Dear Reader

Recently, I took a chance and became involved in what can only be described as one of those viral ‘pass it on’ statuses on Facebook. Usually, I ignore such posts. However this one took my interest: it was about reading.

The post involves liking the status, recieving instructions, and sending your favourite book to the address provided. Once you have done that, you then post it as your own status and pass the information on. When your status is passed on, you’ll recieve someone’s favourite book in the mail.

I didnt take the decsion lightly, either. I spent about a week choosing a book. And in order to explain why I chose the book I did, I decided to write a letter to the unknown reader.

And because it has been a really long time since I wrote anything, let alone posted on my wordpress, I thought I would share it with everyone here as well.

Plus, I’ve always wanted to be a writer of letters. Maybe this is where it all begins?


Dear Reader,

If you’re a part of this project, it is quite obvious that you enjoy the many pleasures and challenges that reading brings us. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be joining us on this adventure.

If you’re anything like myself, choosing one book to pass on to someone else is quite a challenge. Usually you know a person’s taste and preferences, and can recommend something aligned with their taste – or even something slightly outside their interests, hopefully getting them to just dip their toe into the fruitful spring water. You don’t want to recommend a book that was a source of great enjoyment for yourself and pass it on to someone who doesn’t share your enthusiasms.

My decision to pass on this particular book derives from many questions: Do you enjoy the Ancient Classics? Or even the Modern Classics? Do you enjoy books that analyse literature, or collections of essays on a wide range of topics? Do you enjoy Young Adult novels, science fiction, or even science books? Would you devour a book on philosophy, or have the patience to read and decipher poetry? Or, to the irritation of most Australians, could you read a book on Australian History?

So, essentially, the decision comes down to fiction versus non-fiction.

I want to pass on a great book, not just a book. There are just too many books in the world and not enough time to read them all – a point I’m slowly coming to terms with and becoming more selective with what I read.

Frank Furedi is correct when he says, “Reading has transformed human consciousness and the world.” Reading isn’t just a form of communication, or pleasure: “it opened the gate to knowledge about virtually everything that is important.” There is so much power contained with in the covers of a book and often the power is downplayed (especially in society today): “Is it any surprise that the anxiety between literary belief and the religious belief was most acute at the high moment of the European novel?” asks James Wood,

I think not. For it was not just the assent of science but perhaps the ascent of the novel that helped to kill off Jesus’s divinity, when the novel gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative – and in turn a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative.

The novel, as an art form, is the nearest thing to life we have – and it can teach us, as a society, and as individuals, a wide range of valuable things.


Nonetheless, the true purpose of this letter, rather than give you a lecture on reading and literature in general, is to explain how I arrived at my decision to give you the book I have.

I first contemplated passing on The Iliad as my favourite book. Written around 750BC, the Greek poem still answers modern and existential questions almost everyone asks himself or herself: How do we fill our short lives with meaning? What makes us human? And how can we seek and obtain forgiveness – even from those who have wronged us the most?

The book begins with the word μῆνιν, or Mēnin, meaning rage, and continues:

Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Homer’s poem does get the Goddess to sing and it’s a marvelous song: it sings to you in different tones and melodies, pitching to illusive heights and collapsing to horrific lows. The song is layered with chaos – however that is part of its attraction: the poems ability to mirror the madness and disaster of war.

The Iliad traces Achilles’ intense trajectory of his rage – towards King Agamemnon, Hector, and the Trojans – while simultaneously revealing the rage that the Gods have for each other, the Trojans or Achaeans, and the lovers Paris and Helen. Homer is also able to spiral outwards, giving the reader a complete picture of the Trojan War. The Iliad contrasts itself between the grisly violence of battle scenes (some of Homer’s greatest descriptions are injuries and wounds inflicted on the fragile human body) and the evocations of ordinary life that give the poem its great tenderness; including the immense grief that overcomes Achilles when Patroclus dies, and the moving scene when King Priam goes to Achilles to get the body of his son, Hector, back.

Through the carnage, Homer leaves little reminders of peaceful times, of a peaceful world, that are looming just out of reach. There are scenes of extraordinary domestic intimacy, filled with tender emotions that stand in complete contrast to the immense fury of Achilles. One of the most powerful and famous scenes comes in Book 6, where Hector, the protector of Troy, comes home from the battlefield to spend time with his wife, Andromache. She fears for his safety and begs for him to stay out of the fight – a plea of desperation because they both know he can’t, there is too much at stake: honour, life, the defense of Troy, and, foremost in Hector’s mind, the safety of his wife.

The poignancy of Hector’s submissive vision of the inevitable future is somehow is exceeded by what happens next: Hector leans over, still in full armor, including his helmet, to pick-up his young son, who recoils screaming back into the nurses breast until his father takes off his helmet. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a greater metaphor, or symbol, for how war makes us unrecognisable to us and to others.

Homer, throughout book 6, is also able to juxtapose Hector’s dedication to his wife, child, and city to his distaste towards his brother, Paris, and Helen – the main catalysts for the Trojan War. Hector’s anger towards Paris is palpable: he, unlike Paris, could control his lust even when tempted by Helen. Furthermore, Hector, along with other brave men from Troy, are continually fighting on the battlefield, risking everything to save Troy, while Paris spends his time with Helen far away from the war that rages on outside Troy’s grand walls.

The Iliad remains as the first and most influential work of the Western Canon. I’ll finish with Daniel Mendelsohn, classicist, critic, and essayist, reflects on why The Iliad remains so influential today:

You could say that Western Civilisation has likewise armed itself, over the bloodstained centuries and millennia, with The Iliad – another richly detailed work of art that provides an image of every possible extreme of human experience, a reminder of who we are and who we sometimes strive to be…Whoever Homer was and however he made his poems, the song he sings still goes on today.

The second book I contemplated passing on was Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. Consider the Lobster is a collection of essays varying from subject to subject and taken from a wide variety of publications: Rolling Stone, Gourmet, and several literary magazines. Wallace was a rare writer, who, in his short literary career, stands amongst some great essayists such as Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Christopher Hitchens, David Hume, Zadie Smith, George Orwell, and Meghan Daum, as an illustrious essayist. Wallace, in some cases, out shines them all with his fierce intellect, humorous observations, and deep philosophical thought. These attributes are not only evident in his non-fiction, but also his fiction. Novels such as Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and Oblivion, won awards, international acclaim, and his name added to the list as one of the most influential novelists over the past 50 years.

The book came back to my attention earlier this year after reading two drastically different introductions to two different volumes of essays – matching the distance of ocean that separates these countries, and the two different cultures they live. Ariel Levy, in what can only be described as a foolish and snobby statement in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2015, said:

The quintessential essayist parades an enormous ego and it does so in a modest setting, that is, within a genre widely acknowledged to be unequal to fiction, poetry, and drama.

To myself, and others, the essay can be equal and even paramount to fiction, poetry, and drama.

For example, compare Levy’s ‘quintessential’ comment to the critic Geordie Williamson’s in his introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2015, where he describes the perfect essay:

The essays I like best are those which swerve across the mid point of the author’s argument like a drunk driver over broken white lines, climb their ideas like a fakir up a magic rope, roll delirious inside their own thought’s pitch and yaw.

He continues,

Because the essay, in all its guises, all its weathers, has turned out to be the most durable of literary forms to make its way from paper page to iPad screen; and it is also, I would argue, the most exciting field of writerly endeavor being practiced in Australia (and indeed the Anglosphere) today.

Williamson is not only exact in describing what makes the perfect essay, but also how it is one of the most important literary forms. Essays are indeed “wonky, idiosyncratic, fragmentary, paradoxical, drunk on words.” Essays encompass so many emotions; they can be the best storytellers, yarners, and ‘bullshitters’ – in Williamson’s words – full of lyricism, wit, arguments, jokes, profanities, profiles, and a surgeon’s scalpel to a wide range of issues – social, cultural, economic, historical. They are by no means basic or egotistical, and they are definitely not unequal to other forms of writing.

Williamson ends his essay with a subtle and very Australian line: “If you think the essay is something lesser, mate – have a read of these.” (Sebastian Smee’s essay on Goya, Confronting the Unthinkable in Goya’s Art, is a must read.) I encourage you to follow Williamson’s words (just make sure you pass this along to Levy, too).

And one such collection that encompasses all these qualities is Wallace’s Consdier the Lobster. For beginners, I can’t think of any writers that can begin an essay, let alone a collection of essays with the following paragraph:

The American Academy of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.

From here, Wallace follows Williamson’s formula of the perfect essay: always swerving, pitching, rolling, and climbing his ideas.

Wallace loves language – that is well known. But is he a novelist? Literary critic? A philosopher? An essayist? Or is he a storyteller? The only other topic everyone can agree on – including himself – was Wallace’s love of tennis. Robert McCrum describes Wallace as a “master working at the extreme edge of the radar, asking question after question about the mad, mad world in which he finds himself.” And what does Wallace write about in this mad, mad world? Well, anything and everything. Everything is left on the page – even if it is in the form of a page-and-a-half footnote.

Wallace provides the reader with an insightful and hilarious look at America’s porn industry awards nights, Big Red Son (that is where the above quote comes from), reviews and criticism, one on John Updike – of which, the closing sentences are directed at the character and John Updike, describing both as, “Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the first page. It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he is so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”

Wallace also spends time questioning and looking at Kafka’s work and trying to persuade others that Kafka did indeed have a funny bone; reflects with an emotional essay on the September 11 attacks; and spending seven days on John McCain’s campaign bus. Also in this collection is an essay on Dostoevsky, and possibly one of the best critical reviews of a book I’ve ever read: How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.

However, the title essay, Consider the Lobster, is possibly one of the best essays ever written. Based on the central premise of ‘Do lobsters feel pain?’ Wallace embarks on a piece of travel writing layered with several other subjects: philosophy, taste and presentation, science, and morality. Can someone send a copy to Levy as well?

There were so many more works I thought about and could talk to you about, however, I’ve already taken so much of your time with this long-winded letter. Other works that I considered were Morality by Christopher Hitchens; The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood; Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; anything by James Joyce; H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald; some Australian history told by David Hunt with his book Girt, or Looking for Blackfella’s Point by Mark McKenna; or, finally, possibly one of the best collections of poetry I’ve read: Chorale at the Crossing by Peter Porter.

But, ultimately, I chose Stoner by John Williams.

It is a novel that has enjoyed resurgence in popularity over the previous several years. Much of this resurgence in popularity is due to the New York Review of Books Classics reprint of all of William’s books: Stoner, Augustus – which shared the U.S. National Book Awards in 1973 – and Butcher’s Crossing. The reprint of these books not only saved William’s work from being added to the long list of forgotten authors, but it also highlighted the rare achievement of Stoner: flawlessness. It is a beautifully written novel and is deeply moving. The characters are memorable, full of tenderness, honesty, and, at times, are extremely callous to each other.

Another aspect of the novel’s achievement is its challenge to the concept of the existing American Hero, “standing, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.” It is true that Stoner stands along side Hopper’s paintings. They both convey a poetic consistency of patience, development, and richness of meaning through a complex narrative, offering a deep sense of moral grandeur that becomes moving to the viewer – and reader – of the fragmented nature of our own lives.

Stoner’s humble university life and bleak legacy begin on William’s first page with a straight forward description and somewhat melancholy reality of Stoner’s life:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.

It is an opening to a novel that immediately draws you in – you want to know Stoner and his story right from the beginning.

Characters don’t have to die. It is the author’s choice to end their life – a choice not taken lightly, either. However, characters can live for eternity in novels, poems, or stories: they don’t quite die. They come back to us through second, third, or fourth readings. “The laugh of fictional life last longer than the bloody cough of death.”

Stoner isn’t just a melancholy novel about a professor who left no lasting legacy amongst his colleagues and students: it is a novel about work, the hard unyielding work of farms, the work of living within a poisonous and destructive marriage while also raising a young girl, and the work of teaching literature to mostly unresponsive and banal students – something that I personally experience almost everyday teaching at high school.


Reading is definitely a pleasure that always promises so much and always delivers. As Junot Diaz says,

For it is in the simple act of reading where the living and the dead, the real and the imagined, meet. It is in the simple act of reading where we exercise those two most sacred of human vocations: compassion and creativity. For as we know, without either of these primes there is no possibility for a humanity present or a past worth talking about.

Literature is the human mind at the very pinnacle of its ability to imagine, express, and interpret the mad world we inhabit. It enriches life in ways that television and movies only wish they could. Literature in all its forms has power and the ability to makes us better humans – better observers, better learners, and the inhibitors of numerous worlds. Or, as Christopher Hitchens said, “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.”

I hope you enjoy my choice. And I hope this letter wasn’t too laborious to you, or any inconvenience; and, hopefully, it can give you some other reading suggestions for the future – especially if my choice is not to your liking.

Kind Regards,

Your Fellow Reader.


My Year In Review

2014 was a year of firsts for me. I began my Tattooed Critic wordpress, I started to read more and more fiction rather than non-fiction, it was the first time that I had traveled outside of Australia, and the first time that I attempted to review books that I read – publishing them on my blog and slowly building up confidence to send some off in the hope one will be published somewhere. I’m still a novice at what I am doing and haven’t been able to read and write as much as I wanted; still, I’m enjoying my project. So, with this ‘article’, I add another first: my first ‘Year in Review.’

In 2014 I set myself the goal of reading 50 books for the year. I’m not so pleased to announce that I fell well short of that number. It was probably an ambitious target to set considering I would spend five weeks in the United States traveling, and would spend most of my time working and saving for the trip. Nonetheless, I read a total of 34 books (not too bad, I guess). It’s not the worst result, but its nowhere near where near the number I wanted.

We are now well set in 2015 and once again I’m running late for such a list. So, before it gets too late to publish such a piece, I would like to present my most favourite reads of 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan:

9781741666700-2The 2014 Man Booker Prize winner would no doubt be in a lot of people’s must read list. Nevertheless, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book I have been suggesting to anyone with a heartbeat.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes its title from 17th-century poet Basho’s travel journal. The reason for choosing this title reflects both the highest part of Japanese culture, and also the lowest of Japanese culture with the treatment of its Prisoners of War in World War II.

Inspired by both his father’s experience as a POW on the Thai-Burma railway and the life of Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Flanagan confronts the reader with the suffering, sacrifice, humility, heroism, trauma faced by POWs on the railway, while addressing the question of memory and the impossibility of love.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book of unwavering beauty set amongst the suffering experienced by the Australian POWs. As Dorrigo Evans says: “a good book… leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your soul.” The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that will leave you rereading your soul.

An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman:

Carman-CoverAn Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, his first book of fiction, is a collection of monologues set in the suburbs of Western Sydney. Carman’s young, self-conscious but determined hero navigates his way through various complications: divorce, an often-perilous social world involving the cultural flash point of Western Sydney, friends and enemies.

Carman’s debut book of fiction is dynamic – blending his loves of Whitman and Kerouac, Leonard Cohen and Henry Rollins throughout the monologues and capturing the voices of the streets conveying the fear and anger, beauty and affection, the ugly and the bad, with restless intensity.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane:

9781926428550Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair, her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, loneliness, isolation, memory and tenderness that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. What lies at the heart of the novel is the question: who is to care for them when others are unwilling or unable to do so?

Lost For Words by Edward St Aubyn:

2014-04-28-LostforWordsjacketHP-thumbLost for Words by Edward St Aubyn is a hilarious satire on literary awards – most notably the Man Booker Prize. Renamed the Elysian Prize for literature, St Aubyn traces the complicated path to awarding a major literary prize.

Lost for Words is habitually St Aubyn: telling a multi-layered story through a vast amount of characters each offering their point of view. Lost for Words is a witty, fabulously entertaining satire that cuts to of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and asks how we can ever hope to recognise real talent when everyone has an agenda.

The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs:

the-undesirablesThere is no other contentious issue throughout Australia’s history, both politically and socially, than the issue of immigration. George Megalogenis describes immigration as “the defining issue in the battle of wills between politicians and the polls, because voters, if given the chance, will always prefer fewer new arrivals.”

The issue of Asylum Seekers usually draws heated debate – especially between the left and the right – yet the voices of those who are either at the front line, or those who are fleeing persecution, are never heard from. This is where The Undesirables is most valuable.

Isaacs did five rotations on Nauru from October 2012 to June 2013. Over this time, Isaacs kept a diary of what life was like living and working on Nauru. His diary has been refined into The Undesirables: Inside Nauru. The Undesirables at times can be a grueling read. The original intent of the book, as a diary, and a novice writer, means there are repeated concerns, themes, and topics throughout the book. Nonetheless, the theme that resonates the most is the celebration of the human spirit and the struggle to do what is right.

ANZACs Long Shadow:

9781863956390James Brown’s short but much needed critique of Australia’s Defense forces is a must read for 2015. While Brown does discuss several issues with the Anzac legend and the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF.

Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

The book is more important considering the Australian Government’s purchase of new fighter jets, HMAS Canberra, and the plan to build a new submarine fleet that could possibly be unfavorable to future military strategies.

The Unexpected Professor by Peter Carey:

imagesBest known for his provocative take on cultural issues in The Intellectuals and The Masses and What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey describes in this warm and funny memoir the events that formed him – an escape from the London blitz to an idyllic rural village, army service in Egypt, an open scholarship to Oxford and an academic career that saw him elected, age 40, to Oxford’s oldest English Literature professorship.

He frankly portrays the snobberies and rituals of 1950s Oxford, but also his inspiring meetings with writers and poets – Auden, Graves, Larkin, Heaney – and his forty-year stint as a lead book-reviewer for the Sunday Times.

This is a book about the joys of reading and an informal introduction to the great works of English literature. But it is also about war and family, and how an unexpected background can give you the insight and the courage to say the unexpected thing.

Notable Mentions:

Other notable mentions that I read throughout the year are: The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Patrick Melrose Novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last – in the past couple of weeks I have seen new editions of the Patrick Melrose Novels, combining all five novels into one, in bookstores), and Stoner by John Williams.

It was pretty difficult to narrow all the books I read in 2014 to a list of seven. After looking at some other people’s top reads for 2014, it appears I’ve given a larger list, especially with my notable mentions section.

And 2015?

In 2015 I’ve set myself a more achievable goal this year: 35 books. I’ve started well: I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, David Malouf’s The Writing Life, Robert Dessaix’s memoir What Days Are For, and Geordie Williamson’s brilliant The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found.

In 2015 I hope to bring my readers (if there are any) more reviews, articles, and my travel diary (and maybe a short story, or two) along with bookish news, photos and other interesting things involving books via my twitter feed. Hopefully My Year In Review brings forth some books and writers that you haven’t heard of and encourages you to read on of them. All the books mentioned are all fantastic and cover a wide range of issues and topics.

Happy Reading!

Andrew: Unknowing Agent of Disaster.

Review of E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain, 2014, 198pp.

17834914Many readers will know the name E. L. Doctorow from his works of fiction including Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, City of God, and Welcome to Hard Times, and his wide achievements and honours including the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, the National Humanities Medal, and a Gold Medal for Fiction awarded in 2013 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Doctorow is well known for his work in “historical fiction”, a label he has moved away from in his latest novel Andrew’s Brain. Doctorow has moved well away from historical fiction – even though Andrew’s Brain does have a strong historical base to it – and into the realm of psychology and cognitive development.

In Andrew’s Brain, Doctorow abandons lineal storytelling that was a feature of his distinguished novels, such as The March – a precisely woven novel set in late 1864 and early 1865 during the American Civil War. In an interview with Manuel Roig-Franzia in the Washington Post, Doctorow explains that he wrote Andrew’s Brain in order to challenge the reader: “I do think this book, more than most, is one that judges its readers. If someone is looking for ordinary formulaic fiction, this is not it.” In the most part, Doctorow is correct. It isn’t your ordinary novel, yet it isn’t really challenging.

Andrew’s Brain is centred on the extended conversations, and writings, between the cognitive scientist, Andrew, and a frequent questioner, that Andrew calls “Doc”. Andrew is retelling his misfortunate life, prompted by his thoughts and questions from “Doc”. It is through these conversations, thoughts, and writings that Andrew gradually reconstructs his path of disorder and misfortune – his loves, his tragedies, and his triumphs that lead up to his current position.

There is a lot of pain in Andrew’s story. At the beginning of the novel, Andrew is still dealing with a fatal mistake that led to the death of his baby daughter:

It is true I accidentally killed my baby girl that I had with Martha: In good faith I fed her the medicine I believed had been prescribed by our pediatrician. The druggist sent over the wrong medicine and I was not as alert as I should have been…

Andrew’s second tragedy, the death of his second wife, Briony, who died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Briony’s death not only leaves Andrew widowed, it also leaves their newborn daughter, Willa, motherless. The terrorist attacks in Andrew’s Brain are both vivid and emotional. After the towers collapse, Andrew attempts to look for her:

In the confusion, the fire engines, people stumbling through the streets, shouting, sirens, it was as if all of that had swallowed her up. Where was she? She would think first of Willa. She’d be back in a second to make sure the baby was all right. Wouldn’t she? Then where was she? Doctorow, who has his own personal story with the terrorist attacks, deftly conveys the confusion that was present that day along with the hopeless and desperate search for loved ones days after the attacks: There were in the street these posters everywhere plastered, on every wall, on every fence, on mailboxes, on phone booths and in subway stations, with the photographs of intensely alive, of can’t possibly be dead, faces. Name, age, last seen. Phone numbers in black marker. Have you seen this person? Call this number. Please call. I went around putting up the picture of Briony. Name, age, last seen. I wanted people to see her face. I knew it was useless, but I thought it necessary. I had taken in the park, she was smiling at me. I had a folder with her faces, a hundred copies, printed at Kinko’s, and I went around posting them. She was in that community of the last seen, their names and addresses, that they were loved. Please call. She was in that community of what was left of them.

After enduring what he could, and the sleepless nights waiting for Briony to come home, Andrew decides to take Willa to Martha.

After taking Willa to Martha – Andrew believed it was only fair for Willa to be taken care of by Martha considering it was he who killed their child – Andrew sells everything and moves to Washington, and as an academic, now takes a job as a science teacher at a public school. During one lesson, it is interrupted by a surprise visit by the President of the United States. And, as it turns out, Andrew knows the President from his time at Yale. From here, Andrew is hired by the President and appointed to a position titled ‘White House Office of Neurological Research’.

Andrew’s presence in the White House and Oval Office creates some suspicion and he becomes a source of interest for White House reporters – not to mention some conspiracy theorists. It is here that we also meet two other characters, Rumbum and Chaingang. Even though the Presidents name is never mentioned, it is quite clear that the President is G. W. Bush. Chaingang and Rumbum also resemble former Vice President Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Andrew now becomes a pawn in some type of game between the President, Chaingang and Rumbum.

Andrew then finds himself in an unknown location continuing his life of suffering, despair, and his ability to carry disaster with him. His final thought reflects upon his desire to protect his children like the way Mark Twain – one of his idols – did with his children, and not be the pretender he himself, and his life, have made him out to be.

While Andrew’s Brain does leave particular questions open to challenge the reader – for example, who is “Doc”? Is he a psychologist, or is he a close friend? Or, is Andrew really the “first computer invested with consciousness?” – it isn’t an extremely challenging read. Even though the novel doesn’t follow the previous footprints of other E. L. Doctorow novels, the storyline does flow through the disastrous life of Andrew. Andrew’s voice throughout the novel is very fascinating, and at times, charming – even amusing. He is clearly intelligent, demonstrated with his vast speeches and thoughts on the human brain, consciousness and neurological science. Andrew’s powerful voice creates a buffer between his academic achievements and his life of misfortune. Andrew’s Brain also provides some comical and powerful passages on the President, Chaingang and Rumbum. Demonstrating their somewhat “sinister” characteristics and their legacy on one of the most crucial moments in American History.

Review: Australian History in 7 Questions, by John Hirst.

Black Inc., 2014, 206pp.9781863956703

John Hirst’s latest book, Australian History in 7 Questions, examines Australian History in a new format. Unlike previous Australian Histories, resembling Manning Clark’s epic six volumes, or Thomas Keneally’s three volumes of Australian History, or The Oxford History of Australia, Hirst addresses Australian History in a thematic aspect, rather than a grand or specific narrative.

The idea for the book derives from Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe, and four lectures given under the title ‘Four Questions in Australian History.’ The lectures were extended to seven questions for the purpose of this book. The question addressed in the book are: “Why did Aborigines not become farmers?”, “How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy?”, “Why was Australia so prosperous so early?”, “Why did the Australian colonies federate?”, “What effect did convict origins have on national character?”, “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, and “Why is Australia not a republic?”.

The questions Hirst has chosen to answer for his readers are specifically chosen. These questions comprehend parts of Australia’s contested history; address Australia’s most treasured myths, overlooked historical questions, and the possibility of Australia’s future. These seven questions also lead to others: the question of Australia’s frontier violence, the rise of the Anzac legend, the effect of the White Australia policy, Australia’s national anxiety with migration, and the failures of Australia’s republican movement.

Hirst’s answers also provide contrasting accounts to some Australian history ‘classics’. For example, Hirst demonstrates that the Australian colonies and their peaceful transformation into a federation – first dismissing the connotations of an open prison and demonstrating the colonies emphasis on English law, and therefore its economic, social and political triumphs – provide a complete contrast, for example, to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, that demonstrates the suffering and brutality in the colonies.

The Australian story embraces several myths, and it is both the Anzac legend and the New Year message from John Curtain: Australia ‘looks to America’ that feature in Hirst’s work. While Hirst discusses the “speculative connection between convict shame and national history”, Hirst believes that modern Australians are puzzled by the assertion that the Australian nation “was born at Gallipoli”. I disagree. Today, both modern Australians and young Australians believe that Gallipoli was where Australia was born, and not at federation in 1901.

Many historians, including Tom Millar, claim that the New Year message of Prime Minister Curtain in 1941 “marked the beginning of a new shift in Australia’s sense of military dependence away from Britain to America.” It is under closer scrutiny that this claim becomes more complex and problematic for Miller and other historians. Hirst demonstrates that this “new shift” was not the case, and by the end of the war, the New Year Message from Curtain had left no lasting mark on Australia as it continued to develop military links with Britain; including a long-range rocket facility at Woomera, and the development of nuclear bombs in South Australia. “In the 1950s Britain tested its atomic and nuclear bombs in Australia. Australia welcomed the mushroom clouds because Britain with the bomb made Australia more safe.”

Hirst, while answering “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, rejects the notion that Australia’s backlash against Asylum Seekers arriving by boat was a result of racism and xenophobia, rather:

[I]t was the boat people’s mode of arrival that caused resentment. It was uncontrolled, so there was the potential for the numbers to blow out. The people were not fleeing immediate danger; they were imposing themselves on the country rather than being invited and there were grounds for thinking that they were not all genuine refugees. This was a complete reversal of how migration was usually conducted.

 Therefore, asylum seekers arriving by boat “affronted the Australia egalitarian instinct.”

If you are familiar with Hirst’s previous works – Australian History in 7 Questions is Hirst’s 14th book – such as Convict Society and its enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The Sentimental Nation, Looking for Australia, or Sense and Nonsense of Australian History, some of his arguments will be familiar. However, Australian History in 7 Questions is a fresh new format in discussing Australia’s history. The straight-forward responses, clarity, insight, diagrams and lists, and contentious conclusions not only encompass all of Australia’s past, but demonstrate that Australian history is far from being “dull and predictable”.

While you may agree or disagree with Hirst’s questions or answers – or both – it is the combination of a lifetime of research and writing Australian history written for the novice historian, and the professional.

Project Update

There has been a slightly long absence from writing over the previous several weeks – a much longer absence than I had anticipated. This delay has therefore led to a stockpile of upcoming reviews, projects and other articles. It is my intention to elaborate what I – hopefully sooner rather than later – will have upcoming over the coming month.

If you’re not aware, I have set an ambitious goal of reading 51 books this year – roughly one per week. Over the previous months, I have not been reading as much as I would like, or, keeping up with my reading schedule of one per week. Therefore, I have put my writing aside to keep up with my reading.

I have recently plunged straight into Edward St Aubyn’s highly autobiographical novels that explore the extremes of family cruelty and social snobbery, commonly known as the ‘Patrick Melrose Novels’. Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope are all read, leaving Mother’s Milk and At Last left to read. Before devouring these novels, I also read Lost for Words, another St Aubyn novel. Lost for Words was an outstanding satire about literature prizes – most notably the Man Booker Prize.

Ironically, what I didn’t notice until after I read Lost for Words was that I – after a month or so – had finally read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries was the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner. This combination will no doubt produce a good review – hopefully.

Throughout my overwhelming consumption of literature, I have also embarked on some historical research to produce my first historical article for the Tattooed Critic blog. This article’s ambition is to combine the local history of Penrith, Castlereagh, Windsor and Richmond, with family history, and within the larger Colonial history of New South Wales.

Research for this article originated after a coincidental radio news report of a local cemetery. Sparking an interest, I went for an afternoon trip to the Castlereagh Cemetery – recently reopened after another case of vandalism. The Nineteenth century cemetery was surprisingly full of history, both local and colonial. Visiting the cemetery in the afternoon, where the setting sun glistened through tall eucalypt trees, both inside and outside the cemetery accentuated the beautiful Georgian headstones, bringing to life some horrid events in Australia’s history.

I’ve studied Australian history, and have written an honours thesis on Australian History; however, some of the remaining graves of people who lived through some of the toughest times bring a new perspective to particular events. For example, Stephen Smith, whose grave no longer remains, survived the notorious Second Fleet, arriving in the Colony of New South Wales in 1790 on the transport ship Surprize. 42 people died on passage from England and 121 landed at Sydney Cove “ill”.

Within the 0.8-hectare cemetery, the pioneers of Castlereagh, Penrith, Windsor and Richmond, combining a vast mix of convict transports, pioneering families such as the McHenry family, the Fraser family, and the Cartwright family, are buried together. Somewhat philosophically, within the dilapidated and morbidly desecrated ground, a person can appreciate that there is a special equality in death.

Soon I will be five novels behind the ‘ghost’ pace I should be reading at. Once I have caught up, or even jumped in front of the ghost, I can share some exciting articles with my readers. Hopefully I will be able to share these stories with you sooner rather than later.

Review: Tasmania Aborigines

Tasmanian Aborigines: A History Since 1803,

by Lyndall Ryan.

Allen & Unwin, 418 pages.


 tas aborigines

“The white men have killed us all; they shot a great many. We are now only a few people here and we ought to be fond of one another. We ought to love God. God made every thing, the salt water, the horse, the bullock, the possum, the wallaby, the kangaroo and wombat. Love him and you will go to him by and bye.”

In 2005, Eddie Kneebone, a member of the Bangerang people and reconciliation campaigner, painted a multi-panelled work to exhibit the impact of European settlement on the north-east of Victoria. The work was titled Bones of Contention and was painted shortly before his death. Along with the painting, Eddie Kneebone provided notes beginning with the so-called Massacre at Broken River in 1838. Kneebone wrote of the aftermath: “the troops came on horses with guns and swords, hunted and killed the Aboriginal people as they found them…” Kneebone continued: “land truly did bleed and their bones fell like rain.”

Lyndall Ryan first encountered Aboriginal History at Macquarie University in 1970s with her PhD thesis. The thesis was later transformed into the book The Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1981, with and a second edition appeared in 1996 containing an additional two chapters. However, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is a completely new book. Nonetheless, the thesis of her early work – that Tasmanian Aborigines resisted British colonisation and did not die out in 1876 or in any other period of Tasmania’s history, still remains cogent.

Ryan suffered more than any other scholar during the ‘History Wars’ and the ‘Black Arm-band of History’ – brought about from Historians Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Windschuttle charged Ryan and fellow historians – Henry Reynolds to name one – of deliberately misleading Australians about Australia’s contact history. Windschuttle argued in several articles in the journal Quadrant and his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 that Ryan had fabricated footnotes to invent settler massacres in the Black War during the 1820s.

Tasmanian Aborigines is Ryan’s vindication from Windschuttle’s “fabrication” claims. The book is divided into six parts: Invasion, 1803-26, War, 1826-31, Surrender, 1829-34, Incarceration, 1835-1905, Survival, 1840-1973 and Resurgence, 1973-2010. Each section of the book continues a sysinct path through Tasmania’s contact history; one of the many strengths of Ryan’s new book compared to her 1996 edition. It adds clarity to her argument and assembles what I would have thought to be a irreducible topic, into an argument of outstanding clarity.

The beginning of the book introduces the reader with a comprehensive overview of Tasmania, or Trouwunna as the Aborigines called their island. Ryan provides a detailed and interesting overview of migration movements, physical features, landscape, food, family and the nine nations of Trouwunna. The opening chapters are important to the whole work. Ryan surveys several sources dealing with the original population of Aboriginals in Tasmania before and during the European settlement of the island. These numbers provide a firm base for the rest of Ryan’s thesis.

Next, Ryan begins to analyse the first steps of the European invasion (a term that Ryan consistently uses through the book): the Wrangeowrapper – White Devil, up until 1826 with the “pastoral invasion.”

The book moves drastically into a new phrase of Aboriginal and European relations between 1826 and 1831. With Aboriginal attacks, European reprisals, and increased atrocities led Governor George Arthur to declare Martial Law on 1 November 1828.

In the sixteen months between the declaration of martial law in November 1828 and March 1830, it would seem that there were at least 120 attacks by the Aborigines on the settlers, leading to about fifty deaths and at least sixty wounded. On the other hand, at least 200 Aborigines had also been killed, many of them, it appears, in mass killings of six or more. The war was beginning to take its toll on both sides (p. 121).

Late in 1830, Arthur was still under serious pressure from settlers. Settlers, including women and children, were still under attack from Aboriginal tribes. A further sixty colonists were killed in settled districts. In comparison, 300 Aboriginals were killed in the same period, with at least 100 of these losing their lives in mass killings of six or more. The continued pressure on Arthur led him to respond with a “sledgehammer.”

This sledgehammer solution from Arthur was to drive the Big River and Oyster Bay Aborigines from the Settled Districts to the Tasman Peninsula. To do this, Arthur called on every able-bodied male in the colony, bond or free, to combine with the military and police forces to form a human chain or line to undertake the task (p. 131) on 7 October:

The line would advance for three weeks in a pincer movement south-east across the Settled Districts until it converged on 28 October unto a 60-kilometre line bounded at one end by the towns of Sorell and Richmond at Pitt Water and the stretched along the Prosser River and Prossers Plains to Spring Bat on the east coast.

Arthur’s Black Line was meant to be “a knockout blow that would bring the conflict to an end.” The line was “more like a very large scale Scottish Highlands shooting party: the soldiers and colonists were the bearers and the Aborigines were the prey waiting to be flushed out of the bracken.”

The Black Line gave the colonists in the Southern, Central and Eastern parts of the Settled Districts unfettered possession of the land. The “reckoning” of the Black War and the Black Line in the Settled Districts of Tasmania, an estimated 1000 people had perished, with an Aboriginal to colonial death ratio of 4:1.

The catastrophic destruction of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania after the Black War marked a new policy direction for Australia colonies. The new policy direction was for ethnographer, humanist and devout Christian G.A. Robinson, to walk around Tasmania to organise the surrender of Aboriginal survivors. Robinson and Arthur’s plan was to remove the remaining Aboriginal population from the main island of Tasmania to a “sanctuary” at Wybalenna. The task Robinson undertook was no small feat. Robinson first had to track down a dwindling population that would more than likely have been avoiding contact with whites. Furthermore, Robinson then had to negotiate with the Aboriginals: removing them from their land and relocating them.

Ryan’s detailed account of Robinson’s task is both chilling and at most times confronting. Ryan’s tone throughout this section of the book remains elucidate, even though there are some passages that cause a feeling of aghast. “Both men firmly believed they were saving the western Aborigines from certain extermination and extinction and providing them with the benefits of British civilization and Christianity (p. 214-15).”

Even with Robinson’s and Arthur’s good intentions, their actions can only be described as myopic. Both men were unprepared for the consequences of removing the remaining Aboriginals off their land. The consequences were devastating: as fast as Robinson was brining Aborigines to the sanctuary, they were dying.

The Wybaleena Island sanctuary was a disaster. After successful lobbying by the remaining the Aboriginal population on the island, they were later removed to the ‘Oyster Cove Aboriginal Station’. The station was divided into two sections, with a total area of just over 700 hectares. Nevertheless, the suffering of the Tasmanian Aboriginals continued. At theOyster Cove Aboriginal Station, there was still a “shocking” death rate, dreadful conditions and massive alcohol abuse: “The realisation that many white people saw more value in them as skeletons than as a living people led them to fear for their lives. It is not surprising that more of them resorted to alcohol to drown the prospect of the impending horror (p. 263).”

With the death of Truganini in 1876, many white Tasmanians believed that the colony was now completely ‘native free’ (p. 275). Her body was exhumed in 1878 and was available for scientific purposes until it was placed in the Tasmanian Museum where it was on public display. The vile desecration of Aboriginal remains were commonplace. However, Truganini’s death and then the public display of her remains, promoted the belief of a native free Tasmania.

I recall several times being told that the only successful genocide in Modern History was that of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I even recall myself saying it to others. Having said that, it is completely wrong. Ryan’s cogency is the argument of resurgence. Even though the duration of Ryan’s book is devoted to destruction and death, the remainder is filled with the important fight by the Tasmanian Aboriginals to regain their identity.

Ryan thoroughly recounts the prodigious work of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and campaigners such as Michael Mansell, in their effort for recognition and also the return of ancestral remains that were taken from the Aboriginal people and taken to various institutions.

The work of the TAC, Mansell and other campaigners, led to the Tasmanian parliament to apologise to the Aboriginal community to the Stolen Generations; the first to do so in Australia. Tasmania was also the first to compensate the Stolen Generations.

Ryan applies an equanimity narration throughout the whole book. This is in spite of various accounts of death, incarnation and desecration that will no doubt cause some aghast in most people. Ryan’s eminence as a historian is broadcasted throughout this work. It is an account that brings together a pragmatic and irreducible topic with a didactic tone, giving Australians, and future Australian’s some issues to discuss openly if White Australians and Aboriginal Australians are to move forward.

As aforementioned, Tasmanian Aborigines: A history since 1803 is Ryan’s vindication. The “few, explicable and trivial” errors that were made in her previous works have been rectified. If there was a positive to come from the history wars, it is this book. Only on several occasions Ryan mentions Windschuttle, yet, convincingly refutes his myopic claims. Tasmanian Aborigines is a vital scholarly work that leaves Windschuttle’s work in a state of dilapidation.

Review: Anzacs Long Shadow

‘The Allure of ANZAC’ and the Australian Defence Force.

 Review of James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Redback4, 2014, 184pp.


My great Uncle and Grandfather both served in Vietnam. My great Uncle was with the Australian Armoured division while my Grandfather was a member of the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Sydney (III). Growing up around these two men offer a paradox between serving members or veterans – especially the Navy – of how Anzac is commemorated and how the day is perceived in the public. While most follow the words inscribed on the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park, “Let silent contemplation be your offering,” others turn Anzac day into something that James Brown believes resembles more like a festival.

James Brown, a former commanding officer in the ADF, and now a fellow at the Lowy Institute researching military issues and defence policy, has produced a short, sharp and sophisticated analysis of Australia’s Defence Force and the role the ADF played in Afghanistan.

With 2014 being the centenary of WWI and also the upcoming centenary of Anzac in 2015, the Australian Government is planning to spend $325 million (with an already tight budget) on the prestigious event. In addition, there is an expected additional $300 million through private donations. In comparison to the United Kingdom (here we could draw on the famous lines of Andrew Fisher: “Australia will defend Britain with every last man and every last Shilling”), Australia will outspend the ‘Mother Country’ by 200 per cent.

The Australian Government’s funding of the centenary of Anzac and the First World War, is match by the commercialization of this ‘sacred day.’ Brown lists several commercial activities and products, including a paddle boat race across the Dardanelles and the ‘Sands of Gallipoli.’ Brown mockingly chastises such promotion that was legislated against in the 1920s. This extravagant event is best summarized by Brown himself: “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon… But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

After dealing with the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF. Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

Brown believes that the Anzac legend has instilled a Nineteenth Century character that military structure, discipline, and strategy are no match for the individual, egalitarian Digger: an “idolatry of a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism.” The Anzac legend manifests itself in today’s soldiers: wearing thongs and shorts when attending dangerous duties.

Not only has the Anzac legend created a culture of relaxation and lenience in defence force personnel, it has also neglected other pillars of defence such as the Navy. Of the 96 Victorian Crosses awarded in all conflicts, not one mariner has been awarded the VC. Yet, a reoccurring theme is the posthumous awards for valor for Simpson and his Donkey.

The growing gap between the living soldier and that of the dead soldier is clearer in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A war of great complexity – “we weren’t fighting one war, we were fighting hundreds across the country” – the Australian military performed with outstand professionalism and military precision. However, when it came to communicating what Australia’s role was, no politician or high-ranking military officer could articulate what the Australian role was: Australian soldiers would not combat against the enemy – but they did. Military personnel will not engage in narcotic operations – but they did. Much of the military debate or conversation on Australia’s defence force is focused on the past.

Brown’s analysis of Australia’s military is the strength and major focus of this book. The issue is not with fighting personnel, but rather those higher in command and also the politicians responsible for their deployment and policies. Compared with several other nations, Australian Colonels, Generals and Majors are not seen in the public debate. The military does not encourage those in high command to write or analyse previous decision, policies and mistakes Australia, or others, have made. For example, the Australian military does not analyse the amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Quantico is the only place to have conducted a detailed review and analysis by George Patten in 1938. Without this detailed information, it is possible that the D-Day invasion would not have had such success. The lack of review and writing process could also hinder the development of Australia’s defence force. Brown highlights new purchases made by the Australian Government without a shift in strategy or focus to use these new purchases with the desired effect.

It is this aspect is concerning for such a well renowned military force that communication is not encouraged, often leaving the public in the dark as to what policy are we applying, what are we doing in Afghanistan? And why are we doing these operations? This is where Australian politicians also fail. Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon who both held the Defence Minister positions are depicted as glib and uninterested with defence issues. Complex issues are ditched for easy and cheap defence policies such as a new medal or pin for military families.

Brown has found the middle ground in this debate, offering a well-balanced and analytical account of the issues facing the ADF and the well being of living soldiers. There are a lot of issues – past and present – wrapped up in this book, but Brown handles these issues with a brightness that is welcomed within this debate. Brown is not a historian, and does not claim to be, however, he has handled the debate over the Anzac legend with great poise, balance, fierceness and relevance to the issues facing the ADF and personnel.

Review: Burial Rites

A Sympathetic Ear

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites Picador, 2013, pp352.Burial-Rites

I hereby confirm that the criminals, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir will be executed on Tuesday the 12 January, on a little hill close to the cottage of Ranhola, between the farms Holabak and Sveinsstador.

The aforementioned passage was taken from a letter to the District Officers of Svinavatn from District Commissioner Bjorn Blondal. Also in the same letter, Blondal calmly instructs that:

If it is such that the executions are not possible to carry out on this day due to weather, the next day possible will then be selected, and all the people who have been ordered to attend must do so, as stated above.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites – short listed for the Stella Prize – is based upon the historical events that took place in Iceland between 1828 and 1830. Agnes Mahnusdottir, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir were convicted for the gruesome murders of Natan Ketilsson – Agnes’s boss and ‘lover’ – and Petur Jonsson, then burning their bodies in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnes and Fridrik would be the last persons executed in Iceland in 1830, while Sigridur, saved from execution, died serving out her life sentence as a servant a few years later.

Before Agnes’ execution, she was interned with District Officer Jon Jonssons family at Kornsa. The family, composed of Jon, his ailing wife Margaret and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga, are reluctant to take on the job of a murderess and a “whore” and make their reluctance known to Agnes.

The family is then later joined by a young clergyman Toti Jonsson who was chosen by Agnes to assist her in the Christian beliefs to prepare her for death and into the arms of Christ. However, with the Icelandic winter and the small space within the house, Agnes and Toti’s conversations are never private. There are several tense scenes where the Jonsson family listens to Anges’s story, convinced that she is telling lies. When Toti first met Agnes, he was very nervous and unsure how to approach a woman convicted of two brutal murders. Toti does learn to become a better listener of Agnes’s story, convinced that she needs a sympathetic ear rather than be showered in prayers and proverbs. It is through this personal conversation that Agnes discloses her life events, a twisted love triangle, and the night of the murders.

Agnes, while reluctantly accepted by the Jonsson family, begins to be an influential and important person around the farm. Her expertise with medicines, farming, slaughter and cooking win her some favour with Margaret and Steina. However, Lauga never trusts Agnes.

Burial Rites is the culmination of Kent’s ten-years of research into the executions. The research is easily visible: there are the translated documents and letters that begin each chapter, the representations of speech and grammar and the intrinsic detail of Icelandic life through slaughter, harvest, Icelandic rituals, winter and summer. The writing is also impressive, offering engaging detail:

Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eye fixed ahead of her. Kristin goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the emptied pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire.

However, there is a disadvantage to Kent’s historical narrative. By beginning each chapter with a translated document, Kent sets the boundaries for the chapter and does not look to go outside the historical documents. This, therefore, makes the novel not so much a challenging read – unless you are like me and struggle with the pronunciation of Icelandic names.

Kent’s novel is also divided into a twin narrative. Agnes’ voice is told in first person, while a discrete third-person narrates over Toti and also the Jonsson family. Although Agnes’ voice does not feature as much as I would like it to as her voice can be the most difficult and most compelling voice – “they say I must die They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” To me, it seems to be a stylistic choice of her troubled and misunderstood life: “They will not see me. I will not be there.”

Although there are small stylistic problems with Kent’s novel, her deep knowledge and research into the events in her attempt to “supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman,” and challenge that Agnes was “an inhuman witch, stirring up murder,” succeeds within her twin narrative. While Burial Rites is a book to challenge the idea of Agnes, it is also a book about a woman who lived with the odds stacked against her, leading the reader to question whether Agnes was guilty or not guilty?

Review: The Night Guest

The Long Goodbye9781926428550

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane, 288pp.

Penguin Australia, 2013.

On a trip into town for some shopping, Ruth bumps into a person who turned out to know her:

Mrs Field! Ruth! cried this woman. She was so very small – ‘petite’, Ruth’s mother would have called her – that she made Ruth think of a little toy prised from an expensive Advent calendar. Ruth tried to arrange her face into an expression of recognition; she must have failed because the woman said, with a hopeful smile, ‘It’s Ellen?’

Although McFarlane never uses the word “dementia” in the book, it is clear that Ruth is struggling with it.

The book has a personal connection to me: my grandmother suffers from dementia and have, on several occasions, visited her to receive that same “expression of recognition.” McFarlane, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed, “both my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”

Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair – helping her ailing back and to watch the whales pass by her house – her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

Gradually, throughout the novel, the true extent of how Frida will “care” for Ruth is revealed. Ruth’s son’s, Jeffery and Phillip, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively, leave Ruth to her own devices and loneliness, even though they are in constant contact through phone calls. This enables the large, exaggerated and often tender Frida to insert herself into Ruth’s life.

Frida begins by relieving Ruth of duties such as cooking, cleaning and washing. This leaves Ruth to begin reflecting on her past life: growing up in Fiji with her parents, meeting her first love Richard, moving to Australia to experience her first heartbreak, meeting her husband, Harry, having children and eventually retiring to the Coast in New South Wales. Eventually, Ruth and Frida’s relationship quickly becomes indispensible, transforming into a kind of love and reliance:

Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when she left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted with herself for succumbing so quickly.

As the novel progresses, along with Ruth’s confusion and dementia, Ruth does not know who to trust. Ruth extends an invite to Richard, Ruth’s first love from Fiji, to visit. Richard takes up this offer and does visit for the weekend. However, to Ruth’s surprise, Frida has moved into Phillip’s old room: “Oh, dear. You knew I was staying over, to help with Richard’s visit. Remember?” The growing confusion of Ruth makes it easy for Frida to manipulate Ruth for her own personal gain. However, is this her only true motivation? There are scenes of affection between Ruth and Frida that constantly challenge our expectations of what Frida is really doing.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, lonlieness, isolation, memory and tenderness, that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. The novel also poses an important question: who is to care for the elderly when others are unwilling or unable to do so?