Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 5)

Terra Nullius – Claire G Coleman

“Terra nullius” is an old, old legal concept, stretching back to the beginning of Western democracy. In its most generous interpretation, it means “no man’s land”, that ownership by seizure of something nobody owns is legal, legitimate under the law. You can’t “steal” something that doesn’t belong to anybody. The term has special significance in Australia (not the good kind), as this continent was declared “terra nullius” when the British invaded, in effect erasing the sovereignty of the people who had lived and worked on this land for some 50,000 years. Claire G Coleman is a writer and activist of Noongar heritage, and she turns this legal concept on its head in her allegorical novel of the same name, Terra Nullius.

Terra Nullius - Claire G Coleman - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Each chapter of Terra Nullius opens with a fictional extraction from an imagined archive – though, at first, they are so believable that you’ll take them as fact. Letters home from “settlers”, government memos, all informing the position that the “settlers” are having trouble “saving” the “natives”. It would seem that they don’t want to be saved.

The early chapters are immediately – shamefully – familiar to any Australian, but I’m sure they’d read like a horrifying dystopia to anyone not acquainted with this country’s true history. The “natives” are forced into civilising missions, tortured and enslaved, separated from their families and forced into servitude.

One character emerges, Jacky, as a Native slave on the run. He was taken from his family at such a young age, he doesn’t remember where his “home” is – he just knows it can’t be with the callous and cruel Settlers. His journey, on foot, across the country and his attempts to find his true home link all of the other characters across Terra Nullius together. They include a woman who knows no life other than that of the refugee camp in which she has grown up, the cruel Settler nun who resents and tortures the child Natives in her care, a colonial administrator known as the Devil, and a Settler who recognises the humanity of the Natives he massacres and abandons his people to join his supposed foes.

The big shift comes in Chapter 10. It’s simultaneously obvious (anyone who’s heard about Terra Nullius from a review like this one, or even simply read the blurb, knows it’s coming), and not well foreshadowed in the text. I would’ve liked Coleman to sow a few more seeds before reaping.

In essence, what Coleman has thus far let the reader believe is a historical novel – depicting the genocide of the First Nations people of Australia after the colonisers invaded – is actually set towards the end of the 21st century. The “Natives” are human beings, of all colours and creeds, while the “Settlers” are an alien species that have invaded our home planet. For me, it evokes The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – a post-apocalyptic world that is jarringly familiar.

An under-realised haunting aspect of Terra Nullius is the fact that no one is coming to save us. There is no salvation for the Natives. The few that survive the invasion aren’t home free; they’re scavenging, scrabbling to survive in a world completely and irrevocably changed. In that respect, it’s not only a metaphor for invasion – it’s climate change, it’s capitalism, it’s even a global pandemic.

As critical history, Terra Nullius works, but as literature it feels a little shallow. Even with the exceptions-to-the-rule, the handful of Settlers who are horrified by what their people inflict upon the Natives, the story still leans heavily on a Bad Settlers v. Good Natives binary. That may be all too true, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction on its own. The familiar colonial atrocities are enough to shock and horrify, but I struggled to see a narrative drive beyond “look how terrible this is”.

I think Terra Nullius might have worked better if the metaphor had been explicit from the start. Instead of the Chapter 10 “gotchya” moment, Coleman could have placed us in her “dystopia” from the beginning and let the title make the parallels. Of course, this might not have worked for an international market (who presumably weren’t taught the abuses of terra nullius in high school or university), but for me it would’ve made for a better reading experience. As it stands, Terra Nullius seems to me a great premise that isn’t fully realised, an interesting idea forced to compensate for the absence of story.

If you’d like to read a First Nations perspective on Terra Nullius – and I highly recommend that you do – you should definitely start with Alison Whittaker’s review for Sydney Review of Books.

The Yield – Tara June Winch

When I first read the blurb for The Yield, I was hit with a strange sense of deja vu. The premise is almost identical to that of Too Much Lip: a young woman, ripped from her roots long ago, has to return to her ancestral home after the death of her grandfather, and finds the threat of colonial interests looming on the horizon. But hold your horses, copyright lawyers! Before you go calling Melissa Lucashenko to tell her her book’s been ripped off, you should know that, while the story is similar, the tone, structure, and… well, “vibe” of The Yield could not be more different.

The Yield - Tara June Winch - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Winch is a Wiradjuri author, born in Australia and now based in France, with many feathers in her young cap (including a prestigious mentorship with Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka). Still, The Yield is the work for which she is best known, the book that won her the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award (and the 2020 Voss Literary Prize, and the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction, and…).

The Yield is “the story of a people and a culture dispossessed… a celebration of what was and what endures… a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling, and identity”. It’s told from three different perspectives.

The first is a dictionary, penned by Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, a man who uses the last moments of his life to pass on the language of his people and the storytelling tradition they have nurtured over tens of thousands of years. The second is a narrative about August, his granddaughter, who returns to present-day Australia to attend Poppy’s farewell and reconnects with her family and her heritage. The third is a letter from a Reverend Greenleaf, uncovered from the archive, in which he details the establishment of a mission in the (fictional) town of Massacre.

The “action” really only takes place in August’s story, where she discovers that a mining company plans to repossess her family home and build a tin mine that will destroy the area-slash-create a lot of jobs (blegh). She is reluctant, at first, to allow herself to emotionally and spiritually return “home” and to the family she felt she’d left behind long ago. But, as you’d expect, she finds herself drawn back through the search for a book she heard her Poppy had been writing, a dictionary of Wiradjuri language, that could prove continuing cultural connection with country (which the town needs to refute the miners’ claim to the land).

That’s a fine story, but honestly, I would have loved a version of The Yield that was purely Poppy’s dictionary. Even though it lacks the standard narrative arc of August’s section, it tells the story of Poppy’s life through his translations and it would have been a unique and incredibly compelling book all on its own. Even simply alternating that dictionary, the First Nations voice, with the letter from the Reverend (which outlines just a few of the many atrocities perpetuated against First Nations people) would have made for an excellent story.

For me, August’s story was a bit of a let down. The “innovative conceit” (as the Stella Prize judges called it) of using Wiradjuri language in The Yield to communicate a story and connect with the reader was muffled somewhat by a… well, a bog-standard David and Goliath fight that felt familiar and flat. It’s a good story in the sense that it hits all the beats you’d expect, but next to the dictionary and the letter, it didn’t shine.

That said, The Yield is still a valuable contribution to the burgeoning field of high-quality First Nations literary fiction. I’ll leave the last words to Winch herself, taken from her Author’s Note:

This novel contains the language of the Wiradjuri people. Before colonisation there were two hundred and fifty distinct languages in Australia that subdivided into six hundred dialects. The Wiradjuri language is a Pama-Nyungan language of the Wiradhuric subgroup and has been reclaimed and preserved through the efforts of Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr AM and linguist Dr John Rudder… Cultural knowledge, community history, customs, modes of thinking and belonging to the land are carried through languages. In the last two hundred years, Australia has suffered the largest and most rapid loss of languages known to history. Today, despite efforts of revitalisation, Australia’s languages are some of the most endangered in the world.

The Yield (author’s note)

Too Much Lip – Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip, on its face, sounds like a big ask of Australian author Melissa Lucashenko. How can you take all of the worst stereotypes of First Nations families – drinking, crime, welfare, violence – and give them texture? Make them compelling? Heck, make them funny? It’s a tall order, but Lucashenko pulls it off.

Too Much Lip - Melissa Lucashenko - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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As per the blurb: “Wise cracking Kerry Salter has spent a lifetime avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her pop is dying and she’s an inch away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley.” As Kerry admits herself in the narrative, “too much lip” is her “problem from way back” – she just can’t help but say what’s on her mind (and it’s not always kind or flattering for those around her, particularly her family).

This book presents an Australian brand of what might elsewhere be called magical realism. The first conversation Kerry has in the novel takes place with three cheeky crows who are witness to her exodus from Queensland – backpack of stolen loot in tow. It sets the tone for the black (blak) comedy that is to follow in Too Much Lip, one that weaves together ancient culture and contemporary injustice.

What struck me immediately in Too Much Lip is the masterful way in which Lucashenko paints a picture of a culture continuing, but scarred. Kerry’s nephew Donny’s totem animal, the whale, is the perfect metaphor.

“If Granny Ava was still alive he might have learned to call them in off some coastal headland, Kerry reflected. Mighta been taught them special songs, and all them special whale ways, but Uncle Richard in Lismore had only passed on the fact of the totem, and the lingo name for the animal. It was up to Donny what he did with that in the twenty-first century.”

Too Much Lip (Page 51)

The story moves from Kerry’s discomfort at returning to her hometown, to a grassroots protest against the local mayor’s plan to install a jail on their sacred land, to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets. Underpinning it all is a cycle of inter-generational trauma, suffered and inflicted in turn.

While the violence and abuses of the past don’t excuse those perpetrated in the present (Lucashenko isn’t about to give anyone, black or white, a free pass), they go a long way to explaining it and providing all-too-often-absent context for all-too-common problems in families like the Salters. That said, Lucashenko doesn’t push the reader too hard, holding back from drowning us in misery (as she rightly could have) while providing enough to put us squarely on Kerry’s side – even when she’s making terrible decisions that will have you gnashing your teeth in frustration.

Too Much Lip blends The Castle and the Beverly Hillbillies with a storytelling tradition older than any of us can fathom – a unique combination that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I was particularly taken with Lucashenko’s use of dialect, which weaves the narrative and the dialogue together; even though the narration is third-person, a step removed from Kerry and her family, it’s still rich in Bundjalung language and northern NSW/regional QLD vernacular. And in the Salters, Lucashenko has created a family that, yes, drink and lash out and steal and vandalise, but also love and share and laugh and stand together when the shit goes down.

(I must offer a specific trigger warning, though, for a few horrific incidents of cruelty to animals, towards the end of Too Much Lip – I found it especially confronting, so I’d imagine others might as well.)

It’s particularly important that, when you pick up Too Much Lip (which you really should), you don’t skip past the author biography and afterword, which provide essential context for understanding this story. Lucashenko is a Goorie author of Bundjalung and European heritage, and while the specific locations and details of Too Much Lip are imagined, she says “virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once,”. She also adds that the epigraph “refers to my great-grandmother Christina Copson who, as a Goorie woman in Wolvi in 1907, was arrested for shooting her attempted rapist (also Aboriginal). Christina later beat the charge against her in a Brisbane court, unapologetically stating that although she had shot her attacker in the hip, she had been aiming for his heart and she was only sorry that she had not killed him,”. It’s clear where Kerry gets her spirit, and her lip.

In addition to writing acclaimed fiction (Too Much Lip is her sixth novel, and it won the Miles Franklin award in 2019), Lucashenko is also an amazing advocate and activist. In addition to her work championing First Nations writing, she also co-founded Sisters Inside, a Queensland organisation that provides programs, services, and support for women and girls who have been incarcerated. If you’re looking to do something to end the terrible legacy of state violence against First Nations people in this country (and pay the rent, while you’re at it), supporting Sisters Inside would be a great place to start.

Important reminder: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation, land that was never ceded or sold.

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

I’ve had a copy of Murder In Mississippi on my shelves since I first heard John Safran talking about the process of writing it on the now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program (and it’s actually the second book I’ve reviewed on that basis, the first was Religion For Atheists). It was published in 2013, and later in the U.S. under the title God’ll Cut You Down (the Johnny Cash lyric, quoted in the book’s epigraph). I remember Safran saying on his show that the title changed because Murder In Mississippi sounds very exotic in Australia, but to a U.S. audience it sounds like “Murder In New South Wales” (I checked with an American friend, and she confirmed).

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Murder In Mississippi here.
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The book’s subtitle is: “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book”. So, even though it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for years, perhaps it’s a good thing I waited to read and review Murder In Mississippi – it’s only become more zeitgeist-y over time.

The author, John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. As he says himself, on page 2 of Murder In Mississippi: “I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.”

Murder In Mississippi starts when Safran – as a “bit” for a documentary – tried to join the Ku Klux Klan. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t overlook his Jewishness, and declined his application. As part of that endeavour, he spent a day in Mississippi with notorious white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett didn’t take kindly to being the butt of one of Safran’s jokes, and made sufficient legal threats to stop the footage ever going to air. A year and a half later, Safran learned that Barrett had been killed (allegedly) by a young black man.

Safran was spooked, and intrigued. Drawing his inspiration from classic true crime books (In Cold Blood, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and “a couple of less famous ones”), he decided he had to investigate and write the story. Doing so meant picking up sticks and plonking himself down in the American South with nothing more than a hunch and a penchant for asking nosy questions (seriously, Safran didn’t even have an advance or any publishing support when he decided to do this). That’s where the similarities between Safran and his predecessors end, however; he’s certainly a lot more frank with the reader about his trickery and creative license than Capote ever was. “All those true crime books were written before the internet,” Safran says on page 29. “These days, you can’t get away with anything.”

Safran embarks on his investigation with all the preconceptions you’d expect upon hearing that a white supremacist might have been murdered by a black man. He charged in with a bit of a white saviour mentality, to be honest. He thought he’d EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass.

A brief overview of the crime at the center of Murder In Mississippi: on 22 April 2010, a neighbour called emergency services and reported seeing smoke rising from Barrett’s home. Firefighters found his corpse near the back door of the house, and an autopsy revealed thirty-five stab wounds, traumatic injuries to the head, and rib fractures.

The investigators pieced together a story and timeline that involved Vincent McGee – who was out on parole, after serving most of a sentence for assault and grand larceny – doing some yard work for Barrett in the afternoon, returning to the house that evening and stabbing Barrett, then returning again a third time to set fire to the property in an effort to conceal his crime. They proposed a number of motives for McGee’s alleged crime, mainly robbing Barrett (his wallet and gun were missing), and/or rejecting a sexual advance made by Barrett. Safran was the only one who started asking questions about race.

When Safran arrived in Mississippi, McGee was being held in remand pending trial. Safran was hoping to get the preliminary interviews out of the way and then get his court reporter on, figuring that the Truth Would Come Out as the prosecutor and defense did battle… only McGee entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison. That left Safran scratching his arse, wondering where the heck to go from there. It completely destroyed his preconceived narrative (because miscarriage-of-justice stories should really end with the wrongfully-imprisoned man going free, at least in a pre-Serial world).

Murder In Mississippi therefore became a book about the process of researching and writing a true crime book, far more than a book about the crime itself. Searching my feelings about half-way through, as I scanned the obligatory glossy photo inserts, I realised I cared about whether Safran actually got onto McGee’s prison visitor list to interview the man in person, far more than I cared whether McGee actually committed a crime and/or what actually happened at Barrett’s house that night. Safran’s investigation, his frustrations and his doubts are the focus of the story.

“In Mississippi, the more layers of onion I peel, the more I’m standing in a mess of onion.”

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

There was actually something quite comforting about reading a fellow Australian’s efforts to wade into American race relations. Neither Safran nor I can pretend to truly understand the divide between white and black in the American South; all we can do is ask nosy questions and make inferences from what we understand of racism in our own backyards. Still, he has the gall to ask far nosier questions than I ever would, which meant I learned a lot.

Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award (True Crime) for his efforts, and enjoyed the process so much that he went on to write Depends What You Mean By Extremist (my review of that one to follow, soon, probably). All told, this was an interesting, compelling, and at-times hilarious read, one I highly recommend to true crime fans and Race Trekkies alike.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

  • “Rambling and unimportant. However, I applaud the effort and wish Mr. Safran success.” – cWallin

The Helpline – Katherine Collette

I first encountered Katherine Collette via her podcast with Kate Mildenhall. She spoke there about The Helpline, writing it and the process of publishing, and I thought it sounded fascinating. To be honest, though, I probably would have picked it up anyway, based on the amazing and hilarious cover art alone…

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Helpline is a book about Germaine. Germaine is in her late thirties, she’s very good with numbers, she loves Soduku (more than most people, she attends conventions and watches YouTube videos of champions in her spare time), and she very recently lost her job as senior mathematician at Wallace Insurance. Her mother, Sharon, is hardly the nurturing type, and full of useless suggestions, which is why Germaine makes a point of seeing her as little as possible. In fact, she avoids most people. She’d rather be analysing spreadsheet data than engaging in pointless conversation.

Germaine soon discovers that there is very little demand in the job market for senior mathematicians. In the end, she’s forced to accept the only job she can get: answering the senior’s helpline at the local council. She shares an office with her new colleague, Eva (who drinks three large Slurpees a day, and sleeps just five hours a night). Aside from the paycheck, the only good thing about working the helpline is the free biscuits.

It’s not long before the mayor, high-flyer Verity Bainbridge, recognises Germaine’s unique talents and work ethic. Naturally, she invites Germaine to participate in a secret project: ousting the chairperson of the local Senior Citizen’s Center, Gladys. Gladys has been causing a lot of trouble for the owner of the ritzy golf club next door. In fact, it might be best if the Senior Citizen’s Center was closed down altogether – for the good of the community, Verity reassures Germaine. Germaine agrees, and takes to her new assignment with vigor, but it all goes a bit sideways when she’s forced to get to know the people she’s supposed to be getting rid of…

The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist: think The Rosie Project, or A Man Called Ove. Germaine’s quirky narration (complete with helpful figures and graphs to illustrate her story: anticipated career trajectory, persons at fault for The Incident, and so on) is immediately endearing. Of course, the underlying truth that makes these kinds of books enjoyable is the disconnect between the way the narrator sees the world and the way we know it to be, but the comedy is magnified by the fact that we can also recognise the truth in Germaine’s dealings with bureaucracy and office politics. In other hands, that could make The Helpline sad or confusing or (worst of all) dull, but Collette nails the voice that allows us to engage and empathise and laugh with (instead of at) Germaine.

Another masterstroke: Collette provides an array of small, delightful details that flesh out The Helpline without bogging it down. I can see how this plot and its characters could have easily swung too far in one direction or the other – grossly saccharine, or striving but soulless – but Collette gets the balance just right. Her prose is lighthearted, but sharp, and straightforward, but enchanting.

An important note: Germaine’s personality isn’t a front. There’s no shadowy childhood trauma that “made her this way” (unless you count the cheating scandal that robbed Alan Cosgrove of the 2006 Soduku Championship). It’s a welcome respite from the trigger-heavy “rom coms with depth” that build a character around a defining Terrible Thing that happened to them years prior to the narrative.

I’ve read elsewhere a couple of veiled allusions to the fact that The Helpline may have been inspired by real-life events (Celia may or may not bear a resemblance to a certain president of a certain senior citizen’s centre somewhere in this great country). It’s certainly not hard to believe, given the machinations of local councils and petty corruption we’ve all become too used to. That said, this book is more than just an office comedy with a light romantic sub-plot: it’s a witty contemporary parable about how we decide what to value in life, and what to do when the world throws us a curve ball or two.

Check out my review of Katherine Collette’s follow-up novel, The Competition, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Helpline:

  • “I didn’t finish , too slow characters pathetic, all they seem concerned about was biscuit jar .” – Jan Fischer
  • “The characters made me laugh throughout the whole book. Of course, they also made me quit doing Sudoku.” – Betsy Donaghey
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