Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 6)

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

I’ve admired Leigh Sales for a long time, and not just for her Walkley Award-winning journalism. Her arts podcast, Chat 10 Looks 3, with Annabel Crabb, is where I get a lot of my book recommendations. So, inevitably, I had to check out Sales’s own book, Any Ordinary Day (tagline: “Blindsides, resilience, and what happens after the worst day of your life”).

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In Any Ordinary Day, Sales examines our vulnerability to life-changing events, and how we process the grief and fear that come with them. She was prompted to think about this subject after two widely covered, deeply traumatic events that occurred in rapid succession in 2014 (the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney).

In her work as a journalist, she has realised that the worst days, where the unthinkable happens, “start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness” – which is how she landed on the book’s title. Ask someone about a devastating experience, and they’ll almost always start with ‘it was any ordinary day…’.

Sales talks to people who’ve faced unimaginable traumas, from acts of terrorism to natural disasters. Her interviewees have lost children and spouses, and/or come horrifyingly close to death themselves. In between chats, she describes what the science says about how our brains respond to shock, and grief. In case it’s not already clear, Any Ordinary Day isn’t a self-help book or a survivor’s guide – it’s more like a wider consideration of how and why we respond to tragedy.

Sales shares enough of her feelings and experiences to be transparent with the reader (e.g., she acknowledges her bias as an atheist when speaking to a Jesuit priest), but not so much that she overshadows the experiences of her interviewees. It’s a very delicate balance, and Sales has clearly had a lot of experience walking that particular tightrope.

What surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have, given Sales’s line of work) was her brilliant interrogation of the role of journalism and the public interest in freak tragedies. Sales gives quite a lot of time to the role that the news plays in not only our awareness of these events, but also the reaction and recovery of their victims. The public is undeniably curious when terrible things happen, but what right do we have to the inside story of the worst day of someone’s life? It’s the journalist’s difficult job to play the gatekeeper, usually under enormous pressure to get clicks and views.

Another thing I didn’t expect: Any Ordinary Day is a good book to read if you’re awkward around grief and tragedy. If you find yourself shying away from people in awful circumstances, because you’re unsure of what to say or scared of “making things worse”, Sales offers answers about the “right” thing to do and you’ll feel much more equipped.

It’s worth noting that Any Ordinary Day is a (mostly) straight, white book. I think we can give Sales some leeway, given the universality of grief and shock in the wake of tragedy, but we should be aware of it all the same. Any Ordinary Day isn’t going to tell you anything about how these experiences are compounded by institutional bias and systemic oppression – though, of course, that’s a whole other book’s worth of information.

I did wonder whether, in the wake of The Terrible No Good Very Bad Year 2020, an updated edition might be in order. Where most of the tragedies Sales examines in Any Ordinary Day mostly affect a handful of people (in the case of natural disasters, thousands at most), COVID-19 caused near-universal upheaval and distress. I’d be curious to hear her take, specifically, on what the pandemic has done to us and our fear of tragedy, given what she learned putting this book together before it happened.

In sum, Any Ordinary Day is an interesting and reflective book, very well paced and highly readable. Next time you see a news story about a terrible event and find yourself thinking “I could never survive something like that”, you’ll want to be able to turn to this book for proof that ordinary people survive the unthinkable every day, and most of us have buried reserves of resilience.

The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald

I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! So, even though the ending is “spoiled” for me (I couldn’t forget it if I tried, it’s brilliantly plotted), I was still eager to read The Cry and see how it unfolds on the page.

The Cry - Helen Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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From the blurb: “When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world. Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.”

Naturally, the premise of The Cry evokes Madeline McCann, for the tender age of the child and the worldwide scrutiny of the parents in the case, but also Azaria Chamberlain for its Australian setting. It’s a modern take on the missing child, told in the style of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn (if you’re fans of their books, you definitely want to pick this one up).

The family at the heart of the story – Joanna, Alistair, and baby boy Noah – are embarking on a long-haul flight from Glasgow to Melbourne when The Cry begins. Joanna is a first-time mother, and the former mistress of British Labour spin-doctor Alistair. The nine-week-old child cries the entire flight, so Joanna is understandably stressed (to say the least) while Alistair remains remarkably calm and actually manages to get some refreshing sleep (typical). Joanna is relieved that when they reach Melbourne, now that the ordeal of the flight is over and Noah is finally asleep.

Of course, the ordeal is only beginning. Baby Noah goes missing, taken from his car seat while Joanna and Alistair were picking up a couple of items from a grocery store.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in Part 1, but it shifts in Part 2 to alternating first-person perspectives (more on that in a minute). The timeline of The Cry also shifts back and forth, from events in a courtroom where a trial is taking place back to the events around The Incident, before it settles into a roughly chronological rhythm.

The blurb doesn’t exactly advertise what I’m going to say next, so I’m not sure if it constitutes a “spoiler” – so, heads-up etc. if that would bother you.

The first-person accounts are those of Joanna, and Alistair’s ex-wife, Alexandra. The Cry actually offers a lot more insight into Alexandra’s perspective than I recall being in the TV series. She’s a natural suspect in Noah’s disappearance, if only for the fact that the reason for Joanna and Alistair’s trip to Melbourne is to fight a custody battle for a child from his first marriage. In the book, we can see more about her role in what’s unfolded and her conflicted feelings.

What’s great, though, is that The Cry isn’t a “woman v. woman” thriller. Even though there’s not much love lost between Alexandra and Joanna, Fitzgerald doesn’t pit them against each other in the sympathy stakes.

Both are harangued by the press and the public in the wake of Noah’s disappearance – though Joanna, obviously, more so. It feels sadly realistic and believable, the way that Joanna is picked apart. She’s too distraught, she’s not distraught enough, she shouldn’t smile, she should cry, what’s she wearing, why did she behave this way… It’s a public stoning we’ve seen play out all too many times.

The Cry isn’t a police procedural, so you won’t find any hard-drinking detectives declaring they’re “too old for this” or they “won’t rest until they find Noah”. In fact, the police are increasingly baffled by Noah’s disappearance (and they do a piss poor job of communicating with the parents and the public, to boot).

The ending didn’t punch quite as hard in the book as it did on-screen, but I put that down to Jenna Coleman’s incredible performance as Joanna and Glendyn Ivin’s masterful direction, rather than any fault in Fitzgerald’s writing. The Cry still has a brilliant twist (or two), no matter which way you experience it.

It’s a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. I really want to emphasise that The Cry isn’t just for thriller readers; anyone who likes ethical grey areas and/or the complexity of modern families will rip through it. Clearly, there’s some triggering content (child/infant loss, mental illness), but if you can cope with that, it’s definitely worth a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Cry:

  • “This was an interesting and puzzling story. I enjoyed the writing style of the author and the basis of the plot. What I didn’t like was the character of the mother…whiny, weak, and worn. Often, I put down books written about women who are ‘man crazy’ and lose their own souls just to have a guy pay attention to them. Plus, why did this baby cry ALL THE TIME? Take it to a Dr.” – onecarolinagal
  • “If you’ve not lived with a psychopath then you might not appreciate this book.” – Lovinavidadaluz

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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