Wife For Hire, by Dianne Blacklock

Sam has made a career out of being a perfect wife and mother to her husband Jeff and their three children. So, when Jeff leaves her for another woman, she is devastated – and angry.

With her perfect life in tatters, Sam must make a new one for herself – and quickly finds the perfect job – working as a wife for hire. Sam works for professionals – men and women – who don’t have time for the jobs traditionally handled by a wife – shopping, travel arrangements, bill payment, gift purchasing and more. But when she is assigned Hal Buchanan as a client, she finds him a little difficult to work for, primarily because he doesn’t want to use her services.

As her up and down relationship with Hal develops and her family faces the challenges of new arrangements, she can longer organise everything to perfection. Letting go of her control is not always easy, especially where her emotions are concerned.

Wife For Hire is a lively combination of personal growth, romance and light humour. The effects of divorce on the individual and the whole family are explored, as are relationships between generations, and the search for self identity.

Great reading.

Wife for Hire, by Dianne Blacklock
Pan Macmillan, 2003

Cappucino Diva, by Samantha Ellen Tidy

Angie has always considered Fremantle home so, when she returns from travelling overseas, she is drawn to live there.

Sharing a house, working in a coffee shop and drifting in the tide of the harbour town, Angie begins to develop a sense of self, an ego which is built up and diminished over again. Darcy, the man she has slept with once but longed for both before and since, is one of the keys to her happiness or lack of it.

Don’t be fooled, though, that this is in any way a love story or even a light romance. Cappuccino Diva is a story of self discovery, of self belief and self absorption. As the novel unfolds, Angie grows in a manner whcih is both endearing and believable.

This is also a book about a place – Fremantle. The port city, forever struggling to be more than a suburb of Perth, is an entity that those who have spent time there have to love. Author Samantha Ellen Tidy captures the elements of Fremantle witha precision which will make those who have lived there home sick. The houses, the cafes, the hotels and – most importantly – the people, fill the pages with the life that is Fremantle.

Cappucino Diva was runner up for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2000 and is the first publication of Tidy’s fledgeling publishing venture, Black Coffee Press. You can learn more about the Press, and about Cappucino Diva, by visiting the company’s website, where teachers will also find access to ideas for using the novel in the classroom.

Cappuccino Diva, by Samantha Ellen Tidy
Black Coffee Press, 2003

Who Killed Bianca, by Emma Darcy

Succesful romance novelist K. C. Gordon is looking forward to her trip on the Ghan from Sydney to Alice Springs. Part research opportunity, part relaxation, she has no desire to be caught up in a murder investigation.

Unfortunately for K.C., it seems she might have little choice. Among her fellow travellers is a group of eight of Sydney’s elite, all of them with dramas, pasts and secrets they don’t want to see exposed. They are dogged by another passenger, the infamous gossip columnist, Bianca Bernini, who has joined the trip purely to dig dirt and expose the secrets of her eight adversaries. She does not forsee that the trouble she is about to cause will result in her murder.

K.C. finds herself drawn into this group and into trying to figure out who the murderer is.

Who Killed Bianca is a gripping murder mystery from one of Australia’s most popular female novelists, Emma Darcy. Darcy, better known for her numerous romance titles, shows her versatility with this, her second murder mystery featuring the sassy 40-something K.C. Gordon.

Good reading.

Who Killed Bianca, by Emma Darcy
Pan Macmillan 2002

Mahjar, by Eva Sallis

The word mahjar is an Arabic term referring collectively to all the lands of Arab, and especially Lebanese, migration. Australia is one of the lands of the mahjar, a fact explored eloquently in Eva Sallis’ book Mahjar.

A novel-in-stories, Mahjar intertwines stroies of migrants and their children, with stories of events in their homelands and with Arabic fables. Each story stands alone, but when considered alongside each other they create a deep awareness of Australia’s and Australians’ connections with the Middle East. It encourages understanding of the culture and struggles of this group of people who come to call Australia home.

A timely offering, in the face of Australia’s resistance to refugees and involvement in the Middle East.

Mahjar, by Eva Sallis
Allen & Unwin, 2003

Kittyhawk Down, by Garry Disher

Inspector Challis has more than one case on the go. An unidentified man has been fished out of the sea with an anchor around his waist, a troubled farmer has become violent and is on a crime wave of his own, and someone is stalking Challis’s friend Kitty.

Meanwhile, Challis has personal problems to deal with too. His wife, in jail for conspiring to murder him, constantly pressures him for reassurance. His girlfriend, the editor of the local paper, wants more than he can give right now, and his feelings towards Kitty are confusing.

Kittyhawk Down is the second Inspector Challis murder mystery. Fans who have waited since 2000 will be pleased to see the reappearance of this endearing character who is just as intriguing here as in the first title, The Dragon Man, winner of the German Crime Fiction Award and a shortlist title for the Ned Kelly Award.

Kittyhawk Down is a an excellent piece of Australian crime fiction.

Kittyhawk down, by Garry Disher
Allen & Unwin, 2003

The House at Evelyn's Pond, by Wendy Orr

Ruth, an Auxilary Pilot during World War Two, struggles with identity, especially when her mother lets slip that she is adopted. She finds haven in the arms of Bill, a Canadian navigator, who guides her through this trauma and through the catastrophe of losing both her parents in a wartime bombing. Their love is Ruth’s salvation, and endures until Bill’s death fifty years later.

Following his death, Ruth returns to England for the first time since their marriage. While there, she dies and it is her daughter Jane who must escort her home.

Jane has lived in Australia for all her married life – having met an Australian dairy farmer on her first trip to England. Alone without her husband, and with the sadness of her mother’s death to contend with, Jane finds the trip a trip of memories and reflections as she discovers parts of her mother’s past and relives some of her own. Alone in her childhood home she faces uncertainty and a new awareness that troubles her.

Meanwhile, Jane’s own daughter, Megan, is a on a journey of her own. In Canada for the first time, she is on a trek with a chance acquaintance. Her mother is troubled by the thought that this could be a new beginning for her daughter, in this country which is no longer home.

The House at Evelyn’s Pond is a tale of mothers and daughters, of love and of belonging. The similarities between the generations are poignant echoes of deja vu. The differences between these same generations gives each its own story.

A beautifully written exploration of family and of self.

The House at Evelyn’s Pond, by Wendy Orr
Allen & Unwin 2001

The Dragon Man, by Garry Disher

When two young women are murdered, the previously sleepy Peninsula is on full alert – there is a serial killer on the loose. Detective Inspector Hal Challis is charged with finding the killer – before another death happens. The media want to know what’s being done, with the editor of the local paper giving him particular trouble.

As Christmas approaches the Peninsula should be brimming with holiday cheer, but this year the pall of danger hangs over the area.

The Dragon Man is the first book in the Detective Inspector Challis series. Challis is based on the Peninsula, where he moves between stations as the need arises. He has come to the Peninsula following the break up of his marriage – when his wife and her lover tried to kill him. He is at once likeable and multi-faceted, with the promise of being an intriguing character to follow through the subsequent books in the series.

The Dragon Man, by Garry Disher
Allen & Unwin. First published 1999, reissued, 2003

An Innocent Gentleman, by Elizabeth Jolley

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

 

Elizabeth Jolley’s The Innocent Gentleman is a disturbing novel. On a superficial level, there is no reason why it should be disturbing. The main characters, Henry and Muriel Bell, appear to be fairly normal. They have two daughters, an irritating, critical mother-in-law, and they live in a low rental, but newly built suburban estate in the English Midlands during World War Two, where they manage their privations by teaching, and skimping wherever necessary. Into their lives comes Mr Hawthorne, a wealthy, refined man, whose social graces and privileged life make him attractive to both the Bells. The outcome of Mr Hawthorne’s relationship with the Bells is not surprising, nor is the reaction to the Bells by their somewhat less educated neighbours, the Tonkinsons. Everyone behaves with reasonable discretion, there are few scenes, and life doesn’t dramatically change in any way from the contact. It is possible to feel, after finishing the book, that nothing much has happened, and perhaps this is the reason why the novel is so disturbing, because quite a lot happens; dramatic things. There are love affairs, near deaths, disappearances, a birth, and much suffering, but in the end, it all amounts to nothing. The characters are detached from themselves, watching, analysing, and even deliberately walking towards tragedy, or some form of intensity in a desperate bid to break the sleepy film that seems to cover everything in this mannered life, where even love, birth and death are governed by such strong rules of etiquette that it all seems meaningless. Or perhaps the discomfort is due to the way the narrative voice conveys the characters themselves, offering dual glimpses of a literate, well spoken couple, and their conceits, meannesses, and the smallness of their desires.

Stylistically, the novel is an interesting combination of a traditional tightly mannered, narrative which moves forward in standard timeframe, with an experimental format that mixes a Jane Austin style narrator with a tongue-in-cheek Dramatis Personae, bits of poetry, asides, repeating passages, and cited notebook jottings. From the beginning, the Dramatis Personae sets the tone of a mannered, almost Pinteresque theatre piece, with a detached sarcastic narrator, and this feeling is continued throughout the book. The small comical exchange of voices just after the Dramatis Personae, “I’ll get him! I’ll get that Mr Hilter”, but before the start of the main narrative, provides an introduction to the setting, and also a reminder that whatever realism the novel appears to have, it is not meant to be taken at face value. The “Scottish voice” doesn’t reappear, however the coarse but earnest voice of Mrs Tonkinson does, along with Henry’s muse Wordsworth, Thomas Mann, and Dostoyevski, and hints that the appearances of this book are deceptive. A number of paragraphs repeat themselves, such as “Seating himself at the piano, he rubbed his hands together”, or “he seemed to be always ahead of her, on the pavement, as if by chance”. There is also the narrator, who seems to dislike, or at least to have a condescending attitude to the two main characters, providing ironic asides such as “her own phrase”, or “Henry continued his enlightening remarks from one day to the next”, or in its reference to Mr Hawthorne’s “elevated culture”, and the “little nucleus of culture” which exists at the Bell’s home. At a certain point in the story, Henry and Muriel become the Mother and the Father, and then this changes again to the Husband and the Wife. At one point Henry is referred to as Mr H Bell, Henry (schoolmaster). This shifting of voice and person is unsettling, as it occurs after the reader has become accustomed to Henry and Muriel, and makes it seem as though the reader himself were someone else in the scheme of the story, or listening to it from another narrator. . This clash between the mannered, linear story of the Bells, and the playful, ironic, and varying narrative makes up the tension in this novel, and helps to create a feeling of “something gone wrong” in the reader.

The title of the book indicates the presence of an innocent person, and this is also ironic, since, with the possible exception of Victor, no one in this novel is innocent. Henry talks of Hawthorne’s innocence as throughout the book. The “first sight of innocence”, as he sat “handsome and noble, large in their small sitting room”, and his unblemished innocence as a lover, and then his later innocence at the turn of events, being “too kind and perlite to say no”. Hawthorne is the obvious contender for the innocent gentleman of the title, but his polite love affair with Muriel, in which he continues to play the absent object, the hopelessly “in love” spectator, enjoying Muriel’s body without commitment, even to the son he has supposedly fathered, is hardly innocent. As readers, we know very little of Mr Hawthorne. We hear some of his dialogue, and know that he is well mannered, and well dressed, but aside from his physical encounters with Muriel, Hawthorne is a limited character, existing only as a shadow board for Henry and Muriel’s stilted desires. There are hints of some other life with his assistant Morton, and the nursemaid Sarah, who he onced “loved very much”. However, we never learn more about him, or his supposedly lonely life.

Henry is a much clearer character. The narrator makes some fun of his possessive and ineffectual aspirations towards poetry, even providing the reader with a rather bad poem, contrasting sharply with the Wordsworth which precedes it. The reader is made to dislike him, as he does some decidedly unpleasant things, such as keeping a diary of his wife’s monthly cycles, a “notebook kept for Muriel’s secret inner life”, and thinking that only men could be real poets. There is also the way in which his own desire for admiration from Mr Hawthorne causes him to push his wife into a relationship with him, urging her to go to the opera, and ignoring the early warnings of an affair which later causes him distress. He calls his wife “innocent, na├»ve, and even a little stupid”, and treats her like a little girl, and she muses on the “generous feeling” he might have had towards small boys. There is also his sympathy with German culture, and language; his imaginings of life in a German country. Henry’s desire for “poetic truth”, along with his desperation for order, and his constant self-analysing, the narrative asides of how he would “tell Muriel later”, and his later descent into his own affairs and alcohol make him seem like an unpleasant self-conscious, and ineffectual overly pompous man. Despite the negative narrative portrait, there is also much to admire in Henry. He feeds and cares for his chlidren in the face of his pretty wife’s whims and absentmindedness, and takes on much of the responsibility for her failings, while generously putting up with her difficult mother. He does also occasionally stumble on a truth, such as his desire for Muriel to “keep the real wishes in the human heart”. There is tension between the negative and positive in Henry, and like Muriel, the reader can’t determine how to view him, as wise, caretaker, poet and father, or as irritating, vain, controlling and useless.

Muriel is also a difficult character, alternating between lovelorn heroine eager for some form of fulfilment in her “gentleman”, and the self-centred, self-indulgent femme fatal, who calls her children “brats: How irritating they were when they hung onto her clothes”, and longs for status, nice clothes, and “a school where the school orchestra played Mozart and Beethoven and Vaughan Williams”. It is difficult to see who is the real protagonist, or the “dark invisible” workman, referred to repeatedly in the Wordsworth quotes. Both Henry and Muriel seem to follow some thread of desire which originates in their minds, and in the images of what love, and art are, rather than on how they really feel.

The novel takes place during WWII, although the war itself remains merely a backdrop, with ration coupons, and German lessons, and the occasional air raid. Neither Muriel nor Henry are directly involved in any fighting, and living removed from London as they do, they are hardly aware of the damage which occurs, except for Muriel’s one episode in an air raid shelter. However the real damage of the war; the real pain, provides a balance to the smaller domestic concerns of Henry and Muriel, as Muriel realises: “She reminded herself that, in the way that she lived, her prayers, if remembered, were trivial in comparison with this prayer.” The post bomb scene of the baby having his nappy changed at the edge of the crater, with the “baby boy’s tiny penis exposed” reminds Muriel how delicate life is. This brief reminder of real life, and its fragility, compared to the desperate musings of Henry and Muriel is mirrored at the end of the novel, when Muriel sees little Leopoldi’s “reliable little penis in the open air and all the responsibility in readiness”, and nearly feels something deep, and enduring, but holds back, heading the advice of Mrs Tonkonson, masseuse, woman of “second sight”, humorous neighbour, quoter of Shakespeare, and bearer of comfort for Henry, who tells Muriel that grief will stop the baby from thriving.

Another interesting character is Victor, the poorly spoken saviour of guinea pigs, and Leopoldi. Victor’s own prayer would also render those muttered by Henry and Muriel, and the Tonkinsons as trivial. His cry of grief, as he imagines having to go back to his foster home, provides a moment of colour in this black and white tale: “His cry was like the cry of a desperate animal caught in a trap”. He is the innocent gentleman, “gentle, quick, Victor”, who, despite Muriel’s bullying, still saves her child. Of course Victor fits nowhere into this English society. He is homeless, parentless, and possessed of a missing mouth roof which renders him difficult to understand. The young Bells tell Muriel that in order to make sense of Victor, “you really have to really listen”, but who has time for listening?

So what is innocence? What is love? In a sense, the label of innocence is also a way of indicating a lack of involvement; a lack of power, and most importantly, a lack of knowledge. By not fully participating in their lives, Henry, Muriel and Hawthorn maintain their innocence, even as they are guilty of hurt, pettiness, and small minded jealousies. As a comedy of manners, An Innocent Gentleman makes for a mildly humorous, and easy to read novel; a brief play which is a kind of light farce. As a commentary on the sterility of English mannered life, and as a serious work exploring issues of innocence and guilt, love and pain, and how we make meaning in our lives, the book is difficult, and disturbing, leaving the reader confused, as humour and the lightness of tone mingle with the emptiness of the characters lives, and the mingling of pettiness, desire and depravity. The characters in this novel are too familiar, their lives too similar to our own. Jolley has created an interesting novel, which explores some difficult issues in an unusual structural form. As Henry describes the salute, that “complete faith in the wholesomeness of the continuing operations”, which he later mirrors in his wrestle with Hawthorne, we begin to see that the operations are merely show, and that under the surface, “decline has already set in”.

 

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications.

The Point, by Marion Halligan

On a promontory on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, an equisite glass building houses an equally exquisite resautrant. The city’s elite come to dine there, to eat the culinary marvels created by Flora, the city’s most celebrated chef. Nearby, in a ferry shelter which no ferry has ever visited, an eldery homeless man drinks cask wine and befriends a young drug addict. They are not part of the life inside the restaurant, until the man’s heroic actions draw them in.

As the novel focusses on food, so the story itself is like fine dining – served in differing forms, brought out layer by layer, to be savoured, explored and slowly digested. And like a good meal, the book leaves an aftertaste which lingers long after it is finished.

The art of the point is in its mix of narrative technique. Part diary, part third person recount. First one viewpoint, then another, the novel keeps the reader guessing from chapter to chapter. Flora, the charcater who would seem to be central to the varying plots and subplots is perhaps the one we come to know least. Other characters, chiefly her lover, Jerome, an ex-priest and the homeless Clovis are looked at from differing perspectives and seen to evolve. Flora is an enigma. The other characters all worship her, but few seem to know her very well.

The Point will be a special treat for those who love fine food, with meals playing an important part of the action, and also those who love Canberra – although The Point itself is a fictional place.

Fine reading.

The Point, by Marion Halligan
Allen & Unwin, 2003

Moorilla Mosaic, edited by Robyn Mathison and Lyn Reeves

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

 

Moorilla Mosaic is a collection of poetry, stories and excerpts from novels in progress, written by 27 Tamanian writers, all of whom read at the Moorilla Cultural Series in 1991 at the Moorillla Museum of Antiquities. The book reflects the wide diversity of styles and the rich landscape of Tasmanian writing, which seems to have suddenly come into strong public focus in the last year or so. As with any collection of poetry and prose by different authors, the pieces work best in small readings, taking time to allow each author’s distinctive style to settle, and for the messages to release their meaning. The collection contains from 3-5 poems or a few pages of prose from each author, which works well in allowing the reader time to become accustomed to a particular voice. The voices in this volume certainly differ. There are poems about lost innocence, travel poems, poems which equate the modern world with the ancient, and a wide range of poems about the natural beauty of Tasmania, such as Pete Hay’s “Night Owl, With Rain,” which calls upon an owl’s:

precise mourning
a soft, soft metronome, hw-how,
ticking the hours over.

or Ivy Alvarez’ “Earth” where: loam crumbs, brown earth melts under water’s welts.

There are also a number of bush style poems invoking insularity, ugliness and poverty such as Tim Thorne’s “Pension Payday” where:

You can hardly hear the sirens for the sound of breaking glass
Maggie’s in the corner with her skirts up round her arse
and Jimmy’s shat himself again and Bill’s been put away
and the form guide in the paper says its slow to dead today.

For me at least, the most powerful poems in the book however, are those which speak in a female voice, of the universal themes of motherhood, personal insecurity and loneliness. Some of those which really stand out are Liz Winfield’s anguished “Poems of Lonely Vale,” which speaks of isolation and the loneliness of a young mother:

in this place where the fog didn’t lift till lunchtime
and the sun disappeared at four
I didn’t know then that the black dog bites
as gentle as rain
as soft as your cuddle with the words
‘sometimes tears
just fall…’

Other motherhood poems also work well in their earnest and intense imagery such as Sarah Day’s “Children’s Ward” where the reader visualises a ward full of asthmatic children fighting for breath, along with the pain and warmth of one mother’s love:

She has been stroking his back since time began,
working calm’s liniment between shoulder blades
Scarcely bigger than chicken wings

or Louise Oxley’s “Bearing a Name” where we are with her in her intense labour, shocked by the realisation that at one time this kind of fairly common set of emergencies would have killed a woman:

I am called prima gravida and
you, placenta previs – deep
traverse arrest –

failed high forceps – foetal
distress – emergency caesarian
section. These are not

> the names I had in mind. How
could they be?
Before your coming to me
they did not signify.

The fiction varies too, with most of the excerpts set in Tasmanian landscapes, and most of the works chosen carefully enough so that they make sense as short stories, especially Robert Cox’s “The Darkness After Midnight” where a woman learns of her husband’s accidental death.

All of the authors in this collection are widely published, and many have become part of the Tasmanian literary canon. This book is indicative of the variety and detail of what modern Tasmanian authors have to offer the world, with their unique but also universal vision. For anyone wanting an unusual and fresh anthology of contemporary Southern Australian writing – a sampling to savour slowly – this is a nicely put together collection. You may not like every piece in it – poetry being the most subjective and personal of literary experiences, it is unlikely that every work will appeal to every reader, however, it is possible to read this and imagine yourself in the charming Moorilla museum with a glass of good wine, surrounded by objects of antiquities, excellent acoustics, and the very congenial and often moving voices of poets and novelists sharing their art.

For more information on Moorilla Mosaic, or to purchase a copy, visit: www.postpressed.com.au/verse/moorilla.html Moorilla Mosaic: Contemporary Tasmanian Writing, Edited by Robyn Mathison and Lyn Reeves
Bumblebee Books, 1991, Paperback
ISBN 0-9586133-2-X
RRP A$29.95

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications.