Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Paperbark Shoes

By Goldie Goldbloom Picador Press, 2011 Have you ever heard of a place called Wyalkatchem?  I had not, until I read the novel Paperbark Shoes by the extraordinarily gifted writer Goldie Goldbloom. But as soon as I read of kerosene drums used as water pails, flour bags recycled into clothing, a sixteen hour train journey over desert, I knew I was reading about Western Australia in the first half of  the twentieth century. That’s because my father grew up in such a place, a tiny, isolated, hot and dusty township, hundreds of miles from a city, thousands of miles from the events of the wider world.  (Actually, Dad grew up in several of these hamlets, as my grandfather moved from one struggling gold mine to another, hired to bring them back to profitability.) Wyalkatchem, population “sixty eight adults and forty-three children, counting the ones in the cemetery” is a real place in the Western Australian wheatbelt, but Goldbloom has created memorable fictional inhabitants of its surrounding countryside in the sheep farmer Agrippas Toad, a short, bumbling man who keeps a collection of women’s corsets in his shed, and his albino wife Gin. Gin grew up in privilege in Perth, but her albinism made her a social pariah, and, improbably placed in the “madhouse” by her stepfather, she leapt at the chance of rescue by Toad. He proposed when, visiting someone at the mental hospital, he heard her play the piano. The story begins in 1943 with the arrival of Italian prisoners of war, who were sent to help work the isolated farms, which struggled to survive when their own employees were conscripted. Given the desert and the distance, it was not thought likely that the prisoners would escape. It is always an interesting situation when people are forced together in mutual incomprehension and with their own longings, and Goldbloom creates a surprising, emotionally truthful tale about the Toads and the two Italian men sent to their farm. Goldbloom’s gorgeous prose makes this remote place come alive. The writer’s choice to make Gin an albino offers a double metaphor. The condition causes low vision, difficulty with bright sunlight and skin so pale that desert living must be excruciating. So it is with Gin. Her blindness to what’s happening, as well as her hyper-sensitivity to the township’s hatred of anyone different, fuels the plot. Gin, short for Virginia in this story, is also a derisive, offensive term for an Aboriginal woman used for sex by white males. The term was common in that part of the world in the early part of the twentieth century. Whether cognizant of this or not (I suspect she is), Goldbloom uses the word as a double entendre. Gin’s extreme whiteness is as different and therefore as unpalatable to the prejudices of Wyalkatchem as the indigenous people who seem to have abandoned the landscape of this novel. Goldbloom writes short stories and non-fiction, but Paperbark Shoes is her first novel. First published in her native Western Australia, it won the Independent Publisher’s Association Foreward Magazine’s Literary Novel of the Year in 2011 and the 2008 AWP Novel Award, and has also been published in the U.K. and in French translation. Do read it.

This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial

By Helen Garner The Text Publishing Company, 2014 When Australian author Helen Garner checked her junk mail at the beginning of March, she saw a note that she had won a prize. She had never heard of it. This was the Yale-based Windham-Campbell Prize, and was worth $150,000 US dollars. Garner, one of Australia’s best known novelists and essayists, received the prize along with other English-language luminaries such as British novelist Tessa Hadley, as well as Jerry Pinto from India, and Americans Branden Jacob-Jenkins, C.E. Morgan, Hilton Als, and Stanley Crouch, playwright, novelist, writer/editor, and poet/literary critic respectively.  The Windham-Campbell prize is unusual in that there is no submissions process. Winners are selected by the judges from works in English, published recently. When she realized the prize was not a hoax, Garner was of course relieved and jubilant. She had after all, spent at least a full year at the trial and retrial of Robert Farquharson before writing her riveting account of the trial and the personalities involved. Farquharson, a divorced father of three young sons, living in the quiet country town of Winchelsea, Victoria, had his boys for Father’s Day, 2005, (Father’s Day is in September in Australia) and was driving them home when his car went into a dam. Farquharson escaped the sinking car, but the three boys, aged eleven, seven, and two, drowned. Their father said he had been overcome by a coughing fit and blacked out. He was charged with murder. Helen Garner unpacks the arguments of the prosecution and the defense in light of the gradually emerging personalities of Farquharson, his ex-wife Cindy Gambino and the witnesses for each side, and through the lens of her own rich experience ( Garner is a grandmother, several times divorced) and her compassion. It is the compassion for all the parties involved that drives this book. I won’t be a spoiler and say whether Farquharson was found guilty or not. The writer powerfully leads the reader on, page after page.  At the same time, she brings her own sensibility to the story, wondering, as she goes home after a draining day at the trial about her own young grandsons. She wants to hug them, trying to imagine “How can such wild, vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?” Two chapters later, she relates how “rage blinded” her when the children would not obey her. Garner is known for the emotional honesty of her writing, and this book demonstrates this over and over again. But this is not just outstanding journalism. Garner brings to her descriptions of place a lyrical quality. Like Garner, I, too, am a native of Victoria, that southern state of Australia which belies the image of a “sunburnt country.” It is very often cold and windswept in this area near the Otway Ranges, which fall sharply to the sea. Garner conjures up the feeling of hopelessness that must have befallen Robert Farquharson as he sat with his sons in the car, listening to the football, that long ago Sunday afternoon. She remembers, and it brought it all back to me, too, “winter Sunday afternoons in that part of the country, their heavy melancholy…. The air is still and chilly. The steel-cloud-cover will never break. Time stalls. There is no future. One’s own desolation is manifest in the worn-down volcanic landscape. The life-force burns low in its secret cage.”  Surprising imagery, like a spear-point in its accuracy.  Garner never spares herself in her dedication to this dreadful story and its penetrating grief. At the end of the book she almost apologizes to the boys’ parents, acknowledging that the grief she felt in hearing their story cannot be compared to theirs. “But no other word will do,” she says. “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken.” This book richly deserves its prize. Very highly recommended.