APRIL READING

Books, which are usually a multi-purpose cure – solace, distraction or balm, exciting or soothing as required – have not been doing  it for me lately. Perhaps I needed one of those bibliotherapy experts to prescribe exactly the right one. The unexpected death of a very dear friend in the first week of April has had me borrowing piles of books but not finding the right one to transport me.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with fiction for a while. Finding it hard to actually care enough about the people. Which is awful. I’m a fiction writer, after all! I’d been looking forward to the latest Ann Patchett, but I only made it half way through Tom Lake. The same goes for our book club choice, Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, but even more so. New York and smart gallery owners and artists seemed so far away and I didn’t like any of them. Lauren Groff’s Matrix was possibly fascinating, but the effort of imagining life in an English nunnery in the middle ages was beyond me. I nearly finished A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild.

Non-fiction, then. A few pages of Stuck Monkey; the Deadly Planetary Cost of the Things We Love by James Hamilton-Patterson, and I shied away from too much reality. Retreating to the past, I tried The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons by Cat Jarman and The Road:A Story of Romans and Ways to the Past by Christopher Hadley but made no headway.

I did actually finish Some Shall Break by Ellie Marney, and Slough House and Bad Actors by Mick Herron, and they certainly passed the time and took me away to somewhere else. To be honest, the fact that the ‘elsewhere’ was somewhere fairly horrid probably didn’t do me all that much good. I started feeling pretty dark. I need a book! I need to read!

Cookbooks to the rescue. Especially Darina Allen’s massive tome The Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Allen is a famous Irish chef, with many honours and prizes and cook books to her name. She runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School at her  family home, Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, County Cork. I borrowed it for the baking, not the advice on foraging (no Crispy Puffballs for us) or skinning and gutting rabbits. Allen’s Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread – made every day at Ballymaloe House for over 60 years –  has been keeping us in toast for weeks. I am looking forward to trying Irish Porter Cake (with Guinness in it!) and Irish Tea Barmbrack (in which the dried fruit is soaked overnight in tea.

When I got the news that my friend had died, I cried for a bit and then went to the kitchen and made a cake.  Making cakes and bread is soothing and positive and life-affirming.

Plus, you get to eat your therapy.

 

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MARCH READING

Joe Country by Mick Herron.
The Slough House series are my best thriller discovery of the past year. They’re cynical, twisty, tragic, surprising and very funny. Not so much the subject matter – betrayal and death aren’t exactly a hoot – but the writing.
Here’s the appalling Jackson Lamb, head of Slough House, talking to Catherine, one of the team. They’re at a funeral, and not exactly on the same page in terms of respect. Referring to the grieving grandson of the dead man, Lamb says,
‘Wonder if he’ll jump in the grave.’
‘This isn’t Hamlet.’
‘Does that happen in Hamlet?’ said Lamb. ‘I was thinking of Carry On Screaming.’
I’ve nearly finished the series so far…hurry up with the next one please Mick.

 

The House That Joy Built by Holly Ringland

Windswept by Anabel Abbs

Why Women Grow by Alice Vincent

Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield

The Storied Life of AK Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
This was a library book group choice.
A top pick from one of our members (the only male); it’s taken us months to get it in, so it must be word-of-mouth demand.
A good book club title. For once, we all loved it. Heartwarming but not icky, funny, surprising, characters you don’t want to let go. About books and publishing and writers. Little rural bookshops. Complicated lives, tragedies, all kinds of love and an adopted baby.
I’m full of admiration when writers can tackle potentially heavy subjects with a light touch that nonetheless doesn’t trivialise. Gorgeous.

Last month I also borrowed big illustrated books on native plants, roses, gardening, travel and bread making. I read bits and pieces of text, but mainly just looked at the pictures. Best of all was this one, The Art of the Tea Towel by Marnie Fogg (great name for a children’s book heroine, a pity it’s taken). Tea towels! Yay! Joyous and bright and cheery. Who would have thought there’d be a whole book on tea towel design? My sister-in-law used to work as a designer for a firm that printed Australiana tea towels. Lots of cute and cuddly animals, pretty fish, shells and coral, and wildflowers.  Occasionally she’d try to sneak something not-so-cute, like a shark or a snake. They always noticed.

 

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WHY WOMEN GROW: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival

 

In the early 2000’s, we used to holiday at a friend’s beach house in Portarlington. No visit was complete without a trip across to Queenscliff for (a) fish and chips on the beach (b) ice creams and (c) a long, long browse in the bookshop. We used to take turns with our son at the playground so this last ‘must’ could happen. Barwon Books, a second-hand bookshop in Geelong, had an outpost at one of the old churches and we never went away empty handed. It closed a while ago.

But when I went to Queenscliff recently, I discovered a bookshop there, opposite where the old one was. The Bookshop, it’s called. New books in this one. It’s got a great selection, beautifully curated. The shop I worked in for 24 years was huge, and so the owner had the luxury of space so I think it’s quite an art to have a smallish shop, and yet pick so many delectable books across many genres. And I told the owner so. I could have come away with a great big bagful but restricted myself to two, Why Women Grow by Alice Vincent (seems to follow on from Why Women Walk) and Fabric by Victoria Finlay.

 

Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival attracted me because of the subject matter – I have been thinking a lot about my gardening obsession lately – but if I’m honest, it was the cover. You do judge a book by its cover, and of course sometimes you are wrong. But that’s why publishers don’t do plain wrappers.

At first I thought that I’d been seduced once again by beauty. The cover! The endpapers! (You are so superficial, Susan.) I almost regretted the purchase. Maybe this was really a younger woman’s book. All that yearning, burning, churning (to quote the great Tom Lehrer) about who you are and what you want to be and is motherhood for you, or marriage…

But I continued with it and – a new thing for me. I realised very clearly that I was actually having a conversation with the book. Yes, you can have a conversation with a book!

I was already aware of Alice Vincent as a writer and journalist, and I’d read a few of her columns for the magazine Gardens Illustrated. At a particular juncture in her life – mid 30’s, partnered, new shared home, contemplating marriage and motherhood – Alice Vincent had a lot of questions about her life in general and gardening in particular. So she sent a set of questions into the world via social media. The key one was ‘what drew you to gardening?’ All sorts of women answered, 700 of them, from as near as the next London suburb and as far as Switzerland and New York. Conversations followed, and then meetings.

There was a woman in a prison horticulture program, and an older woman with an empty nest, a discarded marriage and enough money to make a paradisiacal retreat. There was a woman who can’t have children, and others with new babies or a young families. Some of them needed a space of their own, a place to create. Some of them felt that gardening was in their blood and bones, part of their heritage. There was a heroic woman in an urban council housing estate who made green, growing shared spaces for the kids to play in and families to gather in. Solace, retreat, replenishment, solitude, social and political action, self-expression, fascination, experimentation… There were as many answers to the ’why’ as there are kinds of womanhood.

When I wanted to know why women turned to the earth, I thought about some of the reasons. I thought about grief and retreat. I thought about motherhood and creativity. I also thought about the ground as a place of political change, of the inherent politics of what it is to be a woman, to be in a body that has been mothered, dismissed and fetishised for millennia. I thought about the women who see the earth as an opportunity for progress and protest.

And that’s where the sense of a conversation came in. I felt as if I could have talked to each of those women, saying ‘me, too’ or ‘this is where I’m different’, or ‘I never thought of that before, but it’s true for me as well’. I went away and wrote several pages about my garden life, my garden story. A beautiful and inspiring book, but not in the way you might think. From the gorgeous cover, you could assume it’s going to be full of pretty stories, but it’s not. The endpapers provide a clue – those massive thorns among the flowers. Making a garden for many of these women is messy, gritty work; time is often hard-won and fitted in amongst the daily tasks, the child rearing, the job, the health challenges, the lack of space and money and energy. For all the aspirational gardens in lifestyle shows and magazines, there’s also the weather, the season, the soil. Like life, it’s out of our control much of the time.

It has taken me time to realise that when I met with these women, I was seeking guidance. That I set out not knowing how to be or how to live, that I was uncomfortable with growing into a new stage of life, that I wanted permission to explain myself. I think about the stories I’ve heard and what I’ve learned from them, all the lives boiled down into cups of tea and walks around gardens. I will hold these close – I cherish them – but I know now that I have to do the work myself. It is in me, this fierce womanhood, this state of being. It is time for me to trust her.

 

 

 

 

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FEBRUARY READING

Better late than never, I suppose. I thought I would post a round-up of my last month’s reading at the beginning of each new month, but here it is, and March is two thirds of the way through. Am I the only person who finds time has sped up? I think it must be my age. A year was forever when I was a kid.

So: in February, I read Café Scheherezade by Arnold Zable, Old Filth by Jane Gardham, The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge, Real Tigers, Spook Street and Slow Horses by Mick Herron, Tracks by Robyn Davidson and The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild.

They were all terrific! But I found I had copied these paragraphs from Cafe Sheherezade in a notebook, so I suppose it might be the one that has stayed with me the most.

‘…I would detour to a city garden. I would sit down on a park bench and observe a single leaf, covered in dew. Gradually a droplet would form. I would watch it slide on the leaf’s veins. For a moment it would balance, on the edge. I would be willing it to hang on, to remain poised, fixed in time. But slowly it would slip over, and fall. And I would say, “Ah, Now I can go to work.”

‘This is what my wanderings have taught me; that the moment itself is the haven, the true sanctuary. If only we could hold on to that. And savour it. Perhaps then we would not be so inclined to tear each other to pieces.’

 

 

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WINDSWEPT

On my final evening, the sun sinks behind the hills in a burst of fuschia-pink, lilac, gold. The moon appears, a cratered wafer of ice in a blue-black sky. I walk through the trees, listening to the chitterings and scufflings of countless invisible creatures, breathing in the scent of pine needles, sap, earth. I take off my shoes and feel the soft soil on the soles of my feet. A zigzag of breeze picks at my hair. I feel slightly unmoored, as if I’ve unexpectedly lost and found a part of myself. As if I’ve taken off an old dressing gown and discovered myself in sparking evening dress instead of dirty pyjamas.

I recently took myself off to Queenscliff, near the entrance of Port Phillip Bay, for a couple of nights by myself. ‘Carer’s leave’, a friend called it; my husband has just recovered from over a month’s intense agony from a trapped nerve. Equally, he probably needed a respite from being cared for. Windswept: Why Women Walk by Annabel Abbs was my solo travel book.

It was enthralling, inspiring, moving – but also (as I’m often finding as I age) dispiriting. The female walking alone provoked a range of reactions from men (and some women, too). Incredulity, disapproval, abuse, harassment, the threat of assault or rape, a refusal to sell food or let a room for the night. It may seem like a childish thing to say, but there is so much about being female that is just not fair. And it’s not about being female, exactly; it’s about being female in a patriarchal society.

Which is probably most of the planet, when you think about it. Sigh.

But back to the book. Windswept is a mix of memoir, travel writing and biography, organised around the theme of women who go rural or wild walking. Abbs recreates some of their journeys, travelling within Europe and Scotland and the US. Along the way, she reveals her subjects’ biographies and her own.

First, she walks with Frieda Lawrence in the Alps, describing the boldness with which Frieda escaped her suffocating marriage in Nottingham to go wandering in the Alps with her lover, DH Lawrence. Though the severing of the tie with her three children broke her heart, Frieda used the freedom of those days and nights to recreate herself. For Abbs, at a period in her life when her children are beginning to leave home and her role as a mother is diminishing, Frieda’s walk arouses strong feelings.

Walking the route of a woman renouncing her children, obsessing…why the sudden preoccupation? It took me three years to see that Frieda’s walk was also mine, an unbidden step in my own casting-off.

The other walkers are an equally fascinating group. Four of the women walked mainly in France. Simone de Beauvoir (bizarrely – for me, anyway, because I love a pair of sturdy boots –  in espadrilles); Daphne du Maurier; Clara Vyvyan, a now-forgotten writer, and Gwen John, sister of the artistic powerhouse Augustus John.

Gwen was an artist in her own right but overshadowed by her more famous brother and burdened by family life. Intriguingly, she is probably the better known artist now. Desperate for solitude and peace, she walked alone and occasionally with a woman friend, lugging her painting gear along the rivers of France. Other subjects are the artist Georgia O’Keefe in the vast, bleached  landscapes of New Mexico and Texas and writer Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorm mountains of  Scotland.

Is this a genre? ‘Women Walking’? I can think of Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Cheryl Strayed, Robyn Davidson – and there are probably many more now. I don’t know that I will be adding to them, but after reading Windswept, I’m actually feeling a little more emboldened. Not that I’m thinking of hiking the Larapinta Trail, or anything quite so gruelling. But after a couple of days spent pottering about the beach at Queenscliff, dabbling in rock pools, finding shells, becoming wind-burned and windswept – I can see ahead more little solo trips, more meditative walks and more essential de-cluttering of the mind in nature and solitude.

 

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OLD FILTH

As the trees on either winding bank blotted out the landing stage, Edward, who had been struck dumb by the sight of Ada left alone on the tottering platform, began to scream ‘Ada, Ada, Ada!’ and to point back up river.  Auntie May held him tight, but he screamed louder and writhed in her arms. She spoke sharply in Malay and he bit her shoulder, wriggled free and seemed about to jump overboard. A sailor caught him by the belt of the shorts that Auntie May had brought and that had astonished him. The sailor lifted him high. Water poured down the sailor’s silky arms. ‘Hai, hai, hai,’ he laughed and Edward lashed out at him, sobbing. He was a tall strong boy of four and a half but the sailor lifted him into the air like a swathe of flowers. Something of the boatman’s smell and his happy eyes reminded the child of Ada, and the sobbing lessened and he went limp.
‘Why does she stay? Why is she not here?’
‘If she came with you, you would never learn English. You and she would talk Malay, as we are doing now.’
‘I will talk Malay with you always.’
‘Not after we get to the Port. You will learn something new. Ada will follow.’
‘Follow?’
“She will follow to the Port when you have to go Home.’
Edward gave a shuddering, hopeless sob. He had just left Home. What would Ada do without him at Home? He was placed in Auntie May’s lap and looked at her with eyes nearly mad. ‘Ada! Ada!’

This is our first book group title of the year, and isn’t it a terrific one? Who (or what) is Old Filth?

It turns out Old Filth is the immaculate Sir Edward Feathers, now retired, recently widowed and living alone in Dorset. The name ‘Filth’ is an old joke, ‘Failed in London Try Hong Kong’, but he is anything but a failure. He was a high-flying lawyer, rich and respected, and later a judge. And he is also Eddie, the Raj orphan, sent back to England from Malaya (and his beloved carer Ada) as a small child.

Most of my book group had never heard of Jane Gardam; she’s not exactly a household name, but she is a multi-award winning writer. Old Filth was perhaps her most commercially successful novel. Born in 1928, her first book (for children) was A Long Way to Verona, which came out in 1971. She’s written books both for children and for adults, and it is as a short story writer that I first encountered her. I read and re-read her collections The Sidmouth Letters and Missing the Midnight when I was trying to teach myself how to write. Reading her after many years, I can see her influence, and I could do worse than study her again. Old Filth is a model of economy and style as Gardam swoops boldly back and forward in time to tell the life story of Edward Feathers from birth to death, circling around his early childhood in Malaya, his traumatic time as a foster child in Wales, his oddly happy schooldays, his professional life and relationships.  Relationships! Never Old Filth’s strong suit. There’s his wife Betty, his old rival Terry Veneering and his fellow ‘orphans’,  Claire and Babs, his schoolfriend Patrick Ingoldby, whose family more or less adopted Old Filth, and his cousin Isobel. Even chance-met acquaintances like Loss, Chinese dwarf wheeler-dealer, or fleetingly seen characters like Alice, the maid of his loathsome aunts, are vivid and real. They build the sense of a fully peopled, whole life. Each scene has beautiful, sharp, convincing detail.
It’s a piece of beautiful writing, short (around 260 pages) book, but economical and brilliant in a way that contemporary writers of brick-like tomes could study. I’ll try to limit the adjectives; it’s a cynical, compassionate, funny and intensely moving portrayal of the way childhood neglect and abuse can percolate through a whole lifetime.

There are two companion books, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends; I’ve already borrowed them from the Athenaeum.

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THE SCENT OF WATER

Miserable after reading Anna Funder’s Wifedom. Out of sorts. Dispirited by how little seems to change. Thinking about my own life and choices.  My mother, who wanted to be a historian. The artist wife of an artist friend of my parents, who only re-started her painting in her 80s, after the old bastard died. I resorted to Elizabeth Goudge.

The Scent of Water. I’d read it before, obviously too fast, and dismissed it as overly sentimental, one of her lesser efforts. And yes, it has its faults. But it acted as a corrective, a stern but loving buck-up, a gentle hand and encouraging smile coupled with high expectations – ‘you can do better, and you will’. One of Elizabeth Goudge’s themes – in agreement with the Buddha! –  is simply that life is difficult. You don’t always get what you want; anything can happen, at any time, and it does. We can’t change that, but we can do our duty, we can be kind, loving and forgiving and we can be decent. We can gain sustenance from the beauty of the natural world. As a mystical, nature-loving Christian, she links the cyclical nature of the world to her faith. Plants die and disappear and hide out underground and then are reborn to sprout and grow and flourish and seed (maybe) and then die again. I’m not a Christian, but I can cope with this strand of Goudge’s work; it seems spiritual rather than narrowly C of E. I can also cope with – or ignore – the strand of martyrdom she imposes on partners in unhappy or unfulfilling marriages (another theme of Goudge’s). It’s usually the women who cop it, but not always. I link this to her deeply held, conservative belief in the sanctity of marriage vows – and perhaps the fact that she was never married herself!

Mary Linton, fifyish, urban and cosmopolitan and just retired, impulsively moves to a derelict old house in a remote country village. It was left to her by her father’s cousin, also named Mary. What a wonderfully classic Goudge beginning. The pleasures of exploring an old house, restoring and renewing it, discovering its treasures and its history never seems to pall for me. (The description of ‘the little things’, a case of tiny ornaments, rang so many bells for me because as a small child one of my delights was to sit with my mother while she took her little treasures out from the glass case to dust and admire and tell me their stories).

Mary is quickly absorbed into the village and the stories intertwine. The “squire” and his wife, the Hepplewhites, hiding their working class origins underneath a show of wealth and smothering generosity. The Andersons, elderly siblings; the no-nonsense clergyman is perpetually irritated by his timid sister, a woman almost incapacitated by anxiety. The dear old couple whose one dream is a TV, and their caddish son.  The blind war-hero poet and playwright, Paul, whose vapid wife Valerie blames him for her unhappiness and makes them both unhappy. A cast of beautifully realised children and somewhat comical faithful retainers (yes, and a modern reader just has to cope with that issue, too).

The other major character is the dead Mary #1, the one who left her house to her cousin, the “now” Mary #2. From her diaries, Mary#2 discovers that the first Mary suffered from severe mental illness; deep, debilitating depression, hallucinations, breakdowns. Her state is vividly described, with real understanding and I imagine was drawn from the author’s own experience. How Mary#1, through her faith, came to accept and live with her illness, and rejoice in what joys she could find, is the over-arching theme of the novel and this message – of acceptance and gratitude – permeates The Scent of Water. There are no deliriously happy endings or indeed any startling resolutions for any of the characters’ problems or sorrows.

When I read this book before I just took in the story of the unsatisfied wife, the blind husband, and the caddish son (her would-be lover). I read a different book this time. Goudge’s book can be an odd mix of novellettish story lines combined with deeper, more spiritual and – for me – bolstering themes.  A bit of a mish-mash but if you love it,  you love it. And I do.

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WIFEDOM

As I read the biographies, I began to see that just as patriarchy allowed Orwell to benefit from his wife’s invisible work, it then allowed biographers to give the impression that he did it all, alone. The biographers are choosing the facts of this story in a world that has already sifted them in his favour. The narrative techniques of patriarchy and biography combine seamlessly so as to leave the women who taught and nurtured Orwell, influenced and helped him, like offcuts on the editing floor, buttresses to be removed once the edifice is up.
And so I write, as Orwell put it, because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention. Or, as it happens, a person.

I was so shattered by this book that I have had to have a week of gardening books and a dose of Elizabeth Goudge to recover. And that’s not because George Orwell is one of my heroes and I was having an attack of the vapours over his clay feet. I probably should be ashamed to admit that I’ve never read anything except the essay Why I Write. Yes, that’s correct, I have not read 1984 or Animal Farm or Homage to Catalonia. I do know about these books, however, and understand how important a writer and thinker Orwell is. I know that he reported on his lived experience amongst the poor in London and Paris, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and in his writing sought to expose the true horrors of communism. He championed honesty and integrity in words and actions; he was on the side of the underdog. And I knew he died young, at only 46.


But I didn’t know anything about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s wife.

Funder’s painstaking research, reading between the lines of Orwell’s well-documented life and a cache of letters discovered in 2005, reveals her as the wife who believed in him, encouraged him, discussed and read his work, edited and commented on it and typed it. She is the woman who also went to Spain to fight the Fascists. She was the woman who worked the double shift of paid employment and housework while they lived in London and then moved with him to a primitive country cottage without sanitation, electricity or running water, where she looked after the animals and ran the little shop and did the housework and shopping and cooking and everything else. One episode that has lodged in my mind is Eileen outside, wearing fishing waders, knee deep in shit because of the overflowing toilet and Orwell opening the window and calling out that it must be time for tea. Which does not mean she should have a rest, and he would make her a cuppa. No, it meant she should make him his tea.
She took care of the shit.

While she did that, Orwell wrote and published, though for most of their marriage not much actual money came in. Funder is good at making this life sound like a slog and a struggle for both of them.  Eileen cared deeply about her husband’s work, but Funder can’t find that in return he was appreciative of her labour and sacrifice. He didn’t cherish and care for her. Instead, he was not only consumed by his writing but also consistently unfaithful, sometimes even juggling a couple of lovers at a time and constantly pursuing young women. Back in the day these opportunistic advances were described as ‘pouncing’; today we’d probably call them out as sexual assault or attempted rape. I suppose this could be, if not excused, then at least explained as ‘other times, other mores’ except. Except – shouldn’t someone like Orwell, a man who exposed hypocrisy and injustice, be better than this? Shouldn’t he, of all people, not have ‘pounced’, or slept with teenaged Moroccan prostitutes or his wife’s friends?

Eileen had struggled for years with debilitatingly heavy bleeding, abdominal pain and anemia. Eventually, a mass of uterine tumours was revealed and in 1945 something had to be done. Orwell didn’t stay to take care of her; at the time an operation became imperative he was in France, writing and researching. Oh, and by the way, largely by his desire, they had just adopted a baby. The letters she wrote to him just before she died, after going by herself on buses and trains from London to a hospital in Newcastle-on-Tyne, are heartbreaking.

In London they said I couldn’t have any kind of operation without a preparatory month of blood transfusions, etc. Here I’m going in next Wednesday to be done next Thursday. Apart from its other advantages this will save money,  a lot of money. And that’s as well. By the way, if you could write a letter, that would be nice.
And
…what worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.

This operation on the cheap killed her. The inquest found the surgeon and the hospital blameless, though it was noted that she was severely anemic.

Funder, trying to imagine what Orwell might have gone through reading these last letters, writes:

If you don’t care for someone, will they care less for themselves? He remembers his shock when the vicar left the word ‘obey’ out of her marriage vows. ‘I couldn’t very well have asked your permission not to ‘obey’!’ she’d laughed.
What had he done?

There are 67 reserves after me for this book at the Goldfields library and I’m betting that most readers will finish it feeling pretty shattered too. And Orwell’s feet most definitely are.

 

 

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READ AND REVIEWED, AND ALSO JUST READ

I’m trying to track my reading this year – like Kate Constable does – so I can present some stats at the beginning of 2025. Maybe no pie charts, but who knows? So here’s my ‘read and reviewed, and also just read’ list for January.

Children’s Books
The Fair to Middling by Arthur Calder Marshall
The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild
The Rescuers by Margery Sharp
Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Adult Fiction
The Secret Hours by Mick Herron
Illegal Action
and Secret Asset by Stella Rimington
Stone Yard Devotional by Charlotte Wood

Non-fiction
Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life by Brigitta Olubas
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master by Paddy Hayes

And my top picks were…


The Rescuers
was my favourite of all the children’s books I read this month. OK, it was my favourite book. It is so witty and sophisticated, full of jokes for adults to enjoy without taking away from the ripping yarn of Bernard, Nils and Miss Bianca braving the castle, the jailer and the jailer’s terrifying cat (see picture) to rescue an imprisoned poet.
And the illustrations, by Garth Williams, are superb.
I’d never read Witch Week before, and while I did enjoy it, I found all the talk of witch burnings rather confronting. Bone-fires! Inquisitors! I actually had a Wynne-Jones inspired nightmare.

I’m not reading much literary fiction at present, but Stone Yard Devotional might get me back on track, making me remember how a novel can enlarge my world, make me think and feel deeply and illuminate areas of my own life. And as for non-fiction, A Spy Among Friends was as much a thriller as any…well, thriller.

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STONE YARD DEVOTIONAL

It is my observation over many years that those who most powerfully resist convention quite peaceably accept the state of being reviled.

A woman leaves her marriage and her work for the Threatened Species Rescue Centre because she’s lost faith in them both. In the first part of the book, she returns to her home town in country NSW, in the Monaro. She’s burnt out, and wants to spend five days at a Catholic retreat house in a monastery run by nuns. It’s nothing flash. There’s basic accommodation and catering, solitude if she wants it. She was brought up as a Catholic, but she’s no longer a believer; she only has to attend the services if she chooses. Initially she’s full of discomfort and complaint; she sleeps poorly, the food is horrible, it’s cold. She starts going to the services, and she’s full of complaint about those, too. Bibllical mumbo jumbo. But gradually she changes, and at times is able to appreciate the beauty of the singing, the tranquility of the routine. She’s moved to tears by Communion; ‘It has to do with being greeted warmly by a stranger, offered peace for no reason, without question’.

She thinks a lot about her parents, in particular her mother. She was a greenie before her time, and so compassionate to others less fortunate, that a schoolmate once asked if she was a missionary.
And then she leaves, to return to the city.

On to Part II, the longest section of the book, and it seems that the woman has now been at the monastery for some (unspecified) time. There is no real plot. She takes part in the running of the place – cooking, shopping, cleaning, working in the vegie garden. A fellow student from her old high school, Richard Gittens, helps out around the place. The body of one of the order’s nuns, who was murdered in Thailand, is found, and arrangements are made to return the remains to the nuns. There’s Covid, and an infestation of mice. A ‘high profile nun’, an activist for many causes, Helen Parry, also a fellow student from the local school, comes to stay at the retreat.  She was a prickly, difficult, unlikeable teenager and she’s the same as an older woman. Helen Parry and the narrator have a complicated history; she was once complicit in her bullying. The woman sifts through memories of country town life. The mice reach plague proportions. The woman thinks a lot about her mother, and school days, and right and wrong, goodness and kindness, compassion and forgiveness.

In part III, she thinks about those things some more. Especially forgiveness. She excavates more memories from her country town; the boy who shot and killed his parents, Helen Parry’s mother hitting and yelling at her outside the supermarket and Helen’s response. Her mother’s do-gooding (my phrase); visiting a woman suffering from depression, assisting the settlement of Vietnamese refugees. She thinks about the process of dying, and death  – her mother’s, a friend’s, an anorexic teenager’s. She drives Helen Parry (always referred to by both names) around the town and realises that Helen’s mother must have been in and out of the local mental health unit.

And nobody in our town – not a teacher, a psychiatrist or doctor or nurse, not a schoolmate, another parent, not Mrs Bird nor my mother – had made a move to do anything about a schoolgirl left on her own in a housing commission flat, getting herself to school each day to be insulted and assaulted and despised, going home at the end of the day alone.

The nun’s remains are buried. Helen Parry leaves. The narrator thinks about her childhood dog’s death, and mother’s reverence for the earth. And that’s the end.

I’ve given a fairly full account of the novel, because I think it will indicate why I found Stone Yard Devotional initially so perplexing. What’s it about? Nothing’s happening? Is there a mystery, a drama, about the dead nun, or Helen Parry, or Richard Gittens? When will the plot kick in?

It doesn’t. It took around 150 pages for me to settle down, to accept that the book is what it is, and not want it to be anything else. It took that long for me to begin to read more slowly, not to race forward. To stop and think, to reflect on my own country upbringing as the unnamed narrator reflects on hers. The tragedies and hardships, accidents, illnesses and deaths. The unfairness of things. The kids who were routinely persecuted or excluded. The things I could have done, and didn’t. The way I still remember, after nearly 55 years.

The narrator dwells on grief, hers and others’. For losses endured (her parents, a friend) and the huge one – the climate crisis –  that’s coming to us all.

And it’s not depressing. I loved the beautiful, spare, precise writing, the spiralling structure of memories and thoughts and observations, the rounds of work and effort, the gently piercing insights (nothing was laboured, it was all done slantwise). The way all those finely observed moments of monastery life and thought and memory add, detail by detail, to make a book of great weight and depth. It’s a quiet book; if it had a colour, it would be grey, a beautiful, delicate and calm pale grey.

Driving across the surface of the high stony plains on my way there, I found the landscape’s desolation beautiful. My car had been seized now and then by the wind, and I had to grip the steering wheel to correct its movement across the empty road. The sweeping, broad structure of this land gently shifts from one plane int another, each sloping yet almost flat, like a shoulder blade. Although these plains bristle with a fine skin of pale grasses, they are almost as bare as bedrock, and I wonder if this is why I never came back, until now.

A moving, complex and thoughtful book, one to return to and think about.

 

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