Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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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.

My Name Is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout Random House, 2016 A sense of melancholy infuses this extraordinary book from one of America’s most original writers. It is told from the point of view of Lucy Barton as she looks back ( for most of the book) to a period in the nineteen eighties when she was hospitalized for nine weeks for a persistent infection after surgery. Her children were small and cared for by her husband, who rarely visits the hospital. Her mother, from whom she has been distant, visits, and their conversation reveals Lucy’s longing for love. This conversation, in which Lucy appears to bait her mother to reveal more of herself, to wrap Lucy in the maternal love she willingly gives her own daughters, occurs over only five days. Within it, and around it, as Lucy obsesses years later on her marriage, her parents’ marriage, her love for her own children, Elizabeth Strout muses on poverty. Physical poverty – the lack of enough money – leads to being cold and hungry. Physical poverty and its corollary, emotional poverty, lead to isolation, to being jeered at within the community, to a sense of being unworthy. Ripples of this sense of unworthiness fan out in the story, as Lucy considers the AIDS epidemic, raging at the time of her hospitalization, as the legacy of Nazi atrocities echo in the story, and even in the sense of vulnerability that Lucy feels as her short stories are published. For the artist exposes his or her innermost self for the world to see and judge even as the work itself is a construct – a not-real thing, a work of the imagination that a world valuing material things may laugh at and consider unworthy of the effort. Like Strout’s first best-seller, Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton defies the structural norms of fiction. Olive Kitteridge was a series of stories about a woman of emotional economy. Barton’s story doesn’t so much as progress as reveal itself in flashbacks and musings by the protagonist. As it reveals so much about the human being’s primal need for parental love, social acceptance, and respect for creativity, one gradually feels an unconditional love for Lucy. This is marvelous achievement in a novel.

Food In Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot in my genre of Women’s Fiction lately, and the mother in me is now going on a rant. Especially as it’s January, when everyone goes on a diet. I am going to scold my writers. Their characters eat junk. Junk, junk, and more junk. No wonder this country has an obesity problem. In Mary Ellen Taylor’s Alexandria series, the baking McCrae sisters are delightful. Their eating habits leave much to be desired. I know, they run a bakery. But I lost count of the donuts, sweet rolls and cake the characters consumed. And never gained a pound. I recently finished Rainbow Rowell’s Landline. Her protagonist, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter, Georgie, can’t boil an egg. Her sister asks her, sarcastically, if she waits for her husband to put breakfast out for her. But both this sister and Georgie consume pizza, waffles, Pringles, tacos, tuna mac and cheese (hold the peas!)  No wonder Georgie has to wear her mother’s velour jogging pants and an oversize T-shirt to go to work! The probably semi-autobiographical novel, Reality Jane, by Shannon Nering, notes the odd eating choices of the worker bees that bring Americans Reality TV. Also set in Los Angeles, this novel chronicles the adventures of Canadian journalist Jane Kaufman, after she lands a job as a producer of reality television. At times hilarious, at other times poignant, Jane has a distinctive voice. She alters her diet over time from French fries and burgers and coffee with “an inch of cream and three sugars” to less fattening fare, but still, the bad diet was there in the first place. This is Women’s Fiction. Writers want readers to identify with their protagonists. We want readers to get inside their heads, to feel as if they are in their actual bodies, even though the characters are just a bunch of words. As readers we love characters that stumble and fall and ultimately triumph. Seems to me the ultimate universal connection point would be in what we all need – good food. It should not be so hard to create something readers would like to eat.

The Lightkeeper’s Wife

By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2012 Don’t be misled by the title and cover of this rewarding book, which is set in a place most of us will never visit – the closest land mass to Antarctica and the land of the South Pole itself. Seems to me that publishers should be aware of other books with the same title before a book’s launch. Another book named The Lightkeeper’s Wife, written by Sarah Anne Johnson, was published in 2014. Karen Viggers, an Australian veterinarian, wildlife scientist and writer, should be annoyed about this, because her book with this title was first published in 2001 and reissued by Allen & Unwin in 2012. Also confusing is the cover of Vigger’s book, which features a dreamy-eyed young woman looking wistfully into the distance. In fact, the lightkeeper’s wife of this novel is a seventy-seven year old woman facing imminent death and looking back on her life. Furthermore, Mary Mason is not the narrator of the story. Her portion of the book is told in close third person, while the first person part of the narrative is told from the point of view of Mary’s son, Tom. Tom is a most unusual male character –  a shy, melancholic, sweet-natured, diesel mechanic. He’s devoted to his mother, was dutiful to his deceased father, is a bit in awe of his much older brother and sister (though he is forty-two) and has been divorced for some years. That much I can tell you without divulging any more of this story. The book’s strengths lie not only in its intricate tracing of Tom’s character, but its breathtaking descriptions of Antarctica, and in the dramatic coastline of Cape Bruny on the southern tip of Tasmania. A lighthouse was built there in 1838 and was operational until 1996. The fictional lighthouse keeper and his family of the book seem to have lived there in late nineteen fifties to the seventies. Viggers writes brilliantly of the birds and other wildlife of Bruny, constantly buffeted by winds from the Southern Ocean, carrying with them the fierce cold of the Antarctic, which lies directly south of Bruny Island.  It’s still a long way from the world’s southern most landmass, as Viggers makes clear, describing a boat trip of seven days from Hobart to the beginning of the ice pack, and then two to three weeks of cutting through the bergs to get to the scientific stations near the South Pole. Antarctica is so different from the rest of the world, so cold that people have never settled there, that the experience must almost be like going to the moon. Put athletic young men and women together in isolated conditions doing intellectually challenging work they have chosen to do, in a searing cold that makes snuggling in a single sleeping bag the most logical thing to do, and the inevitable happens. Viggers explores the confusing emotional dynamics of the Antarctic experience and the difficulty of re-entry to the “real” world. She’s coupled this unusual human experience with the veterinarian’s  understanding of animal emotions and an Australian’s love for her country’s extraordinary landscape. Recommended.