Theatre review: Batsh*t

Difficult women have long been pathologised as crazy. Hysteria was the standard diagnosis applied by male doctors who couldn’t work out what was wrong when the fairer sex behaved in ways that deviated from their idealised feminine norm. Of course, the norm was defined as being male, and by comparison women were fundamentally unstable, a problem that manifested as hysteria.

Women were weaker than men – it was their vaginas and uteruses that were the problem. The (male) medical gaze (mis)diagnosed, locked up, electrocuted and medicated women by way of treatments to relieve the symptoms of female existence until women were compliant. Making women crazy was a means by which to regulate and control – the message from doctors was in essence, don’t be a pussy.

Batsh*t is a solo show performed by Leah Shelton and directed by Ursula Martinez as part of Melbourne Fringe. The show explores what was at the root of women’s distress, how the pressures of women’s lives and their limited choices may have often led to their misery.

A disturbing, funny, physical interrogation of female madness and a tribute to Shelton’s grandmother, Gwen. Batsh*t is a wild ride worth a visit, and don’t forget your pussy hat.

Batsh*t is on at Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre as part of Melbourne Fringe from 5 – 15 October.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.

Iceland’s last public execution took place in 1829 when a man and a woman were beheaded for a murder that took place on a remote farm. The woman was detained on a farm over winter whilst she awaited her execution as there were no jails. Hannah Kent’s meticulously researched award winning novel, Burial Rites, imagines that woman story.

She made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.

The harsh Icelandic setting of the novel amplifies the brutal reality of class and peasant life of the time. Whilst interned on the farm of Margret, Jon and their two daughters, with a year to live, Agnes reflects on her life leading up to the murder. Her presence creates tensions in the family obliged to keep her, and suspicion in the local rural community. Priest in training, Reverend Tóti, there to help Agnes come to terms with her fate is the device that helps unravel Agnes’s story, maintain peace in the family and develop their relationship with the condemned woman.

Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.

Kent has conjured up a voice from the margins in Agnes, a whip smart, dirt poor peasant girl – a combination that set her up for trouble in the times when intelligent outspoken women were cause for grave concern. It was these qualities that drew the attention of freethinker Naan Ketilsson whom she was subsequently accused of murdering. She is only a whisper away from being called a witch.

They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted.

The language and voice in the book are striking and amplify the gothic feel of the story through its analogies and painterly descriptors. Burial rites is gothic romance with the feel of an Icelandic saga that deals with ordinary people living in extreme conditions. A remarkable, dark debut novel by Hannah Kent who went on to write The Good People and Devotion.

“He lay back down on the snow. “What’s the name for the space between stars?” “No such name.” “Make one up.” I thought about it. “The soul asylum.”

Book review: Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Peaces is a novel worthy of more than one visit. The story is set on a train, a character itself, intense spaces and fleeting glances – carriages in which the laws of physics have been suspended – a portrait gallery, a postal sorting office, a sauna and holding cell, a library with a brocade fainting couch, a glass panelled greenhouse car. The train is called Lucky Day and used to be a tea smuggling train, with dodgy connections to the East India company.

Even though, as I told you, it was an empty room, some of the compositions I played got a better reception than others.

Otto and Xavier Shin are lovers – a mesmerist and a ghostwriter. Otto has a jewel-hoarding mongoose called Arpad the 30th that has, along with some of his predecessors, been Otto’s companion since being acquired to protect him from venomous snakes as a child. Arpad accompanies them on the Lucky Day because mongooses should travel before they hit middle age, otherwise they get narrow-minded.

Xavier’s aunt gifts them a journey on the Lucky Day as a ‘non-honeymoon, honeymoon’ trip. There are only three other passengers on the train. A composer-train driver, a debt control officer, and the trains mysterious owner virtuosos Ava Kapoor. Or are there?

I’m sure almost no one deludes themselves that all their ancestors were decent. Pick a vein, any vein: mud mixed with lightning flows through, an unruly fusion of bad blood and good

In my first turn through this shapeshifting tale, I surrendered to it’s exuberance, revelled in its creative joy and shapeshifting whimsy. If literature were a magic mushroom trip – this would be it.

I was so taken by it, I took a second turn to try and piece together its mysterious puzzle, to orient myself in its pages, draw together the disparate times and memories, backstories and symbolism to find the common thread.

You run the romantic gauntlet for decades without knowing who exactly it is you’re giving and taking such a battering in order to reach. You run the gauntlet without knowing whether the person whose favour you seek will even be there once you somehow put that path strewn with sensory confetti and emotional gore behind you. And then, by some stroke of fortune, the gauntlet concludes, the person does exist after all, and you become that perpetually astonished lover from so many of the songs you used to find endlessly disingenuous.

Hidden in the quirk are whispers of the the effects of the legacy of the British Empire, old money and old cruelties, themes of connection, of desire and wanting, of feeling unseen and wanting to be seen. But the shunt and sway of the carriages and fleeting glimpses soon threw me off again so I was never quite sure what I saw – like the paintings by the artist on shapeshifting canvases and the man who may, or may not have leapt off the moving train.

Perhaps I will need to take the trip a third time…

Artist and muse

O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

William Shakespeare

A friend and I made the trek out to Bunjil Place at Naree Warren to see the Archibald Prize and hear a couple of the artists and their subjects in conversation as part of Melbourne Writers Festival.

Kim Leutwyler painted both artist Shane Jenek’s (aka Courtney Act) personas. The work itself is an expression of gender and queerness using a blend of realism and abstraction.

James Powditch pursued chief political correspondent for ABC-TV’s 7.30 and president of the National Press Club, Laura Tingle, determined to capture the fearless political journalist and snippets of the woman behind the image. Her face is superimposed over a collage that includes various pieces of her work including a script from 7.30 and a page from her Quarterly Essay.

As a portrait prize, the Archibald is the perfect vehicle to prompt conversation and thought about the concept of ‘the muse’. In its most basic sense the ‘muse’ is that which inspires the artist. The word has its roots in Greek mythology with Zeus’ daughters forming the nine Muses who presided over the arts and science.

Traditionally the muse was romanticised as the beautiful young woman sitting (and often suffering) for the older male artist who objectified her whilst her own talents were overlooked. To gaze upon an object with such intensity and time lends itself to an intense emotional relationship – think Picasso and Marr, or Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, but the power relations are curious. How much is due to admiration, the artistic form or gender dynamics?

I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.

Frida Kahlo

Writers including including Helen Garner (mixed medium on linen by Katherine Hattam) and a nude Benjamin Law (oil on canvas by Jordan Richardson) also posed for the Archibald and literature has had its own famous muse relationships. Think Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course not all artist-muse stories left the female muse as an objectified shadow of the artist. Yates fell for English born-Irish revolutionary and feminist icon, Maud Gonne. A firebrand who refused four proposals from Yates because she didn’t want to be tied to a man and he wasn’t Catholic. Yates remained infatuated for five decades, producing a significant work of yearning poetry as a result.

Perversity is the muse of modern literature.

Susan Sontag

Contemporary writers often talk of the muse as a spirit presence that offers inspiration rather than an embodied being and we are commonly advised ‘don’t wait for the muse, start writing and they will show up!’

Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

Isabel Allende

At a Varuna writing residency a few months ago, I found the beauty of the National park became my muse as my daily sojourns provided the creative inspiration to motivate me to complete the first draft of my current manuscript, Gallows Tree. One particularly gruelling outing involving the Furber Steps even surfaced an ending I had not expected.

If you ever venture out to Bunjil Place I can also recommend a short trip further down the road to The Courthouse, next to the Berwick Post Office for a funky cocktail and tapas

Book review: The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison by Meredith Jaffe

The Backtackers gather daily for a sewing circle with Jane who teaches them to embroider. But the Backtackers are no ordinary group, they are a motley crew of criminals at Yarrandarrah prison.

Derek, who is in for embezzlement, and estranged from his wife and daughter wants to show his daughter how much he loves her and decides he will make her wedding dress. His fellow inmates agree to help him with the job – they want to create something spectacular, but don’t always agree on what that means.

There’s a hierarchy among the long-term residents in this joint, determined by the blend of time and crime. Men like Jack and the Doc are kingpins. Even Parker earns more respect because he put a hole in another man’s chest. If the new kids knew that, they would be so quick to call him names. But Derek? Stealing money to chuck down a poker machine’s gullet isn’t a crime, it’s pathetic.

Inspired by the real story of Fine Cell Work, The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison is a funny, dark and moving story about friendship and redemption. It is both a heartbreaking and heart-warming reflection on life on the inside and the lives of the prisoners loved ones on the outside.

I found the image of big burly criminals sewing delicate items very original. It created a great juxtaposition to the outbursts of violence that erupted during the novel.

Interestingly the story is written in present tense omniscient narration, which you don’t see very often these days. It made me feel like a constant fly on the wall (or all the walls) and provided a good perspective for dramatic irony.

Book review: Terms of Restitution by Denzil Meyrick

Ferocious gang wars in Paisley and Glasgow are the subject of Denzil Metrick’s Terms of Restitution.

Sometimes it’s better to go, to leave things behind. Often that is the only way to find yourself, to find salvation.

Gangland boss Zander Finn has been laying low in London on the advice of his priest after his son I brutally murdered. When his friend asks him to return to help deal with the threat of Albanian mobsters trying to take over the Scottish underworld, he returns.

It was a warm, gin-clear July day.

What unfolds is a fast paced, brutal tale of survival and misplaced loyalties. Despite the body count and violence, Metrick threads a human story about relationships and friendship with fully formed characters and humour through the novel. From Father Giordano, Zanders lifetime friend and confidant, to Zander’s mother Maggie, the family matriarch who likes to offer the family comfort food of egg, chips and beans – and now she uses vegetable oil, not lard.

Well, its a bastard when you get old. They lifts stink of piss, and there’s all sorts cloaking about. Some shite tried to steal your Auntie Gwen’s purse the last time she came to visit me.

Book review: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

I listened to Indigenous author and academic Tyson Yunkaporta’s non-fiction book Sand Talk whilst pottering around the garden and was blown away by its beauty. If you decide to investigate it, I recommend getting hold of the audio book read by the author as I felt the oral history of Aboriginal people, made listening to his yarn more powerful.

We don’t have a word for non-linear in our languages because nobody would consider travelling, thinking or talking in a straight path in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name.

In Sand Talk, Yunkaporta reflects on global systems from an Indigenous Knowledge perspective. He shares an outlook on natural systems that is complex and non-linear. It rejects the western notion of reducing Indigenous Knowledge down to a series of symbols and codes, and asserts that the complexity of Indigenous Knowledge makes it fit for the challenge of wicked problems like sustainability and climate change.

An Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land base, as part of that land base.

The title of the work is a reference to the way that Aboriginal cultures transmit knowledge – by drawing on the ground – which enables communication of more meaning than simple words. Yunkaporta talks about relations between individuals and groups of individuals using two terms. He refers to himself and the reader as ‘us-two’, like a kinship pair and encourages the reader to form ‘us-two’ pairings throughout our lives in order to work together successfully. ‘Us-exclusive’ refers to just us, not them, in the context of exclusive groups, but they also need to work together in ‘us-all’ pairings.

If people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is a joy because it is an act of creation.

Each chapter of Sand Talk is a series of thought experiments represented by the carving of a traditional object captured pictorially. In other words he carves everything he writes to preserve the oral cultural orientation of this thoughts. He calls this method of adapting oral culture processes into the written word ‘umpan’. The entire book is represented by a large boomerang which features on the cover. Each carved object is memory inspired and contains within it a wealth of meaning and story.

Our knowledge endures because everybody carries a part of it, no matter how fragmentary. If you want to see the pattern of creation, you talk to everybody and listen carefully.

Sand Talk is a melding of Yunkaporta’s professional, academic, personal and community influences, which itself is representative of on of the works central premises – that knowledge is co-created.

Guilt is like any other energy: you can’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends and let it go.

Aside for an opportunity to hear one Aboriginal man’s story and learn about his attempt to document aboriginal ways of thinking and how this can be applied to our most complex challenge of global warming. Sand Talk is also a beautiful work of literature to listen to that encourages the reader/listener to see the world differently.

Dames of Crime: Ursula Torday

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Dames of Crime blog, so I thought it was time I shone a light on another great woman of mystery – Ursula Torday.

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of writer of mysteries, gothic and historical romance fiction Ursula Torday (1912-1997) because she only wrote three novels under that name. She did write many under pseudonyms, including Paula Allardyce (29 novels), Charity Blackstock (27 novels), Lee Blackstock (2 novels) and Charlotte Keppel (6 novels).

The only child born to a Scottish mother, and a father who was a Hungarian anthropologist, Torday had polio as a child which afflicted her gait throughout her life. She was educated in London at Oxford University and published her first three romance novels in the 1930s under her true name then stopped writing aged 26. She did not publish again until 1954. Over the next three years she published six books and continued to be prolific until the ’80s.

Torday’s dual interests of romance and mysteries meant that emotions and passion were important in her novels and often given precedence over death and motive in her mysteries. Sardonic humour, passion, hate, fear and loathing reverberate through her loathsome mystery characters to create tension and brooding romance.

Torday was said to be her own woman – cultured, sophisticated, opinionated, with wide interests and a zest for life. During World War II she worked as a probation officer for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau then ran a refugee scheme for Jewish children following the war. Her war time work inspired two novels written under the pseudonym Charity Blackstock (The Briar Patch, 1960 and The Children, 1966). Later she worked as a typist at the National Central Library in London which inspired body in the library mystery Dewey Death written under the same name. Dewey Death was set in the Inter-Libraries Despatch Association and includes themes of adultery, drug trafficking, romance and murder. Torday also worked for Naim Attallah’s publishing house (Quartet Books, The Women’s Press) for a period and sat at a desk opposite Quentin Crisp exchanging tips on the latest nail varnishes.

The Woman in the Woods, a mystery-suspense written as Charity Blackstock, in which two schoolboys stumble across a skeleton in the woods and soon the whole village is caught up in the death was nominated to win the 1959 Edgar Award for best novel.

Mystery novels

  • After the Lady (1954) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Doctor’s Daughter (1955) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • A Game of Hazard (1955) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Adam and Evelina (1956) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Man of Wrath (1956) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Lady and the Pirate (1957) aka Vixen’s Revenge (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Southarn Folly (1957) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Beloved Enemy (1958) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • My Dear Miss Emma (1958) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Death My Lover (1959) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • A Marriage Has Been Arranged (1959) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Johnny Danger (1960) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Gentle Highwayman (1961) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Adam’s Rib (1963) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Respectable Miss Tarkington-Smith (1964) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Dewey Death (1956) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Miss Fenny (1957) aka The Woman in the Woods (as Charity Blackstock) 
  • All Men Are Murderers (1958)  aka The Shadow of Murder (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Foggy, Foggy Dew (1958) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Bitter Conquest (1959) (as by Charity Blackstock)
  • The Briar Patch (1960) aka Young Lucifer (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Exorcism (1961) aka A House Possessed (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Gallant (1962) (as by Charity Blackstock)
  • Mr. Christopoulos (1963) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Factor’s Wife (1964)  aka The English Wife (as Charity Blackstock)
  • When the Sun Goes Down (1965)  aka Monkey On a Chain (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Children (1966) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Knock at Midnight (1966) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Party in Dolly Creek (1967)  aka The Widow (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Wednesday’s Children (1967) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Melon in the Cornfield (1969)   aka The Lemmings (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Encounter (1971) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • I Met Murder on the Way (1977) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Shadow of Murder (1964) (as Charity Blackstock/Lee Blackstock)
  • Madam, You Must Die (1974) aka Loving Sands, Deadly Sands (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • When I Say Goodbye, I’m Clary Brown (1976) aka My Name Is Clary Brown (as Charlotte Keppel)

Other novels – gothic, historical, romance

  • The Ballad-Maker of Paris (1935) (as Ursula Torday)
  • No Peace for the Wicked (1937) (as Ursula Torday)
  • The Mirror of the Sun (1938) (as Ursula Torday)
  • The Rogue’s Lady (1961) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Witches’ Sabbath (1961) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Paradise Row (1964) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Octavia (1965) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Emily (1966) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Moonlighters (1966) aka Gentleman Rouge (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Six Passengers for the Sweet Bird (1967) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Waiting At the Church (1968) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Ghost of Archie Gilroy (1970) aka Shadowed Love (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Miss Jonas’s Boy (1972) aka Eilza as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Gentle Sex (1974) as Paula Allardyce)
  • Legacy of Pride (1975) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Carradine Affair (1976) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • Miss Philadelphia Smith (1977) (as Paula Allardyce)
  • The Daughter (1970) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Jungle (1972) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Haunting Me (1978) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Miss Charley (1979) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • With Fondest Thoughts (1980) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Lonely Strangers (1972) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • People in Glass Houses (1975) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Ghost Town (1976) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • Dream Towers (1981) (as Charity Blackstock)
  • The Woman in the Woods (1959) (as Charity Blackstock/Lee Blackstock)
  • The Villains (1980) (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • I Could Be Good to You (1980) (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • The Ghosts Of Fontenoy (1981) (as Charlotte Keppel)
  • The Flag Captain (1982) (as Charlotte Keppel)

Book review: Room by Emma Donoghue

The thing that struck me most about Room was Emma Donoghue’s exceptional ability to maintain the voice of a five year old for an entire novel. Jack has spent his five years in the 12 foot square room he was born in. His Ma has been in the room for two years more after being abducted at nineteen. Ma has spent Jack’s life keeping him entertained and protecting him from their captor. Jack brings their tiny world to life. Each element – Rug, Spoon, Wardrobe, Bed and TV are characters. Room is real, TV world is outside – a place they cannot go. They exercise, tell stories, sing, eat and make up games and poems in the confines of Room.

Outside has everything. Whenever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they’re real, they’re actually happening in Outside all together. It makes my head tired. And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside. I’m not there, though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there. Are we still real?

When their captor comes to Room, Jack has to go in Wardrobe as his Ma doesn’t want the man to see him. Ma has days when she does not get out of bed, it ‘gone’ with a blank stare and Jack just sits or watches TV.

Jack. He’d never give us a phone, or a window. “Ma takes my thumbs and squeezes them. “We are people in a book, and he wont let anybody else read it.

The time comes, half way through the novel, when Ma senses imminent danger and decides they need to escape. She hatches an elaborate plan to get Jack out. He succeeds. Both characters are heroic. Their captor is caught and Ma is freed. The story then moves to ‘Outside’, to explore Jacks confusion by the wider world and their adjustment to it.

Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing

The point of view limited by the narrators maturity and the constraints of Room contain the story in a way that keeps the reader in a state of unease. Room is a gripping, disturbing, claustrophobic, yet hopeful read. The story a delivers an unique perspective – on love, psychology, politics, sociology, and how we life our lives.

I’ve seen the world and I’m tired now.

Book review: The Beresford by Will Carver

Leave your comfort zone. Will Carver has a dark imagination in which creepy thrills and body counts are dialled to the max. The Beresford is a standalone thriller published in 2021. Bizarre, gripping and grotesque but drawn in smooth prose that will keep both the pages and your stomach turning.

The Beresford was old. It was grand. It evolved with the people who inhabited its rooms and apartments. It was dark and elephantine and it breathed with its people. Paint peeled and there were cracks in places. It was bricks and mortar and plaster and wood. And it was alive.

The ageless Mrs May runs a boarding house in a grand old building. She rarely leaves the premises. The rooms are large and the rent cheap and there are a steady stream of inhabitants. Mrs May passes her days drinking cold black coffee and wine, tending her garden and doing her prayers.

What is that one thing you would give up your soul for?

Tenants come with dreams of a new life, then go, sometimes at an alarming rate, and usually in pieces. Sixty seconds after one dies, a new tenant arrives, and so the cycle continues, a bit like Groundhog Day with gore.

The Beresford was a halfway house for the disenchanted and disenfranchised, whose focus was to become. To be. To discover and make their impact. The inhabitants were not necessarily the outsiders, but were certainly the ones found on the periphery. The wallflowers at society’s ball. They were outside. They floated on the periphery.

Dark and twisted with black humour and skilled plotting drawn in short snappy chapters. The story is intermingled with Carver’s existential ruminations about life, death, humanity, religion, and more that send the reader off on introspective reflections on 21st century life.

We all go a little mad sometimes.

As with Carver’s other novels I have reviewed on this blog – Good Samaritans, Nothing Important Happened Here Today and Hinton Hollow Death Trip, The Beresford will enthralled and disgust you, it will also make you think.