Kate Forsyth, one of Australia’s favourite novelists and the author of books including The Impossible Quest series, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and The Beast’s Garden, gives us her verdict on the best books she read in June 2018.
I love art in all its forms, and had heard so many wonderful reviews of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (which won the 2017 Stella Prize) that I had been wanting to read it for a long time.
However, I did not buy the book until after I interviewed Heather Rose for Word of Mouth TV earlier this year and was fascinated by the story of the book’s inspiration and long genesis.
The story is centred on the true-life art performance ‘The Artist is Present’, in which Serbian-born artist Marina Abramovic sits silently on a chair at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York for seventy-five days, without speaking or moving or showing any outward sign that she is alive. People visiting the museum have the chance to sit with her and look into her eyes, but are not permitted to speak or act in any way.
This act of silent connection proves extraordinarily moving and inspiring for many thousands of people, who queue up day after day to watch and participate. In all, 1,500 people would sit with Marina Abramovic and more than 850,000 people watched, some returning day after day after day (including Heather Rose who sat with the artist four times).
In the world of Heather Rose’s extraordinary, luminous novel, we met several imaginary people who are also drawn to watch. Among them are Arky Levin, a film composer separated from his wife, and Jane Miller, a widow who had once been a teacher. Both are struggling with loss and grief; both are drawn to Marina Abramovic’s installation for reasons they do not fully understand. They meet when Jane, annoyed by a stranger’s patronising remarks about modern art, turns to Arky and says, ‘I think art saves people all the time.’
I think art saves people too. I think it has saved me more than once. And so this is a book that resonated with me on so many levels.
Arky and Jane do not fall in love. Their lives touch only briefly, yet both are changed by their encounter, with each other and with ‘The Artist is Present’ installation. So too are the lives of others in the crowd, some of whome we meet only briefly. Without moving, without speaking, Marina Abramovic is an agent of revelation and transformation.
‘It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration,’ Heather Rose writes of her.
Other voices who speak in this beautiful and beguiling novel are the ghost of Marina Abramovic’s mother, a fierce and unrelenting woman who had been a Serbian war hero, and an unnamed narrator who acts as a muse to Arky and other struggling artists.
‘Pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time,’ the muse says at one point.
These elements of magical realism are interwoven so delicately and surely that they do not disrupt the narrative flow at all, but add intensity and pathos as well as a sense of wonder and amazement at the extraordinary way art and creativity can shape and succour the human psyche.
After I finished The Museum of Modern Love, I too was fascinated by Marina Abramovic and read or watched numerous articles and documentaries about her. I love a book that drives me to learn more.
It took Heather Rose more than eleven years to craft this exquisitely written novel, a testament to the depth of her obsession and the dedication to her craft. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Quite possibly, one of the best book I’ve read ever.
I had some time free at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and so slipped in to hear Sarah Krasnostein talk about her debut work of biography, The Trauma Cleaner. I had seen people talking about it and recommending it on social media, and I knew it had won the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, but otherwise I knew very little about it.
Sarah Krasnostein spoke so intelligently about her transformative journey in writing this book that I bought it at once, and asked her to sign it.
Basically, Sarah was at an academic conference one day when she saw a tall blonde woman sitting at a table with an oxygen mask and a fanned-out pile of brochures about her company. ‘Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services’. Sarah was intrigued, picked up a copy and read it through several times.
“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure read. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”
Wanting to know more, Sarah rang the tall blonde woman – whose name was Sandra Pankhurst – and asked if she could interview her.
I find this action of hers intriguing as well. Sarah Krasnostein was not a journalist or a writer by trade. She was a law lecturer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. What deep psychological need in Sarah drove her to want to meet a trauma cleaner, and then spend the next four years following her around?
Whatever her own motivations, Sarah Krasnostein has an infallible instinct for a good story. Sandra Pankhurst’s life was shocking, heartbreaking, and powerful. Born a boy, adopted at birth, abused and neglected, he became a husband and father, then a drag-queen and sex-worker, and then undertook gender reassignment surgery and became a woman. Totally reinventing herself, Sandra began to work at a funeral parlour and then married a man she met at his wife’s cremation. Energetic and ambitious, she runs a business with him and stands for local council. When the business fails, she begins a cleaning company to support them both, and soon realises that the real money is in trauma cleaning.
So what does a trauma cleaner do? Her business card says:
* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning
For three and a half years, Sarah Krasnostein followed Sandra Pankhurst in and out of filthy, stinking houses and watched as she returned them to sparkling, sweet-smelling order. The first job Sarah attended was the apartment of a 35-year-old heroin junkie who had overdosed and her body had not been found for two weeks. Sarah was 35 at the time herself, a confronting parallel.
A chapter about one of Sandra’s clients is followed by a chapter about Sandra herself, the two timelines weaving in and out of each other until we reach the end of the tale.
Sandra is an unreliable narrator, and so not an easy subject for a biography:
‘Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced,’ Sarah Krasnostein writes. So The Trauma Cleaner is also a meditation on memory and forgetting, trust and lies, and this philosophical element of the book adds an extra depth and interest.
But the real star of the book is Sandra Pankhurst herself – her warmth, humour, compassion and grit. This is truly an astonishing life story, discovered by accident and told with real grace and thoughtfulness.
I’ve really enjoyed all of Louise Penny’s earlier books in the Inspector Gamache crime series, but have had this one sitting on my shelf for ages, waiting for me to read. Having met Louise Penny at the Perth Writers Festival this year (she is lovely!), I decided to catch up on the series.
Her books have mostly centred on the fictional town of Three Pines in the province of Quebec in Canada, with an array of loveable and eccentric locals who appear again and again. They include a gay couple who run the local bistro, a warm-hearted second-hand bookseller, a couple of married artists, and a foul-mouthed old woman who is an award-winning poet and has a pet duck called Rosa. Describing the series in this way, the books sound like cosy murder mysteries, and there is certainly plenty of warmth and humour. However, the depth of characterisation, the lyrical writing, and the darkness of the human psyche revealed both in the murders and the inner lives of the characters lift this series out of the ordinary.
The Brutal Telling centres on the murder of an old hermit who has lived hidden away in the forest outside Three Pines for decades with no-one – or nearly no-one – aware of his existence.
To Inspector Gamache’s surprise, he discovers the old man’s wooden hut is filled with antique treasures (such as a priceless first edition copy of Jane Eyre published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, something I myself would very much like to own.) His quest to find the murderer also leads him to follow in the footsteps of Emily Carr, the first Canadian artist to embrace Fauvism and Post-Impressionism.
I have been interested in Emily Carr since reading The Forest Lover, a novel by Susan Vreeland that is inspired by her life, and so was really intrigued by this section of The Brutal Telling. This combination of warmth, intelligence and psychological depth combine to make Louise Penny’s books a cut above most contemporary crime novels and so I urge you to read one if you’ve never tried her before. But start at the beginning, with Still Life, as this series has a strong character arc.
I have always thought that Jaclyn Moriarty has one of the freshest and most original voices in Australian children’s literature and so was eager to read her latest children’s fantasy, beautifully presented as a hardback with whimsical illustrations by Kelly Canby. The book did not disappoint – it was a sparkling delight from beginning to end, with lots of unexpected discoveries, wondrous encounters and madcap adventures.
The story begins:
“I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates. This did not bother me as much as you might think – I hardly knew my parents.”
Bronte’s parents had run away to have adventures when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. But their last will and testament says she must set out alone, on a solitary quest, to take a farewell gift to each of her ten other aunts. Her parents’ will has been bordered by fairy cross-stitch, which means calamity will befall her home town if she disobeys. So Bronte sets out to fulfil her parents’ dying wish (although, really, it is extremely inconvenient). Before long she is grappling with dragons, Chief Detectives, spell whisperers and pirates. Luckily, Bronte is very resourceful and determined as well as kind-hearted and clever, and so she deals with one troublesome aunt after another with aplomb.
The world-building in this book is so rich and inventive it could easily support a dozen other books, and so I hope that The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is the first in what will be a long series. This is the perfect book for a sensitive imaginative bookworm who is not yet ready for Harry Potter but wants a story filled with magic, adventure, humour and whimsy (the kind of kid I was when I was eleven!)
White Houses by Amy Bloom is a novel inspired by the true-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her ‘first friend’, Lorena Hickok. I love books that tell the untold story of real women’s lives, and books which illuminate history in new and fascinating ways, and White Houses did both for me. I’ve not studied US history in any depth, and so the Roosevelts are just names to me. I had no sense of shock in learning that the wife of the 32nd President of the United States kept her lesbian lover in the White House. I felt only curiosity and a sense of wonderment that their love affair is not better known. I cannot imagine that happening today!
The novel is told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’ to her friends. The first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times, Hick had grown up dirt-poor in South Dakota and dragged herself up through her own indomitable will and razor-sharp wit. She first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, and before long the two are going on holiday together and Hick has given up her career to move into the White House.
The book is not told in a linear fashion. It moves back and forth in time, much as a woman remembering her own life would tell it. Hick tells the story of her father’s abuse and abandonment, her first sexual experimentations while working in a circus, her love affairs and the difficulties of being a lesbian in 1930s America. Her voice is jaded, cynical and yet also lyrical:
‘Every women’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.’
The relationship between the two women was kept hidden for many years, but in 1979 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered eighteen boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the thirty years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. Here is one excerpt:
Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.
White Houses is only a slim book, but it delves deep into the interior lives of the two women, their heartaches and mistakes, their betrayals and failures. Hick is such a complex, difficult and vulnerable character, and her love for Eleanor is achingly real. A really fascinating read.
The gorgeous title and cover of this novel are instantly enticing … and then I open the book and find a quote from Homer referencing my favourite Greek myth, the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, whose daughter Persephone is ravished away by Hades, the god of the underworld. At once I wonder if Debra Oswald plans to allude to the myth in a book that I know (thanks to the blurb) is set in Australia in 1976. I love books that drawn on myth and folklore in bold and unexpected ways, and so I settle in to read with a heightened sense of anticipation and interest.
I was ten in 1976 (hard to believe, I hope!), and so the setting immediately evokes for me the long hot summers of my childhood – paddle-pops, and vinyl seats that burn your bare thighs, and pop music blaring from the radio. Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam is still licking his wounds from the Dismissal, and ABBA was ruling the pop charts with ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Money Money Money’. Such an interesting time to set a novel! The 1970s are not distant enough to be considered historical fiction (the Historical Novel Society defines the genre as books written at least fifty years after the events described) and yet the immense changes to technology and society in the last forty-two years make 1976 seem a very different time. This slippage between historical and contemporary fiction makes for a really interesting dynamic. There are no mobile phones and an answering machine is new and baffling technology, for instance, which makes it so much easier for a teenage girl to disappear without trace.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Celia is a single mother raising her daughter Zoe alone (Celia means ‘heavenly’ and Zoe means ‘life’, a subtle hint to the metafictive role played by these characters). Celia’s husband was murdered in front of her when she was pregnant, and so she has retreated to a peach farm where she works hard and tries not to worry too much about Zoe – curious and radiant – growing up so fast.
In the summer of 1976, Zoe is sixteen. It’s picking season time, which means it’s scorching hot and the peaches are ripe for the plucking (metaphor intended). Trouble with her usual pickers means that Celia needs help, and so she hires two tattooed and pierced runaways from the city to help her bring in the fruit before it spoils. There is Sheena, edgy and foul-mouthed, and her eighteen-year-old brother Kieran, brimming over with life and energy. It is inevitable that Zoe and Kieran are drawn to each other, despite Celia’s worry and warnings. And, given Celia’s tragic past, it is inevitable that she tries to drive a wedge between the two young lovers. What she does not expect is for Zoe to disappear. And so begins the mother’s desperate search for her daughter.
When Persephone vanishes, literally from the face of the earth, Demeter was so overwhelmed with grief and fear that leaves began to shrivel and fall, and frost touched the world for the first time. It is the story of the first winter. And when Persephone is found, imprisoned in Hades’ underworld, her mother’s joy means that life is restored to the frozen world and spring blooms.
Celia’s search for her daughter, in all the dark places of Sydney’s underbelly, is analogous to this search by the goddess of the harvest. It is every mother’s nightmare, and certainly one I share. I could identify with both Zoe – rebellious, intelligent, and wanting to experience as much of life as possible – and her mother Celia, hurt by life, all too aware of its dangers, wanting only to protect her daughter but inadvertently driving her away.
I don’t want to say much more, because the plot of The Whole Bright Year is driven by a sense of ever-tightening suspense. It begins slowly, languorously, with gorgeous descriptions of peaches and summer and young love, but almost imperceptibly the screw of dramatic tension is tightened until I couldn’t bear to put the book down. And, by the end, I was all choked up. A really powerful book, written with warmth, tenderness and humour that will stay in my memory a long time.
James Bradley is one of the most thoughtful, bold and unpredictable writers working in Australia right now. I loved his novel Wrack, about an archaeologist who is searching for the 400-year-old wreck of a Portuguese ship off the coast of New South Wales, but finds the body of a murdered man instead. It’s not a crime novel, though it has a mystery at its heart. It’s not a romance though it’s about love. It’s a difficult, genre-transcending book about cruelty and loss and longing.
His novel The Resurrectionist was a dark and surprising exploration of grave robbers in Victorian England. His novella, Beauty’s Sister, is the story of Rapunzel told from the point of her darker, wilder sister Juniper. It’s powerful, unexpected and rather sinister. Then there’s Clade (which I’ve not read yet) but which is described as a near-future novel about the effects of climate change which disrupts expected narrative structures.
The key words here are surprising, genre-transcending, unexpected, disruptive.
I really love boldness and unpredictability in a writer, because it’s a quality that requires nerves of steel and a strong sense of one’s creative vision. So many writers find themselves scurrying in a mouse-wheel of market expectations, churning out one similar book after another, second-guessing what readers want, caught up in competing for the ephemera of prizes, grants, bestseller lists, review inches. To write what inspires and excites you, to test boundaries and expectations, to stretch your creative muscles to straining point and beyond – that takes courage, and James Bradley has it in spades.
He is also a beautiful writer, elegant and restrained.
So I was drawn to reading James Bradley’s new dystopian novel for young adults, The Silent Invasion, not because I like YA dystopia (I don’t really), but because I admire his writing and I was interested to see what he’d do with the conventions of this rather over-crowded genre.
The story is told from the point-of-view of sixteen-year-old Callie. She lives in the near-future, at a time when the world has become infected with the spores of some kind of alien intelligence. The first signs are phosphorus on the skin, a strange glow in the eyes. Anyone showing signs of being infected is taken away by Quarantine officers. No-one knows where, or what happens to them. Callie’s own father – a scientist studying the spores – was taken away, and now Callie is being looked after by her step-mother and her boyfriend. She loves her little sister Gracie deeply, and when it becomes clear Gracie has been infected, Callie does her best to save her.
It’s a race against time. Callie is chasing rumours and speculations that there is a safe place, a Zone, where Gracie will be safe. They meet a boy, also running, and a clever and relentless Quarantine officer determined to stop them, and various people, some kind, some unspeakably cruel. It’s intense, fast-paced, politically aware, and heart-breaking. Callie is tough and yet vulnerable, intelligent and yet prone to impulse, loving but still afraid to surrender herself to love. And the writing is as beautiful and thoughtful as I hoped for. So many writers for teenagers sacrifice lyricism for pace. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a perfectly turned sentence has its own unstoppable force:
‘Sometime deep in the night the moon rose, and for a time I lay staring up at it and the great girdle of the Milky Way. Its brightness stretched from horizon to horizon, and I imagined myself falling upwards, leaving all of this behind and losing myself in its light. Once we had dreamed of travelling to the stars, of becoming explorers; now we scrabbled and fought to survive. What else lay out there, I found myself wondering. Were there other worlds, other possibilities? Or was this all there was, this chaos and fear and sense we were running from something we could not outrun? At some point I realised I was crying; surprised at myself, I tried to wipe my face, but the tears kept coming.’
The Silent Invasion reminded me of some of the great science fiction books of my own adolescence. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Giver by Lois Lowry. I hope it strikes as strong a chord.
I first met Gabbie Stroud when we were on tour together with the Byron Writers Festival. She had written a personal essay for Griffith Review about her decision to quit teaching, which had always been her life vocation. Her essay stirred up a lot of controversy, as more and more teachers began to criticise Australia’s education system. Allen & Unwin asked her if she’d be interested in extending her essay into a book-length memoir, and Teacher is the poignant and powerful result.
All Gabbie Stroud ever wanted to do was teach our children, and inspire them with her own big-hearted warmth, generosity and love of learning.
Instead she found herself broken by a system that cares more for data and demographies than young minds and spirits.
Interweaving her own personal journey towards being a teacher with anecdotes from the classroom, Teacher illuminates the enormous difficulties our teachers face today. Sometimes their students are hungry, bruised, or afraid. Sometimes they are sick, angry, or struggling. Their teacher needs to keep them and their classmates safe and calm, while still trying to instil learning. Teachers are burdened by administrative tasks, curriculum demands, difficult parents, and large numbers of students. They end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed, and often completely burned-out.
Gabbie Stroud shines a penetrating light on all that is wrong with the Australian education system and how it fails both our children and our teachers. Impossible to read without choking up, this is an eloquent rallying cry for change and should be mandatory reading for all politicians and policy-makers. Luminous and heart-rending.
One of my favourite genres of fiction are books that weave together two separate narratives, one set in contemporary times and one set in the past. I also really love books about gardens and flowers and secrets and danger. So I had high hopes for Kayte Nunn’s new book, The Botanist’s Daughter, which promised so many elements I love.
The story begins in present-day Australia, when Anna finds a mysterious old notebook and an engraved metal box hidden inside the wall of her dead grandmother’s house. The box is locked, and Anna does not have the key.
The narrative then moves back in time to Cornwall, 1886, and the story of Elizabeth, a strong-willed heiress and the daughter of a botanist who has recently died. The metal box is hers, and contains boots that she hates. Chafing against the constraints of Victorian society, as exemplified by those tight, uncomfortable boots, Elizabeth decides to set out on her father’s last planned expedition, to Argentina and Chile …
It’s a marvellous beginning, and the story gallops on from there. Elizabeth discovers her father was searching for a rare flower with miraculous powers, and that many other dangerous men are also on its trail. Anna – who is a botanist herself – discovers that the box contains a sketchbook of exquisite botanical drawings, a photograph, and a bag of seeds. She is intrigued despite herself and begins to try and unravel the mystery. But Anna has secrets of her own, and her quest threatens to bring them out of the shadows.
The Botanist’s Daughter is an utterly riveting story of two women, divided by a century in time, but united by their quest to discover a rare and dangerous flower said to have the power to heal as well as kill. Fast-moving and full of surprises, The Botanist’s Daughter brings the exotic world of 19th-century Chile thrillingly to life while delivering a poignant and heart-warming story of romance and new beginnings in its contemporary thread. A must-read for lovers of Kimberly Freeman and Mary-Rose MacColl.
Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel aged seven and has now sold more than a million books worldwide. Her most recent book, Beauty in Thorns, is a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty set amongst the passions and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites. Other novels for adults include Bitter Greens, which won the 2015 American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction; and The Wild Girl, which was named the Most Memorable Love Story of 2013.
Kate’s books for children include the collection of feminist fairy-tale retellings, Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington, and The Impossible Quest fantasy series which has been optioned for a film. Named one of Australia’s Favourite 15 Novelists, Kate has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. She is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia.
Beauty in Thorns
The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.
Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.
William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.
Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.
Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.