Books I read in May.
- Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright
It’s not just women fiction writers and historians uncovering stories of women marginalised from the pages of history, as Wainwright’s biography shows. At first, I found it off-putting and unusual for a man to write about one of Australia’s most eminent suffragists, but I found his treatment to be sympathetic and insightful. Muriel was an Australian elocutionist who visited London to play the stage, but who was caught up in the burgeoning suffrage cause. Because of her orator skills and her lack of social ties, and a bit of colonial girl derring-do, she was at the forefront of incredible public stunts. I could not believe I had never heard of Muriel Matters before. Wainwright contrasts the British suffrage movement with the Australian one, as well as the narrow aims of the suffragettes, and the social reforms that Muriel eventually dedicated herself to, including Montessori education.
2. Antidote to Murder by Felicity Young #aww2017 ♥
I missed the first in this Dr Dody McCleland historical crime series, but I will definitely be going back to it. Now there are four, so I am am going to spread them out to ration my enjoyment. Set in 1911, Dr Dody is an autopsy surgeon experiencing all of the patriarchy that she can bear and more, while nursing a yearning for an impoverished police inspector who happens to go missing at the beginning of the book. But he is on special assignment, and Young weaves historical fact and personages into this page-turner, such as Mata Hari and German espionage, as well as the conflicting perspectives among suffragettes and other forward-thinking women regarding abortion. I loved it.
3. The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr #aww2017 ♥
For a change of pace, this novel was a luminous fable, which focused on structure. The structure of a person’s life, as well as how families may be structured. And of course, the holiday house as a structure is the setting and raison-d’etre of the ‘blended/extended’ family having a weekend down south in Western Australia, in order to pack up the house. Over the course of a rainy long weekend, punctuated by a ‘housebreaking’ party, and ending with a naming ceremony, Iris, her son Kurt, his father Paul, his new wife Kristin, their nameless baby, Paul’s sister Marti, and Marti’s daughter Luce, inhabit the house’s rooms, and each other’s inner lives. The story is visual, like scenes from a film in storyboard form, or the pages of a flip book. The second part of the book’s structure is a literary version of this, as Iris’s mother Rosa’s life is rapidly brought to life from 100 to 0. Rosa is a writer of ‘faery’ tales, and this motif is richly evoked, through Iris’s stitching and the baby’s nameless state. Like the miller’s daughter, I was left having to guess at Rumpelstiltskin’s name.
4. Half the World in Winter by Maggie Joel #aww2017 ♥
Maggie Joel is fast-becoming one of my favourite Australian historical fiction writers. This story opens in 1880 with a horrific train crash which kills two railway employees and a small girl. The owner of the railroad, Lucas Jarmyn, is still suffering from the death of his own daughter Sofia, 6 months before. The circumstances and blame laid for her death weave through the narrative, as the Jarmyns nurse their private tragedies that tear them apart. Thoroughly researched and yet worn lightly, I learnt so much about Victorian mourning rituals, the dangers of early rail travel, and the first South African war.
5. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
EM Forster wrote A Passage to India over many years, interrupted by WWI where he spent some time working in Alexandria. It was sparked by his Oxford friendship and unrequited love with an Indian student, Masood, who invited him to India. In India, men have close friendships, even now, where they are seen canoodling and holding hands in the streets. It is easy to see how in the repressive atmosphere of England in the Edwardian era, this closeness could have been both craved and misconstrued by EM Forster. Galgut has written a tender portrayal of Morgan Forster’s thwarted yearnings for love and companionship, where being an outsider in Egypt and India mirrors his alienation of self.
6. The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn ♥
This book is shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin prize and the writing is exquisite, and very accessible. A fictionalised imagining of author Eve Langley’s last days of life, in a hut in the Blue Mountains, living in squalour and behaving very eccentrically. She dresses as Oscar Wilde and most of the narrative is her walk into town and back, visiting other residents and getting into trouble with the law on her perambulations. Because of her mental state and penchant for early drinking, the prospect of a Martian in a space helmet following her doesn’t give cause for alarm. But when he reveals himself it is quite heart-breaking.
7. From the Wreck by Jane Rawson #aww2017 ♥
Quite simply, this book was an absolute joy to read. What Jane Rawson has created is astounding–taking the historical record of the sinking of the ship Admella off South Australia in 1859, in which her ancestor George was one of the 24 survivors, and then weaving such a compelling and ultimately sad tale involving alien intervention. What connects all forms of life is the need to survive. George survived, but the memory of how he did haunts him, until he realises that the life force that had sustained him now lives through his son Henry.
8. A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson
This is the third in the Thomas Hawkins historical crime thriller series, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two, which had a real sense of terror and a ticking clock. This one meandered a bit and there were no real surprises as Thomas is sent by the Queen on an errand to find the green ledger containing the names of people who conspired in the South Sea Bubble. But he arrives at Studley Royale, the pile belonging to the ex-Exchequer Aisalbie, to discover someone is threatening him. There are people who aren’t who they say they are, buried secrets, and murder most horrid.
9. Gwen by Goldie Goldbloom #aww2017
Gwendolyn Mary John was the sister of the painter Augustus John, and lover of Rodin. She was also a painter in her own right. And incidentally, a lover of her brother, and lover of her brother’s mistress. Such tangled webs she weaved. In 1903, Gwen set off to France on foot with Dorelia, who later betrayed her for a man, and then Augustus. This section of the book was my favourite, with descriptions of the French peasantry and countryside in the Langue D’Oc. Gwen as a character was also more assertive, in control of her journey, her relationships, and her aspirations, despite being troubled by an apparition of a Jewish man whose hair wrapped its tendrils around her. In the second part of the book, Gwen secures her ambition to model and learn from Rodin. But her artistic and independent spirit are usurped by ‘her master’, and she suffers a kind of sexual abuse victim Stockholm Syndrome, which made for difficult reading. However, the real victims of history are illuminated through a touching through-thread.