McDonald

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 18 months you couldn’t have failed to notice the hubbub surrounding the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elizabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes.

I’m no TV show critic so I’ll spare you the addition of my voice to the chorus of reviews on the second instalment of this Hulu Original series. I’m also not a purist about screen adaptations of brilliant books like The Handmaid’s Tale. I understand that stories told in books are often enhanced and expanded for the screen, large and small, particularly when the producers are trying to eke as many seasons as possible out of the original print concept. I accept that and occasionally delight in the fruit of their efforts.  But as a publisher and a great believer in the excruciating impact good fiction can sometimes have on the real world, you can hardly blame me for standing up for books.

A New York Times review by Margaret Lyons (republished in The New Daily) said it best. While Season Two had retained its stunning visuals (think blood red-clad handmaids walking beside grey sandstone walls or filmed from above running through stark white snowscapes) Lyons asserts that the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale appears to have ‘run out of story’. 

Right about now, anyone who’s read Atwood’s astonishing book (or any of her books for that matter) would have to be asking themselves, how could that happen and so quickly?   

The Handmaid’s Tale burst onto our screens in 2017 just after Trump made history as the US’s first pussy-grabbing President. Who can forget the infamous photograph of him in the Oval Office, surrounded by blokes, signing an executive order to ban federal funding to international groups providing information on abortions? No wonder The Handmaid’s Tale was the darling of the 2017 awards season. Offred/June’s words during one of her pre-Gilead flashbacks seemed chillingly close to home - ‘That’s how we let it happen.’

After such a strong start out of the blocks, season two is in danger of losing the plot, descending into what Lyons describes in her review as little more than ‘torture porn’ with circular, obscure and sometimes dead-end storylines. More than once while viewing this season I was bored enough to contemplate turning the TV off. For someone who had trouble putting the book down, that’s nothing short of a travesty!

Margaret Atwood’s original work is so rich in narrative tributaries feeding into the wild rapids of a dystopian feminist nightmare I find it impossible to accept that the screen representation could be ‘running out of story’. It’s more likely that, flush with the acclaim and success of the first season, the book’s themes have fallen by the wayside or been sacrificed for the entertainment value of whippings, rapes, executions, death by radiation poisoning and forced separations of mothers and their babies. 

You see? There’s still plenty of modern day relevance in this futuristic fiction so it’s not too late to salvage The Handmaid’s Tale for at least another few seasons yet. One need look no further than the book. If I was executive producer for a day, here’s what I’d run with:

  1. Pursue Serena Joy’s backstory: The TV series made a very promising start on this but to my mind, it’s low hanging fruit that season two just left hanging. In the book, the pre-Gilead Serena was a gospel singer who made speeches in support of ‘traditional values’ and a-woman’s-place-being-in-the-home. While being the wife of a Commander afforded certain privileges denied to other women in Gilead, Serena is as oppressed as the rest of them. In a recent re-read of the book I came across Offred’s telling observation of the Commander’s wife: 

‘She doesn’t make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she’s been taken at her word.’ 

Furious indeed. The actor who plays Serena Joy Waterford, Yvonne Strahovski, has just been nominated for an Emmy, providing a big fat clue to the value of this highly ironic character’s storyline.

  1. Take a closer look at Aunt Lydia: This character (played so immaculately by Ann Dowd, another Emmy award winner for her part in The Handmaid’s Tales first season) is the starkest example of a most perplexing and horrifying theme of the book - the subjugation and humiliation of women by other women.  While this phenomenon isn’t new (think the Aufseherinnen in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps) the motivations behind the cruelty of Aunt Lydia and her cohorts in the realm of Gilead would be rich pickings for a very interesting continuing narrative. 
  2. The roles and fates of ‘lesser men’: And no, I don’t mean Nick the driver-cum-security guard of the Waterford household, even though his role is both obscure and fascinating in the book as well as the TV series. I mean the other non-Commander types. We already know that males who happened to be homosexual, intellectuals, political dissidents, journalists or doctors who worked in the field of women’s reproductive health (if you get my meaning) were hunted down and slaughtered by the incoming Gilead regime. But what of the ordinary men who were not fortunate enough to be afforded Commander status? 

In the book Offred observes that many of the security guards on the street are no more than adolescents who’ve known no other life before Gilead. Now, they’re equipped with machine guns and combat gear which, thanks to their limited life experience, they sometimes use injudiciously. These young men are sworn to protect the handmaids as they walk two-by-two to the shops. But looking at them or, God forbid, touching them, is a criminal offence punishable by execution. Too young and insignificant to be afforded State-issued ‘wives’ and in the absence of books and magazines, porn films or even prostitutes (these are the preserve of the ruling class) Offred wonders what kind of outlet these young men have for their raging testosterone? 

Towards the end of the book, one of these ‘guardians’ is the subject of a particularly gruesome ceremony where handmaids are let loose to tear him apart with their bare hands as penance for a supposed rape. In the TV series, the young guardian assigned to the Waterfords home makes off with Eden, the new, 15 year-old wife assigned to Nick the driver. When they’re caught, both are ceremoniously and simultaneously executed for the crime of falling in love. All evidence to the gun-slinging contrary, it would seem that an ordinary young man in Gilead is a particularly powerless creature. 

And then there’s the Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale section at the end of the book, a particular stroke of Atwood fictional genius. This epilogue of sorts is recounted as a partial transcript of a paper delivered at the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies in 2195 by Professor Pieixoto of England’s Cambridge University. Clearly, by this time, Gilead is a but a blip on the horizon of world history.

The Professor’s paper chronicles the discovery of some cassette tape recordings of a woman’s voice, uncovered in what would have been the state of Maine prior to being enveloped by Gilead. These tapes have been transcribed and entitled The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred is identified as the narrator and her story provides incredible insight into the culture and workings of the Gilead regime. Professor Pieixoto’s retrospective conclusions about State-institutionalised procreation, while vastly informative, are highly objective and clinical as evidenced by this passage:

‘If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans… [their] society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and it was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause from the audience.)’

I’d forgotten about this epilogue until I reread the book in preparation for writing this post.  Seems to me that the TV show producers and scriptwriters could do a lot worse than revisit the book for viable, contemporarily relevant themes to underpin several more series of The Handmaid’s Tale. Running out of story? Please…

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post if you’d like to go into the draw to win a pre-loved copy of the book!

Stop Fixing Women - A Reflection by Jennifer McDonald

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be in the running to win a new copy of Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women. While reading Catherine Fox’s 2017 Ashurst Business Literature Prize nominated Stop Fixing Women: Why building fairer workplaces is everybody’s business, I was reminded of a scene in the 1988 film Working Girl. 

Tess McGill (played by Melanie Griffith) is a secretary from the wrong side of tracks working at a Wall Street investment firm. Desperate to get into Mergers and Acquisitions, she passes herself off as her own (ironically) female boss to gain a seat at the table. When the ruse is discovered, Tess says to the big businessman client, “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you're trying to get there. And if you're someone like me, you can't get there without bending the rules.”

Herein lies an essential theme of Catherine Fox’s excellent treatise, one that endeavours to get to the bottom of why, in 2018, we’re still having this interminable conversation about women’s equality and advancement in the workplace. 

Fox knows a thing or two about working women, having written the ‘Corporate Woman’ column in the Australian Financial Review for several years and authoring a 2013 book entitled Seven Myths About Women and Work. When her introduction cites several examples of naggingly persistent assertions (chiefly made by male executives) that women themselves are to blame for the depressing lack of gender diversity in the upper echelons of Australian business, I’m inclined to believe her. 

The book’s introduction reads like a business-world equivalent of slut-shaming. Women don’t ‘back themselves’ enough, or don’t put their hands up enough for promotions and board positions.  And while there have been several (usually female) high-profile champions of women’s advancement in the workplace, the establishment of many businesswomen’s networks plus the availability of countless seminars and programs for upskilling, confidence-building and networking – the lack of actual progress in this arena is staggering. And guess what? Women get blamed for that too.

A few pages into Stop Fixing Women, I confess to becoming a little depressed. While trying to avoid sounding like a victim myself, as a small businesswoman and mother, I’ve always felt the game of work is rigged against us girls. Fox’s book, underpinned by an abundance of scrupulously researched examples, makes it impossible to deny that this corporate match-fixing exists. Furthermore, this bias against women is so ingrained and pervasive that I’d actually stopped noticing it. Now that’s dangerous territory.  When you can’t even see how the odds are stacked against you, why not fall into the trap of believing it’s your fault if you can’t win at the game of work?

Don’t get me wrong here, folks. Stop Fixing Women is not just a depressing summation of how this country’s corporate sector is going to hell in a handmaid’s basket in relation to gender equality in the workplace. Catherine Fox frequently refers to one significant pinpoint of light in the form of an Australian initiative called Male Champions of Change (MCC). This growing movement comprises male CEOs who are coming to the realisation that, just as history is written by the victors, the rules of the gender-equality-at-work game are set by the people (read men) at the top.  Interestingly, many of the members of this group were inspired to take up the mantle of change while witnessing the obstacles faced by their wives and daughters. Smell the irony?

This progress notwithstanding, the real source of my depression about this whole topic stems from the realisation that debates about workplace flexibility and diversity are still framed as ‘women’s issues’. Surely men could also benefit from more flexible and (okay let’s call a spade a spade here) humane work environments that accommodate life outside the office? 

Clearly not or at least, not yet. In chapter two, entitled ‘The fight for flexibility’ Fox states, ‘…flexible working is still viewed as the exception to the rule in the majority of Australian companies…While flexibility can clearly mean many different things to different cohorts, there is still a tendency to equate it with part-time work for mothers.’ The author goes onto say that the few men who’ve tried to access flexibility options such as varying start/finish times or working from home are ‘battling the legacy of this remedial approach to fit women into a traditional male breadwinner model.’

Furthermore, those men who’ve taken up the offer of flexible working conditions (where these opportunities even exist) usually face a distinct lack of support from their bosses and peers. They also suffer that pesky ‘curtailed career advancement and income prospects’ thing that the overwhelming majority of women are confronted with after having the temerity to take maternity leave. 

It would seem that work cultures and systems that are stacked against women are actually detrimental to working blokes as well. This surely begs the question why, in the high-stakes game of Australian business, we are still playing the woman and not the ball? 

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be in the running to win a new copy of Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women.

 

Picnic At Hanging Rock - a reflection on the many adaptations, by Jennifer McDonald

Comment on this blog to go into the running for a pre-loved copy of 'The Picnic At Hanging Rock'. It was 1975 when the movie adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book Picnic at Hanging Rock  was released.  I was in year nine at a straight-laced Presbyterian-Methodist private school for girls in Brisbane and I did not read Lindsay’s book before seeing the film.

Directed by Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock lodged quite firmly in my psyche. Thanks for this must go in part to the haunting, wood pipe soundtrack, surely designed to buzz inside one’s head like flies around, well, a summertime picnic. I also related to this film and the book on a subliminal level. While both are set in 1900 in rural Victoria, the stitched-up, rule-based existence of the students at Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies resonated with me even in 1975. References to not removing one’s gloves until well out of the public eye and having stockings as part of the official school uniform (in a Brisbane summer no less) were remarkably on the money.

It wasn’t until I heard that Foxtel had produced a six-part miniseries that I ventured to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of Joan Lindsay’s acclaimed novel.  Until this point I’d always believed the story to be based on fact, dramatically enhanced of course - but a real story nonetheless.  Then I read Lindsay’s own preface stating,

‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.’

Hardly seems important?  Let’s just explore that for a minute. There is a reasonable expectation when one starts reading the book, or viewing the original movie, that some insight might be proffered into the mysterious disappearance of three students and one governess of Appleyard College on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Both Joan Lindsay’s book and Peter Weir’s film drip with intrigue and menace, leveraging to the hilt the possibility that this unsolved mystery is based in fact.

However, coming late to the read and discovering direct from the author’s mouth that Picnic at Hanging Rock is most likely a work of fiction, I now think Joan Lindsay was right to say it hardly matters. Whether ‘true’ or not, the mystery disappearance at Hanging Rock really only serves as the backdrop to Lindsay’s often biting observations of (a) the class system in a young nation flush with gold rush cash, (b) the disciplining and grooming of ‘young ladies’ that passed for education at the time; (c) and the ability, or lack thereof, of society in general to deal with the unresolved.

I thought at first that Joan Lindsay was having a shot at the English establishment and, some might say, its undue influence on a far away land coming into its own identity.  Take this description of the ambitious Mrs Appleyard, Headmistress of Appleyard College for example:

‘Whether the Headmistress…had any previous experience in the educational field was never divulged.  It was unnecessary. With her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English headmistress. And as looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise….the College, from the very first day, was a success; and by the end of the first year, showing a gratifying profit.’

Here’s another example - an exchange between Colonel Fitzhubert and his fresh-off-the-boat nephew, Michael, with regard to a local young lady of good breeding (if not good looks) who’s in the crosshairs as a potential match for the young English gentleman.

(The Colonel says) ‘I can’t imagine why you’re so critical of poor Angela.’

(To which Michael responds) ‘I don’t mean to be critical. It’s entirely my fault that I find Miss Sprack – how can I express it – too English.’

‘What’s this poppycock about being too English?’ asked the Colonel, emerging from the shrubbery with the spaniels. ‘How the deuce can a person be too English?’

But the toffs aren’t the only beneficiaries of Lindsay’s humorous sarcasm. Edith, the hapless and ungainly schoolgirl who managed not to disappear along with three of her classmates on picnic day, also cops a serve:

The Headmistress, aware of Edith’s limited intelligence and unlimited obstinacy, plus a possible mild concussion, thought the expedition a waste of time…

Then there’s Lindsay’s bordering on cynical assessment of the friendship that develops between Albert Crundall the stable-hand and the aforementioned young English gentleman, Mike Fitzhubert:

To see them now – Albert loose of limb in rolled-up shirtsleeves and moleskin trousers. Michael stiff in garden party attire with a carnation in his buttonhole – they looked an ill-assorted pair. ‘Mike’s all right,’ Albert had told his friend the cook. ‘Him and me are mates.’ And so in the finest sense of that much abused word, they were. The fact that Albert, who had just tried his friend’s grey topper on this own tousled bullet head, looked like a music hall turn; and that Mike in Albert’s wide brimmed greasy sundowner might have stepped from the pages of The Magnet or the Boy’s Own Paper, meant less than nothing.

Apart from the unexplained disappearances narrative, the next most intriguing theme of Picnic at Hanging Rock is Lindsay’s exploration of how fear and wild speculation spreads through the local community and beyond with the speed of a bushfire.

As always in matters of surpassing interest, those who knew nothing either at first or even second hand were the most emphatic at expressing their opinions; which are well known to have a way of turning into established facts overnight.

Despite Mrs Appleyard’s attempts to keep a lid on gossip and hearsay emanating from the school, the ‘College Mystery’ soon hits the newspapers at home and abroad. Soon, wealthy and influential parents start pulling their daughters from Appleyard College, threatening the very existence of the Headmistress’s lucrative undertaking.

Michael Fitzhubert, instrumental in locating the sole survivor of the vanished party, Irma Leopold, is clearly traumatised and haunted by the whole experience. The Hanging Rock legacy may well ruin his chances of a creating a new life in Australia, free from the shackles and expectations of upper class England.

Indeed, after Irma Leopold is rescued from Hanging Rock the search to unearth further clues about the fate of the other missing women is expanded to cover ‘likely and unlikely places in the locality’:

Drains, hollow logs, culverts, waterholes, an abandoned pigsty where someone had seen a light moving last Sunday. At the bottom of an old mineshaft in the Black Forest a terrified schoolboy swore he had seen a body; and so he had – the carcass of a decomposing heifer.

20180515 - picnic-at-hanging-rock 2018 coverAnd now we have the 2018 manifestation of Picnic at Hanging Rock thanks to Foxtel.  I’m two episodes into this patently well produced if a little over-dramatised six-ep series. Foxtel’s marketing bumph describes this as a ‘trailblazing reimagining’ of Lindsay’s iconic tale. It’s certainly proving to be a darker, sexier and more ominous take on the original work, complete with wildly embellished and rather twisted back stories of key characters. As if Lindsay’s 1967 story didn’t provide enough intrigue on its own!

For this reason, drawing comparisons between the book and this new TV series are nigh-on useless. It makes more sense to me to compare the contemporary Picnic at Hanging Rock to its 1975 movie predecessor, which was largely faithful to the narrative of the book.

I’m no Margaret Pomeranz but I’d venture to say that the 2018 version can best be described as the screen equivalent of fan-fiction. As such, it completely and utterly swats any vestiges of speculation that Lindsay’s enduring mystery story might ever have been rooted in fact.

Comment on this blog to go in the running to score a pre-loved copy of The Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Breath by Tim Winton - a reflection on the film & book by Jennifer McDonald

Comment on this blog to go in the draw to win Jen’s slightly age-damaged, with a few bits underlined, but still good copy of Tim Winton’s Breath.  Soon after Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin Award I bought a copy and put it in my bookcase. Life got in the way and Breath sat there until this April when I first heard of Simon Baker’s directorial debut in the movie by the same name. It was worth the wait. I devoured the book in a matter of days before seeing the film on release day at the Palace Theatre in Norton Street, Sydney.

I like to credit myself as a fan of Tim Winton before he became as acclaimed as he is now. My bookcase sports several of his pre-Cloudstreet works namely The Riders,That Eye The Skyand In The Winter DarkWhile I’m a little rusty on the storylines of these books after so many years, the feelings Tim Winton’s writing evoke in me have never faded. When I started in on Breath, these came rushing back to me with a force to rival the biggest waves ever ridden by Loonie, Pikelet and Sando.

I’m sure I can add nothing to the chorus of high praise Winton has consistently attracted over the years from more erudite literary types than myself. Nevertheless, I will try to accurately describe the emotional impact Tim Winton’s style of stringing words together has on me. Why? Because it is central to my mindset as I entered the cinema to see Breath on the big screen.

Winton writes in a straightforward way that is highly accessible to the reader while completely transcending the ordinary. His words are authentic, evocative and lyrical, without a hint of literary pretension. Early on in Breath, Pikelet - the book’s main voice – gives us this first insight into what can only be described as the beginnings of his and Loonie’s obsession with surfing:

I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day.  How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.

‘Pointless and elegant’. It’s hard to think of a more apt description for a person jumping to their feet on a board while skimming down the face of a wall of water. The adult Pikelet goes onto say,

The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward…And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Breath is ostensibly a coming of age story but it’s a complicated one.  Two teenage boys, growing up in the 1970s, are living in a dying mill town set on a placid river that flows to, but doesn’t quite connect with, the thundering surf beaches of Western Australia’s southern-most parts. Pikelet is the only child in a loving but dull working-class home. Loonie’s father is the local publican who tends towards violence and has already been through a couple of wives. Pikelet craves escape from the ordinary and Loonie’s devil-may-care temperament is just the ticket. They discover the sea and quickly become hooked on the rush of riding waves, bringing them into contact with the enigmatic former surfing champion Sando, and his secretive and surly American wife, Eva.

20180505 - Jens copy of Breath coverThe visceral beauty in Winton’s words are always, always underpinned by a sense of foreboding. I’ve felt this in every Tim Winton book I have ever read and Breath is no exception. In the telling of ordinary things, like swimming in a river, riding bikes to the beach or sitting on the school bus, Winton keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering if this is moment where disaster will strike, and what form that disaster will take.

This inexorable sense of dread compels one to keep reading, to get to the bottom of whatever it is the author is trying to subliminally impart. Breath is so much more than a coming of age story. It is a deeply disturbing cautionary tale of addiction to the most potent substance of all – adrenaline.

Sando was good at portraying the moment you found yourself at your limit, when things multiplied around you like an hallucination…And when he talked about the final rush, the sense of release you felt at the end, skittering out to safety in the beautiful deep channel, Eva sometimes sank back with her eyes closed and her teeth bared, as though she knew only too well.  

There was a real opportunity to bugger up the film version of this complex, emerging- from-the-chrysalis-of-youth story. And I hoped beyond hope that Winton’s masterful command of the undercurrent of impending tragedy, like a storm brewing on the horizon, wouldn’t be lost in Breath’s translation to the screen.

Thankfully it wasn’t.  The sense of foreboding was palpable in almost every scene, rendered in heartbreakingly beautiful images - like the white tops of heaving waves just visible over the sand bar behind which Pikelet and his father fish from their tinny, barely bobbing on the quiet river. Or how, after a severe wipe-out, Pikelet appears as a tiny, prone speck surrounded by white foam on top of a churning deep-blue ocean.

The backing track of pounding surf, Loonie’s hoot of triumph when he manages to catch hold of a passing ute for a drag-along on his bike; or the rattle of Sando’s combi van engine as it pulls up outside Pikelet’s house in a winter dawn, also plays an important part in this exquisite sense of dreadful anticipation. Coupled with a suitably efficient screenplay (thanks in no small part by Tim Winton’s input) Breath the movie certainly captures the foreboding undercurrent of the print version.

What it doesn’t do so well, in my humble opinion, is examine the vexing and multi-faceted nature of addiction, a powerful and devastating theme of Breath the book. While the references to addiction are frequent and obvious in the film, the relentless, life-threatening and ultimately life-ruining nature of addiction to processes (like extreme surfing and aerial skiing), as opposed to substances (such as Eva’s painkillers and perpetual hash-smoking) remains largely unexplored.

These are big issues, of course, and Breath is only an hour and fifty-five minutes long so one can hardly expect a dissertation. However, while I was slightly disappointed by this, my movie companion who had not read the book, was unperturbed. When she asked if the film was an accurate representation of Tim Winton’s book, what else could I say but yes?

Breath is a gob-smackingly beautiful and visually memorable film which I would advise you to see before you read the book. Peculiar advice coming from a publisher, I know, but there is method in my madness.  This way, when you come to read Breath (which I also strongly advise you to do) you’ll get a second, bigger hit from the story, which is probably the point Tim Winton was trying to make all along.

20180505 - Breath movie cover

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - reflection by Jennifer McDonald

Because she couldn’t bear to part with her own much-loved copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Jen has purchased a brand new one (with the movie tie-in cover). Comment on the blog to go in the running to grab a copy! Before a friend recommended I read this book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, my knowledge or interest in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy was tenuous at best. The 1980s BBC TV series Bergerac (where a pre-Midsomer Murders John Nettles played a maverick detective, tearing around the island of Jersey in a 1947 Triumph Roadster) was about the extent of my acquaintance with these islands located in the English Channel.

‘That’s a bit of a mouthful for a book name,’ I recall saying to my recommender-friend at the time. She responded by saying The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was the most beautiful book with the most interesting backstory that she’d read to date.

Point of interest number one is that the book is an epistolary in its entirety. It is a carefully constructed series of letters from the main character, Juliet Ashton, to various people including (but not exclusive to) her publisher, Sidney Stark; his sister, Sophie Strachan (nee Stark); and a farmer from Guernsey, Dawsey Adams.

This paper trail of missives starts in January 1946, less than a year since the end of the war in Europe and Guernsey’s cruel occupation by the Germans. London is in ruins and Juliet has embarked on a promotional tour for her book Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, a collection of witty and enormously popular newspaper columns poking fun at the war years in London when, presumably, laughter was at a premium.

As she is about to depart on her author tour, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams on Guernsey. Dawsey has come into the possession of a copy of Essays of Elia  by Charles Lamb that Juliet once owned, taking the time to write her name and address on the inside front cover. Through their correspondence Juliet learns of the hardships and isolation Guernsey residents endured during the German occupation and how the chance establishment of a literary society was their saviour.

I won’t tell you too much more about the plot, dear reader, because that would deprive you of the laughter, tears and astonished gasps that you will, no doubt, experience when you read it.  Suffice it to say that thanks to a clever, intricate and wonderous sequence of letters, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reveals itself in much the same way as those National Geographic flowers blossoming in slow motion.

Point of interest number two is how the book came into being in the first place.  It is the first and only novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, a 70-year-old former librarian. Shaffer became stranded on Guernsey during a visit in 1976 when heavy fog grounded all the planes and kept the boats in harbour. It was in the airport shop that Shaffer picked up a copy of a book entitled Jersey Under the Jack-Boot which kickstarted her interest in the wartime experiences of the Channel Islands.

It took many years and much goading from her own book club before Mary Ann Shaffer wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was finally published in 2009. Apparently, Shaffer once said, ‘All I wanted was to write a book that someone would like enough to publish.’ Well, she got her wish but when the manuscript was in its final stages, Mary Ann’s health started to fail. She enlisted the help of her niece, Annie Barrows, also an author, to take over the final edits required to ready the manuscript for publication. Unfortunately, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in 2008 without ever seeing the book in print.  One can’t help but be moved by this sad yet inspiring back story that speaks to a great love of books, writing and storytelling, without actually saying it out loud.

And now this beautifully written, heart-warming, tragic but uplifting book is a motion picture to be released Australia-wide on 19 April. Lily James (War and Peace, Baby Driver) plays Juliet Ashton; Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey, The Imitation Game) is Sidney Stark, and Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones, The Age of Adeline) is Dawsey Adams.

More than ever before, I hope the film’s director, Mike Newell (of Four Weddings and a Funeral Fame) not only stays faithful to the book’s story but captures the heart-essence of this amazing work.

The movie trailer looks promising and I laughed out loud at the last scene when Sidney Stark turns the first page of Juliet Ashton’s manuscript and says, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Crikey that’s quite a mouthful.’ I know how he feels.

Comment on this post to go in the running to win a brand new, movie-linked edition of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society compliments of For Pity Sake.

'Tracker' by Alexis Wright - reflection by David Burton

This is our final post in our reflections on the full Stella Prize Shortlist for 2018. Check out our other posts on 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'Terra Nullius', 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  I’ll begin with an embarrassing admission: I didn’t finish Tracker by Alexis Wright. Please don’t take this as a sign that the work isn’t worth your time, quite the opposite is true. I simply didn’t have time to complete all six hundred pages before the winner of the Stella Prize is announced, and it would be such a shame to not spend some time talking about this remarkable book on the For Pity Sake blog.

Tracker is the only piece of non-fiction to make the shortlist. It’s a biography (but this label is debatable, I’ll return to that in a tick), of Aboriginal leader, intellectual and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth. Tracker led an extraordinary life, passing away in Darwin in 2015 at the age of 62. He was taken from his family as a child and brought up in a mission on Croker Island. From these traumatic beginnings, Tracker became a political activist and key Indigenous strategist. His legacy will shape the lives of Australians for generations to come, particularly around land use and economic development.

xtracker.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Qa95jKWF5HThe book is extraordinary for many reasons. Most importantly, it records the life of Tracker Tilmouth, who’s influence on domestic affairs is unmistakable. Tracker belongs to the first generation of Indigenous Australians who fought against internationally unique prejudice. His life eclipsed both the worst of the Stolen Generation and National Sorry Day. In this, he saw Australia at its worst and - as you sense from the book - versions of what it could become.

Highly acclaimed writer Alexis Wright doesn’t attempt to contain Tracker’s life in a ‘Western-style biography’. Rather, she calls upon an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling that she describes as a “a practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story”. And so Tracker becomes a ‘collective memoir’. We hear from many people, Tracker included, in the first-person. These transcriptions of oral interviews give the book an intimacy that is non-replicable through any other biographic form. The transcriptions themselves don’t attempt to contain the speaker in a written formality. Sentences are long, trains of thought sometimes meander - so the reader, in a way, becomes the biographer. We inhabit the body of Alexis Wright, listening to these stories, sitting in the presence of Tracker and those who knew him.

It’s an ambitious work that could crumble in the hands of a lesser writer. But Alexis Wright succeeds in both style and structure, creating a tight and compelling book. I mused briefly over scanning the rest of the book to finish it before writing this blog - but I didn’t want to. I plan to return to Tracker and finish it, when I have the time, and enjoy it as it demands. I encourage you to do the same. It’s an accessible, unique, beautiful collective memoir about one of Australia’s most important thinkers.

'Terra Nullius' by Claire Coleman - Reflection by David Burton

We're racing through the Stella Prize shortlist before the announcement (tonight!). Check out our other posts on shortlisted titles: 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree', 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'The Time to Come'. 

“We saw little evidence of a desire on your part to try and understand our ways. We tried to understand you yet we could not. I don’t know if you made any genuine attempt to understand us but if you tried you failed.” – JOHN FARMER, NATIVE ADVANCEMENT LEAGUE

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius isn’t the book you think it is.

It’s early colonial Australia. Indigenous children are being taken from their families and placed in missions. There are malicious nuns. Bloodthirsty soldiers. A young boy on the run. Settlers beginning to have doubts. Yes, it’s Aussie historical fiction. It’s devastating and familiar.

xterra-nullius-a-novel.jpg.pagespeed.ic.oDfhN43zVYBut just shy of halfway, something else happens. There are new invaders, and we shift into speculative fiction. Not black or white but grey beings, more powerful than any of Earth’s forces, invade the planet.

It’s here that Coleman’s full imagination and wit is unleashed. The symbolic weight of these cosmic aliens makes history shimmer with a new realism and deepens it with a gut-punching dread.

Coleman’s inclusion on the Stella Prize shortlist is more than deserved. This work and this writer are impossible to ignore - daring, compelling and bright.

I stumbled with the opening passages only because I made the mistake of presuming to know where the novel was taking me. That, and the haphazard use of repetition made me pause. Was the writer being deliberate in passages like the following? (emphasis my own)

Fights over those scraps of canvas had kept her awake at night, many times. The issues are most likely to cause long-term problems were also the issues most likely to causing fights, keeping Esperance awake at night.” 

Any hesitation is put to rest by other sections where Coleman conjures a heart-stopping image that leaps off the page:

“He saw a man running, his tattered rags of clothing afire, chased by laughing troopers, trailing smoke and flickering light. He saw a gutted man still living, holding his entrails with desperation as his eyes slowly faded. He saw a woman shot, bent over her child to protect it, then a man shot bending over her to wail for her life. He saw death: death walking and death running, even death dancing. He saw death in the blades and death in fire and smoke.”

The images, writing and impact of the novel really comes into full swing in the second half. The Australian colonial story is rendered new again, refreshed for the twenty-first century as critical female indigenous voices like Claire Coleman’s gain traction.

I predict Claire Coleman’s best work is yet to come. I’ll be first in line to read her next work. In the meantime, Terra Nullius is a must-read for every Aussie. It should be required reading for every year twelve student across the country.

'An Uncertain Grace' by Krissy Kneen - reflection by David Burton

We're rolling through the Stella Prize shortlist. Catch up on our thoughts on The Fish Girl, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree and The Life to Come. A declaration before we begin: I know Krissy Kneen. I’ve interviewed her, been Facebook buddies with her, and giggled with her at a couple of events for Brisbane’s Avid Reader. I’m a fan.

The only shame in this is that such a declaration would dilute my praise of An Uncertain Grace in your eyes. Because you must believe me: An Uncertain Grace is one of the most stunningly intelligent novels I’ve read in a long time. You should read it immediately.

Krissy’s writing has most consistently been concerned with sex, including frequent bold experimentations in literary erotica. Her first book, Affection, is an ‘erotic memoir’ - a heart-breaking, compelling, unflinchingly honest account of her relationship with sex and body. Four novels have followed, and an award-winning collection of poetry. In An Uncertain Grace, however, Krissy interest in intimacy, sex and - most powerfully – science, intersect.

an-uncertain-graceThe novel has five parts set over the course of a woman’s (Liv) life. It begins sometime in the near future. Liv has created a virtual memoir. She sends the memory stick to her old university lecturer, who experiences her narrative through a virtual reality bodysuit. He re-lives their previous sexual relationship through her eyes and body. Questions of agency, reality and consent abound. This first chapter alone is worth the price of admission into Kneen’s imagination. In a culture that is obsessed with renewed self-examination on the intricacies of power, sex and working relationships, Kneen provides no clear answers. But her exploration is one of the most compelling, layered and truthful narratives - not in spite of her leaning into science-fiction, but because of it.

The other four chapters have similarly irresistible premises. I heartily encourage you to discover them for yourself, as I did, and allow yourself to be surprised. Otherwise, I’ll outline just what the blurb gives away here. If you want the surprise, skip the next paragraph.

Liv’s career means she is at the forefront of experiments in consciousness and technology. She recruits a convicted paedophile into a trial to experience collective consciousness. Later, she helps design a synthetic boy to ‘love’ men who desire adolescents. In her old age, Liv is trying to find ways to escape her raging body and befriends a youth who is transitioning to a state beyond male or female. In the final chapter, Liv is no longer bound by her body, but still craves love.

Kneen’s literary bravery has long been established. An Uncertain Grace is not a fun roll-in-the-hay piece of erotica, but Kneen has never been interested in that form. Rather, her prowess as a writer who is undaunted by sex creates an alluring gateway into science-fiction, especially when dealing with cerebral, abstract concepts such as collective consciousness or digital preservation of the self. At the heart of every chapter are unforgettable, intriguing characters. Kneen never lets the ideas of the book supersede the story, letting the larger themes of agency and power unfurl at their own accord. This means the book is simultaneously a deeply enjoyable read and an intellectual workout.

An Uncertain Grace joins five other titles in the wonderfully diverse Stella Prize Shortlist. At time of writing, I’ve read all of them. While all are excellent, none have pulled me into their orbit quite as strongly as An Uncertain Grace. I highly recommend it.

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe - reflection by David Burton

In the countdown to the Stella Prize announcement, our editor-in-chief is making his way through the shortlist. You can check out his other reflections on 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  Mirandi Riwoe’s first novella The Fish Girl has already won the Seizure la Novella Prize. It’s now nestled in the Stella shortlist. As the Seizure la Novella Prize would suggest - the book is short, easily read in one or two gulps. (In fact, I’d recommend it to fully appreciate the rhythm.) Riwoe’s most impressive feat is the goal of many authors but achieved by few: The Fish Girl is simultaneously an intellectual backflip on twentieth century colonial dead-white-man fiction and a moving, compelling story in its own right.

A young Indonesian girl, Mina, is moved from her small fishing village to work in the house of a Dutch merchant. She leaves behind her mother, her crush, and her sisters, and encounters predictable hardships. In such a short volume, Riwoe illuminates fully realised characters. The intricate social politics of the Dutch merchant’s household pulse with acute realism. The Fish Girl’s final pages are its most surprising - not because they’re unpredictable, but because Riwoe’s commitment to that realism doesn’t abate for a moment. To fully appreciate those final pages, the book is best read across a single lazy evening.

The book was written as a direct response to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, a quintessential work of colonialism. In Maugham’s story, a ‘Mallay trollop’ is barely a character. Her experiences, desires and hardships are erased by Maugham’s dead-white-male gaze. In Riwoe’s story, that character is Mia. So The Fish Girl is a postcolonial inversion.

Here’s the thing - I didn’t know any of that going in. The quote from ‘The Four Dutchmen’ at the start of each chapter was a nice nudge from the writer to suggest a deeper colonial context, but I didn’t do the specific dot to dot work. I didn’t read a blurb or anything about the book until I’d finished it. I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.

Novella’s are deceptively hard. They’re longer, obviously, than a short story - so rarely can they hang on just one idea or an image. But they don’t have the breadth and full arc of a novel. It’s a coarse analogy, but The Fish Girl is excellent value for money and time. There’s a full cast of memorable characters, an epic journey, and haunting message, all in just a hundred pages. It feels as if the work could be three times the length. At the same time, it doesn’t feel as though you’re missing out on anything. In this, Riwoe has nailed the form where so many fail.

The Fish Girl is a great quick read from an exciting Australian voice.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, Reflection by David Burton

Our Editor-In-Chief David Burton is making his way through the Stella Prize shortlist with the winner being announced later this week! You can check out his thoughts on 'The Life to Come' here Another contender for the Stella Prize, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar is a wondrous novel of magic realism, focussing on the plight of a family caught in the midst of the Iranian revolution. It’s a challenging, blossoming, sprawling book, made all the more charming for its leaps into the supernatural. Ghosts are an assumed reality here, as are encounters with soothsayers, jinns and davalpa (half man, half snake).

At the centre of the novel is a young family, constantly under threat as members of the intellectual class. The tale is narrated by thirteen-year-old Bahar. “I should confess,” Azar told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I am her.” Indeed, Bahar’s first person account reads with the urgency of the spoken word, as if she’s leaning across the table to you, letting the tale spill out in gulps.

xthe-enlightenment-of-the-greengage-tree.jpg.pagespeed.ic.QZLuAFQEgiThe effect can be dizzying. Time is slippery. Characters may be alive, dead, dreams or somewhere in between. As a reader, you must hang on. I found the effect gripping. Once I was in the vortex of a chapter it was hard to clamber out. I felt submerged. On a practical, technical level, the paragraphs and sentences are repeatedly long, creating a quickened heart beat behind the entire piece. The novel was originally written in Farsi and translated into English, and I can only assume this rhythm was true for the original as well. It works. Just as the characters in the novel are constantly on edge, passive to the tumultuous tide of violent history, so is the reader.

While the novel barely pauses to take breath, it resists the urge to indulge in moments of beauty or intense emotion. When they bubble up regardless, they glint out of the prose like secretive diamonds, begging to be unearthed, hi-lighted, and read again. Take this moment, taken just after the family’s eldest son, Sohrab, has been imprisoned:

“Sometimes in the middle of the night, Mum would wake up, too, and they would cut wood or apply finish together. One night when the political news anchor for Voice of America broke the silence between them, they didn’t even look at each other, because in their mind’s eye each was looking at Sohrab. They just sawed wood: rr-rr, rr-rr, rr-rr. The anchor was saying, now that Ayatollah Khomeini had agreed to end the eight-year war and the Security Council Resolution 598 had been signed, there were signs that he would avenge this defeat; so dark things lay in store for Iran, but no political analyst could predict yet what this might be. Dad thought Mum was crying while Mum thought it was Dad.”

In its style, the novel owes a lot to South American magic realism writers such as Gabriel Garcia Màrquez. Azar is open about this, even referencing the work in the novel itself:

“Their car was turned inside out and, finally, when the Guards found One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez in Beeta’s bag, they spent an hour passing it back and forth and radioing around before they were eventually convinced that politically, it was not a dangerous book.”

The sly wink is compelling. Azar disguises her political declarations in myth, but never holds back. From chapter to chapter, we careen between different family members to even the life of the Ayatollah himself:

“He despaired in these, the last few seconds of his life, that he had no time to explain what he had only just now come to understand. His exhausted heart finally came to a halt, just as his one eye lingered on his own reflection while the other looked at the boy. In that split second, he understood that whereas in monologue he was a fierce ruler, in dialogue he was nothing but a bearded, illogical little boy, stubborn and pompous.”

This fast-paced lane changing was the novel’s most challenging aspect for me, but it allowed Azar to tour the reader through diverse narrative avenues. Taken as short stories or asides, some of the chapters that verge from the central family were some of the book’s most fascinating moments.

On the matter of politics, it’s unlikely this novel will ever by published in Iran. Azar herself came to Australia in 2009 and was held at Christmas Island. To go from that to becoming a short-listed Stella Prize author is astonishing. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a challenging, beautiful novel, worthy of its many accolades.