I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.
The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.
Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.
I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.
A favorite passage:
“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
Salt Creek is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read. All the harder, then, to believe that it’s Lucy Treloar’s debut novel. Since its initial release in Australia in 2015, it has gone on to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Miles Franklin Award for Australian novels. We have Claire McAlpine of Word by Word to thank for helping this book find a publisher in the UK. I can particularly recommend it to fans of The Essex Serpent and English Passengers, and there are also resonances with Rebecca Winterer’s Australia-set The Singing Ship.
Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. Her luckless father tried whaling in Adelaide before turning to cheese-making as his next far-fetched money-making venture. From Quaker stock, Papa believed the natives should be well treated and even all but adopted an aboriginal boy named Tully, getting him to bathe and wear clothes and educating him alongside his seven children. However, as Hester hints starting early on in the novel, having a white family monopolizing resources put an impossible strain on relations with the natives.
It seems an inevitable irony of reviewing – or maybe it’s just me? – that the books you love the most are the hardest to write about. However can I do this book justice? I wonder about lots of 5-star books. It’s easier to put together a review when you have some mixture of positive and negative things to say, but I have no faults to find with Salt Creek. It flawlessly evokes its time period and somewhat bleak setting. Hester’s narration is as lyrical as it is nostalgic and matter-of-fact, and I sympathized with her desperation not to be drawn into a Victorian housewife’s cycle of endless pregnancies. The characterization is spot on, especially for figures like Papa or Tully who could have easily been reduced to stereotypes.
Most of all, this is the piercing story of a clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs. You might think notions of dominion and looking after ‘poor natives’ are outdated, but just listen in to what particular groups have to say about the environment and intervention abroad and you’ll realize that this is as relevant as ever. Salt Creek comes with my highest recommendation.
Some favorite lines:
“Poor Papa. He pitted himself against the land, yet it was impervious to all his learning and effort and incantatory prayers. The land had its own drives and they ran against Papa’s, blunting all his purposes.”
“I would not have a baby or that would be my life. There would be another and another and nothing left of my self; my life being decided for me.”
“Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.”
“It seemed as if every part of the lagoon had a name and a story and a meaning. The stories were all around us wherever we went. There was scarcely a place without one and it felt as if we were nothing but one more story inside this world and the stories were without number.”
“The longer I looked the more that impression of civilization seemed an illusion.”
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
Memories are stored vertically, fluid and accessible from the strangest depths. … [T]o explore was to salvage, to record a story was to remember one.
Rebecca Winterer won the 2016 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize for The Singing Ship, her sophisticated story of the afflictions and creative transformations that shape the Pilgrim family of Mt. Isaac, Queensland over the course of six decades. However, the book opens with an even longer view – a cosmic one – via a prologue offering a millennia-old perspective on human life. An epilogue returns full circle, telescoping from the Pilgrims back out to the enormity of the earth without belittling the value of the individual. In between those two points of vastness, we spend time on the dusty Australian ground with four characters who nurse their traumas with some unusual obsessions.
Eleven-year-old Bernadette emulates her hero, nineteenth-century explorer Charles Sturt, by trekking out into the bush with a log book and carefully amassed provisions. Younger sister Jane combats her nightmares by focusing on stories of the saints and constructing little altars, “earnestly fabricating solace and safe havens.” Already the signs of who they’ll grow up to be are evident – Bernadette an award-winning historian, and Jane a nun. But the road there will not be easy: Winterer plants tiny hints of an attack the girls suffer out in the bush.
Meanwhile, the girls’ father, Robert, admits to a sexual peccadillo with a customer at his department store and has a nervous breakdown. Their mother Audrey, an unfulfilled housewife with creative ambitions, responds with affairs of her own but also embarks on her magnum opus, an enormous quilt decorated with her button collection. One day the quilt will be part of the permanent folk art collection at the National Gallery in Canberra. For now it’s like an echo of the bowerbird nest Bernadette finds: a visual display of newfound confidence.
The novel follows the Pilgrims from perhaps the late 1950s through to the present day; and from drought-plagued Mt. Isaac to the university where Bernadette teaches and the convent where Jane lives. There will be more losses along the way – deaths and broken relationships – but these characters keep reinventing themselves to survive. In two cases name changes are symbolic of leaving a previous life behind: we learn that Robert chose the new surname Pilgrim when he escaped from his father’s hotel-cum-brothel, to signify his eagerness in setting out on his life’s journey; and when Jane takes her vows she becomes Sister Ava.
I was impressed by how much ground this novel covers in just 210 pages. It takes in so many weighty topics: mental illness, adultery, sexual assault, bereavement, suicide, art, history, legacy and culture. Perhaps for that reason, I found that I had to parcel it out into small chunks, reading just 10 pages or so at a time. The chronology can be difficult to follow – unspecified lengths of time pass between the sections and the narrative skips back and forth, such that I longed for date headings to help me orient myself. But some of this is deliberate, I’m sure: as in Virginia Woolf’s work, the past bleeds into the present, with memory and action sometimes indistinguishable. Indeed, one part is entitled “The Voyage Out”; though I’m unfamiliar with that Woolf novel, I had To the Lighthouse in mind while reading.Winterer’s writing also reminded me of Sarah Moss’s, especially her pair of historical novels, due to the theme of obsessions and vocations – the things that distract you versus those that lead you to what really matters in life. I particularly liked the descriptions of Australian flora and fauna, whether used to set a scene or as part of unique metaphors, like “a huge termite mound, the orangey color of glaze on the cream buns at the school tuck shop.”
The title itself has metaphorical significance, referring to a sculpture of Captain Cook’s Endeavor, sited on a headland over Keppel Bay. It’s “white as bleached cuttlebone” and fitted with organ pipes so that when the wind passes through it creates an uncanny music. Later on Winterer likens the sculpture to the human body. That’s one of the images that will stick with me from this dreamy novel: of music emerging from the detritus of troubled lives.
The Singing Ship was published by Del Sol Press on July 21st. My thanks to the author for sending a free copy for review.