Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

“The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women.

The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year.

You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.

(Our guidelines for what makes a good review can be found here.)”

*

Each of the books I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers’ Challenge has been intensely engaging.

When I signed up, I hoped to read 6 books for this challenge this year. Now I am having trouble choosing only six.

(But I am also having a bit of trouble locating some titles and authors, which is one way of narrowing the list.)

Maybe next year I will aim higher. Maybe I will simply continue to make long lists which I do not read through…

Helen Garner’s The Last Days of Chez Nous & Two Friends (1992 and 1986; 2016)

Reissued as part of the Australian Text Classics series, these screenplays are a delight to read.

The author’s foreword considers her original motivation for writing them – money!

But she quickly discovers that you write a film for the same reason you write a novel: “out of curiosity and technical fascination, and the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story”.

Relationships here – whether between sisters or partners or friends – are captured in details and dialogue, the atmosphere meticulously constructed against ordinary backdrops (the family home, a highway).

They were imagined in Melbourne but shot in Sidney, two cities as different as Boston and LA in the United States, Garner explains, which gives me an insight I lacked previously.

In Laura Jones’ afterword, she writes: “All the weeping, all the tears, all the crying, in both screenplays: I’ve never read so many tears.”

But there is a lot of tenderness, intimacy and humour here too.

Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog (2016)

This novel landed on my TBR because of its inclusion in the Stella prizelist; reading this single volume resulted in her entire backlist landing on my TBR.

Reminiscent of Anne Enright’s The Gathering and Carol Shields’ Swann, this story considers “what we cling to and what we relinquish”.

The perspective shifts between family members and the characterization builds slowly and powerfully so that, in approximately 250 pages, readers have a panoramic understanding of their histories alongside a pointed experience of their present-day.

The narrative is soaked with water imagery, from rain to waterways.

Drops on a window are described so beautifully that it is only later that one recognizes the relationship with tears.

Worth admiring is the steady balance between the novel’s components.

But truly remarkable is the fact that the narrative is both sorrow-soaked and buoyant.

Weeks later, I still think back to these characters; I long for their story to have been longer.

Elizabeth Jolley’s Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1983)

When I learned that Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog was hosting an Elizabeth Jolley reading week, I could not resist picking up another of her novels, although I learned too late to participate properly.

Do check the collection of participants’ reviews to get a sense of this author’s oeuvre

Mr. Scobie is no more immediately likeable than any of Jolley’s lonely and disoriented characters; he is just as credible and complicated as the rest.

Which is to say that he is no more unlikeable than any of us would be, were we to find ourselves uprooted from the home we’d known for most of our lives and dumped into a nursing home.

There he is under the care of a matron who is overly interested in financials and extremely disinterested in anything inconvenient (such as caring for the elderly clients in the facility she manages, those very folks whose bank accounts fascinate her).

This is a very slim volume, but it contains everything that Miss Hailey’s manuscript-in-progress contains (she is another resident at the home) when she loans a copy to Mr. Scobie for his reading pleasure:

“Everything’s there,” she said. “Birth, marriage, separation, bigamy, divorce, death – several deaths, all kinds of human effort, memories, joy, pain, excitement, transfiguration, love and acceptance.”

Although I enjoyed the other two novel even more The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981) and Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1983) this was also very striking and secured my admiration of and fondness for her writing.

And, of course, there is a riddle. But isn’t there always a riddle.

Any Australian writers in your stack this year? Or, too many to count?

2018-08-01T13:53:16+00:00

18 Comments

  1. Naomi August 2, 2018 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    Ah…I remember when all those Georgia Blain books showed up on Goodreads. I wondered why…
    You’ve interested me in all 3 of these women. Although, Helen Garner was already on my list. Elizabeth Jolley sounds especially fun!

    • Buried In Print August 3, 2018 at 10:06 am - Reply

      Heheh Isn’t it funny what jumps out? Mostly I’ve been relatively restrained about adding to my TBR there this year (since I started really paying attention to the number constantly rising) but she was an exception; I really loved the way she told this story and how deeply involved I became in these ordinary characters’ lives.

  2. The Reading Life July 27, 2018 at 8:17 am - Reply

    Barbara Baynton-Bush Stories-Australia’s First Great Female Author

    Bush Studies Barbara Baynton (1902, 80 pages)

    The Reading Life Outback Tales Project

    Barbara Baynton (1857 to 1929) has a very good claim to be called the first canon or near canon status female author from Australia. She went from the child of Irish bounty immigrants (their passage was paid for by a future employer already in Australia) to the wife of a man who declined the throne of Albania. The Australian Dictionary of Biography has a fascinating article on her life. She was born in Scone, in New South Wales. She was clearly a brilliant individual. Her life would make a great book and movie.

    I recently read and posted on two early Australian writers, Henry Lawson and Andrew (Banjo) Peterson. Both of these writers were known as “Bush Authors” in that their fiction and poetry centered on life in the vast areas of Australia away from the coastal cities. Within Australia this area was called the “The Bush”. It is often referred to as “The Outback” also. To digress a bit, one can almost say the Australia short story got its start when the journal, The Bulletin, began in 1886 to solicit its readers (it was circulated all over Australia) to submit stories about “real life” in Australia. The Bulletin began to be famous for publishing stories about life in the Bush, The Outback. A class of writers known as “Bush Writers” arose to fulfill the demand for these stories. The Bush Man occupies the same place in Australian culture as the cowboy does in American.

    Barbara Baynton felt the stories that of most of the nearly all male writers romanticized life in the bush and told nothing of the real life of women. Baynton began to contribute stories to The Bulletin that showed in real detail the often horrifying and terribly harsh life of women in the outback. She submitted a collection of six of her stories to various Australian publishers but they all said the stories were over the head of the Australian public at the time. They ended up being published in London as Bush Stories.

    “The Vessel”, her best known and highest regarded story, centers on a woman living with an abusive husband (men come off quite badly in these stories) in a very isolated part of the bush. Baynton lets us see right away how life is for the bush wife in a vivid scene where a cow charges the wife and she is ridiculed by her husband and given a stick to beat the cow with. In her mind the wife compares the husband unfavorably to the cow. In the early stages of her marriage she had told her husband of her fear of travelers in the outback coming to their house for food and drink while he was gone. (It was the tradition in the outback that one helped travelers). He told her not to worry she was so unattractive no one would molest her. One day a swagman (slang for a rootless traveler in the bush country seeking day labor-they were often seen as dangerous, ex convicts and such) stops by the house when she is home alone with her baby. The encounter between the wife and the swagman is conveyed to us in very terrifying fashion. I could for sure feel the fear of the woman and her sense that she was powerless to do anything and that really no one would really care what happened to her. Baynton also lets us see a man who passed by on his horse but did not stop in spite of her screams. In someways the indifference of this man who comes from a more advantaged class is as shocking as the rape of the woman by the Swagman. It is all the sadder as we know when the husband returns he will know doubt beat her and claimed she enticed the swagman to molest her. “The Vessel” should be included in any list of 100 best short stories. It is almost hard to look into the world it depicts. There is nothing romantic in her version of the outback.

    “The Dreamer” is a very gothic in feel story about a woman coming home from the city to visit her mother. The tone is almost horror story and is very visual. It does rely on a twist ending but I did not see it coming. The ending is left vague and we are not 100 percent sure what happened. It does a great job of describing what it must have felt like to walk through the outback at night.

    “The Squeaker’s Mate” is a beautiful hard breaking story that portrays the life of a wife of a logger in a logging camp. Squeaker is the nickname of her husband. She is as good at the work of the logging camp as any man if not better. Her husband lives from her work but feels a loss of masculine pride because his wife is seen as a better worker than he (or most all the men) so he tries to regain his pride by mentally and physically abusing her. Then one tragic day she is terribly injured when a tree falls on her. The doctor tells her she will never walk again. The doctor tells the husband but advises him not to take all hope from his wife and to be gentle and kind to her. When the wife asks him what the doctor said about her condition he basically says “Oh I am going out for a beer and you will never walk again so try to find someway to make yourself useful or I will put you out”. It got worse from there. I will not giveaway the ending as I hope some will read this story. (I think her work maybe required reading in Australian literature classes.)

    There are three other stories in the collection that I hope to read soon. Baynton should for sure be read by anyone with a serious interest in the development of Australian Literature (most probably already have). I enjoyed all three of these stories a lot. There is some slang and dialect in the stories but not enough to be annoying to me. I claim no expertise but there seems no competition in calling her Australia’s best female short story writer.

    Bush Stories can be read online at the web page of the library of The University of Sydney.

    “The Vessel” is a very good short story. You can read it in just a few minutes.

  3. annelogan17 July 26, 2018 at 10:37 am - Reply

    I know this isn’t really related, but I’m enjoying australian film and television right now. Netflix has an amazing series called “the letdown’ about new motherhood that’s shot in Australia and I loved it! I liked reading Christos Tsolkias’s The Slap, and that was made into a miniseries as well, which was also good. I definitely need to read more female Australian writers though.

    • Buried In Print July 26, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

      Thanks very much for the rec for “The Letdown”; I’ll add it to my list. I’ve been watching “Offspring” for awhile (spreading them out because they make me laugh without just being silly either) and I’m really enjoying the glimpse of Australian family life. I didn’t read The Slap, so I felt super guilty watching the mini-series but I stumbled into the first episode (not recognizing the connection) and then couldn’t stop. (I will still read the book because I like the way he comes across in interviews.)

  4. The Reading Life July 25, 2018 at 11:04 pm - Reply

    Here is another interesting writer.

    About eight years ago I did a project on early Australian writers.

    This classic story can be read online. Some say it is an LGBTQ story but not all agree.

    “Two Hanged Women” by Henry Handel Richardson 8 pages, 1929

    Born 1870 in East Melbourne

    The Reading Life Outback Tales Project

    I recently discovered a new to me writer in my research on Australian Bush writers that I wanted to learn more about and post on.     Henry Handel Richardson (pen name of Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson) was born in Melbourne Australia in 1870. She died in 1946 of cancer. Her roots were Irish and English.   Her father was a successful doctor specializing in obstetrics who achieved some affluence through the purchasing of shares in gold mines.    .    At age 18 her mother took her to Europe to pursue musical studies.     She remained in Europe and England until 1912 when she returned briefly to Australia to research her family history.    Based on her father’s experience as a doctor in the colonies (he was in part a bush doctor so this justifies me in including her in my Bush Writers Project) she published her master work, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930).   It is a trilogy (over 1000 pages) and is set in the gold fields in mid Victorian Australia.     One of the great things about short stories is they let us get to know new to us writers without a huge time commitment.   Richardson also wrote and published a number of short stories, some of which can be read online.     

    Before posting on “Two Hanged Women” I should point out that Wikipedia in its article on her  says  that Henry Richardson should be considered a bisexual but the Australian National Dictionary of Biography explicitly says that is a pure conjecture unsupported by any concrete evidence.     She was married for many years and after her husband’s death felt she  maintained daily contact with him through seances.   She was an ardent support of the suffragette movement.  

    “Two Hanged Women” is a simple story that opens on a young couple out for a romantic walk along a shore. They see they are not alone so they begin to make loud kissing noises hoping it will run the intruders away.   It does work.   The man is surprised to see the other two people were women and he refers to them as just “two hanged women”.      I did some quick research to see if  the expression “hanged women” might have a meaning unknown to me in Australian slang of the 1920s and 1930s.     A bit of quick research seems to indicate it just refers to two women “hanging out”-(being somewhere for no purpose).    If I am missing something here please correct me.

    I really liked her prose style and the story line does seem to support the notion that the two women are lovers at least spiritually.    I want to quote a bit from the story so other can see if they might enjoy her work and also to allow some play to the notion that this story is about a lesbian relationship.

     “I’m afraid of him . . . when he looks like that. Once . . . when he kissed me . . . I could have died with the horror of it. His breath . . .his breath . . . and his mouth — like fruit pulp — and the black hairs on his wrists . . . and the way he looked — and . . . and everything! No, I can’t, I can’t . . . nothing will make me . . . I’d rather die twice over. But what am I to do? Mother’ll NEVER understand. Oh, why has it got to be like this? I want to be happy, like other girls, and to make her happy, too . . . and everything’s all wrong. You tell me, Betty darling, you help me, you’re older . . . you KNOW . . . and you can help me, if you will . . . if you only will!” And locking her arms round her friend she drove her face deeper into the warmth and darkness, as if, from the very fervour of her clasp, she could draw the aid and strength she needed.
    Betty had sat silent, unyielding, her sole movement being to loosen her own arms from her sides and point her elbows outwards, to hinder them touching the arms that lay round her. But at this last appeal she melted; and gathering the young girl to her breast, she held her fast.— And so for long she continued to sit, her chin resting lightly on the fair hair, that was silky and downy as an infant’s, and gazing with sombre eyes over the stealthily heaving sea.”

    “Two Hanged Women” can found online

    • Buried In Print July 26, 2018 at 9:43 am - Reply

      What a curious excerpt in combination with the biographical material. Now I do want to read more. Apparently it is also included in the collection of sketches Girlhood, which I can’t get at my local library but will try for via inter-library loan. I have read and enjoyed her coming-of-age novel, The Getting of Wisdom, but I keep overlooking the longer and perhaps-more-impressive works (Richard Mahoney and Maurice Guest) which now I am even more keen to investigate. The conjecture surrounding her reminds me of the response of family members to similar ideas about Mazo de la Roche (although she never married and did live with her female cousin for her entire life). In the process of looking for this, I can see that the library also has a film “The Getting of Wisdom” so now I will be off to look for that as well. Thanks, Mel! I hope others here take a peek at the posts on your site too.

  5. The Reading Life July 25, 2018 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Recently Catherine McNamara, an Australian writer I have followed for several years, I suggested she read Mavis Gallant and she loved her, suggested I try another Australian writer, Shirley Hazzard, like Gallant she left her home Land at an early age, worked for The United Nations and published lots of stories in The New Yorker. I this Month posted on one of her Short Stories. I Will be Reading much more of her work. Interestingly McNamara moved to Italy.

    Not quite on topic but I recently acquired a collection of Short stories by Australia’s best known immigrant Yiddish writer, Pinchas Goldhar.

    I Will follow this event with interest.6

    • Buried In Print July 25, 2018 at 10:38 am - Reply

      I will have a look for that, Mel! The Hazzard novels I’ve heard recommended are The Transit of Venus (particularly recommended by women readers), The Great Fire (recommended equally by women and men), and The Bay at Noon (more of a critical favourite, I think), but I’ve not yet managed to read one. Feeling like she was being recommended from so many different directions has always made me doubly curious about her style though, so I will be eager to see what you think. Are you planning to read a particular book of hers in the near future? (It seems surprising to me that there are Yiddish writers in Australia, but of course there are. I really must make for time for Yiddish reading.)

  6. Laila@BigReadingLife July 24, 2018 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    I wasn’t aware of this particular challenge but I have to say that Australia is one area of the world from which I have read few authors. The only one that springs to mind is Jane Harper – I have very much enjoyed her mysteries. But thanks for writing about this and making me explore other Australian women writers!

    • Buried In Print July 25, 2018 at 10:19 am - Reply

      I’ve added The Dry to my list: the setting there sounds enticing. I’ve read another Australian mystery that I really enjoyed, Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, one of those in which grey is so much more interesting than either black or white; he landed on my TBR because he was nominated for the Miles Franklin ages ago and I have always meant to read another.

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings July 24, 2018 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    I must admit all I’ve read about Jolley makes me keen to read her. And I do have some Thea Astley lurking too!

    • Buried In Print July 25, 2018 at 10:15 am - Reply

      I’ve heard of Thea Astley: do you know if there are some titles which are more often recommended than others? (I like her titles An Item from the Late News and The Well-dressed Explorer but choosing on a title is even more fraught than choosing on a cover!)

  8. A Life in Books July 24, 2018 at 9:02 am - Reply

    I have Between a Wolf and a Dog on my shelves ready to be read. Your Enright/Shields comparison makes me think I should shunt it further up the pile.

    • Buried In Print July 25, 2018 at 10:12 am - Reply

      I had no expectations and simply sank hard and fast into the story: do you remember why you purchased it, whether it was a recommendation or just on the strength of the description?

      • kaggsysbookishramblings July 25, 2018 at 1:56 pm - Reply

        Not really because I was gifted with a large biography and then picked up one of her fictions. I’ll no doubt get to them eventually….

        • Buried In Print July 26, 2018 at 9:34 am - Reply

          Ah, so maybe the biography will hint as to which of her books you might enjoy most (if you don’t mind the spoilers that might come along with that). Just knowing there is a large biography makes me feel like I should be trying harder! 🙂

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'