The Lake House, by Kate Morton

9781742376516.jpgThere. It was done.
It crossed her mind that she should say something before she left this lonely place. Something about the death of innocence, the deep remorse that would follow her always; but she didn’t. The inclination made her feel ashamed.

It is 1933 and sixteen year old Alice Edevane is blissfully happy. She has just finished writing her first mystery novel, and she is secretly in love. As her family prepares for their annual Midsummer-Eve party, Alice prepares to offer both the manuscript and herself to Tom, the object of her affections. But not only are her hopes dashed, but something far bigger, far more terrible, will befall the family before the night it out.

Seventy years later, Detective Sadie Sparrow finds herself taking enforced leave after getting too involved with a case. Staying with her much-loved grandfather in Cornwall helps to fill the time. When she stumbles across an abandoned house in the woods, she uncovers the mystery of a baby boy who disappeared without a trace in 1933. Her interest aroused, she becomes determined to solve the mystery.

When Alice Edevane, now elderly and a successful author of detective novels, learns of Sadie’s interest in the case, she it first resistant to having the case reopened. But perhaps together they can uncover the truth and bring closure to the past.

The Lake House is a well-woven story of mystery, heartache and love. While the mystery creates a link across the seventy years, so too do themes of motherhood, loss, and dealing with trauma. Alice’s father is, unbeknownst to his children, suffering from his time at World War 1, and Sadie is haunted by having given a baby up for adoption at the age of sixteen. Other characters, too, have traumas of their own – including Sadie’s grandfather, who has recently lost his wife, and the Edevane’s family friend Mr Llewellyn who gave up practicing medicine and suffered a breakdown.

The narrative unfolds through the viewpoints of Sadie, Alice and Alice’s mother, Eleanor, with dates at the beginning of each chapter helping the reader to keep track and to gradually build a picture of both the events of the baby’s disappearance as well as those that lead up to it . These three female leads are complemented with a broad support cast, including Bertie, Sadie’s grandfather, Alice’s sister Deborah, the mysterious Ben Munro and Alice’s assistant, Peter.

At 591 pages, this is a big volume, but the length is justified by the beautiful writing and the complexity of the plot.

The Lake House, by Kate Morton
Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN 9781742376516

The Lightkeeper's Wife, by Karen Viggers

Over Jacinta’s shoulder, Mary could see the sea rolling in. A Pacific gull flapped slowly up the beach, hanging on the breeze. This was the moment she’d been dreading. ‘I’ve organised to stay here,’ she said. ‘It’s all arranged. I’ve rented this place for a month, and I’ve paid for a Parks ranger to stop in and check on me each day to make sure I’m all right.’
Jacinta looked at her without moving.

As she nears the end of her life, Mary wants nothing more than to spend her final days on Bruny Island, where she spent the bulk of her married life and raised her three children. But those children, now adults with lives of their own, want to keep her close, especially her daughter Jan, who has been checking out nursing homes.

Taking matters into her own hands, Mary organises to rent a cottage on the island, and tricks her granddaughter into driver her there. For Mary this return to Bruny is important. Not just the whim of revisiting a favourite place, instead it is a time of restoration, of making amends for a long-held secret. Whilst she is there she is visited by Jacinta and her children, each with their own soul searching to do. It is her youngest son, Tom, who finds it easiest to understand his mother’s actions. Ten years ago he over-wintered at Antarctica, and even now he finds it difficult to fit into regular society. Both Mary and Tom must face their pasts, albeit in different ways.

The Lightkeeper’s Wife is a rich tale exploring love of different kinds and on different levels – from first love, to the bonds between mother and child, between man and dog, between siblings and more. The twin narratives – one exploring Mary’s life both past and present, and the second doing the same for her son Tom – unfold gradually, coming together and drifting apart delightfully, so that the reader feels the passage of time and wants to stay a part of both characters’ worlds.

A wonderfully rich read.

The Lightkeeper's Wife

The Lightkeeper’s Wife, by Karen Viggers
Allen & Unwin, 2011
ISBN This book can be purchased from good bookstores or online from Fishpond.

Below the Styx, by Michael Meehan

I struck her. Or at least the object struck her, with me, unfortunately, and as I have already explained in great detail to Clive Partington, attached to the other end of it. For this, I am in prison. This is the core of my story. The reason, in fact, for writing. The story of two sisters, my wife Coralie and Madeleine, the wife of Rollo. The story of my life.

Martin Frobisher has long been known as a gentle and considered man – yet he is currently in prison, awaiting trial for the murder of his wife. While there, he has time to consider the parallels between his own life and that of Marcus Clark, the author of For the Term of His Natural Life.

Below the Styx is a clever and surprising literary novel about life, about human nature, about Australia and about Marcus Clarke. As Frobisher learns more about Clarke’s life the reader also learns about Frobisher’s life, about how he came to the point he is at, with surprises right to the last page.

A complex read.

Below the Styx

Below the Styx, by Michael Meehan
Allen & Unwin, 2010

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

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, naïve, 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

An Angel in Australia, by Tom Keneally

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

There is something to be said for plain, clean narrative, with no tricks, no fancy poetry, twists or multiple time sequences. Tom Keneally’s latest novel, An Angel in Australia has been written solely with the reader in mind. It is an easy, fast paced and big hearted story which draws on Keneally’s own experiences as a child during WW2, as well as his extensive knowledge of the clergy, about which he has written. The story involves Father Frank Darragh, a young and “naive” priest, whose sense of compassion comes into conflict with the Church, the times, and threatens to undermine his own faith. The story opens in 1939, as Darragh, a priest in training, worries about his lack of involvement in the war, and receives a prophetic message from a monsignor commanding him to be a “merciful confessor.” Darragh takes the message very seriously, and from then on, the story takes place in the pivotal period of 1942, with Sydney fearing an impending Japanese invasion, visiting well heeled American troups, and air raids combining to create a change in the morality. The impact on the type of confessions Darragh starts to hear is dramatic, and his sense of divine order begins to unravel. He faces a number of startling challenges to his faith, including a fellow priest who has abused a child, homosexuality and transvestism, unfaithfulness, militarily sanctioned racial bigotry, and above all, the honest confessions of a beautiful woman accepting small favours for the sake of “dignity” while her husband is a prisoner in Germany. Frank’s attraction to the woman and her subsequent murder turn this story into a significant mystery which calls to mind Chesterton’s Father Brown stories that Frank himself is reading.

Keneally’s characters are well drawn, and we can sympathise with the gentle Frank as he does multiple battle with sin, his close minded and self serving superiors, real criminals, the law, and his own tortured sense of faith and feelings of insecurity in the face of the war. Other characters are also well drawn, with the slightest touch of Dickens, such as the monsignor Carolan, a man who excels in fund raising, but whose sense of compassion is solely lacking. There is the Cajun prisoner Gervaise, with his exaggerated politeness, his accent with its “layers of dolour and diphthong” and his hopeless future, the “worldly” inspector Kearney, the pugilistic communist saviour Trundle and the well spoken and unpenitent Kate Heggerty with her lost son, and the very American MP Fratelli, with his boxes of groceries and confident but strange air, all of whom lend colour and depth to what is essentially Darragh’s story.

Keneally is also able to create setting and place effectively, illuminating an American barracks and its relationship to its Australian environment:
They drew up to the camp gate in a country of stunted eucalypts and acacia. The rituals of admission, the gestures of the military police, were all so emphatic. Americans were good at military liturgy, an art form more casually attended to in the Australian army. No movement these men made seemed casual or negligent. In their standings-to-attention, in thier impeccable webbing, they seemed to Darragh to have built a ritual bridgehead against the enemy. (198)

Or the climactic moment when Japanese submarines attack Sydney Harbour: The peculiarities of light and tracer and shadow which had enabled them all to see the tip of the submarine had passed and been replaced by raw, unregulated sound. So simultaneously did machine-gun fire and rifle shots and shells and depth-charge explosions occur, including here, with the gun crew and the men with the automatic rifle at the end of the ferry jetty all adding their foreground quotient to the body of sound, there was not room for breath. (304)

Although this is primarily a novel of plot – a fine story, rather than a difficult exploration of ideas, Frank’s attempts to reconcile a personal morality which makes sense in terms of his own experiences with the Church’s morality is poignant and provides the backdrop or premise of the book. The Church also represents authority in all its forms, and is paralleled by the authority presented by the American army – and in both cases, this authority is found wanting in the face of true compassion and morality. Kate Heggerty cannot be saved, Gervaise is never heard from again, Carolan continues to enjoy his golf, and Darragh is laicised, but perhaps not before he is able to save Kate’s son. Ultimately, An Angel in Australia with its ambiguous title, refers to more than Kate Heggerty’s corpse, but also Darragh and his angelic soul, which rises above the constraints of his environment.

In an interview with The Compulsive Reader, Keneally said that “I firmly believe that the novel is meant to be chaotic,” and swore an oath that novels after Bettany’s Book, his previous novel, would be less inclusive. An Angel in Australia is not chaotic at all, but rather a very smooth, tightly constructed and linear narrative set in a single place and single time in history. It is certainly less inclusive than Bettany’s Book, and much more focused, although perhaps less ambitious as well. That is no crime however. It would be difficult to criticise this extremely entertaining, well constructed story which takes the reader so effortlessly into a very serious and important part of Australian and world history.

An Angel in Australia, by Tom Keneally
ISBN 1-86471-001-2
2002, hb, RRP A$39.95

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.

A Child's True Book of Crime, by Chloe Hooper

Having an affair with a married man is always risky, more so when that man is the father of your star pupil. And when his wife has just written a book about a murder with strange parallels to your own situation, then the affair is positively dangerous.

Kate Byrne is aware of these risks, yet continues her affair with Thomas Marnes, hoping his wife Veronica does not know.

When late-night phone calls and unexplained car troubles begin to effect her, it is too late to tun back. She must weather the storm as she is carried on an unstoppable tide of fear.

A Child’s True Book of Crime
is a stunning first novel, from the talented Chloe Hooper. It is a hard book to classify – part thriller, part satire, part literary fiction – and even part children’s story. But it is the inability to classify the book which makes it so intriguing. It is unlike any other book.

A Child’s True Book of Crime, by Chloe Hooper
Vintage, 2002

The Gentleman's Garden, by Catherine Jinks

In the early 1800s, Dorothea Brande accompanies her new husband on his regimental tour of duty to colonial New South Wales. From the polite circles of her Devonshire home, to the harshness of the colony proves a terrifying adjustment for the couple.

Dorothea struggles both with the physical harshness and the desperation and brutality of most of the colony’s residents. For her husband Charles, the colony is similarly depleting. However, rather than draw them together, this mutual discomfort drives them apart

Dorothea, searching desperately for a comfort zone which will connect her with home, decides to create a cottage garden around their humble home. As she directs her convict servant Daniel in this task the pair build a strange bond. The garden is a haven for them both.

Author Catherine Jinks interweaves historical fact with a compelling story, so that the reader can truly experience Dorothea’s desperation and sense of alienation. The characters of the colony, from all walks of life, are deftly portrayed, and the development of the three principals, Dorothea, her husband Charles, and the servant Daniel is both believable and enduring.

The Gentleman’s Garden is an enticing read for lovers of historical fiction or literary masterpieces.

Catherine Jinks is a versatile writer whose work ranges across genres and age groups from children to adult. She lives in New South Wales. Her children’s novel Eglantine (Allen and Unwin,2002) is also reviewed on this site.

The Gentleman’s Garden, by Catherine Jinks
Allen & Unwin, 2002

Skins, by Sarah Hay

It is 1835 and Dorothea Newell is shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Western Australia. A single white woman in the company of sealers, desperadoes and outsiders, she must do what she can to survive until the chief sealer agrees to take her to the mainland.

To protect her younger sister, whose husband has tried to trade her to Anderson the sealer, Dorothea becomes Anderson’s woman. Even this does not guarantee her safety, or her aim of returning to civilisation.

Skins, winner of the 2001 Australian/Vogel Literary award is a fictionalised account of the story of Dorothea Newell (later known as Dolly Pettit). Based on real people and events, the story explores an intriguing part of Western Australia’s history. Few readers would have previous knowledge of the life of the sealers and whalers in the early years of the colony.

Skins is set in harsh conditions and involves hardened characters, so large parts of the novel seem very dark. For much of the tale there seems little hope of much good happening in the lives of these characters. With perseverance on the part of the reader there is some light, although this is certainly not meant to be a feel-good novel. What it does provide is an insight both into characters coping with dire situations and into a genuine part of Australia’s past.

Skins, by Sarah Hay
Allen and Unwin, 2002

Journey to the Stone Country, by Alex Miller

Finding her once-predictable, stable marriage in tatters, Annabelle flees to the security of her family home in Townsville and the support of an old friend. Invited on an archeological survey she meets Bo, a man who tells her they have met before and hints that he knows much about her.

As they get to know each other, Annabelle is disconcerted by Bo’s suggestion that he holds the key to her future. At the same time she is drawn to him in a way she has not been drawn to any other man.

Together the pair travel through places and memories which lead towards understading of themselves and each other, but at the same time threatens their possible happiness.

Whilst romance and landscape each play a part here, Journey to the Stone Country is about much more. The stone country traversed by the book’s characters is not just a part of remote Australia, but an inner landscape which we all must travel and explore. It is a story of our own time – of accepting our past – individual and collective, of moving toward a combined future. A story about racial differences and common ground. It is a story for every Australian.

Alex Miller was born in London and came to Australia when he was seventeen. His previous works have included the Ancestor Game (1997) which won the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Conditions of Faith (2000), which won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

Journey to the Stone Country, by Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin, 2002.