Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: australian history

A review of Nicole Alexander’s An Uncommon Woman

I had never any of read Nicole Alexander’s work, despite that fact I’d heard her speak at the HNSA conference and had seen her books lining the library shelves. But when asked whether I’d like receive a reviewing copy, I readily agreed. I’m not sure why? Maybe just the offer of a free book? I don’t generally read rural romance (like where are the Welsh characters?) and I knew Alexander’s books were set in outback Queensland. The accompanying press release confirmed this knowledge. Adding that her latest novel, An Uncommon Woman, was inspired by Alexander’s own challenges as a grazier in a man’s world. I imagined a tough, fictionalised, version of a Sara-Henderson-like story with “romantic” elements.

As it turns out, I was wrong. On a number of counts.

An Uncommon Woman tells the story of Edwina, the nineteen-year-old daughter of money lender, social climber and small town outsider Hamilton Baker. Edwina works the land alongside her younger brother Aiden. The property is overrun by prickly pear. Edwina has ideas for its improvement but they are met with stony resistance, not only from her father, but also from the less-than-visionary heir to the property, Aiden. The siblings have lived in comparative isolation since their mother’s death years earlier. When the circus comes to the nearby town of Wywanna both are keen to attend. The circus is out of the question, according to Hamilton, who leads a secret double life in town. But his prohibition is met with opposition. As the siblings rebel in their unique ways, a train of events is set in motion from which there can be no easy escape.

So, what did I like about this book?

Characterisation

Edwina’s third person viewpoint is delightful. She is practical, entrepreneurial and yet delightfully naive and feminine. It is not easy setting an ambitious female protagonist in a time when women were not supposed to stand out but Alexander manages to pull it off. Under her careful pen, Edwina’s prank in Wywanna, her reactions to her two would be suitors, her tender memories of her mother, and her driving ambition are all eminently believable.

Hamilton Baker is a singularly unlikable character. At first I couldn’t work out why Alexander insisted on telling half the story from his viewpoint. But as the narrative unfolded, her purpose became clear. Although I can’t say I liked Hamilton by the end of the novel, I liked what Alexander did through him. His alternating viewpoint lifted the story above being a simple romance and gave it a complexity I hadn’t expected.

Relationships

There are “romantic” elements in An Uncommon Woman, from both Edwina and Hamilton’s points-of-view. Through snatches of quirky dialogue, Edwina’s two potential suitors spring to life, as does Gloria, Hamilton’s delightfully strong and no-nonsense mistress. Alexander develops these relationships in a way that emphasises choice and strong character without robbing them of their romance. Here is a segment in which the sheltered Edwina she is forced to cut Will’s hair:

“Keeping equal distance between hair and shirt-collar Edwina did her best to curtail the thoughts that came with each snip of the scissors. Novelty mixed with self-consciousness, as her fingers grazed sun-burnt skin. She cut slowly, and methodically, noticing the twirl of his ear, the thinness of the lobe, the fine ceases on a neck that for some inexplicable reason she wanted to touch, and all the while brown hair fell in clumps onto the towel about Will’s shoulders. She dusted away the thick locks, blowing softly on his neck, watching as the silky tufts fell to the ground.”

Playfulness

The blurb on my copy of the novel concluded with the words:

“And when the night ends in near disaster, this one act of rebellion strikes at the heart of the Bake family. Yet it also offers Edwina the rare chance to prove herself in a man’s world. The question is how far is she prepared to go, and how much is she prepared to risk?”

Blurbs are hideous to write, filled as they are with adjectives and obligatory melodrama. On the basis of the blurb, I expected death or significant impairment to follow the circus incident, with Edwina rising impressively to the occasion (think Sarah Henderson meets Places in the Heart). Yet, the near disaster Alexander gives us involves champagne, circus characters, a slow building scandal, and a missing lion cub whose reappearance at various points in the story give the narrative a playful air. Add to this, identity confusion, boundary disputes, and a mute station-hand, and there is barely room for stereotypes. Even the nasty overseer is not quite as he seems.

Descriptions

I like a novel with a strong sense of place and from it’s opening lines:

“The land was thick with aged trees and prickly pear. The smaller succulents grew in dense clumps, fleshy and spine-covered, while others stretched skyward, tangling with their brethren ten foot into the air so that the way ahead resembled an ancient forest.”

 To its nicely interspersed descriptions:

“Beneath the wooden bridge boys fished for yabbies in the yellow green swirl, a mother hollering at the group to come home and do their chores. The wind gusted hot and dry across the fringes of the town. Grasses bending. The sky a razor’s edge of blue steel.”

There is never any doubt that An Uncommon Woman is set in Queensland where the weather is hot and people’s lives shaped by their hardships. I could almost feel the dust settling on my skin as I turned the book’s pages.

Clearly, I enjoyed this novel. To the point that I will keep an eye out for Alexander’s future works. The only thing lacking was a Welsh character. But, hey, we can’t all have Welsh heritage. 🙂 What Alexander gives us, is a non-stereotypical, historical rural romance which is a quirky, easy read, that defies the blokey white, Aussie-male-battler myth. Which makes it a pretty close second in my opinion.

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

Having grown up in South Australia on a surfeit of Colin Thiele novels and having endured too many bleak windy drives along the Coorong, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek wasn’t initially appealing. In fact, I returned it to the library unread on that unsound basis. A few days later, however, when discussing my desire to find a recently written, Australian historical fiction coming-of-age novel (to be absolutely specific), I decided that decision needed to be re-visited. ‘It is nothing like Storm Boy,’ my friend assured me, ‘and it may well have the coming-of-age elements you are looking for.’

Set in the 1850’s the majority of Salt Creek’s narrative takes the from an extended flashback written from the first person viewpoint of fifteen-year-old, Hester Finch, as she and her family struggle to recover debts by attempting to farm the isolated, sandy reaches of the Corrong. As the family seek to make their peace with their reduced situation and the demands of their primitive location, they come into contact with mixed race aboriginal boy Tully. In line with Hester’s father’s seemingly enlightened principles, the family attempt to civilize the local Ngarrimderji. But when tragedies strike and events spiral out of control the true character of their ‘civilizing principles are exposed.

On the surface, this book may sound not unlike many other early Australian revisionist narratives that are being written in a much needed attempt to scrape away the white-washed veneer of Australia’s colonial past. However, to put this book in a more-of-the-same category would be mistake because, despite the familiar issues, it is fresh, interesting and unsurpassed on a number of levels.

Voice

Hester Finch’s looking-back-on-her-youth voice is unique and distinctive. We get a sense that she is at once young and old. Although the the main action in the book starts quite slowly, and there are some passages where the narrative seems to lose direction and become a little too detailed, we get a sense that Hester can be trusted. That this interesting, intelligent, unorthodox young woman will not waste our time telling a story of no consequence. Here is how she introduces the innocent character around which the plot of the novel turns:

‘Tull was already quite tall and narrow. He was no one in particular to us and over some months it was as if he were resolving under Fred’s microscope, until he was part of us and moving among us. A remarkable person: he altered our course, not only on the Coorong, but for always.’

Prose

Treloar’s prose is simple and unlaboured. But it has a quiet beauty that made the writer inside me weep with envy.

‘Her skin took the sun, turning dusky, and her eyes were pale as a calm sea close to shore, like the sea glass I found one day among the shells. Who knew where it had come from or where it had been? I also kept a piece of driftwood, which was differently transformed. It had turned to silk and weighed nothing at all. When I stroked it against my cheek it was like the touch of another.’

Characterization

Hester, her parents and siblings are all delightfully non-cliche both in their appearance and interests. Added to which, Treloar uses their spectrum of responses to the Ngarrindjeri people to add nuance to the homogenized view we are often given of frontier society. Her characterization of the aboriginal boy Tully is the triumph of the novel. Tully is at home in his original culture and increasingly with the Finch family, joining the children in their lessons, learning chess and reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species. His dialogue is refreshingly clear of awkward pidgin English attempts to show that he is a second language speaker, Treloar preferring to show this by an occasional search for unfamiliar words. When he froms an attachment for which he is eminently suitable – hard working, knowledgeable, intelligent, tender – apart from the  matter of his skin colour, we feel the sting of injustice.

Dialogue

The final wow factor of this novel is its dialogue. I’m hard pressed to find a single example as it generally flows gently out of the prose and slips back into the stream of introspection without a ripple, giving us tiny unexpected glimpses of character and theme at every turn.

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

‘No. They make us sick. Boys, like me. Men can eat them. Other things too, some animals.’

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘We have so many rules I can’t remember them all. About manners and clothes and respect. People may not kill other people, or take things from them. That is stealing. We may not steal. And other things too.’

‘Take what?’

‘Well, cattle – kill and eat them that is. And we may not take your possessions.’ I could not think what they had that we might wish for. One black had a shell necklace that I admired. I had heard people in Adelaide liked the carvings on their weapons and collected them. ‘Your spears and clubs for instance. But you can sell them, if you like.’

‘Fish? Kangaroos? You kill and eat them?’

‘They are wild. They are on our land, but you may eat them Papa says.’

 

 

Since publication, Salt Creek has received wide acclaim and, having overcome my post traumatic experience of sitting in Mrs Morphett’s grade four classroom listening to my classmates taking turns to massacre Colin Thiele’s prose, I can heartily recommend it. Salt Creek is a novel that sits way above the ordinary. And as Lucy Treloar will be one of the speakers at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference in September, I can look forward to hearing all about her writing journey.

 

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

Easter Aussie style – the rubber hits the road

We had booked accomodation in the Victorian High country – a place of mountains, wineries and Autumn leaves. The theory being that I would be sufficiently recovered from my jet lag to enjoy a five day holiday. When I emailed to make the final payment, I found the accomodation had been double booked. The company had tried to phone me but I was using a UK SIM card and the emails they sent hadn’t materialised. I scrambled about trying to book alternative accomodation. There was nothing affordable in the High Country. I tried the coast. Nothing there either. I ended up booking and overpriced holiday cottage in Gariwerd (the Grampians).

‘It’ll be lovely,’ my daughter said. ‘Lot’s of nice walks.’

‘But no castles at the end of them.’ I replied.

‘There will be waterfalls.’

‘Yes.’ I forced a smile while secretly thinking: pigs might fly!

We’ve had a long hot summer in Australia. We’ve been waiting for a ‘good winter’ for the last ten years. All creek beds and potential waterfalls dried up long ago. There would be nothing in Gariwerd (yes, deliberate use of indigenous name) but dust and gum trees.

Now, at this point I must hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with Gariwerd – it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. But in Alexander McCall Smith’s, Number one ladies detective agency, Mma Ramotswe says:

Every man has a map in his heart of his own country. The heart will never forget the map.

While in the city it is possible for me to get caught up in the rhythm of daily life, to forget the map written on my heart. Face to face with the Australian bush, I would be reminded that I was in fact a long way from home.

I decided to take control of the situation, to make the holiday my own. Day one, I headed down to Bambruk, the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, and booked myself on a tour. I also bought tickets to an Ozact performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the local Heatherlie Quarry. 

Shakespeare in the bush! How was that going to work? I wasn’t sure, to be honest. My reservations grew as we travelled thirteen miles along a dirt road, hiked the sandy path to the quarry and laid our picnic mat in the dust. I needn’t have worried. Once the performance started, the majestic sheer stone quarry became a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s imagined world.

The following morning, I rose early and headed down to Bambruk for my cultural tour. Only to find, due to a mix up, that the tour had left earlier than the specified time – and without me. Andrew had gone on a long bike ride. I faced ten hours alone in Halls Gap. There are plenty of things to do in Gariwerd if you like hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and four wheel driving. For me, the options are more limited. I could go for a drive or go for a bush walk. I chose the Chataqua Peak track a five and a half kilometre hike that boasted seasonal waterfalls. Of course, we were long out of season. There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. Though, this little fellow did bring a smile to my face. 

The following day, I expressed an interest in returning to Heatherlie Quarry. I’ve spent the last seven months surrounded by abandoned quarry workings and, though this may prove to be nothing more than a local stone quarry, I’d seen information boards on my hike up the sandy bush track, abandoned buildings and equipment. For a museum and tour junkiee like me it promised and hour or two of great interest.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Established in the late 1860’s, Heatherlie Quarry was in fact one of Victoria’s foremost stone quarries. Transported to Melbourne by rail, the dressed sand-stone was used in a number on Melbourne’s historic buildings, such as Parliament House, the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Town Hall. 

After the quarry, Andrew was keen to visit Migunang Wirab (McKenzie’s Falls). I didn’t hold much hope for the visit beyond a parched picnic ground and a trickling creek. But bushfires had ripped through the area in 2014 and the whole recreation area had been remodelled. There were information boards (I read them all), well marked pathways, platforms and attractive railings, and lookouts from which we saw a beautiful waterfall. At which point, I didn’t feel so very far from home at all. 

 

 

 

Becoming a Welsh language expert…

I am not an expert at anything. I am a Jack-of-all-trades kind of girl. Imagine my surprise when an elderly gentleman approached me at the library.

‘I want to learn Welsh,’ he said. ‘One of your colleagues told me you are the library’s Welsh language expert.’

Turns out the man was vision impaired and needed a course that didn’t require him to be able to read or write. I knew just the course and my ‘Welsh language expert status’ was confirmed as surely if it had been listed on my job description along with a degree in library and information studies, eligiblility for ALIA accreditation, and holding a current Victorian driver’s license.

Now, personally, I think the ability to speak Welsh should be an essential requirement for every librarian. But as they haven’t yet achieved this in Wales, I don’t have much chance in suburban Melbourne. It was a shock therefore when on a second business-as-usual afternoon another man sought me out.

‘Hello. I’m looking for Liz Corbett.’

‘Yes. That’s me. How can I help you?’

‘I heard you speak Welsh.’

Heard! Where from? I guessed another of my colleagues had supplied the information.

‘I try, but…my Welsh isn’t fluent.’

Turns Ken James was a local historian with Welsh ancestry who was doing research on Eaglehawk’s Welsh Churches (yes, the hiraeth gets to us all eventually). He had a couple of cemetery inscriptions that needed translating. Would I have a look at them? Now, as my job description does not have ‘an ability to speak Welsh’ as a condition of employment, I am not paid to translate documents. As a librarian I am supposed to direct the borrower to the languages section. But as a person with an interest in Austalian history and Welsh language, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.

‘I’ll have a go,’ I said. ‘If I can’t work it out, I know people who can. Why not email me a copy?’

Here is one of the inscriptions Ken James sent to me:

Jones

Serrhog Goffodwrineth / Robert Watkin Jones/ Pantymarch / Anwl Ac Unig Fab / Watkin Jones / Pandy, Llanuwchllyn, Bala / Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu / Hydref / 10 February 1884 Yn Zomywydd Oed / “God’s Will Be Done”.


It was school holidays and being a mildly (cough) obsessive person I didn’t want to wait until Welsh classes started back again. I looked up serrhog. It wasn’t in my dictionary. Neither was gofodwrineth. However, language is all about context. I am often telling my Welsh class. Your comprehension will sometimes be situational. So, what was the context here? I looked at English language cemetery inscriptions. They generally started with something like loving remembrance. I looked up remembrance in the English side of my dictionary and came up with: coffadwriaeth, remembrance, and serchog, with means affectionate. The spelling was wrong (possibly the family had no dictionary and may not have had much education in the Welsh language – it wasn’t exactly encouraged – and maybe they were relying on English speaking mason). Anyway, the inscription should have read: Serchog goffadwriaeth. Perfect.


See, being an expert is easy. 🙂


I knew Pantymarch and Llanuwchllyn, Bala were place names. I also knew that there was no letter z in the Welsh alphabet. A little enquiry, confirmed that Robert Watkin Jones had died at the age of twenty. Therefore zomywydd oed was probably 20 blwydd oed – twenty years old – Anwl ac Unig Fab meant: dear and only son.


I paused, thinking about this family far from home who had lost their only son at twenty years of age.


So, much pain, in those few words.


My final challenge with this inscription was the phrase: Yr Hwn A Hunodd Yn Yr Iesu.


Hunodd meant ‘slept’ my dictionary told me, Iesu, I knew, meant Jesus. But why yr hwn? And why yr Iesu? Literally, it seemed to be saying ‘the this and slept in the Jesus.’ Puzzled, I went where any sensible woman in this day and age who needs to know something goes. Facebook.


Fortunately Sion Meredith Director of Cymraeg i Oedolion – Canolbarth Cymru – Welsh for Adults mid-Wales was online. That’s right – a real expert. He confirmed my earlier guesswork and told me the phrase Yr Hwn a Hunodd yn yr Iesu meant: this one slept in Christ. Nice. I sent my results back to Ken James. Imagine my pleasure when a few months later he came back to the library with a signed copy of his book: Eaglehawk’s Welsh churches. He even put my name in the acknowledgements.

 

The Railwayman’s Wife – a review

I had never heard of the acclaimed author Ashely Hay, prior to reading The railwayman’s wife. An arresting cover image of a veiled woman above a misty seascape, overlaid with a deep, cranberry title, caught my eye durIng library shelving time. I picked the book up. Not unusual, I often finish shelving with a trolley full of maybes. Would this do for Mrs Jones? I wondered. Or Mrs Smith? I read the blurb on the back cover. A historical novel, Australian author, hmm…the book was ticking a number of boxes. Maybe I should read it first?

Yes, why not? I checked it out on my card and took it home.

The railwayman’s wife is set in Hay’s home town of Thirroul, during the years immediately following World War Two. Having survived the war in this idyllic setting, Anikka Lachlan’s life is shattered by a sudden, unexpected loss. Returning to the Thirroul at this time, is Roy McKinnon, a war poet and one time school teacher, who is struggling to come to terms with beauty after the violence and horror of war. As Roy struggles to find his voice. Anikka struggles to rebuild her life. Both find solace in the railway station’s library.

The novel unfolds through the third person viewpoints of Annika, Roy and Annikka’s husband, Mac. In addition to its shifting point-of-view, the narrative also switches between past and present tenses, giving the whole a dreamy reflective feel, that is in keeping with its themes of grief and loss. Not an easy book to write. Or read. But once into the groove, its clear, shining, cut-glass prose, lift the novel out of the ordinary. The railwayman’s wife is a homage to literature and, as such, is strengthened by references to novels and poetic works. When in the course of the novel, Roy McKinnon, writes a poem, I found myself consumed by writerly envy.

Not only can this woman craft can a good sentence she’s a poet too!

Turns out this wasn’t the case. Hay had a go at writing a poem and couldn’t quite pull it off. She went in search of a poet who was willing to write a bespoke poem and found it in the person of Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s poetry immortalises the voice of Roy McKinnon, giving the novel a delicacy that could not have been achieved through prose alone. I was not surprised to learn that since its 2013 publication, The Railwayman’s Wife has been awarded the Colin Roderick Prize. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize, was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin and Nita B. Kibble awards, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Prize.

In addition to writerly envy, I now felt a flush of librarian’s shame.

How had this writer escaped my notice?

As a librarian, I often have people come to the information desk and ask: what’s a ‘good book’? Here’s the catch: one person’s ‘good book’ is another person’s yawn-fest. To what subset of readers would I recommend The railwayman’s wife? It isn’t a plot driven novel. Indeed, there is a section immediately after the set-up where it may have been possible to stop reading. The urgency of the tale picks up once the friendship between Annika and Roy is established. Hay teases her reader with the possibility of a happy ending. Then brings us to a climax that is breathtakingly, shocking. I wouldn’t be recommending it to readers who like a feel-good story. The Railwayman’s wife is literary novel, rich in words, imagery and ideas, suitable for those who like to read prize winners and to members of book groups. It offers the potential for much in-depth discussion.

 

 

Some thoughts on language, loss and identity

Have you ever seen this map?


At a conservative estimate, more than two hundred and fifty different languages were spoken by Indigenous Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of these are now extinct with only about fifteen languages still being spoken by all age groups.

That’s a sobering picture. Why? Because language is about identity. Consider this quote from Wominjeka at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.


Language is the essence of who you are. It tells you where you come from, your connection to Country and where your Country is … Without speaking that language, you’re missing a huge chunk of your identity.

As a Welsh language learner, this is a reality I often reflect upon. But this week, at the request of an Australian woman doing an M.A. in Celtic Studies through the University of Wales, Trinity St David, I have been trying to articulate how learning Welsh shapes my identity. In an email to the researcher, I wrote:

One of my life ambitions has always been to write a novel. On turning forty, I decided it was time to give this ambition a go. It would be a historical novel as I love history. It had to be Australian (because I had no research budget) and it would be about migrants because emigration was the single most defining event of my childhood. Somewhere along the line I also decided to have Welsh characters.

Initially, I knew very little about Welsh culture but, as I began to research, I stumbled across the Melbourne Welsh classes. I went along to the first class expecting only to attend for a short while – long enough get a broad sense of the language for my novel. Ten years later I am still learning Welsh because somewhere along the way I fell in love with the language. I love its words. Their spelling. The poetry. Speaking Welsh does something warm inside me.

The researcher wanted to know more about this warmth – what exactly falling in love with a language looked like. I wrote back to her:

At the beginning of the year, our Welsh class sits in a circle. We introduce ourselves and tell the class why we are wanting to learn Welsh. Some speak of heritage. Others describe a sense of belonging they felt on first crossing the border into Wales. Others describe a longing – a desire to speak their own language. Welsh has a word for this yearning: Hiraeth. Hir, first part, means long. The second part aeth is the word for pain or grief.

Hiraeth is therefore a long ache.

How does this relate to the map of Australia’s indigenous languages? Good question. I’m coming to that.

You see a friend of mine, Veronica Calarco, is an Australian artist who lives and works in Wales and Australia. I first met Veronica at Cwrs Haf – an intensive Welsh language summer school in Aberystwyth. We have corresponded, on and off, ever since. In a recent email, Veronica sent me a Vimeo link to one of her recent works – KurnaiCymraeg. In her brief explanatory note, she says this about the project:
I decided to make a Kurnai Welsh dictionary to signify the loss of meaning, history, memory, knowledge and growth that occurs when a language becomes extinct or is rarely used.
Much of the spoken Welsh at the beginning of the Vimeo clip is written in English on the bilingual introductory page. After that that, unless you read Welsh, you will be dependant entirely on Veronica’s images. Why not have a look? Never mind the privacy message, just clink on the link. Enjoy the beauty of spoken Welsh. Kurnai spoken with a North Walian accent. Experience the sensation of incomplete meaning. And in that moment, mourn: for when a language is lost, a people is lost and all knowledge contained within that language is lost, and the world is a little less interesting.


 

Tagged – my not so rolling blog tour

Let me introduce Christine Maree Bell. I first met Chris at a book launch and then, many moths later, quite by accident, I bumped into her on the train. We were both heading into the city for a Melbourne Writer's festival workshop. I don't know when or how we started work-shopping together. Only that we've been doing it now for quite some time. As I write this post, Chris is heading up to New South Wales to take advantage of a Varuna fellowship. This recognition is long deserved. She has written for the web and had multiple children's educational titles published. Her first young adult novel also won an unpublished manuscript award. Her second young adult novel is at submission stage. While at Varuna, Chris will be working on re-drafts of an adult historical novel.

See what I mean, she's going places.

I was therefore thrilled when she tagged me in a rolling book tour. This involved answering some questions about my writing process and tagging three other writers. This is the writerly version of a chain letter without the accompanying threats and curses.

Here are my answers to the questions Chris sent.

What am I working on?

I am working on the re-draft of an historical novel called: Keeping Notes. In 2007, an early draft of this novel was short-listed for a Harper Collins Varuna manuscript development award. Since then it has been re-worked, rejected, put aside, and then restarted. There was something about this story that wouldn't let go of me, though my stomach clenched every time I thought about the amount of work involved in re-writing. I have just finished the end of the re-draft and I'm getting ready to send it out to readers.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Keeping Notes is a psychological novel, set in 1841. Part coming of age, part fable, it is a story about losing a father, facing the truth, and how life is never as it seems. The setting is a nineteenth century emigrant vessel. The history early Australian. But there is also a fair bit of Welsh mythology thrown into the mix. I don't know anyone else writing an Austeakian historical, psychological novel with Welsh mythology at its core. I trust it is therefore distinct.

Why do I write what I write?

I was born in Britain to a Welsh mother and English father. Emigration was the defining event of my childhood. I've spent my life reading British novels and, in particular historical ones. I did an Arts degree, as a young adult, majoring in history and politics. In later years, I went on to study librarianship. But I never stopped reading historical fiction. When I decided to give writing a go there was no choice. It had to be historical. I started with the character of Caroline Chisolm and then worked my way into all things nineteenth century and immigration. I decided to make their destination Melbourne because that's where I live. When I threw a Welsh story teller into the mix the story took off. I journeyed back to the Land of My Fathers in my imagination.

How does my writing process work?

I'm a nervous convoluted sort of writer. I start with an idea for a scene in mind. And a wringer twist in the pit of my belly. I light a candle and over coffee and journal about what I want to write about. Yes, that's right, I write about what I want to write. This gives me courage to face the empty screen.

Sometimes, my writing day goes well. My fingers fly across the keys. Other days, I sit at my desk and bleed. But I'm learning that bleeding is a necessary part of the process. As at the end of a difficult day, when I begin to unwind, the answers to a knotty scene begin to clot in my subconscious. I jot them down before I go to bed and then journal about them again the next morning and, all the while, I'm trying to work out the beating heart of the story.

Right, having answered the obligatory rolling blog tour questions it is now my turn to tag three other writers. This has proven a little more difficult than anticipated.

You see, all my close writing buddies have already been tagged. Feeling distinctly unloved and seriously unpopular, I turned to my cohort of Historical Novel Society colleagues. Eureka! A number of them expressed an interest in being involved. Sadly, my excitement was short lived. Despite plaintive polite reminders, only one of them has sent the requested biography and photo.

Sophie Schiller is now my new best friend.

In fact, in my eagerness to procure Sophie's participation, I may have invited her to dinner and succumb to the Aussie stereotype of offering to throw a shrimp on the BBQ.

As Sophie lives in the US, I may never have to make good on my offer. But I wouldn't mind, honestly. Her work sounds so interesting. Sophie was born in Paterson, NJ and grew up in the West Indies amid aging pirates and retired German spies. She was educated at American University, Washington, DC and spent many years working in International Business before becoming a writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Thanks for coming on board, Sophie. And if anyone else out there is not too busy or too famous or to otherwise engaged, send me your bio, photo and URL and I'll add it to the page. Oh, yes, and you can also join me and Sophie for dinner, if you are in the area.

Woo hoo! Lance Elliot Osborne has joined the dinner party. His apologies for the late arrival – he's had an insane week, hit by a storm of family and professional obligations.

Lance is a Texan who grew up twelve miles from Hornsby's bend and two miles from the mountain that in Bold Crossings the Wukubuu's people call “Father of the Great River.” He also grew up with descendants of Malcom Hornsby's family and the tales of their ancestors in the 1830's. These legends, coupled with thorough research regarding all peoples that populated Texas in the same decade, are the makings of Bold Crossings. In his research, he has learned a great deal about the Penatuka Comanche that called central Texas their home. And he is honored to have grown close to his Penatuka Comanche mentors in Lawton, OK during the research process.

Before Bold Crossings, Lance had written in various genres, including for the small and large screens. In fact, when he was seven years old he penned a two-page script for his favorite TV show…

Lance blogs at: http://boldcrossings.jimdo.com

 

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