'The Museum of Modern Love' Stella Prize Winner review AWW17 Challenge

The Museum of Modern Love

by Heather Rose,

Allen & Unwin, 2016

Heather Rose’s award winning novel is a brave and audacious riff on the importance of art and creativity. How art aids growth and reflection while providing context and meaning to life. Art is presented as an almost cosmic entity, an organic swirling force that can be tapped into by artists and ‘facilitators’ but always impacting on the living, the dying, the dead. Characters in those three states feature textually.

At the centre of the narrative are Marina Abramovic a prolific, enduring performance artist and an unnamed eternal creative muse who hovers over the narrative offering linkages, interpretation and philosophical discussion. Rose uses ‘The Artist Is Present’ MoMA installation as her focal point. All the characters radiate and crossover from that 2010 seventy-five-day event in NYC.

'The Museum Of Modern Love' Blue period: The striking Op Art referencing cover against my architectural Italian glass wall referencing Art Deco and 'Scarface' era Miami. Showing again, that art is in everything. It is in every layer of our lives.

'The Museum Of Modern Love' Blue period: The striking Op Art referencing cover against my architectural Italian glass wall referencing Art Deco and 'Scarface' era Miami. Showing again, that art is in everything. It is in every layer of our lives.

The narrative is largely about the exhibition and the work of Abramovic but to leave the confines of MoMA, and to ground the themes, there is a sub plot about a married couple going through a crisis. The couple are also creatives: a composer and architect respectively.

The characters are divided into the two dovetailing narratives. The first group of characters are primarily concerned with ‘The Artist is Present’: Marina and her troop of agents, assistants, helpers and dead mother. The second group: the family and friends of Arky Levin (composer). Some characters cross between the two narratives through their professions and the actual exhibition space.

Abramovic, through her exhibition, acts as the overseeing muse or angel as well. Her act of sitting still for seventy-five days inspires and ‘unblocks’ Arky Levin (composer) and the recently widowed Jane Miller (teacher ‘facilitator’). Through almost daily attendance at ‘The Artist Is Present’ Arky is ‘unblocked’ professionally and personally and Jane is 'unblocked' personally deciding to undertake her own version of Abramovic’s, ‘The Lovers’, with her departed husband.

As a writer, the novel appealed to me for its insight into artistic process and its offering of a holistic, big picture, of a world made of art.

‘His thoughts abhorred a vacuum but his heart responded to the blank canvas. Every song, every painting, every book, every idea that changed the world – all these things came the unknowable and beautiful void.’

There is great discussion of the physical and mental cost of art. As a writer, I had never considered before the impact on the kidneys and other organs of great periods of time sitting. Maybe the novel will cause a ‘Marina Abramovic Fitness Regime for Sedentary Creatives’. I think we need one.

‘The Museum of Modern Love’ is the deserving winner of the 2017 Stella Prize both as an artistic tour de force from Rose and as a reflection on the impact of the crowning achievement of ‘The Artist Is Present’ by contemporary woman artist Marina Abramovic. The genders are very significant to me – a woman writer and mother of daughters – in this era of increasing misogyny. Indeed, one of the passages from the book that struck me the most was:

‘I will never sit for seventy-five days, Francesca thought. I will never slice my stomach with a razor blade or eat a kilo of honey … But because you do this, Marina, I am stronger. I am more certain of that every day. You live your art and it is inseparable from you. And with it you bring me courage. You are a woman and this is a fact. No matter what people make of anything else, your gender is unequivocal.’

Music features heavily through Arky Levin’s composer profession, allowing discussion of music and its effects on wider creativity through different eras and styles: jazz, classical and soundtracks as well as contemporary performers such as Leonard Cohen and Anthony and the Johnson’s. In writing this review I had ‘The Crying Light’ by the latter as background.

Hear about my 'Writing Life' in Writers Queensland

I was pleased to talk about my writing life. Have a read and see what it's like to write, be published in Australia.  Do you agree writers should have a wage in Australia as they do in Scandinavian countries?

Thanks, Writers Queensland!

To read the full article please follow the link:

http://www.writingqueensland.com.au/queensland-writers-life-sarah-ridout/

Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain #StellaPrizeShortlist #AWW17

by Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing 2016

Between A Wolf And A Dog by Georgia Blain
Scribe, 2016

Outside, the rain continues unceasing; silver sheets sluicing down, the trees and shrubs soaking and bedraggled, the earth sodden, puddles overflowing, torrents coursing onwards, as the darkness slowly softens with the dawn.
Ester is a family therapist with an appointment book that catalogues the anxieties of the middle class: loneliness, relationships, death. She spends her days helping others find happiness, but her own family relationships are tense and frayed. Estranged from both her sister, April, and her ex-husband, Lawrence, Ester wants to fall in love again. Meanwhile, April is struggling through her own directionless life; Lawrence’s reckless past decisions are catching up with him; and Ester and April's mother, Hilary, is about to make a choice that will profoundly affect them all.
Taking place largely over one rainy day in Sydney, and rendered with the evocative and powerful prose Blain is known for, Between a Wolf and a Dog is a celebration of the best in all of us — our capacity to live in the face of ordinary sorrows, and to draw strength from the transformative power of art. Ultimately, it is a joyous tribute to the beauty of being alive.

The accolades and glowing reviews received for ‘Between A Wolf And A Dog’ are well deserved. It is a gentle scalpel to the human condition and contains descriptions of everyday sights and landscapes that are thoroughly realised and penetrate deep down to the intrinsic element of the tree or vista being described. It’s the descriptions of someone who observes closely because they understand the brevity of life and the necessity of living in the present to see beauty.

The Marcel family is depicted in all its contradictory human beauty and imperfection across three generations. The structure is well judged interweaving key moments from the past to develop the present and its nuanced layer of hurt, betrayal and devastation. The device of making the central character a therapist allows the privileging of emotions, feelings and relationships. The use of the 4 client / patients allow this to be further elaborated in vignettes which echo or develop that seen in the central Marcel family and the three female adult characters and estranged husband.

The title is the inversion of the French expression: ‘l’heure entre chien et loup’. It is their equivalent of the ‘witching hour’ or dusk, where shadows make identities and shapes indistinct. I would argue that all the characters in the novel are in this witching hour, in this liminal space where they are all changing shedding baggage, identities, patterns, thought processes, responsibilities, careers, memories and even life.

Ester, as the therapist character, is given the most raw insights into relationships and the pressures of living in the now. The name Ester has Biblical (a Queen who risked her life for her people) and Scientific (a compound produced by the reaction between an Acid and an alcohol) meaning and connotations. In the novel she acts to protect her twin daughters and also reacts to the chaos created by Lawrence (acid?) and April (alcohol?). Ester’s mother, Hilary, the filmmaker, is given the most holistic understanding of the broad brush of life and loving and is also the character who reflects on morality and choices.

    
Lawrence and April are the flawed twin characters of the novel who operate from pleasure without responsibility and their impulsiveness is used as a catalyst for destruction and upheaval to push the novel both emotionally and narratively. Both undertake narrative arcs though and are changed at the end of the novel.

As well as a fine dissection of the personal the book takes aim at the political. Lawrence is a morally fraught political pollster. For example the discussion of manipulation, truth and media manipulation seen in the premier issue of our time:

‘... the results of a rival poll making headlines. The issue is climate change and whether the government should do more to combat the effects ... Besides, what does it matter what people think? What does it fucking matter? The world is dying, and we are still asking the opinions of every person on the street while failing to listen to what our experts are telling us.’

I found this novel to be poignant and humane with a great respect for the challenges of life and selfhood. It’s been shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize a fitting acknowledgment of Blain’s literary achievement and contribution.

By Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing

Jenna’s Truth by Nadia L King #AWW17 Challenge

Jenna’s Truth by Nadia L King
Aulexic, 2016

There is so much to recommend Jenna’s Truth by Nadia L King. It concerns bullying and is pitched at the Young Adult market but it’s reach is much broader. Indeed it should be read by parents, teachers, families, as it tackles the issue in a clever way. It's told through the POV of a bullied teen, Jenna. If I had a magic wand I would distribute this book to every public library and high school in Australia.

The heroine is the eponymous Jenna. The book charts her life from pre-bullying through the incidents and beyond. Jenna’s voice is spot on and that of a lively, clever, observant teen, desperate to be in the ‘cool gang’ (who are of course, as normally the case, anything but cool).
King uses clever strategies to appeal and get through to her teen audience comparing incidents to scenes from CSI and speaking in the teen shorthand of products and consumables, fast fashion chains and the like. The characters are well drawn, especially Jenna and Tina (the bully). The supporting characters all work, especially the teacher, Ms Phillips.
The key scenes are very well done and filled with drama, compassion (and horror for me to read as a mother of girls – one teen and one tween). The party and pool scenes were very effective and moving. I particularly liked both the dual use of swimming as both a meditation and drama. The threading of The Life of Pi through the book worked effectively as both a subject of school assessment textually and it’s meaning and debates as Jenna’s challenges grew.

Jenna's Truth by Nadia L King, a powerful addition to novels confronting teen bullying head on

Jenna's Truth by Nadia L King, a powerful addition to novels confronting teen bullying head on

If I had a magic wand I would distribute this book to every public library and high school in Australia.

Jenna's Truth has been so cleverly and compassionately thought out from the trigger warning, dedication, the story, help lines, the end notes designed for the national curriculum for teachers for year 9 and 10 English, and cyber bullying helplines. The educational resource notes with questions and focus for teachers and students encourage bullying to be spoken about in a frank and truthful matter and in that public peer space may even make bullies change their ways. The ‘cool gang’ is, after all, only viable if it has slavish followers. If educated these followers will disappear and become decent teens too.
The book is designed to appeal to as many people as possible and is dyslexic friendly and printed in a large, bold, relaxed font. The length of it also is perfect. As a novella it is long enough for teens to delve deeply, but not too long as to have them lingering too much in a disturbing place. It can be easily read in a single sitting.

King dedicates her book movingly to Amanda Todd and her legacy. Amanda ‘and others like her, lost to suicide and to the young people of today facing these challenges right now, in the hope that together we can make the world a better, kinder, friendlier place.’

King has achieved that goal with Jenna's Truth and I for one will be encouraging my daughters school's to stock this book. To use it as the valuable resource it is to both help teens realise they can get help; and that bullying is insidious and needs to be called out. Thank you Nadia L King for writing this important book for teens. The best writing can change lives and your book will. Kudos

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic #AWW17

The New Edition cover with it's lovely gold hardware

Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf since early childhood, has always lived on the outside – watching, picking up tell-tale signs people hide in a smile, a cough, a kiss. When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

This gripping, original and fast-paced crime thriller is set between a big city and a small coastal town, Resurrection Bay, where Caleb is forced to confront painful memories. Caleb is a memorable protagonist who refuses to let his deafness limit his opportunities, or his participation in the investigation. But does his persistence border on stubbornness? And at what cost? As he delves deeper into the investigation Caleb uncovers unwelcome truths about his murdered friend – and himself.

‘Resurrection Bay’ won the Ned Kelly Best Debut and a trifecta of Davitt Awards in 2016. When you read it you can understand why.

It is a fast moving tale that gives Peter Temple a run for his money. The hero, Caleb Zelic, is a powerful addition to the genre. He was profoundly deaf since early childhood, but rather than that being the focus of his being it is used as another attribute and textually as a professional strength allowing him to watch and pick up the multiple signs people hide in a smile, a cough, or a kiss. It is a celebration of difference as strength not weakness important in today's Australia of the great homogeneity and the oppression of difference whether it be denying Marriage Equality for as long as humanly possible, vilifying refugees, or the strange desire to increase racism and discrimination through getting rid of 18C. In relation the narrative thread concerning Caleb's partner and her indigenous family is groundbreaking and to be celebrated. In Australia in 2017 we need much more diversity and many more different voices, not less.

Like J.M Peace’s ‘A Time To Run’, Emma Viskic's Caleb Zelic gives Australian crime writing a distinctive and strong central character readers can root for. Other great additions to this genre in 2016 are ‘Ghost Girls’ by Cath Ferla and ‘Bad Blood’ by Gary Kemble.

The exciting news is Viskic's next Caleb novel should be on bookshelves in August / September 2017.

Resurrection Bay will be released in the UK and the US soon.

by Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing 2016
 

The Twisted Knot by J.M Peace #AWW17

The Twisted Knot by J.M Peace

Pan Macmillan, 2016

 

A marked man. A damaged cop. A town full of secrets. After her abduction and near death at the hands of a sadistic killer, Constable Samantha Willis is back in the uniform. Despite being on desk duty, rumours reach Sammi that Someone in Angel's Crossing has been hurting little girls, and before long a mob is gathering to make sure justice is served. So when a man is found hanging in his shed, the locals assume the pedophile has finally given in to his guilt. That is, until Sammi delves further into the death and uncovers a dark family secret, an unsolved crime and a town desperate for vengeance.

I finished this book in 2 sittings! It's really great and a change of pace to the first installment A Time To Run which was so fast moving and a huge adrenaline rush. A Time to Run is also recommended. For me, it was both a reintroduction to a genre and a revitalising of a genre. I read a lot of the genre when I was a teen and slowly grew away from it largely because of the violence against women that seem often to head towards gratuitousness and even evoking torture porn. Today I only read crime novels that move away from, challenge, or deconstruct this. I know it's a personal choice. It's mine. In crime novels women are so often 'just' the victims yet in Sammi we are introduced to a young police woman who is intelligent, strong, resourceful and cunning. That is a welcome change. Sammi is the heroine of both novels. I actually learnt a lot from reading A Time To Run in terms of self protection and how to mark criminals and attackers. It's essential reading for women in these times of rampant abuse and violence.

 

The dramatic cover of A Twisted Knot near some of my art!

 

I think Peace made a wise choice setting The Twisted Knot close to home and the station. It shows the real impact of both prosecuting a criminal and a trial on the heroine. Only in movies do people walk away from the ordeal she went through in A Time To Run. Focusing on the aftermath to me was real, honest and respectful and also gave much opportunity to show the depth and colour of the character Sammi. Many police procedurals avoid those issues and make the leads superhuman. It was important to show the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder effects on Sami and also the impacts on the station and the various weak male egos around her.

The Twisted Knot followed on seamlessly from A Time To Kill, the reader was right back at the aftermath and stays by Sammi's side all along.

The character construction of Terry was brilliant too, allowing a satisfying ending. Peace's professional policing background comes through and I really liked how the sexism and double standards of the force were shown through the flaws of the male characters. I recommend the Sami series fully. Like Emma Viskic's Resurrection Bay it is a welcome addition to the Australian Crime Fiction Pantheon. It is no surprise it received a 'Sisters in Crime' Award.

If you haven't read A Time To Run get both and read them back to back. My friend is doing that and loving it. I can't wait till the next installment from Sami and Peace. A Time to Run comes out in Germany and Spain later this year. I am sure The Twisted Knot will follow.

by Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing 2016

 

Like I can Love by Kim Lock #AWW17

Like I can Love by Kim Lock

Pan Macmillan, 2016

Like I can Love - Cover Art:

The cover evokes the paper of the letters that make up one part of the two narratives. The red lettering like molten wax and the multilayered meaning of 'key' connected to the authors surname 'Lock'. All against the background of one of my favourite paintings.

On a hot January afternoon, Fairlie Winter receives a phone call. Her best friend has just taken her own life. Jenna Rudolph, 26 years old, has left behind a devoted husband, an adorable young son and a stunning vineyard. But Fairlie knows she should have seen this coming. Yet Fairlie doesn't know what Jenna's husband Ark is hiding, nor does she know what Jenna's mother Evelyn did to drive mother and daughter apart all those years ago. Until Fairlie opens her mail and finds a letter. In Jenna's handwriting. Along with a key. Driven to search for answers, Fairlie uncovers a horrifying past, a desperate mother, and a devastating secret kept by those she loves the most. Heartbreaking and terrifying, Like I Can Love explores love in all its forms - from the most fragile to the most dangerous - and the unthinkable things we do in its name.

 

 

 

 

 

On International Women's Day 2017: This is an important book taking a serious issue – the epidemic of domestic violence and murder of woman by their partners in Australia – and placing it in an accessible 'Domestic Noir' genre. It's another book I read last year that was so strong it hasn't left me. This is always a guide to good writing.

The story is told in two related narratives that intertwine and intersect cleverly.

Kim Lock masterfully reveals the insidious and unrelenting molding and destructive pressure applied by husband, Ark on the heroine, Jenna. In doing so Lock skilfully widens the lens for her audience, broadening the scope of the issue and its breadth in Australia, how it effects all walks of life, rural and city folk, alike. That while it involves, rape and abuse, it often digs deeper than surface bruises and can use mental, psychological, and financial warfare to entrap a person.

There is beautiful language and imagery combined with a gritty earthy reality connected to the land and the rural life.

With all that said 'Like I Can Love' is foremost a tightly plotted, artfully constructed narrative with great, complicated characters and a evocative South Australian Wine Country setting that should appeal to an international audience.

'Like I can Love' is about to be released in the UK and Germany. 'The Good Mother' is the novel's international title. I encourage people to read it from a great new voice on the Australian writing scene. I can't wait to read Kim's new book when it is released.

by Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing 2016
 

Grace's Table by Sally Piper #AWW17

Grace’s Table, by Sally Piper
UQP

Synopsis:
Grace has not had twelve people at her table for a long time. Hers isn't the kind of family who share regular Sunday meals. But it isn't every day you turn seventy. As Grace prepares the feast, she reflects on her life, her marriage and her friendships. When the three generations come together, simmering tensions from the past threaten to boil over. The one thing that no one can talk about is the one thing that no one can forget. Grace's Table is a moving and often funny novel about the power of memory and the family rituals that define us.

The fitting cover design with missing pepper pot!

Grace’s Table by Sally Piper was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards, a nomination richly deserved.
I found this novel near perfect in its execution, characterisation, language and delivery. It’s a deceptively simple story about a family gathering for a 70th birthday party but manages to achieve the life story of that family in the telling. I read it in two sittings over one weekend and I’m glad I did. The gentle un-spooling of the story allows the reader to be fully ‘in the room’ with the family.

The central character, Grace, is so finely drawn through human observation, tics, experiences and her interaction with time, places, people and food to lend a layering akin to trifles as rich as any made by Grace’s mother.

It is an excellent depiction of family dynamics, power and dysfunction and the way a marriage can define and shape a family’s world, for better or worse, as well as the strengthening solace of lifelong female friendship.

As a writer I was impressed with so much Piper achieved here in her elegantly simplistic story: the characterisation is perfect, every single character so well rounded and believable. The descriptions of food its power to bring people together and to separate: it’s meaning, preparation, symbolism, connotations were poetically and evocatively depicted. The lush, poetic descriptions of food had echoes of Babette’s Feast by Karen Blixen and the preparations and memories echoes of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. The discussion of the reason for Grace’s choice of ‘baked custard’ as one of the deserts for her birthday meal is an example. The list of deserts Grace was choosing from, and why they weren’t selected made my mouth water.

Still life in blues: Grace's Table communes in my kitchen

The historical, socio-economic and fad significance of food across the four generations of the book: Grace’s parents, Grace and Des, her children, her grandchildren was like a snapshot of the urbanisation of Australia through the same period. Moving from rural people living off the land, the era of butchers and meat and two vege, today's awareness of sugar and the trend to eating less meat and deserts. Butchery, and all its connotations and meaning, was at the heart of the characterisation of Des. Piper dissected and employed all those connotations with impressive mastery and a great sense of timing.

But for me the most impressive element was the clever pacing and withholding of information, the teasing of the reader throughout the novel. There’s a great tragedy within the novel and it is revealed perfectly and travels throughout the narrative from the first to last chapter. Grace’s Table is a masterful, wise and life-affirming novel that brought this reader to tears. I look forward to Sally Piper’s next novel with excitement.

I also loved the cover design of the book and was pleased there was no pepper pot on the table!

By Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing

'The Promise Seed' By Cass Moriarty #AWW17 Review

The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty
UQP 2015

To tell you the truth, I kinda felt sorry for the kid. There was something in his eyes that stirred a memory inside me. For a moment, I was him, I was that boy hiding by the woodshed . . .

An elderly man, living alone in the suburbs, thinks back on his life - the missed opportunities, the shocking betrayals, the rare moments of joy. When his ten-year-old neighbour hides in his garden one afternoon, they begin an unexpected friendship that offers a reprieve from their individual struggles. The boy, often left on his own by his mother, finds solace in gardening and playing chess with his new friend, who is still battling the demons of his past.

As a sinister figure enters the boy's life, he must choose between a burgeoning friendship and blood ties. Can the old man protect the boy he has come to know - and redeem the boy he once was?

 

I read ‘The Promise Seed’ over six months ago and it’s a testament to the strength of Cass Moriarty’s writing that so much of it is still with me. It’s no surprise it was shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award at the Queensland Literary Awards in 2016. It is a masterful, moving and ultimately life affirming novel about the hope found through chosen families. It concerns an old man living next door to a young boy with a difficult home life and their growing friendship. It’s about impacts outside of our control and coping with life choices foisted on you.

The characters are nameless, a Brechtian device that highlights both the character's ‘roles’ and the sad fact that while this is 'their story', it is a story tragically echoed in the lives of many others. It is principally the story of the friendship between the Old Man and the Boy, but has there ever been a more aptly named character than ‘Snake’?

‘The Promise Seed’ is about difficult subjects: child, institutional and elder abuse, and system failure. However, to counter the heavy subject matter, Moriarty cleverly injects a language or renewal through seasonal change, growth, replenishing and rebirth in both the literal ‘seed’ and the chickens and the symbolic 'seeds' or skills the old man also shares with the boy. This imagery and the associated narrative tangents gives welcome relief to the reader from the spiraling unravelling of the boy’s home life.

The old man teaches the boy both another way to be as an adult (an alternative to the life foisted on him by his mother’s bad choices) and a set of skills to find peace and solace, a calm place away from the horrors of his home life.

Moriarty deploys beautiful prose especially in her depiction of the natural world and the renewal of the man’s garden and chickens. This beauty acts a balm to the reader and as a rest point in between the depicting of the grim realities of both childhoods: the old man’s in the past and the boy’s in the here and now.

The depth of research Moriarty employed to understand how the social services system operates / fails in these cases is clear and well depicted which adds a further layer of strength to the novel. It is a story of these characters but also the story of thousands of others who have been interviewed by principals, police, social workers, and all the other stops along the intervention and monitoring chain.

The simple die-cut cover design evokes the age old wisdom and parable nature of the novel.

I can’t wait to read Cass Moriarty’s next book, ‘Parting Words’ which comes out in August this year. I will do that review immediately.

Review by Sarah Ridout, 'Le Chateau', Echo Publishing, 2016

'The Promise Seed' resting by a hiding cherub in my garden

'The Birdman's Wife' by Melissa Ashley: Review #AWW2017

This is my first review under my pledge to Australian Women Writers Challenge AWW2017

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley
Affirm Press, 2016

‘The Birdman’s Wife’ is the timely resurrection to prominence of Elizabeth Gould, a fine artist and wife of John Gould, a noted Ornithologist in Regency England. The book tells Elizabeth’s story from through courtship, marriage and motherhood focusing on her work as an artist. As a work of ‘historical fiction’ the time and multiple settings are so well researched and depicted they come alive including the figures of Edward Lear, Charles Darwin and the Franklin's. The Regency world in all its contradiction and change is seen in the lives and rise of the Gould’s and their family.

Here's one of my Tasmanian Tweets featuring the inside cover of this beautifully written and produced book. Which one do you think is the Resplendent Quetzal? Hint long green tail feathers...

Here's one of my Tasmanian Tweets featuring the inside cover of this beautifully written and produced book. Which one do you think is the Resplendent Quetzal? Hint long green tail feathers...

Elizabeth Gould: a modern woman?

It was a clever strategy of Ashley to imagine her heroine, Elizabeth Gould in a modern way, as a woman much like today’s professional mother who had to do it all. Elizabeth is a worker, mother, provider, lover – all pre-modern obstetrics, telephone, and even ocean liner. This depiction encourages readers to identify with Elizabeth despite the large historical gap and her obvious added assistance of servants, governess’s and cooks (and even mother and relation to look after assorted children while the Gould’s voyage to Australia). This stance also allows Elizabeth to voice other ideas narratively, in keeping with modern views regarding the abundant specimen capturing of her husband’s expeditions. It allowed Ashley to offer criticism of the practice through the character and also to have Elizabeth, liberate some prized captives. To this reader there were parallels between the treatment of the native animals in Australia and that of the aboriginals. That they were all treated as specimens to be used as the English saw fit, without any qualms of conscience. The unnecessary deaths of the Australian animals captured for the return voyage to England was particularly hard to bare and written so deftly as to ride that fine balance between the ‘superiority’ of the modern reader and the outdated, immoral former modes of behaviour. The character of Elizabeth at least, shows remorse for this savage waste.

Loss, family and sea travel

Ashley handled the loss of Elizabeth’s early children with great sympathy, compassion and depth which helped bring the character to life and importantly again differentiate her from the relentless desire to ‘collect’ and ‘possess’ seen in her husband.

The voyage to Australia and the rendering of convict era Tasmania was well done and the difficulty for families being separated by hemispheres pre reliable communication added to the layering of the character of Elizabeth. The novel presented five Elizabeth’s: mother, wife, artist, sister and friend and each role allowed Ashley to further develop and round her heroine. The interactions between Elizabeth and her brother in Australia was made more moving knowing she would probably never see him again after she returned to England.

Ashley has a great knowledge regarding birds and taxonomy and this depth and experience comes through on every page, especially the sections when dissections are occurring in the UK, on the voyages, and in Australia. The respect Ashley has for Elizabeth and her life and challenges is also evident and richly shown throughout.

Collecting: a construct of time, place and ideology

Fortuitously, I read the book while on holidays in Tasmania, where it was partly set. As an aside, while in Launceston, I saw ‘The Art of Science - Nicholas Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804’ an art exhibition of French explorers of Australia and their artworks from their voyages. I attended a lecture and was interested to learn the French didn’t kill and return stuffed specimens for benefactors as the English (Gould et al) did, they drew and painted them only. Interestingly of course, they also only visited Australia, never ‘claiming’ it as their colony. The French expeditions predated the Gould’s.
One of the biggest insights for me from the novel was the act of collecting itself and what was entailed in the Gould expeditions. The detail Ashley provided of the sheer number of specimens killed shocked me. I think I'd always assumed they were all more like the French explorers and drawing from nature not killing and preserving to take back trophies for museums or individual rich collectors.

Art and research creating layered characterisation

Scenes are cleverly done offering layers of characterisation for multiple characters simultaneously. For example the portrait painting scenes where the reader learns perhaps more about John Gould and his insecurities, cunning and political maneuvers than they do of Elizabeth.

It’s hard to choose, but my favourite scenes were those depicting Elizabeth lost in her art, in the sheer ecstasy of creating and seeing something appear and fuse together on her blank page born from her sheer talent and vision. The near possession Elizabeth experiences while creating the Resplendent Quetzal causes a very moving communion with her deceased children.

Reading the authors note I was filled afresh with admiration at Ashley’s achievements in rendering Elizabeth Gould, having only eight pages of her diary remaining to act as a decoder for her thoughts and voice. Everything else was gleaned from years of research and study in Australia and America towards Ashley’s PhD. That layering of information and detail is rendered with dexterity.

Book Production Values: Congrats Affirm!

I can’t complete the review without reference to the production values of the book. I’m sure there’s many an Australian author and publisher in awe of this thing of wonder: a hard cover first novel. The beautiful Wedgwood or Robin’s Egg blue with its reproduction of Elizabeth Gould’s nested Fairy-Wrens feeding around a ‘tear’ invite or lure the reader further. Inside there are many illustrations featured in the book including the pivotal Resplendent Quetzal.

This is an important work of redress allowing a woman of note to step out into the light again from where she had been hidden and neglected behind the plumage of her husband. Thank you Melissa Ashley for letting Elizabeth Gould ruffle some feathers again. I look forward to Melissa’s next book.