'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.

Give Australian books for Christmas!

Here's a Xmas Book list covering most categories

This is a great list covering fiction, non fiction, YA, poetry etc. All by Australian women and all with links to purchase! I hope it makes the mad scramble easier. Only six weeks to go... I know right ...

Thanks to fellow authors Claire Halliday (who started the ball rolling) and Rachel Watts (who wrote this blog post of our names and books):