Elly McDonald

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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”

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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

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The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.

The_Memory_Police_by_Yoko_Ogawa


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Michele Johnson In Memorium (18 March 2019)

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I met Michele through our mutual friend Mary Christie when Michele lived in Sydney in the early 80s. We were neighbours in Kings Cross for a time. We reconnected through social media in more recent times. Michele as I knew her in her late 20s was very much the Michele I could hear in her Facebook posts, which were frequent, and always welcome: amusing, laugh out loud funny, provocative, informative, thoughtful.

I describe her to people who did not know her as “my fierce feisty beautiful friend”. She could be combative; also sensitive. She was caring, and outrageous. She was rock’n’roll. She was art. She was performance. She was politics. She introduced Presbyterian me to same-sex and shall we say less conventional sexual mores (I remained a bystander – dancing together at Kinsella’s was as out there as I got). Michele permitted me to give her a colour cosmetics makeover even though my hands were careless, I used frosted pink lipstick, and her beauty didn’t need any help from me.

She was a straightshooter who told it like it was. She was as generous as anyone I’ve ever known. Witty, acute, astute. Every human being is a universe, and every death is a cosmos lost. Michele was a star. Her loss leaves this world a darker place.

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Michele en route to hospital for specialist appointments

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Left aligned – always left aligned


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The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

shark_elly_mcdonald_writer


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Another revolution (31 December 2018)

You say you want a revolution
Well you know, we all want to change the world

The Beatles, Revolution (1968)

earth-sun

Earth has cycled round the Sun once again. Another new year rises. I’ve been on this trip 57 times now, and every year opens as infinite promise.

The New Year’s Resolution thing is, obviously, a conceptual conceit. Choosing 1 January to make life changes is arbitrary – after all, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, every breath is a resurrection. Every breath brings new life. Every breath is an opportunity for change.

Still, in Western culture, at least, a new year is viewed as a re-set button.

The nineteenth-century philosopher (and forerunner of contemporary psychology) William James wrote

To change one’s life:

  1. Start immediately.
  2. Do it flamboyantly.
  3. No exceptions.

Current psychiatric and psychological advice is to recognize behaviour change is hard, and there will inevitably be lapses (“exceptions”), and that understanding change as a gradual process, a process that requires we be kind to ourselves, and pace ourselves, is healthier and more likely to result in desired outcomes than what’s known as “all or nothing thinking”, or “black and white thinking”.

But current advice does suggest starting immediately (THIS breath, then again after a relapse, THIS breath) is smart, and that making our proposed behaviour change(s) public (“Do it flamboyantly”) makes us accountable, opens us to support, and is, all round, A Good Idea.

This week I had the dual experiences of attending a friend’s funeral and spending significant time with a vibrant young woman living with aggressive cancer.

I go to a few funerals. That’s a consequence of my parents’ friends being octogenarians, living in a community with an older demographic, working in aged care and community services, and having ties to a church community.

This funeral was different. The friend who died deserves a full obituary in his own right, so I won’t go there here. But contextually, I was struck by two things: how emblematic of my formative young adult years this man was; and the sense so many present had that this person, for many years, and for many reasons, after early glories had not lived to his potential, and had suffered sensing that.

He is not alone among my friends in that. It hurts me to think of the friends who died disappointed in their lives.

My living female friend presents a different picture. Despite being partway through treatment, with uncertain outcomes, and despite living with constant, often debilitating pain, she goes to the gym every day, walks her dog twice a day, continues a high-powered professional career part-time, cares for her primary school aged child, is a wonderful, loving, supportive partner, engages in a social life, and does all this with cheer and sparkling wit.

We must live until we die, they say (that amorphous, unattributable “they” – oh okay, maybe American country singer Clay Walker).

I have another woman friend with aggressive cancer at present. In this case, she asserts her will to live by continuing to be the combative, acerbic, fiercely intelligent, costume-loving, kick-ass broad she’s always been. She will not go gently.

This year, I want to live out the lessons I’m learning from those with a talent for living.

My resolution is to live like I mean it.

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Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a vogue for the works of psychologist William Glasser, who developed what he called Reality Therapy, and Choice Theory, and whose books include Positive Addiction.

Glasser is not fashionable these days, partly because it’s argued he places responsibility to change, to live well, squarely on the individual; it’s argued his theories don’t take sufficient account of environmental factors (social and political structures) or genetic traits.

However: there’s not a lot we can do in the short-term as individuals about the social and political factors that impact us, and nothing we can do about our genetic legacies, save for making the best choices we can to minimize our genetic vulnerabilities.

I find Glasser confronting, but useful.

Essentially, Reality Therapy is about client and therapist focusing on practical steps, practical actions, to improve quality of life. Choice Theory is the idea that it’s all a series of choices. Make the better choice, as they (“they”) say.

Glasser’s theory of addiction stems from Freud’s contention that humans find worth through love and work. If a person believes they’ve failed at love and work, they feel inadequate. In Glasser’s view, they may, objectively, be inadequate.

It’s painful to see oneself as inadequate, so, according to Glasser, we choose behaviours that mask that pain. Generally, these are not good choices: self-medicating emotionally through alcohol, drugs, obsessions, compulsions.

The pain of our addictions is a smokescreen to spare us recognition of that underlying pain – the pain of our failure, our inadequacy.

Addiction is a neural rut, a habit wired in the neural pathways that turns a choice into controlling urge.

It doesn’t work to swim directly into a current; we’ll just exhaust ourselves and drown sooner. Instead, if caught in a rip or strong current, we’re advised to swim at an angle towards the shore, to pace ourselves rather than fight the rip – to focus on staying afloat.

Similarly, with behavioural change, and especially with addiction, instead of going mano a mano with the behaviour it might work better to take a more oblique approach: to focus on a positive behaviour, and substitute a positive addiction for a destructive one.

At the time Glasser wrote Positive Addiction, in 1985, research suggested two highly effective substitute behaviours that can displace addiction: meditation, and running. Any behaviour engaged in to excess can become problematic, if it adversely affects a person’s physical health, relationships, work responsibilities, social life or other significant commitments, and there’s been a great deal of publicity around ways running, particularly, can be problematic, but generally speaking both exercise and forms of meditation are extremely useful strategies in countering damaging behaviours.

No one can promise exercise, or meditation, will shield us from disappointment, or ill health, or under-performance. But exercise and meditation can help allay depression, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy.

So this year, even though I’ve said this before, I plan to put back some of the activities I’ve let drop.

I want to walk more, do more yoga, breathe more mindfully, ride my bike, swim, dance, tend my garden.

I want to play the piano, maybe the viola, sing.

I want to listen to more music, spend more time with friends. Enjoy my life.

I want to live.


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Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


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All The Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr – how I learned to stop worrying and love the War (Doctor Strangelove moves in mysterious ways)

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This is not the review I prepared to write when I sat down a short while ago.

I have a friend, a novelist, who is skeptical about Reader Response theory: a literary criticism theory that focuses on how readers’ individual life experiences and beliefs shape their understandings of a text, as opposed to literary criticism that focuses on the author’s intentions, or the formal qualities of a text – crudely summarized, every novel a Rorschach Test, capable of being read in multiple ways.

My novelist friend is clear his intentions are paramount. His novels mean what he means them to mean. If readers take from them understandings that he did not intend, it’s a misreading.

I tend to differ. (Perhaps that’s obvious – I blog my individualistic responses. I gravitate to themes and issues that reflect my own concerns.)

I believe we will read the same book differently at age 60 than we did at age 16, or 30. We will read books differently depending on our emotional environment at the time of reading – what we’re dealing outside the covers of the book. Mostly I think of this in terms of life stages, but today I had an acute lesson in how what we take from a book can depend even on what’s happening within a given 48 hour period.

Lots of people deeply love All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was a National Book Award in the author’s native United States, a New York Times #1 bestseller (as the cover proudly proclaims).

I liked this novel. I liked it quite a lot. Some aspects of it I liked very much indeed. But as the final 50 pages counted down, I grew less and less enamoured. By the time I closed its cover, I was nonplussed. That night, cynical. This morning, irritated.

There was no question All The Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. For me, it was just that bit too beautiful, that bit too soulful, too sensitive. It made me long for a punk or grunge riposte.

Here’s my draft review, written at that time:

There are two types of novel, it seems, at present. In one type, the author is a ruthless god, killing characters who logic dictates must die, or killing just because s/he can. The other type is humanist, somewhat sentimental; hopeful refractions of humankind. This type tends to be American.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel about WW2 written by an author from Idaho. It is indeed “Sublime” (The Times) and “Magnificent” (The Guardian). Oprah magazine likes it too. At this point, 100 pages from the end, its dual narratives are both peaking, its dual protagonists both in extreme peril.

I am confident the author plans to rescue them, or at least let their deaths have meaning.

[If you detect snark, you’d be right. I was saying the narrative line struck me as predictable – and implausible. I was suggesting there is a cosy fairy-tale at the heart of the handkerchief wrenching.]

I wish writers in this genre [the humanistic war epic] knew when to STOP, or when to strip it back: there were important points Doerr wanted to make in those last 53 pages [the post-War ‘Whatever happened to…” section], but for me they were 52 pages too many. [Man-Booker 2014 winner] The Narrow Road to the Deep North [by Australian author Richard Flanagan] had similar problems, in a somewhat similar project [in Flanagan’s case, addressing POW experiences in Changi and on the Burma Death Railway, then continuing to examine at great length what happened to his fictional characters afterwards]. To me it reads self-indulgent.

[This is a hard call. I’m certain both Doerr and Flanagan would say that the sections of their novels that deal with how their characters’ lives unfolded in the decades after the War is where it lives. They intend to examine the lasting impacts of war. In Doerr’s case, especially, his whole point is what lives on.

Me, I frankly wish the characters were left at a point of unpredictability. I wish we were left not knowing, required to use our imaginations to fill in the future – left, like the characters, displaced, facing an uncertain world. The ‘arguments against’ of course include the educative function of novels of this type (later generations don’t necessarily have the knowledge to imaginatively inhabit those spaces); the authors’ own preferences, their planned projects; and the outrage most readers would feel if these characters were sent out adrift – the t’s uncrossed, the i’s not dotted.]

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I see in American writing a tendency to look back to WW2 as “the last heroic age”. There’s a valid desire to ensure what happened is remembered, and to cast the events as fables, as warnings. A book like All The Light You Cannot See is actually extremely effective in presenting aspects of wartime human experience and historic episodes, obscure [in the Doerr book, the Allied assault on St-Malo in France, and the Schulpforta Hitler Youth schools in the Reich] and better known (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The turn-off for me is the tone: all that effortful profundity; the wise, sorrowful voice, the self-conscious delicacy. Yes, it’s elegant, but IMO it’s overworked and kind of smug, the literary equivalent of an “Oscar bait” movie, a Manchester By The Sea. As if we read it or watch it to remind ourselves of how sensitive we are that we are so moved by the tragedies of others.

Also, embedded in the noble soulful remembrance of times past stuff there’s a wartime romp involving a sinister German sergeant-major and a cursed diamond, and frankly I came to be more involved in that narrative than in the cosmic significance.

[That’s not entirely true. I enjoyed The Adventure of the Cursed Diamond, as I enjoy a Tin-Tin comic, or a Madeline adventure – the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classics, not Proust – and I was amused. But the sequences in the book I found most affecting were those that traced the life of the young German, Werner Pfennig.]

The author IMO over-egged the “What you could have been!” waste of human potential till the novel came to read, for me, like a shaggy dog tale culminating in a one-liner: all that lost humanity transposed into a metaphor about radio and cyberspace communications – we/they as infinite ghosts in the ether. Violins played.

Indeed.

That was my draft review. What changed?

Here I was being a Grinch. The background was the lingering death of my sister and her husband’s nephew, who 48 hours ago was about to be taken off life support .

I did not believe in fairies. I did not believe in Doerr’s elfin blind heroine, Marie-Laure. I did not believe in her loving papa, her endearing (and miraculously healed!) great-uncle, her Mary Poppins housekeeper, her gently jovial mentor, her Man In The Iron Mask mysterious Resistance friend. I absolutely did not believe in her miniature intricately crafted plywood model of a town of 865 mostly medieval buildings (I could not for the life of me figure out scale). Not even as Magical Realism, I did not believe.

Then today, one hour ago, my sister texted. Wills is to be removed from his ventilator today, but not to die. He’s to be removed because now, it seems he will live.

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I don’t know if there’s an author who planned to rescue Will (refer above). I do know that for his family and carers, Will’s death would have had meanings; as does his life.


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Review: Stone Mattress (2014) – nine tales by Margaret Atwood

Stone_mattress_Bernini

Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.

It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.

To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.

There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.

She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.

The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?

The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.

Lusus_Naturae

These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderess who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?

Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:

The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?

A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.

Stromatolite

The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.

Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)

Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.

Lady_of_the_lake

Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.

Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.

Redeemed_Sorceress

I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.

A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

– ‘Stone Mattress’

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Andrew Lloyd-Greensmith, The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer (2017)

Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).

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In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:

They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.

– ‘Lusus Naturae’

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Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.

In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)

[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.

In ‘Stone Mattress’

Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.

In ‘Dark Lady’

“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]

She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.

Gold_dragon_witch

When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.

“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”

There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.

Two_Witches

Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:

She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.

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Margaret Atwood as Prospero


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Review: Grace (2017) by Paul Lynch

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_6Let’s get this out of the way straight up: Paul Lynch’s novel Grace is a tour de force. Not everyone will love it. Let me tell you why I do.

A young man, still a teen boy, stands on an open road in defiance of an oncoming speeding vehicle. The year is 1845, the place is western Ireland: the first year of an Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine. The vehicle is a horse-drawn carriage – six horses, galloping, the coachman whipping them faster.

They think they own the place, says the boy.

Afterwards, as he lies in a ditch, his head aching from the coachman’s boot, he delivers his manifesto:

He says, I am not stupid in the least. Don’t you see what’s going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-doers who don’t give a fuck what is happening to the ordinary people. You saw that village yesterday and how prosperous it was, untouched by this curse. The arrogance of that driver. This is the way of things now. It could be the end of the world for the likes of us, but to the likes of them, they aren’t bothered. Do you know what I think? Those who are starving on the roads still believe deliverance is going to come. But who is going to deliver them? Not God and not the Crown and not anybody in this country. The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want to believe in. It is hope that carries you along, keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend upon others. And so I will make my own luck. I believe there are no rules anymore. We are truly on our own in all this. If they have left us to fend for ourselves then we will do just that. We should meet it standing up. I believe that if I want that goddamn carriage to slow down or get off the road I can make it happen. I really believe this. Either I win or they win. There can be no other. I will make it happen, for how else am I supposed to live? What is happening now is no different to the end of the world, the only difference is that the rich can continue to live without affliction. The gods have abandoned us, that’s how I figure it. It is time to be your own god.

About a million people died from starvation and starvation-induced illness during the four years of the famine. A million more emigrated. Two-fifths of the population were reliant on potato crops that failed; countless numbers took to the roads, hoping to find food and sustenance, some kind of salvation. The wanderers on the roads, the beggars, the walking skeletons, prefigure our cultural nightmare of a zombie apocalypse. Grace is the story of people who strived their hardest to live, asking all the time, what kind of life is this? 

Grace Coyle is 14 when her mother cuts her hair and shoves her out of their cottage on Blackmountain in Donegal. “You’re the strong one now,” her mother tells her. Go find work. Come back in a year.

Grace’s younger brother Colly runs away to join her; Colly is a resourceful, pragmatic presence supporting Grace in her quest to survive. Another ally is Bart, the young man standing in the middle of that road. For me, Bart is the most compelling character in the story.

There is love, of sorts, between Grace and Bart, as far as two young people scrabbling to survive can experience love. There are moments when “She knows they are ancient and young and will never die.”

But this is not a love story. This is a story about how the very determined insist it cannot happen to them – they will never die – and yet circumstances and history mow them down and sweep them away. It’s a story about how, to survive, we need to believe we are exceptions, and yet when the great winters, the great hungers, come, belief in itself is insufficient.

They walk past a young woman delirious in a ditch, the woman smiling now as the snow gives last drink to her lips. The snow gowning her white for the slowest of country burials. The woman becoming part of it all, she thinks, that is the sky and the earth locked together in white and forgetting. You do not look but keep walking onwards. This feeling she has. It is not that she tells herself she is different. She knows she is different from all these others on the road, that what she sees around her will not happen to her also. That she will make better choices. So why would you even look at them, they have made their choices and you made yours, they aren’t even people, just sitters and starers with their cramp hands held out like the grabby hands of the dead. They want what you want and would take it out of your hand or even kill you for it so why would you even begin to give them a sympathetic look?

Grace is identifying as a survivor, identifying with the strong. Yet when snows blanket everything and everything is hunger, she is categorically not among the privileged.

Watching such men in the coffeehouse and watching such men on the street and she thinks that these people have been born clean, born into a higher position, while all the rest of us on earth were born into a lower position and such a thing is all down to who you are and where you come from and the luck of the draw and there is nothing you can do about it but take it back off them, because a fish cannot become a bird but there is nothing to stop a fish from wearing a bird’s feathers.

Grace wrestles with the limits of transformation, with who she needs to be to survive. Earlier, she asked, “a fish cannot become a bird, or can it? Maybe it can.” Later, she asks

Tell me this, do you think that everybody in the world is born fixed into their position?

I don’t know about that. It is certainly the case that everybody takes the same position in death.

It seems to me that a fish cannot become a bird and that the bird will attack the fish if it tries to fly. Perhaps that is the natural order of things. But why must that be so? I just saw men belonging to a farmer beat to death a poor man with clubs. They dug a trap to catch him like an animal, or like a fish if you think about it – pulled him like a fish from a pond. Poked his eyes out with their beaks. Things have gotten worse now. I think it would take some kind of magical effort for the fish to leave the water–

[…] Finally she asks, do you think he was just unlucky? Do you think he made his own luck?

The transformations Grace rolls through are many, and none of her own volition. From a young girl on a mountain, she becomes a boy named Tim, a cattle drover; a developing woman betrayed by her menstruation; the target of would-be rapists; a bandit, the pirate queen of Connaught; Deirdre of the Sorrows, Grainne loved by Diarmuid; a zombie; a corpse; a miracle of God, penitent; the girl who says no; the girl who can say nothing, nothing, no word in the face of what she’s seen; the one taken by the pooka, the fairies, returning home to find centuries have past and she a ghost, unrecognized; the mother who brings new life, at the cost of letting go of the old, forgetting.

More than once, men ask Grace, “What are you?”

Throughout her journey Grace is accompanied by ghosts, mostly ghosts who help sustain her. In the end, the ghosts must go, and with them, memory.

The novel is deeply concerned with memory. Colly frets about its nature. He frets about the relationship between the soul and memory:

Like, when you die, where do your memories go– if the soul doesn’t have a memory box, how can you remember your life when you die, where do memories go–

Grace wonders

About her own soul, all that has been put in it, wonders how a soul can be of the same essence when you are changing a little bit every day, when you are no longer the same person, because you are not the same person at the end of the year as you were at the start of it, and sometimes you change during the day, depending on certain events. And if that is the case, and you die at one age rather than another, would your soul not be completely different?

The tragedy of sweeping cataclysms is that those who do not live do not get to become who they might have been. The inventor. The engineer. The philosopher. The political activist. The writer.

Colly frets about how the soul relates to the body. Is the soul embodied? Does it take its form from the shape of the body? Does the soul then change as the body changes? What if the body is radically malformed?

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Paul Lynch, the writer, cares about soul and memory. In interviews he speaks of how the Great Hunger left survivors traumatized, unwilling or unable to speak of what they knew. He speaks of the legacy of trauma in Ireland.

That’s one summation of what he tries to do here: he tries to speak of the legacy of trauma left by the Great Hunger, and of the social changes, including changes in the role of religion, and changes to the heritage of supernatural belief, resulting from the Great Hunger.

I think he does this extraordinarily.

I understand from researching Paul Lynch’s previous writings that Grace is a sequel of sorts. Now I feel compelled to find his first novel (Grace is his third), which tells the story of Grace’s father: Red Sky in Morning.

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I opened this piece by saying Grace will not be loved by all. Against my usual practice, after finishing my reading I googled reviews and articles on the internet. Many are rave reviews, particularly those written by professional reviewers and authors. Yet, many reader reviews online about Grace are negative. Mostly, the complaint is that the story is too unremittingly grim. Readers, apparently, can’t handle grim. Others complained there is no story. These are people presumably unfamiliar with the picaresque genre, who can’t relate to themes unfolded episodically within an overarching narrative. Some readers complained the language is impenetrable. The more highbrow critics complained the characters are stock Irish stereotypes. The most highbrow critics complained Lynch’s language reads like a parody of Irish literary modernism.

Some critics writing for major newspapers took Lynch to task for language overworked, overwritten, deliberately obscure. I found some critics for major newspapers lacking in credibility: two of them misidentified characters – one a character at the book’s start, one towards its end – which undermined my confidence in their readings.

The reviewer for the New York Times started her review by quoting P.G. Wodehouse:

To twist a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, it’s not difficult to tell the difference between Paul Lynch’s writing and a ray of sunshine, and “Grace”, his third novel, reveals an undiminished appetite for the depiction of suffering. Through its young heroine, we experience all the indescribable horrors of the Irish famine. Lynch goes where only famished dogs should go, and it’s a measure of his skill that he keeps us with him all the same.

Oh my. A backhanded compliment. Never mind that it references what for me was the most touching moment in the book and makes a joke of that. Never mind that it foregrounds a review of a book about famine with reference to a twee humorist. The suggestion that suffering as a subject is unseemly, that such suffering is indescribable, is hostile and to my mind bizarre. If this book were by a black author, about American slavery, would Katherine Grant write this way? If it were a book about the Holocaust, by a Jewish author, could she write this way?

But I digress.

Lynch’s writing is without doubt deliberately, perhaps provocatively, poetic. His language in places is blank verse. His imagery is dense, his grammar as if translated from another language. He drops in Gaelic phrases. He drops allusions to Gaelic myth and folklore that might elude a reader unfamiliar with this heritage. It is difficult to read, and sentences, paragraphs, demand re-reading.

Paul Lynch says his writing is intuitive and yet he rewrites sentences up to fifty times. He seems to ask, if I value language to the extent of rewriting up to fifty times, is it so hard to reread that sentence more than once?

He seems to ask, if people lived these experiences, and couldn’t speak of them, and if I write them, if I write and rewrite and try to honour the experiences of the dead, is it so hard to bear with the grim, and see it through?

Paul Lynch does not believe that a novel set in an historical time is necessarily a genre novel, “historical fiction”. He believes his historical novel has contemporary relevance. His novel addresses the Irish Great Famine and also every other famine, pestilence, genocide, holocaust that has reduced humans to animals and reduced life to survival.

Is it so hard to remember?

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Mayhem: a memoir (2017) by Sigrid Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage

The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.

That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.

Mayhem.

… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.

Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.

Rausing’s account is many things.

If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.

But someone died, early one morning or late one night.

When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?

The story, its centre, can be schematised:

Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.

Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.

Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.

Should I say more?

I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.

The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.

When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.

She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.

Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.

Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.

Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.

In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote

One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.

Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.

In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.

The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:

Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.

It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.

The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.

Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.

One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?

Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.

Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?

Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?

Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.

The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.

Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.

Mayhem is

Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.

I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.

Sigrid Rausing

Sigrid Rausing


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Review: Idaho (2017) by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho_Emily_Ruskovich_Elly_McDonald_WriterOn a mountain-top in rural Idaho, a mother kills her 6 year old, in a seemingly impulsive, reflex action. She “waived her right to a trial, entered a plea of guilty, and, in a hearing that lasted twenty minutes was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after thirty years. During this hearing, the judge seemed to find her lack of self-regard unsettling, her adamant plea of guilt unusual. He pressured her to give an explanation, but she only said she had committed the murder of her child and she wished to die for it.”

Thirty-two years later, word in the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center is that Jenny told the judge: “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.”

Word in the women’s prison is that during the sentencing, Jenny’s “husband didn’t look at her, not once.”

lacuna

ləˈkjuːnə/

noun

plural noun: lacunae

  1. 1.

an unfilled space; a gap.

  1. 2.

ANATOMY

a cavity or depression, especially in bone.

Jenny is, simultaneously, the lacuna at the heart of this book, an emptiness of the heart; and Jenny is the heart of this book. Jenny is Schroedinger’s cat: When you open the box, the cat is either alive or it is dead; when the box is closed, reality is unknowable, paradoxical possibilities exist.

”Wade,” she says, “You break my heart.”

And you break mine,’” he answers.

By no coincidence, stray cats, missing cats, feature as a narrative motif, and Schroedinger’s cat is referenced.

After poetry class in jail, Jenny writes a note to her cellmate:

D says this poem in I’ams almost whole way through. Where meter breaks free (see where I circled the phrases he pointed out), imagine a voice breaking too. Form and content intertwined. (People seem to know what I-am means. I assume “first person point of view.”)

Later, she reports: “An I-am is a pair of syllables. The first one soft, the second loud. It’s the rhythm of the human heart, which is also the natural rhythm of human speech.”

Idaho is a meticulously crafted text, thesis material in its density but highly readable. It’s a narrative of paired ‘syllables’, a narrative of people bonded as pairs: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling with sibling, cellmate with cellmate. Every heartbeat of this story reminds us it takes two. The pair at the centre of this story are twin enigmas: the mother, Jenny, because like Christ before Pilate she refuses to explain, or even speak; the father, Wade, because like his father and his grandfather before him, Wade has younger onset dementia, his memory disintegrating while he’s physically hale, his life expectancy no more than his mid-50s, the awareness of darkness and death his life-long shroud.

Yet, the song of the heartbeat is I AM: the assertion of self.

The uber-I AM is of course God, G-d, Jehovah: the Old Testament God who declaimed I AM THAT I AM, who instructed Moses on a mountain-top, who ordered Abraham to kill his child. At one point a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses visit Ann and Wade on their mountain (Iris Mountain, a mountain seeded with wild irises, Iris in Greek mythology being a female messenger of the gods). I don’t think that’s coincidence, either.

Jenny pushes away I AM and has chosen self-abnegation: “I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish” – not even this wish. For Jenny, “Silence is something she can bear a little better than a failed attempt at saying what she means.”

Wade has lost much, is losing everything. But, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps most dramatically enacted in a wilderness, on a wild mountain, and it is the human way to make meaning even out of absences and silences, to try to reconstruct significant events.

Idaho is constructed as a series of first person narratives, and through those first person points of view we see how driven the human heart is to construe events so that, ultimately, we, the storytellers, the first person narrators, are at the heart of the matter, at the centre of the story, and the story becomes ours.

And so it is that Jenny’s story is appropriated by the woman Wade marries after Jenny makes herself an absence, a woman who in her imagination projects such a vivid, sensual scenarios that ultimately she feels herself to be the sole custodian of this family’s story:

She knows from [Wade’s] casual gestures, from the simplicity of his smile, the absence of pain, that she has inherited his family wholly now, that nothing can bring them back.

For the first time, she knows for certain that they live only in her.

This woman, Ann, is a good woman, believes herself to be a good woman. Yet eventually she convinces herself that she is the reason the child was killed, convinces herself that she is guilty, through a kind of lovers’ telepathy, an osmosis through the medium of music. She believes herself guilty, too, of the death of a fawn, merely by her touch:

Had she known, when she reached out afterward, so softly, with just one fingertip, that she could do it harm? […] she thought of wiping the fawn with a wet cloth. But the cloth had a smell, too, of detergent. And so there was nothing she could do. […] Periodically that evening she forgot it, and then when she remembered, her fingertip tingled at the memory of that white spot, like peppermint. She thought of those woods at night. Wade had mentioned seeing a mountain lion before, not up here but down at the river, leaping right out of the water. So they were around. Coyotes, wolves. All those dark branches and dark trunks of trees and the fawn moving in the dark. Invisible except in one place, one white spot: Ann’s fingerprint moving through the woods like a point of light. Here I am!

Jenny is appropriated, too, to an extent, by the cellmate her comes to love her, who sees Jenny as her saviour and who, through a Cyrano de Bergerac act of ventriloquism,* eventually procures Jenny’s ‘freedom’.

Paradoxically, this cellmate is driven to violence by the paranoid perception that her previous cellmate had appropriated her history:

“It’s fitting that I stabbed her with her own mirror. That’s what they call in my poetry class ‘dramatic irony’.”

He says, in a dull tone to mock her, “You mean because she was stealing your childhood.”

“Childhood, soul, whatever you want to call it.”

“A person can’t steal someone else’s childhood.”

(But they can. Killing a child steals that childhood.)

When this cellmate, Elizabeth, again encounters the ex-cellmate she stabbed, Sylvia, she looks at her as a dominant, abusive partner looks at their object of abuse and wonders, ”Who is she now, without Elizabeth?”

Who is Wade, without his children?

Who is Ann, the second wife, if not a young woman with an empty life who found meaning as a medium channelling the ghost of someone else’s tragedy?

And who is June?

June is the other gaping absence in this tale.

When the six year old was murdered on a mountain, her nine year old sister, June, saw, and ran, like a fawn in the dark woods. She has never been seen since, except as a series of photographs issued every few years through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, showing how that nine year old might look at 11, at 13, at 15, at 20. Ann has commissioned an artist whose vocation it is to construct ‘living’ images of absent children, to paint how June might look at different ages, in different contexts, living different personae. Is this another appropriation?

There is a character, Eliot, whose function is both to provide a living link to June and to show how hollow, how filled with the breath of hope, Ann’s life was before June’s sister’s murder.

Eliot has his own story – or he thinks he has. He tells his story often, dramatically, to assert his I AM. Then one day, his girlfriend throws in a different interpretation, and Eliot cannot live with it, can no longer live with her:

But with a casual shrug of her sholders, Ivy had changed his story. She changed the people in it. The intensity had not followed him – he followed it. […] He had become a passive player in the opening scene of his life.

And if Ivy could make him feel that in one careless instant, what else was she capable of taking away?”

At the heart of Idaho, our own private Idahos, is the question, can our stories hold? Can we ‘own’ our stories? Can we clutch them to ourselves, can we protect and keep them private?

Elizabeth’s injured ex-cellmate finds herself through music, through a reconnection with the piano.

Elizabeth wonders, “If music can live in Sylvia’s fingers for sixteen years without ever revealing itself, are there things that live in Elizabeth that time won’t touch, that nobody can take away?”

At the novel’s end, when it might appear Ann has given ‘back’ Jenny’s life, there’s a disturbing final paragraph. We think we know this story now. The basics were never in dispute:

“My wife has killed my daughter in the truck. My other daughter is scared. I need to get to her.”

It was the lack of ambiguity that made William stumble. […]

So Wade tried again. “My wife has killed my daughter.”

He was about to say it a third time when William managed a reply. […] “I understand. You’ve told me what happened.”

Do we, as outsiders, ever know the story?

In the novel’s last lines,

Jenny says, “On a different part of this river, I saw a mountain lion leap right up, right out of the water. It was the only time I ever saw one.”

“I know that story,” Ann says. “I didn’t know you were there, too. Wade told me.”

“He did?” Jenny smiles, surprised. ‘What else did he tell you?”

Ann isn’t sure what Jenny means. Jenny seems not to be sure, either. She laughs a little, for the first time.

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Emily Ruskovich with rabbits

 

*Elizabeth’s act of written ventriloquism follows many years of literary ventriloquism, with roles reversed, with Jenny attending poetry class as Elizabeth’s proxy and handing in assignments written by Elizabeth under Jenny’s name. There’s so much in this novel to connect and unpick.

 

 

 

 

 


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On Borove Forest, and elsewhere.

When I was a child my sister and I bought my father a large glossy coffee table volume, a history of World War 2 in photographs.

Two images shocked me more than all others. I encountered one of those images again today.

Today my Facebook Newsfeed popped up a Daily Mail article on “Ukraine’s shameful Holocaust of Bullets”, the systemic execution of up to 1.6 million Jews, resulting in around 2000 mass graves located so far, with up to 6000 further sites believed yet to be identified.

A French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, made it his mission to uncover the human stories behind massacres that took place at four sites near Rava Ruska (Rawa Ruska), near the Ukraine-Poland border, where about 18000 Jews were murdered, and a further 14000 political prisoners and Romanies. Father Desbois’ grandfather Claudius Desbois was a prisoner of war at Rava Ruska. He’d said little except that outside the camp was worse than inside.

His grandson was moved to investigate. According to Father Desbois, as reported in the Daily Mail,

People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die.

Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.

Thirteen German private trucking companies came to work at Rava Ruska.

The Daily Mail reports that eventually, hundreds of eye witnesses provided testimony to Father Desbois, extending beyond the killing centre Rava Ruska to neighbouring towns like Belzec ten miles away and cities like Lvov (Lviv), 31 miles away.

Looking at the photographs that have survived begs the questions, “Who took these photographs? For what purpose? Why were they retained?”

Some of the photos are now part of the Yad Vashem collection, Yad Vashem being Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When I started to write this piece my intention was to comment closely on specific images. But the images largely speak for themselves, so I’ll keep comments brief.

This is the image that first hooked me today. (It’s not the one that shocked me as a child. Fortunately I never saw it as a child.)

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She’s young. She’s beautiful. She could be any of the young, beautiful women I see every day. She could be myself younger, or any of my friends. All her clothes have been torn off, except for her rather stylish shoes, and fully-clothed adult men are standing over her, cuffing her on the head, ahead of whatever happens next.

I think she’s been knocked down. I think this because in another photo she’s trying to fend off those hostile adult men. Look at their faces.

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This girl could be any girl, any girl in a combat zone, throughout human history. I worked with Bosnian refugees after the Bosnian conflict. I saw photos of women dragged onto the streets, pushed down on the street, raped in Bosnia. Every victim of wartime rape and murder is this girl’s kin.

She’s a hero, but it couldn’t save her. Being young couldn’t save her. Being beautiful did not.

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But

But the crime is not despoiling the young and beautiful. All victims of war are owed their dignity, in memory, even when dignity was taken from them at death.

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Here is a mother trying to protect her daughter. Her daughter’s clothes are already partly ripped away.

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Here is a group of people, apprehensive, knowing nothing good can happen. Look closely at the woman third from the left. She could be your colleague, couldn’t she? Your sister? Your friend?

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You might ask, are there no images of men being brutalised? Yes, there are. They’re excruciating. And boys being dragged down and beaten, and old men, too. But these images of women spoke to me most strongly, just as all those years ago one of the two images that spoke to me as a child was an image of a French female sexual collaborator being publicly humiliated.

(No, this is not that image. This one has the same emotional tenor.)

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(You ask, am I drawing an equivalence between Jewish women raped and murdered in Ukraine and French women whose heads were shaved as punishment for consorting with Germans?

I answer: Not an equivalence. But I do see a relationship, as victims of misogyny fuelled by wartime hatreds.)

These images of women being brutalised speak so powerfully it’s almost overkill (boom boom) to quote the eye witness testimonies:

One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.”

Nikola Kristitch was aged 8 in 1942 when he witnessed a day-long massacre:

“I remembered one of the girls, a young girl. Her panties were around her ankles.

“A German fired at her and her hair caught fire. She screamed and he took an automatic rifle, got into the grave and fired.

“The bullet ricocheted off his knee and he bled everywhere. He bandaged his knee, he was half undressed and then he emptied his round. He even killed Jews who still had their clothes on, he couldn’t wait he was so crazed with rage. He fired at everybody, he was crazy.”

These accounts would be merely pornographic if it were not so crucial to remember.

Father Desbois has established a foundation called Yahad and has worked to ensure a memorial was raised in Rava Ruska and Jewish graves are protected. He says,”Why do we come back to Ukraine? Because one day we will have to go back to Iraq, because one day we will have to go back to the last mass grave in Darfur.

“Tomorrow will be the same story.”

I don’t know if it was seeing those photographs back when I was a child that led 30 years later to me working with post-Bosnia refugees, or that led me to attempt to write a speculative fiction novel on these themes.

The image I will never forget from that book in my youth? This one. It was this one.

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(Content credit to Will Stewart and the MailOnline, 24 August 2015 8:12pm)


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Easter Uprising 2017: on being Christian – a sequel to Buddhist Thoughts at Easter 2014

Last night, on Good Friday, I spent too much time responding to a meme posted on Facebook that read “Religion makes fools of us all”.

I was irritated that people feel a need to post atheistic aphorisms on the second most important date in the Christian calendar (after Easter Sunday), and on the Jewish Passover.

I was also frustrated by the terms of debate. What was meant by “religion”? Did it refer here to religious institutions, or to spiritual beliefs and practices, or to faith? If religious institutions, was it directed primarily at Christianity, or a catch-all statement? If Christianity, did it target traditional Roman Catholic Church dogma? Church abuses? If dogma, did it reflect an accurate understanding of the history and doctrines of church institutions?

What I found was people who claimed atheist positions decrying what they perceived as church positions. If I, as a Christian, disputed their interpretations of church positions they told me I was wrong, that my understandings of Christianity are faulty.

I have many faults. Christianity has many faults. The Christian Church has many faults – indeed, Christian churches have many faults. Religious institutions have many faults. Religion generally has many faults. Mea culpa.

But I cannot let stand attacks against religion that are attacks against straw man positions. Dust in the wind we may be, but straws flying loose in hot wind are ridiculous.

What I do NOT believe:

I do not believe in an old white bloke with a long white beard perched On High in a Celestial Firmament.

I do not believe that said old white bloke stretched out a finger and pronounced LIGHT and then created Earth and the universe in seven days.

I do not believe that when I die I will ascend to fluffy clouds and play a harp throughout eternity.

I do not believe that when I die I will descend to a place of fire and brimstone to undergo eternal torment supervised by demons.

I do not believe I will be bodily resurrected on a day of judgement that will see the apocalypse of John’s Revelations.

I do not believe I will meet my dead loved ones – or any others dead and departed – in a conscious after-life.

I do not believe in the laws or prophesies of the Old Testament a.k.a the Hebrew Bible.

I do not believe the literal truth of the Christian gospels.

I do not believe everything the apostle Paul taught. I do not believe Paul always taught in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, whom he never met.

Things I am not sure I believe:

I’m not sure a man named Jesus (or the Aramaic version of) who lived and died as described in the gospels actually existed.

If he existed, I’m not sure the accounts of his last days, trial and execution are historically accurate. Scrub that: I’m pretty sure they’re not.

I’m not sure of the nature of God. Currently I have a concept I embrace, but it’s just that: a concept. Any ‘God’ is beyond human capacity for conceptualisation.

Here’s what I do believe:

Religion is valuable, even essential, and spiritual belief and faith are innate in humans.

Religious belief has brought at least as much good to the world as it has harm.

All ideologies are subject to corruption and abuse. Secular ideologies have within a short recent period caused immense destruction, comparable to the destructions caused across centuries under the banners of religion.

Love is what matters most, is ultimately all that matters.

God is love (my concept, within my limited understanding).

God is the context, the ground of being. God is cause.

In first century Judea, a wandering healer who is remembered as Jesus practiced in Galilee.

His followers believed this man they called Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of Elijah and Isaiah.

This man they called Jesus, who they wrote about after his death, changed history and changed the way human beings view(ed) their responsibilities to one another.

I believe people of religious faith have more in common with each other, in terms of their worldviews, than they might with people who don’t understand and relate to religious faith.

I believe the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – are spiritual cousins.

I believe the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, are compatible with the foundational teachings of the man we know as Jesus.

I believe nothing is lost, everything changes.

I reject any argument that defines a religious faith as a belief in the literal truth of religious texts. That argument attempts to define all religious people as fundamentalist. We are not. Nor are we all members of a church that claims an infallible authority as its earthly head.

Archaic language taints understanding.

To “sin” is a medieval archery term meaning “to miss the mark”, “to fall short”.

To “repent” is to “turn away from”.

“Mercy” is compassion and forgiveness.

“The Church” is the people, the followers of Jesus’s teachings. It is not a building or an institution. The term “church’’ originally meant heralds sent out to spread news.

“Gospel” means “good news”.

“Saints” originally refers to all followers of Jesus’s teachings, not only those formally designated “saints” by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, “the communion of saints” – the coming together in companionship and mutual affirmation of those who follow Jesus’s teachings.

“The kingdom of heaven” is a state of mind, a state of peace, compassion, integrity.

“For what does your Lord ask of you? To act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” – Micah 6:8. That’s all there is. (Yes, Micah is a prophet – it’s the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament I reject, not the wisdom teachings.)

Specifically, in relation to the Easter narrative:

As I experience faith, religion provides a spiritual source of strength, support and consolation, which I will term ‘Jesus’, which I can access (pray to or find companionship in) in times of brokenness: those times when I feel frailties, failings, inadequacies (“sins”) threaten to overwhelm me and disable me from choosing kind and just attitudes and taking constructive action. This is not secular, a psychological strategy. This is a spiritual practice. The crucifixion is a metanarrative reminding me there are no depths, no despair, I can sink into where Jesus has not gone before me, where Jesus will not meet me, and from which he has not, metaphorically, risen – and with this spiritual guidance, I can ‘rise’ too.

This is not just me, and not some pathetic, vulnerable “them”. We are all us of broken, in some ways, at some times. There is nothing shameful in being broken. We can heal and grow, though “God”. Our “reborn” self can be a fuller, wiser, kinder self.

I was not born a miserable worm, a piece of smeared shit the Old Man On High looks down upon and scorns. This is not what “Original Sin” (a term I have never heard used in my church) means to me. In so far as there might be “Original Sin”, it is the recognition that we are not born tabula rasa, a blank slate: we are genetically encoded with specific strengths and vulnerabilities. I embody genetically-programmed weaknesses but they do not define me. I am also in a state of grace, always already loved. In the words of the baptismal service, “We love, because God first loved us.”

I can celebrate “God” in the world through loving kindness and service. Loving kindness and service are “God” in action, “God” being in the world. We bring forth “God” in the quality of our interactions with others.

Which brings us to the thorny question of the Trinity, for those who care. The Triune God: Father/Son/Holy Spirit as one being (concept). What if we see the Trinity as a metaphor for inextricable relationship – what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”?

We make sense of our lives through stories. The religious tradition into which we are born is a metanarrative, framing our own stories, helping us understand and shape our stories. Atheists deride religions as “fairy tales”. It’s true religions intersect with the domain of poetics and metaphor. Are poetics and metaphor not “true”? What about the extraordinary art humans have created to express their religious experiences – visual art, music, architecture, writing? Is the only truth the materialist dogma?

It’s undeniable religious institutions, religious dogma and religious fervour have caused immense pain and damage over millennia. On the other side of the ledger, if you ask “What has religion ever done for us?” you can get a Life of Brian-esque liturgy: literacy, schools, hospitals, the evolution of social welfare (e.g. through the Minsters); the principles that drove many of the nineteenth-century Progressives (Abolitionist, prison reformers, asylum reformers, attempts at equitable profit-sharing); a social code nominally based on humans’ innate value, including the value of the most marginal (Jesus made a point of hanging out with the most despised and those usually excluded: madmen, foreigners, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions); the primacy of compassion, love, forgiveness… And that’s just the Christian contribution.

The question I ask of people who post atheist memes is this: “Is it so hard to recognise there are many forms of religious experience and understanding, some of them very sophisticated, some very personal, born of ancient traditions, and they have validity in the lived experiences of their adherents?”


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Eulogy by my sister Cathy for our father Angus’s wake – draft

I was with Dad when the surgeon said the cancer is inoperable. Dad smiled and asked, “You don’t think it’s worth looking around for a new car then?”

The next day he went out with Mum and bought a new car for her because he wanted her to be safe when he was no longer here to protect her.

He had an amazing capacity to manage setbacks with humour and I think he learned it from when he was very young growing up in Mt Gambier during the Great Depression and World War 2. His parents Angus and Edie were born in the 1890s and already parents when World War 1 began. Dad’s sister, Ila, was one of thousands of children who caught polio around 1917 and she suffered the effects for the rest of her life. His cousin Des also grew up cared for by Dad’s family but by the time Angus was born Des was leaving home. Dad’s father owned a shop called The Spot for Menswear and it’s there that Dad began his career in retail, learning from his own father the skills he needed to be a manager and later director at Myer. I think the first photographs he took were of his house and family and the shop.

You will all recall Dad out and about with his camera. Photography was his special past-time that got him out into nature, the sunshine and the inevitable conversations with all the extraordinary people he met. Soon after he received the bad news, he decided to prepare a slide show for today. I helped with the technology and he chose the images. This proved complicated because he has 45,000 photos on his computer. Not long after we started work on the slide show his computer completely froze. I took it to Matt at Apptech who said he’d never seen that happen before but Dad’s computer was completely full. We had to delete some obsolete files. This was tricky because Dad doesn’t see any of his things as redundant.

Dad wanted the slide show to reflect his great love of Mum and family. He wanted images of all his friends: those who have already passed and those here today. We found images of him at school, including a special one of the football team showing him and Hugh Edwards who would later be brothers-in-law. There are his dear friends from uni who I’ve known and loved all my life. There are the amazing people from the community at Point Lonsdale who have shown so much love and support for the family.

Dad was so worried about Mum left alone but just seeing all the kindness that has been extended towards Elizabeth relieved him. Thank you to all of you who have dropped off food and equipment, who have chatted on the beach, phoned, and given your attention to our family in the last few months. That solidarity is much appreciated.

I sidetracked there a bit, so back to the slide show.

There are the tennis players, the Point Lonsdale Raqueteers, who awarded him legend status just in the nick of time, as seen in the photo on today’s flyer. You will see the Optimists from the Optimists’ Club, who have lunched together once a month for years, and his mates from Probus. Mum and Dad were very proud foundation members of the Combined Probus. There are old friends from interstate.

However, we didn’t fit every one Dad cares about into the slide show because I wanted images of Dad. Now, he is happy to take photos of everyone else, but there are not so many images of him. Most of the ones he chose were taken by Mum when they travelled together. One of my favourites is of Dad dressed up as Father Christmas with his sister Ila and his Auntie Maude, both of whom he looked after as they aged. It was a huge responsibility for him to drive through Melbourne on Christmas Day dressed this way because children in cars everywhere spotted him and waved. He waved back to them all.

Last year, I researched the connections between memories and photographs for an artwork project for my post-graduate studies in art at Deakin. I based my work on a photograph of the Point Lonsdale front beach by Dad. You will have seen his images of random families on the front beach that he took originally to decorate the guest rooms at the Point Lonsdale Motel, which Mum and he ran during the 1990s. Later, he couldn’t throw them away, so they hung in their house at Cheshunt Street. We discussed what his photographs actually recorded. He told me that he recalled he heard Louis Armstrong singing A Wonderful World as he pressed the shutter button. When you look at Dad’s images they all show his love for people and nature and for being alive.

Angus loved music and played it constantly. If he could hang out with Bing, Louis, Frank, Dean and Sammy he was happy. He decided to make a soundtrack for the party, to start after these speeches. He wants to dedicate all these love songs to Mum. Like Dad, I find great consolation in the stardust of a song.

He also chose the songs for this serious part of the proceedings. Amazing Grace is for Mum because Dad is grateful to her for all the grace she has shown him over the years. He wanted the Dennis Walter version but we couldn’t find the single to buy so Elly tracked down Dennis’s brother. Fred said it wasn’t available as a single but he sent Dad a homemade disk just for today. Dad chose St Louis Blues because he loved the joyous jazz funeral processions he saw in New Orleans.

He chose Jimmy Durante because there couldn’t be anyone more lovable to sing about love and Dad decided that love was the most important part of his life.

Stardust captures the bitter-sweetness he feels at leaving behind his loved ones. You might be surprised that he chose When Irish Eyes are Smiling when his ancestry is so Scottish, but Elly sent a sample of his spit to be DNA tested and it turned out he was nearly 50% Irish, down the female lines of course. This amused him no end, as his favourite son-in-law is an O’Keefe. He gave Peter his green polo shirt to wear today and chose the song, an Irish song, to celebrate the news.

Isa Lei is a Fijian farewell song. Last year, for his 85th birthday Dad took us all to Fiji. Mum and Dad took Elly and me there for our first trip overseas as teenagers. It is a special place for our family and we had the most marvellous times there. I have video of Dad’s birthday dinner aboard a sunset cruise, being serenaded by waiters. Then we all got up and danced the night away.

Looking back at my childhood, I am grateful I had loving parents but even more so that I had parents who loved each other. I remember sometimes sneaking out of bed to the top of the stairs because I could hear music playing and seeing Mum and Dad dance together alone in their own bubble of love. The last song Dad chose is Save the Last Dance for Me.

Adam Lindsey Gordon, one of Australia’s great poets, incidentally also lived in Mt Gambier. He wrote a poem that sums up how I see my Dad. It’s known as Froth and Bubble – a good name for a racehorse.

Life is mainly froth and bubble

But two things stand as stone

Kindness in another’s trouble

And courage in your own.

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Elly’s planned eulogy for her father’s wake – Sunday 5th March

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Dad and I were sitting out on the porch one day when I noticed something unusual about the tree branch hanging over our back fence.

“That tree has a NUT in it,” I said.

Quick as a flash Angus responded, “Must be one of our friends dropping over for a visit!”

Thank you for visiting. Thank you for being our friends. And thank you for being here today.

Dad was very quick witted.

After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a visiting friend made a somewhat socially awkward remark about playing a harp outside the Pearly Gates.

“What will YOU be playing in heaven, Dad?” I asked.

“Tennis,” he replied, with a Cheshire Cat grin.

I am so lucky to be the daughter of Donald Angus McDonald. I have valued his wit, his warmth, his intelligence, his fierce opinions, his protectiveness. I have valued his endless curiosity about life, other people, current events, fingerprint technology.

I’m not joking there.

In the last week of his life Dad and I spent a precious hour or two finding out everything we could about fingerprint technology: its uses, its failings, its future.

A day or so later I said to him, “I feel a little guilty that I used time we could have spent talking about the things that have mattered most to you in your life talking instead about fingerprints. But then I read an article which discussed gossip and trivial conversation from an anthropological perspective, in terms of social bonding, as a process of affirming relationship, like monkeys grooming each other, picking nits out of each others’ hair. It doesn’t really matter WHAT we’re talking about. It’s the act of conversing that matters.”

He smiled a Sphinx smile, which I hope means he agreed.

There’s no question Angus loved conversing, and loved his friends, his visitors, loved social bonding – and, truth to tell, loved a verbal tussle.

We had nitpick conversations about etymology. Most recently, the origins of the surname Bassingthwaite. We don’t know anyone with the surname Bassingthwaite, but we thought it worth exploring, for the sake of exploring.

Which brings me to travel. Angus didn’t travel overseas until after he’d reached 40, but he made up for lost time. His interest in other people extended to an interest in other cultures.

Dad was a child in World War 2. All his life, World War 2 was a reference point, the most charged period within his memory and study. When Angus, Liz and I drove the Nullarbor together in 1985 we drove past a bicycle, alone on the highway, with panniers and a rider in a French Foreign Legion cap, and with a Japanese flag flying optimistically from the back wheel rack.

Dad overtook, carefully, then said, “He is taking a big risk flying the Japanese flag out here. There are still motorists who might take that as a provocation.”

And yet, when Angus visited Japan he fell in love. I think he made five visits to Japan within about 10 years, and there’s no questioning his very real admiration and respect for Japanese people and culture. He was capable of embracing new information and adopting new attitudes.

Speaking of love: my father loved my mother. When he was ill, he was clear she was his first priority. In the last day, when he was dying, it was her name, Elizabeth, he said repeatedly, even after very few words were coherent. Other words that were clear were “Cathy”, “Peter”, “Pelly”, “Family”, and “Love”.

Dad loved us, and we loved him.

After all the words are said, all the words explored, those are the words that count.

Daddy, I love you.

I’ll leave it at that.