Elly McDonald

Writer


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Formative books – 7 books in 7 days

There’s a game going round on Facebook where a person posts over seven consecutive days about seven books that had an impact on their life when first read. Each day, the person nominates a Facebook friend to take on the same task, in a book review-memoirs chain letter.

My friend Chris Stafford nominated me. Due to my long-standing issues with poor impulse control, I found myself writing six posts on Day 2. I’ll try to release them one by one, day by day, on Facebook. But here are all seven now. Because I can.

Day 1: We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. I don’t know why I picked up this book at that time (1998), as it was one of the more insular moments in my life, when I was immersed in the London advertising village. It might be because Gaby Rado’s coverage of the Bosnian war for Channel 4 had made such an impression on me. I remember going on a date with a 21 y.o. Serb boy named Kristin in 1993 and he was completely bewildered, adrift. At any rate. I bought this book as a house-guest gift when I visited Robyn Dixon in Russia late ’98 and it gives me some satisfaction that she’s now spent many years bringing conflict (and other issues) in Sub-Saharan Africa to the awareness of Los Angeles Times readers through her work as their foreign correspondent based in Johannesburg. I look forward to what she writes from her new posting in Beijing.

This book almost certainly dictated that when I attempted a novel it drew heavily on the Rwanda (and Bosnia) scenario.

Day 2: Blood Red Sister Rose by Thomas Kenneally (1974), a novel about Joan of Arc. There were a number of historical novels that impacted me powerfully as a child and young adolescent, usually featuring traumatised male loners (One is One by Barbara Leonie Picard, The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff), but Blood Red Sister Rose was quite different stylistically and in its concerns.

I was 14 when I read it in 1975. Here was a book about a very young girl asserting herself in a very brutal male environment, written in extremely direct, contemporary language. To my recollection, I understood its representation of war as a response to the Vietnam War. In that respect it prefigured my reading of Michael Herr’s book Dispatches, which blew me away a few years later at age 17.

But Blood Red Sister Rose was also about gender and authority and sexualities and menses (mildly mortifying for a pubescent girl to read about, but there it was – echoing Neville Williams’ psychosexual analysis of Elizabeth I in his biography of the Virgin Queen, which impacted me strongly when I was 12).

Blood Red Sister Rose doesn’t follow Joan – or Jehannette, as Keneally calls her – through to her capture, trial and execution by England’s Burgundian allies. It addresses how an uneducated peasant girl might relate to French commanders bred within a military cast, and to their troops. The most memorable passage for me was the shocking image of Gilles de Rais witnessing at close quarters his (male) lover’s head blown off by a cannonball. I understood at once the traumatic conjunction of violence and eroticism. Gilles de Rais is known in legend as Bluebeard, the nobleman turned monster who practiced dismemberment for its erotic charge.

Day 3: Roxana by Daniel Defoe (1724). I was enrolled in an MA at Melbourne University trying to research a thesis on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature when I stumbled on a dusty antique copy of Roxana while employed part-time in the English Department library.

It amazes me now that I didn’t recognize Roxana tied in with my ‘transformation and shapeshifting’ project. After all, the novel’s full title is The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II.

At the time I was in urgent need of self-reinvention and it was serendipitous to encounter a character as resourceful as the Lady Roxana, who is a C17th forerunner to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, of Vanity Fair (a book I discovered with wonder when I was about 12), and spiritual ancestress to the pop idol Madonna.

Unlike the eponymous Amber St Clare of Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s bestselling 1947 bodice-ripper, which I had swallowed whole at age 13, and which also centres on a fallen woman rising to become King Charles II’s mistress, the character who eventually becomes known as Roxana does not obsess over any lover. Amber is punished for her sinful career by having her son taken from her. Defoe assures us Roxana is to be punished, ultimately, but when the reader leaves her she has successfully achieved high social status and financial security by calculatedly killing off her discarded identities. This has required tacitly permitting the killing of her eldest daughter, who could not let her mother go.

Roxana is spiritually discomfited by her daughter’s fate. But I had the feeling material comfort mattered more to her. Roxana has the ‘I will prevail and survive at all costs’ tenacity I aspired to over the following decade of my life.

Day 4: The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967). I already knew Alan Garner through The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Elidor (1965) when I first read The Owl Service at about age 10 or 11. Those first two books I bracketed as a sub-genre with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which I adored, and Elidor scared me: I had as yet no idea how extraordinarily scary Alan Garner’s writing would become, with Red Shift (1973), one of the most disturbing reading experiences of my life, then, much later, Boneland (2012), the belated completion of the Weirdstone trilogy.

I read The Owl Service the summer the 1969/70 BBC TV adaptation went out (delayed I think in Australia). I was girl-crushing on the actress who played Alison, Gillian Hills. The Owl Service is a contemporary take on an episode from the Welsh mythological cycle The Mabinogion, in which a wizard fashions a woman from flowers, then is driven to murderous rage when she loves another man, and turns her instead into a night predator owl.

This is the episode of The Mabinogion that was to be the centerpiece of my MA thesis (on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature). I think my love for The Mabinogion, and for Garner, links to my love for the novels of David Mitchell, who in his fantastical, speculative novels (The Bone Clocks) wraps witty, confident homages to many writers of British myth and fantasy whom we both admire.

In this past year I have had DNA tests done. While my father’s DNA is almost wholly Connacht Irish, and my mother and my sister have extremely similar profiles heavy on the Yorkshire-Pennines region and Scandinavia, it turns out my DNA is predominantly Welsh and West Midlands. Yes, I feel like a changeling. When I saw my DNA results, one of my first thoughts was: Ah yes – my affinity for Welsh myth and for Alan Garner’s tales. Ah, yes.

Day 5: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992). Hilary Mantel is best known for her Man-Booker Prize winning Tudor novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up The Bodies (2012). This is the unpublished novel in a drawer that piggybacked on the critical success of her fourth published book, Fludd (1989). Mantel says she started writing A Place of Greater Safety for her own satisfaction, to write the historical novel she wished to read, and that she researched it obsessively, right down to the actual wallpapers and décor, using the historical characters’ actual words wherever possible. The New York Times critic speculated whether, “more novel and less history might not better suit this author’s unmistakable talent.”

The New York Times critic is mistaken.

A Place of Greater Safety is an extraordinary reading experience, a fully-realised world like a Tolstoy novel. It’s a remarkable, immersive evocation of how it might have been to be a major player living though the French Revolution – to be Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton or Maximilien Robespierre, although of course it’s incorrect to describe these epoch-making actors as “living through” the experience.

One of my close friends in high school studied the Enlightenment at university. “Les philosophes”, she told me, breezily. I, a rock music writer at the time, felt humbled. I knew next to nothing about the French Revolution. I remember reading about it in primary school and earnestly telling my French-speaking headmistress I was reading about “Rob-ess-perry”. After reading A Place of Greater Safety, I felt I understood more about the genesis of democracy as it’s understood in America, and about modern politics. I was also astonished to find I’d fallen in love, just a little, with a character dead more than 200 years, re-presented in fiction. Mantel’s Camille Desmoulins is, to my mind, one of the greatest re-animations in literature.

Day 6: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003). My psychologist asked me if I’d read this book. I was wary. Why would she ask? Lionel Shriver, a female novelist, is a provocateur. The propositions for some of her novels are deliberately perverse and confrontational: Malthusianism and racism (Game Control, 1994); rivalry between a couple within marriage (Double Fault, 1996); family inheritances (A Perfectly Nice Family, 1997); obesity and self-control (Big Brother, 2013); capitalism’s meltdown (The Mandibles, 2016). In We Need To Talk About Kevin, she addresses motherhood, maternal instinct, and high school shooters. If a mother is convinced, from the outset, her baby is a psychopath, can it be her instincts are correct, or is she cursing that child’s development, determining its fate? In either case, can she be held accountable? What are the costs to such a mother? To the child? To society?

We Need To Talk About Kevin made a splash on publication and has only become more salient since. In 2005 it was filmed with Tilda Swinton playing the mother, who in the novel is of Armenian extraction. Tilda was brilliant, I’m told. Me, I can’t go past the novel’s image of a mother gazing through the rear window of a car at the bright police lights outside a school in lock down.

Day 7: So many great books, so few to be name-checked within seven days! I didn’t mean to focus as much as I have on books I read when very young. But with just one book choice left, the one book I need to include is a children’s novel from 1958 – Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, which I think I read in 1970 at about age 10. I re-read it recently. I cried, again.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is, as many of my childhood favourites were, a novel about childhood loneliness. Also, as with several of my childhood favourites, a novel about time travel, or ghosting across time.

The best of the ‘ghosts’-in-time novels is in my opinion Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. But that’s a novel for grown-ups, about the ugliness of addiction (really – the medieval romance is a McGuffin).

At 10 (thereabouts), I encountered three time travel ‘ghosts’ who left their imprints on me. Lexie in Nan Chauncy’s Tangara (1960) is linked in time with Merrina, an Indigenous Tasmanian, and witnesses the extermination of Merrina’s community. Penelope in Alison Uttley’s A Traveller In Time (1939) ‘ghosts’ back in time to C16th Derbyshire, befriending a boy named Francis, becoming embroiled in the Babington Plot, a Papist plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is a gentler affair.

Pearce’s character Tom ‘ghosts’ back to a late Victorian garden on the grounds of a large country house, where he befriends another lonely child, Hatty. Hatty and Tom form a relationship that transcends time. But while Tom remains a child, each time he visits the midnight garden Hatty has grown incrementally older. Each time he visits, the fabric of his being in this other world becomes slightly more translucent, slightly less material, until, after one wonderful day where the two skate on a frozen river towards Ely Cathedral, he effectively evaporates, as Hatty moves towards her adult life.

But, as they say, love never dies. A child is heard crying in a hallway. A name is called. Eyes are opened. Eyes fill with tears.

I think this is a novel about cross-generational love, and change, and loss, and love recovered, love as a legacy. I think this is a novel about love.


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Review: Educated (2018) by Tara Westover

Tara Westover is a remarkable person who has written a remarkable book.

I love this book, and I don’t want to put it down, literally or figuratively.

But it must be said upfront:-

It’s a story America wants to hear:

A story of self-invention, of pulling oneself up by one’s boot-straps, of education as deliverance, of the individual as hero.

A story about a back-country girl whose remorseless pluck earns her our admiration – Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), as Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bone), as Joy in the eponymous movie Joy. It’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

A story currently in the Zeitgeist – three books I’ve blogged about recently, Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, and, most of all, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, are all kissin’ cousins to this narrative.

It’s John Stuart Mill meets Ben Franklin by way of Abe Lincoln and the backwoods lawyer tradition.

It’s contemporary feminism and #MeToo entwined with the narratives of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.

It is America as America wishes: a struggle to be birthed, a struggle to break free, a triumphant claiming of independence.

The narrative as retold by Tara Westover is straightforward:

A girl (a warrior child, an Arya Stark) is the youngest of seven children (omg! A Snow White nod!), born to a young Mormon couple who live on a small-holding on a mountainside in Idaho. The father, who in her book she calls Gene (most of the family are assigned pseudonyms), was an idealistic and somewhat odd young man when he married, who has become seriously odd across the years. He believes fervently that the End Days are imminent.

He’s not alone in this in his neck of the woods. The notorious Ruby Ridge shootings in 1992 took place on another mountainside in that Idaho neighborhood, with FBI agents wounding another mountain father, killing his son, his wife and his baby (held in its mother’s arms). Ruby Ridge was a formative experience for Tara Westover and her siblings, and a turning point in their parents’ radical rejection of mainstream values.

Tara’s father’s mission is to stockpile food, weapons and all essentials to ensure his family are sheltered and protected when the world as we know it collapses, soon. He believes government is the agent of doom. He believes his family, as best possible, must be kept ‘off the grid’, under the radar of government oversight.

To this end, he pulls his older children out of school very young and prevents his younger children from attending school. Ever. He refuses to register the births of his younger children. Officially, the younger children, Tara included, do not exist. They could die on that mountainside and no-one would ever know they had lived.

And the odds are ever in favour of their premature deaths.

The father earns a living doing freelance construction work and picking scrap metal from the junk heap that threatens to smother his mountain. He has the older children work on his construction jobs and the younger children work alongside him in the junk heap. He does not believe in OH&S. He does not believe in what most of us might consider common-sense safety precautions. He tells his children there are angels watching over them so they won’t be killed. When they suffer serious injuries, he says see? Angels watch over you. Otherwise you’d have been dead.

When they suffer serious injuries, as they do, with terrifying frequency, the father refuses all medical care. He does not believe in conventional medicine, or doctors, or hospitals. He insists his wife trains with an unqualified rural midwife then, despite the wife’s aversion to midwifery, he insists she become the local midwife practitioner. After she suffers a serious head injury and her ability to monitor births is impaired, he insists she develop her herbal remedies practice. This has the unexpected side effect of founding a commercially successfully botanicals empire, marketed largely on the back of claims that the father’s life was saved solely by herbals after he turned himself into a human torch, in an accidental involving a blow-torch and a petrol tank.

By the time her parents become wealthy local employers and gurus of natural cures, Tara is long gone.

After failed attempts to convince her father to permit her to attend school, eventually as a teen she goes to great lengths to secure a “late issue” birth certificate – complicated by the fact various records show various birthdates – and, with the help of her brother Tyler, is able to gain entry to Brigham Young University, the Mormon college, claiming she’s been home schooled.

Tara’s “home schooling” was a nonsense. She swats like a teenager obsessed (as she is) to pass the entrance exam for college. She teaches herself algebra and calculus from scratch, with some help from Tyler. When she arrives at college, she has never heard of the genre “short story”. Her teachers remark that she writes well but in a stilted, wordy style; a consequence of learning from the Bible and the writings of the Mormon patriarchs.

Worse, in her early lectures she is handicapped by not recognizing Europe is a continent, not a nation, and humiliated when she puts her hand up to ask what this word in the photo captions means – “Holocaust”?

“Very funny,” snaps backs her lecturer, without looking up.

Predictably, Tara fails her first exams. But, she persists. By working through the nights, by mid-year she achieves the perfect score she needs to win a scholarship to fund her studies.

Tara is not doing so well socially, either. She hasn’t been taught basic hygiene. She is ashamed to speak about her home and her family. She seeks counselling, and finds an ally in the local Mormon bishop. He attempts to direct her to government grants, but her father’s teachings are embedded: the government is Satan; financial assistance is Satan’s lure. The bishop attempts to loan her money from the church. Tara is adamant: that money is intended for other purposes. In exasperation, the bishop attempts to lend her money from his own pocket.

Tara does accept a fellowship to join a select group of students from Brigham Young to spend several months at Cambridge University in England. There, she experiences a whole new order of social inadequacy. (My grandfather was one of the first working-class scholarship boys to Cambridge. I know enough about his experiences to wince for Tara Westover.) But, once more, she impresses her academic supervisers, one of whom becomes a valuable mentor (which does not IMHO excuse his patronising remark about stepping straight into George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion).

Subsequently this superviser champions her application as a Cambridge/Harvard PhD student.

Here’s where I got really, REALLY interested.

Tara, whose family keep insisting she should be with them, should live like them, should work alongside them, chooses to do her PhD on family obligation, as examined in the doctrines of four influential American nineteenth-century social and/or intellectual movements, including Mormonism. What would I not give to read that thesis!

Throughout her college career, Westover constantly has to push back against her parents attempting to bring her back home. When they visit her, it’s to convince her she’s suffering demonic possession and only they can cure her. When she does visit them, she is redeployed back in that lethal junk yard, which keeps spreading.

Worse, when Tara revisits home, she comes into conflict with her older brother Shawn (a pseudonym), the black sheep of the family turned prodigal son, who at an earlier time in their relationship was her protector and special friend, but who turned to violent abuse of Tara once Tara reached puberty.

Tara is not alone is suffering abuse from Shawn. His girlfriends, then his young wife, are also abused. But the young wife excuses her husband’s behavior on the grounds Shawn is special in the eyes of God, and therefore subjected to greater temptation than regular folks, and Shawn is his father’s right hand man in the construction business, and has his father’s unequivocal support, so the family collude in silence about Shawn’s violent outbursts.

Westover writes that her rupture from the family circle was not brought about by her insistence on education (although her father does attempt to exorcise her while she’s at Harvard), but by her speaking out about Shawn’s abuse.

Despite what seemed to Tara some initial qualified support from her mother, and a false feint from the sister she calls Audrey, Tara remains estranged from all her immediate family except the two elder brothers who themselves achieved tertiary qualifications – not coincidentally, the only two family members who are not financially dependent on the parent family business. A third older brother is apparently sympathetic but is employed as the business manager and is not in contact with her.

For Tara Westover, the costs of self-actualisation have been steep.

When Westover was first at Cambridge, she identified her special interest area as historiography – the study of how histories come to be recorded, how primary materials are translated through the preconceptions and biases of those who interpret them for contemporary readers. This understanding is built into her memoir project. Westover writes very carefully, sometimes as if for a legal disposition. Unsurprisingly, her publishers had her manuscript exhaustively fact-checked.

Westover showed drafts of the manuscript to her brothers Tyler and Richard, and to extended family members such as aunts and uncles, and invited their input ahead of publication. In parts of the published text she acknowledges directly how others reported or recalled specific incidents. At the back of the book, there is a kind of appendix, where she lists incidents where others’ recall differs from her own, and where she has not been able to accommodate the differences in perception in the body of her text. This is the professional historian at work.

The final sentence of that appendix is especially poignant.

There’s a school of thought, based on neuroscience, that argues memory is essentially fiction, that the memories we choose to retain and to recall construct a selective history, and are highly amorphous, malleable. Westover discusses the nature of memory but more particularly she addresses the mechanisms of what feminists call ‘gaslighting’ – trying to convince people that their apprehension of reality, their own perceptions, are mistaken. Gaslighting is a technique of manipulation.

Tara struggled with counter-narratives – that is, people saying she misrecollected, or that she lied maliciously. She fought hard to have confidence in her account of her own history. The price of being accepted back into the bosom of the family she loves would be to admit she was wrong and to repent.

Yet, she persists.

Afternote:

Tara Westover states at the start of her book that she is not attacking Mormonism. She says, in effect, her parents are crazy not because they are Mormon but are instead Mormons who just happen to be crazy.

I was reminded, reading Westover’s account, of Martha Beck’s memoir Leaving The Saints: How I lost the Mormons and Found My Faith (2006), which tells of Beck’s belief that she had been abused as a child in quasi-religious rituals by her grandfather, a prominent Mormon elder. I liked Beck as a columnist and agony aunt (Oprah magazine), but I found her memoir a difficult read, partly because the tone seemed to me hysterical and the nature of the alleged abuse implausible, which may be unfair. The contrast in tone between Beck and Westover, and changes in publishing practice since Beck’s memoir was published which ensured comprehensive fact-checking of Westover’s memoir, seem to me to lend credibility to Westover’s account.

Myself, I am not a Mormon.


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Ballista blasts back at breakneck speed

The Last Hour is Harry Sidebottom’s first novel through his new publisher, Bonnier Zaffre. It’s extremely fast-paced, like online gaming, with a new peril confronting our hero Ballista literally every corner he turns. Ballista has 24 hours to gain access to the emperor, Gallienus, to warn of an assassination plot.

Gallienus, with gold dust in his hair and gemstones on the soles of his shoes and distinctly decadent tendencies, might not merit the pains Ballista goes through, but Gallienus was one of Ballista’s few early friends when Ballista was first in Rome as a royal Angle hostage, and Gallienus has been a sponsor since, even forgiving Ballista and granting him his life after Ballista was acclaimed ‘emperor’ briefly by troops under his command in the east, so Ballista owes him. Besides, as one of the emperor’s protégés, Ballista knows he and his family – his wife Julia and their two sons – will be killed if the emperor falls.

Ballista’s rich back-story is detailed in the previous six novels in the Warrior of Rome series, all of which I love. Sidebottom’s novels are well-written, with an outstanding sense of location and geography, excellent characterization, and psychologically interesting plots. They are always well researched, as we might expect from an Oxford academic who lectures in Roman history.

This novel is no less well researched –the details of each episode, and some ingenious plot points, offer astonishing insights into the Rome of the 3rd century of the Christian Era – but it would be possible to read this thriller simply as a thriller, without really registering the scholarship invested.

This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, in that readers looking for an adrenalin rush can get swept with the flow. A weakness, in that it can threaten to render Harry Sidebottom’s usually multi-dimensional texts to a flatter, more generic experience. This might be just what the new publisher requested.

Sidebottom’s other series, The Throne of the Caesars, comprises three novels which are longer, much more informationally dense, and much more somber. It’s tempting to speculate some fans of the Warriors of Rome books found The Throne of the Caesars too weighty.

If this is the case, I trust Sidebottom will be given free rein to roll out his planned narratives for Ballista’s future without being compelled to maintain the break-neck speed of The Last Hour.

I look forward to leisurely banter, some reflection time, some ominous pacing and unexpected “Gotcha’s!” when next we meet Ballista. I miss the complexities.


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Eulogy for my father Pt.2 – one year on

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My father died a year ago this week. He died on my parents’ bed, at his home, with his head propped against my solar plexus, supported by my crossed legs, as I stroked his arms. At the bottom of the bed our family was arrayed: my sister, my mother, my brother-in-law – my brother-in-law attendant throughout.

My father labored some hours to die, spewing black bile in repeated bouts.

“Tastes bad,” he murmured.

“Amazing how hard the body holds on to life,” my brother-in-law said, quietly.

After my father’s body gave up, I checked under his jaw for a pulse, checked my finger under his nostril for breath. I scooped the black bile out of his mouth and throat with a damp washcloth, cleaned his teeth and gums, before the palliative nurse, who we’d met just once, the previous day, arrived belatedly.

“I forgive you everything you’ve ever done wrong, for this,” my sister told me.

That’s how it was.

I wrote my father’s eulogy two days before he died.

After I delivered my eulogy at his commemorative celebration, a packed event at a local community hall, I realized I’d left out something important.

I talked about my father’s sense of humour, his way with words, his way with people. I talked in code about what an argumentative cuss he could be, a dinner table bigot. I talked about his vast curiosity. I talked about how much we loved him, and how much he loved our mother.

I left out something so obvious it blinds me: I left out my father the carer.

When my father was diagnosed with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer 11 weeks before his death, his immediate response was ‘So now would be a good time to buy a new car?”

He bought a new car the next day, for my mother. The car she’d been using, the one with seats that were too low, he instructed should be for my use.

When his GP responded he wished all his patients were like my dad, Dad laughed “What, dying?”

Expecting to live six weeks or less, my father spent the next weeks immersed in ensuring financial and administrative matters were in order, that the family would be cared for.

He could barely eat, just crackers, tea and packet soup. He ate a stale Cherry Ripe. Then he hunched over a garden border bed and threw up, painful retching that raised his shoulders, thin strains of pink-strewn chocolate residue. I stood close by his side with my hands soothing his back.

When he was finished, when he straightened, he whispered to me, “That’s what I did for my Mum.”

He held bowls to his mother’s lips as she threw up, dying of cancer.

My father lived twice as long as expected after diagnosis. His mother held on for four years. My father was at university in Melbourne when his mother was first diagnosed. He thrived in Melbourne. He had close friends and exciting prospects. He was doing some tutoring, some teaching at his old boarding college. He had offers of work abroad for foreign governments, offers of postgrad study.

Instead, he returned to the country town where his parents lived, where they lived somewhat unhappily together, on the border of South Australia and Victoria. His parents lived with his sister and his mother’s sister, who kept house and nursed his mother.

He helped nursed his mother and he worked in his father’s shop.

Every weekend, as soon as he knocked off work at the shop, he leapt in his 1950s jalopy and drove as fast as he could – which was fast – to Melbourne. A bit over five hours. There he went on pub-crawls with his mates and bet at the racetracks. Then Sunday night he drove the 430km back to Mount Gambier.

After his mother died, after he’d married my mother, moved to Brisbane, had two infants, my mother would complain about him staying out late after work playing cards with his mates. I don’t know how frequent this was. I do know that before I was 18 months old we’d moved to Mount Gambier, stayed at his parents’ house, then moved to Adelaide, where we lived the next 11 years. Every couple of weeks my father would drive to Mount Gambier – about 5 hours, about 430km – to spend a weekend with his father and his disabled older sister, taking care of what needed taking care of.

Which was a lot. My grandfather had glaucoma and was blind. My father’s much-older sister had crippled legs and cognitive impairment, a legacy of polio in about 1920 compounded by some illness undetermined: meningitis, encephalitis, Murray River Fever. Something fearful.

Their house was huge, built in 1910. Maintenance was massive.

When it was obvious my grandfather and my aunt could no longer manage there, obvious even to my grandfather and my aunt, my father bought them a smaller house a street away. He arranged the sale of the big house. He fought court battles when the sale fell through and he stood accused by the erstwhile buyer of misrepresentation (the buyer claimed Dad had filled the bathtub with books, so the buyer couldn’t see the poor condition of the tub).

My parents, my sister and I were now living in Melbourne. When my grandfather had cancer and was dying, my father drove up and down that highway constantly. He was due the evening my grandfather died. Freak thunderstorms lit up lurid skies. My father decided it wasn’t safe to drive, better the next day. My grandfather lay in his bed in his new home and kept asking, “When will Angus be here?”

In his last days my father confided he was certain his father’s longtime doctor had given him a morphine overdose that last night, at my grandfather’s request, the both of them expecting my father to arrive for the death.

My father felt he’d failed his dad.

After his father’s death, my father bought a small house a short walk from the home where he’d retired with my mother and moved his sister in there. He supported her living in that house until she needed round the clock care. No facility was willing to take her – “special needs” – so he donated generously till a local aged care home relented.

When she died, he cried. He released yellow balloons at her funeral. He said, “That’s over. The Great Obligation.”

My father financially supported his mother’s sister, who’d nursed his mother through her dying years and remained to keep house after my father married and moved to Brisbane. He ensured his aunt could continue to live independently, in her own flat, through to her death.

I believe he provided some financial support for others in his father’s 11 siblings’ families.

When my mother’s mother died and her father went the full King Lear, my father provided what care he could. When others in our family periodically went mad over the next decades, he supported us.

When I struggled financially, which is to say, my late 20s, early 30s, and pretty much always past age 40, my father played pater familias and ensured I was not homeless. I resented that mightily.

When I had bouts of depression after his death, when I thought life tasted sour, my sister said, “You can’t check out. Not after all the effort he put into keeping you alive.”

Fair point.

Here is the eulogy I didn’t deliver, the eulogy to my father, the carer.

Thank you for my life.

Angus with Elly


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On being dehumanised – Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning, and the Gippsland Massacres

This piece is respectfully dedicated to the elders and descendants of the Indigenous peoples of the lands now known as Victoria and South Australia. I apologize sincerely on behalf of my own ancestors for the wrongs my ancestors committed against the Indigenous people they encountered in this country now known as Australia. I apologize sincerely for the wrongs the people of my heritage, Anglo-Celts, continued – and continue – to commit against the people of Australian Aboriginal heritage.

I hope in this piece it does not appear that I conflate the sufferings inflicted on the Indigenous people of Australia with the sufferings experienced by the emigrants from Scotland and Ireland who are my ancestors.

It is not my intention to do that.

Indigenous_survivors

My intention is to look at aspects of my own heritage I have not previously considered, with reference to two powerful pieces of writing I read today: a letter written in southeastern Australia in 1846 by a squatter (landholder) Henry Meyrick, to his relatives back home in England; and a novel by the Irish writer Paul Lynch, titled Red Sky in Morning.

Henry Meyrick wrote:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging … For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog, but no consideration on earth would induce me to ride into a camp and fire on them indiscriminately, as is the custom whenever the smoke is seen. They [the Aboriginal people] will very shortly be extinct. It is impossible to say how many have been shot, but I am convinced that not less than 450 have been murdered altogether.

Ref Gippsland Settlers and the Kurnai Dead – Patrick Morgan – Quadrant Magazine Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.

I read this appalling testimony today, the same day I read Paul Lynch’s novel, which, I think, centrally addresses these questions: how do we distinguish humans from animals; how and in what circumstances do some people privilege themselves as ‘human’ and reduce others to the status of ‘animals’; and, what are the consequences of some declaring themselves ‘human’ by denouncing others as ‘animal’?

What are the inter-generational consequences?

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My father, who died last year at age 85, took pride in being part of history:

You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old [born 1802], my grandfather would be 175 [born 1842], and my father would be 127 [born 1890] and my mother 125 [born 1892]. Even my sister would be 105 [born 1912]. […] All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.

My father’s grandfather arrived in the colony of South Australia in 1841 and made his way to the colony of Victoria, where he farmed land in central-west Victoria. My father passed on one anecdote only about the local Aboriginal peoples. He told me that his uncles – eight of whom survived childhood – who taught him to hunt and shoot, and whom he loved, practiced target shooting using the skulls of native people, set up as targets along fence posts.

I don’t know where these skulls were obtained. Presumably from Indigenous burial sites. Every thing about my father’s anecdote distresses me.

So what do I know, or think I know, really, about how my line of McDonalds came to be in Victoria, shooting at Aboriginal skulls?

In 1822 a girl was born in County Galway, Ireland, possibly to Luke Cavanagh and Mary Malone, but maybe not, and she was named Mary Jane. In about 1840 Mary Jane emigrated to Adelaide, in the young colony of South Australia, possibly travelling with a younger brother. There Mary married a man named Beresford, who worked felling timber on an estate called Burnside – neighboring the suburb where I grew up – and who died within the year. Beresford had a workmate named John McDonald. There were McDonalds in the neighborhood in Galway Mary might have come from, so possibly this John McDonald was someone she knew from home, or his family was known to her. Or perhaps, as his descendants believed, John McDonald hailed from southwest Scotland. We’ll probably never know. There were several John McDonalds who arrived in Australia in 1841 and whose known paths intersect with each other, confusing their tracks.

For certain, Mary Cavanagh married a John McDonald in 1841 in Adelaide and they had their first child, John, in 1842. This John is without doubt my great-grandfather.

In other respects there is doubt aplenty.

Mary Jane apparently had nine sons and three daughters with John McDonald between 1842 and 1858. A Mary Jane Cavanagh died on 8 October 1894 in Geelong, Victoria, at the age of 72. However… something is not right. There were twins, and twins in several generations of this line, but it still seems unlikely the same Mary Cavanagh had three children all born in 1858 and two children born 1851. My family’s research turned up a marriage certificate showing our Mary Cavanagh married John McDonald born 1802, whereas other amateur genealogy trees show her married to John McDonald born 1832 or 1835, which doesn’t make sense, given he’d be a child in 1841. It looks possible that somewhere, two or more Mary Cavanaghs and two or more John McDonalds have been elided.

It’s very unlikely that ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh died in Geelong. My father believed he knew his grandmother’s place of burial, in central western Victoria, but my father is dead. The main arguments in favour of ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh being the daughter of Luke and Mary and the mother of the named children is that the children include some with ‘family names’ that recur throughout our family tree: Donald, Angus, Annie, John, Archibald, James (Jim).

Does it matter?

We can’t know what kind of a person Mary Cavanagh was or why she emigrated.

I have always felt it was enough to say I cannot know and leave it at that. But in this past week I’ve read two novels by Paul Lynch that have made me rethink the Irish side of my heritage. The first, Grace, tells a story of the Great Hunger, the Great Potato Famine of 1845-46.

The second, which in fact was written prior to Grace (Grace is a kind of sequel), is the book I read today that shook me up so much.

Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning tells a story of a man named Coll Coyle who is born in County Donegal, just north of Mary Cavanagh’s home County Galway, and who in 1832 flees to America after accidentally killing his landlord’s son.

Coll’s story is fiction, but the climactic sequence and other elements are based on fact. The climactic sequence is a massacre: humans regarded as animals, slaughtered.

Henry Meyrick writes of the Aboriginal people that “No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are”. Coll’s is another tale of a human being, in this case an Irishman, hunted down with unsparing perseverance, derided as an animal by his pursuer, the landlord’s right-hand man Faller.

Did you know […] the Irish never founded a town? Never founded a town. I bet you didn’t. But it’s true. The Danes and the Normans came here and cut down your forests. They founded on those clearings every single Irish town that exists. Had to build them themselves. Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow, Limerick, Cork. You’ve got the Danes to thank for all of that. […]

The Danes and the Normans they built your roads too. The Irish never founded a road. Imagine that. Thousands of years of trudging in the rain and the mud, back and forth, to and fro, in your bare feet, up to your knees in cow shit. It must have been slow going on your primitive roads. And nobody not once thought of making a road. You had to be helped with that too, didn’t you? […]

Not that you knew much about building either. You lived in your bothies made of clay and branches. You lived like that for thousands of years. But you could hardly call that living now could you […]? You had to be shown how to secure a proper roof over your heads. What I’m saying about all this is that you needed guidance.

[…] you have to wonder what the Irish were doing all those years. Imagine. What a state you would be in if left to your own devices. You really do have to think about that. To think of the advancement of the amenities of life. Well. I’ll tell you what you were doing […]. You were standing in the rain up to your oxters in cow shit. The world pissing on your heads. Huddling in your dank forests. Squirming about in your little wooden huts. Stealing each other’s cows then murdering each other for it. It’s not what you would call civilization is it […]?

The old man Faller is addressing says “What’s all that talk about? You’re as much from this place as any man. Not a drop of foreign blood in ye.”

Faller put his hands flat on the table and leaned into Ranty.

I’m not like you, he said.

I don’t think like you.

In truth, he does not.

A short while later Faller kills a man he repeatedly refers to as a “rat”, as vermin. He kicks a girl who he sneers is a “mamzer” (a Biblical term for outcast, the unclean product of incest). She should count herself lucky she lives. Almost no one who crosses Faller’s path lives.

In another short while Faller forces a crippled beggar to dance like an organ grinder’s monkey. He kills a man and orders the body fed to sheep.

Faller justifies killing two undefended women by saying

Let me tell you something […]. People aren’t people. They are animals, brutes, blind and stupid and following endless needs they know not what the origin. And all the rest that we place on top to make us feel better is a delusion.

In extremis, “Faller became at one with the beast” – by “beast” Lynch means requisitioned horse, but he might as well mean the Devil, the Great Beast. Faller is satanic. He is inhuman. As Coll’s bereft wife reflects, “Not everyone has the kindness in them.”

Encountering a loving, religious family who offer hospitality, help tend his injuries and promise to help him on his way next morning, Faller can only consider the husband and father “a very troublesome creature”. When bounty hunters trap him in the farmer’s home, he holds the family hostage, then uses the small daughter as a human shield, flinging her towards the bullets.

Is ‘Faller’ a reference to ‘Fallen’, or ‘Falling’, as in Lucifer?

Faller has a Darwinian dog eat dog philosophy. He lives to exert dominance, most particularly the power of life or death (mostly death). Cornered, he philosophizes

I’ll tell you, there’s always an agency more powerful than your own. Think about that. The terrible beauty of it. How it lies there unseen waiting for you. Every fate, every life, every story swallowed by forces greater […]

The man listening views Faller as a dangerous animal. He responds

But you know I spend a lot of my time on my own thinking betwixt me and the saddle and I ain’t come up with much but I did come up with this – the difference between a man and a beast is we’re able to imagine the future and they’re not. But what makes us no better than em is we cain’t predict it.

While Faller kills his way on his remorseless quest – like the Terminator, like a sociopathic Javert – Coll Coyle, the hunted quarry, barely one stumble ahead, faces shock after shock of life-threatening situations, and faces them like, dare one say, a man. A good man.

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He endures many weeks at sea in squalid conditions on the emigrant boat to New York. He helps nurse his companions through a lethal fever that kills scores of fellow passengers, their corpses swollen with bloat turfed overboard. He spares the life of a deranged young man who tries to kill him. He joins his compatriots in signing up with an Irishman in New York called Duffy who promises they’ll be well-fed and paid fairly if they work cutting down a mountain to make way for a railway at a site known to history as Duffy’s Cut.

Duffy’s Cut turns into a gulch of hell: “In the days that follow they begin to work not like men but beasts […] They burrowed into the surface like animals taking flight from some sluggish danger […]”

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Transcontinental railroad workers in America

On a journey to Philadelphia for supplies, Coll and his mate the Cutter

[…] decided they wanted a drink. A place called the Bull’s Head Tavern and they opened tentatively the door. Card players with clean faces and suits and they stopped their game to eye the two strangers. A man coughed and they thought they heard him say dirty Irish and they felt they were being watched. The Cutter clanked coins on the counter and waved a grubby hand and ordered two drinks but the barman turned away from them […]

Coll and the Cutter are refused service at the Bull’s Head Tavern and, when they attempt to journey back to Duffy’s Cut, they’re run out of the district by a local posse.

Git walking. Up thataways. He pointed to the road. […] The men mounted their horses and followed closequarters.

Coll and the Cutter are marched back to Duffy’s Cut by the mounted gunmen, who see at the encampment dead and sick men. Cholera has broken out at Duffy’s Cut –

[…] their minds went wild with the thought of disease and they put their sleeves to their mouths to protect them from the air and they turned their horses one-handed and fled.

At the encampment, some of the workers feel their best chance is to leave while they still can. But now the horsemen know the Irishmen carry cholera fever, and it’s already too late. A man called Maurice walks away only to be dumped back at the camp entrance by a local horseman.

The men stood up and walked over to where he had stopped and they saw that he had left a body. It lay face down in the dirt noosed about the neck and Chalky turned it over with his toe. The man’s complexion was scratched raw and teeth were broken and gums were bleeding and they saw it was the body of Maurice. Beneath the blood his lips were grey and his eyelids brown and his extremities dark with his own faecal matter. The men stood stunned and the blacksmith wandered slowly over and he looked at the body. […] Coyle watched him and walked over. What in the hell?, he said.

Again the blacksmith sighed. There’s people about who’d like you lot to keep to your own, he said. That’s just the way it is. And he turned and led the mule away.

Coll, once again, nurses the sick, tries to do the right thing by the dying and dead. He enlists his remaining companions to load the sick up on a mule cart. They attempt to leave Duffy’s Cut as a group.

The mounted gunmen stop them.

Not another step I tell you, the leader said. Take yer sickness back down with you where you belong and not a damn sight near the good folk from round here families and all. You lot are staying put in the valley and if you think you aren’t hell will come paying. You hear me? I tell you. Pack of diseased dogs.

In the minds of the locals, the Irishmen have ceased to be human. In a short while, the encampment is overrun by men with guns who shoot down ever last Irish soul.

The way Paul Lynch imagines this massacre left me gasping.

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I took to google to look up Duffy’s Cut on Wiki:

Duffy’s Cut is the name given to a stretch of railroad tracks about 30 miles west of PhiladelphiaUnited States, originally built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad‘s Main Line. Railroad contractor Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to lay this line through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers came to Philadelphia from the Ulster counties of DonegalTyrone and Derry to work in Pennsylvania’s nascent railroad industry. Less than two months after their arrival, all 57 are believed to have died during the second cholera pandemic. While most died of the disease, forensic evidence suggests that some may have been murdered, perhaps due to fear of contagion […].

I know that when Gaelic-speaking Scottish highlander emigrants arrived in the colony of Victoria, they were considered by the English settlers to be savages, and were penned up on arrival in camps in central Victoria until they could be ‘habituated’.

I know my forebears, both Irish and Scottish, were Gaelic-speakers.

I do not for one moment propose that the ways the Irish and the Scots who emigrated to the colonies had been dispossessed and mistreated in their home lands justifies their treatment of Indigenous people in Australia.

But I can’t help but relate the conditions of the subjected Irish and the Scots dispossessed in the Clearances with Henry Meyrick’s lines

For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog […]

Remorse did not extend far.

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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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In short: The Natural Way of Things (2015) by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte_Wood_The_Natural_Way_of_Things

5 January 2016

I finally read Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things [which subsequently won the 2016 Stella Prize for “Writing by Australian women”].

I liked the opening sequences and the final section; some of the middle sagged a bit. It’s not an easy novel to like – stylistically sometimes too gothic for my palate (the Ransom doll) and ideologically hardline. Even as an unabashed feminist I found myself squeaking “But I like men!”. Which is beside the point in a schematically rigorous parable like this.

It was very similar, thematically, to the novella I wrote mid-2012: women forcibly interred in a kind of prison camp run by men, subjected to humiliations intended to enforce the “natural way of things”, with femaleness seen as abject and subject to male controls. I liked my opening sequences, too, but my draft backed my heroine into a muddy pit and I could not devise a way to extract her. Eventually I edited it into a short story, which worked better.

Charlotte Wood has set hers in a distinctively Australian environment, anchored by Australian references (notorious true crimes perpetrated against individual women and generic misogynist scenarios), whereas mine was set in a land of fable with lots of east Asian elements. Also mine was as much a lashing out at corporate culture… oops, so is Charlotte’s.

Charlotte’s novel stayed in my mind and I remember it now, precisely two years later (to the day), with more appreciation than I felt at the time. Also, I thank her for this:

 

I’m thinking I might reactivate one or both of my blogs, Elly McDonald Writer and Telling Tales. Maybe I’ll import the content of one into the other and just retain one [which is what I did]. Last time I was writing memoir pieces that sent me into a tailspin of depression. Enough of that. Not sure what I’d write about at this point.

Turns out I write about gender politics and violence, for now.

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