Book review: The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall

One word to describe this dystopian novel – gripping. My heart was racing within the first few pages. I listened to it as an audiobook read by Claudia Carvan and turned it on compulsively in every spare minute till the end.

Near future climate changed world. People chipped like pets. One government, The Department controls everything. Mim’s husband goes missing. The Department warns her not to tell anyone, not to go anywhere, or risk her children being taken into care. She’s already told a journalist that Ben is missing in Indonesia.

The world shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed at the beginning. Let the record show that. There were no assassinations. No riots. The people invited the new government to take charge at the ballot box. The two parties had consumed themselves. Left the system wide open for a third option. Reasonable, populated by diverse public figures, backed by both big money and bid ideology. On a platform of innovative and economically viable responses to the climate emergency, a rehaul of the health, housing and disability schemes that would see the most vulnerable members of the community cared for, and a foreign policy that miraculously spoke to fear of the other and fluid borders ideal for capital in and capital out, the new party was humbly triumphant on election night. Simple, elegant. No need for finite portfolios and the bullshit of bureaucracy (their words, appealing to the everyday Australian). Centralised power was the answer. On Department for One Nation.

Mim decides to run. She goes to visit her family home in the country on the pretense of chasing work. The Department know where she is. They call and warns her to go home. Her friend removes the chips from her and her children’s palms, inserts them in some rats she releases into the bush, and Mim and the kids drive away. She soon discovers how serious The Department’s controls are when they visit her family and her friend has ‘an accident’. A house fire.

A strong but flawed female protagonist, protective of her children and desperate to find her husband. Somehow the strange COVID world we are living in now, with ever enhanced technology and increased government rules, makes the already plausible Gilead Esque world created by Mildenhall even easier to imagine into existence.

The narrator, Carvan, executes the audiobook with the skill you’d expect from a good actor. A compelling delivery that brings the characters to life by capturing their emotions and builds an exquisite tension throughout the story.

A brilliantly executed speculative fiction thriller.

Opening up, getting out

One of the things I have enjoyed most about being home this spring has been to observe the changes in the forest on my daily walks. The bushland spring blooms are tiny, prolific and colourful, if short lived, displays. Some of my favourites include the chocolate lily (arthropodium strictures), blue pincushion (Brunonia autralis), button everlasting (helichrysum scorpiodis), milkmaids (burchadia umbellata) and the tufted grey-green perennial kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) with its red-geeen spikelet flowers

The emergence of spring blooms seems in some way more symbolic this year as Melbourne opens up after its own long slumber, the 111 day pandemic hard lockdown. The flowering seems to auger new beginnings as we all start to find our way back out into the world.

The background hum of traffic has grown louder as the roads become busier. What now appears as mayhem makes it seem as if many have forgotten how to drive.

My local village fills with day trippers seeking out fresh air and greenery. The sight of them sends me scurrying back home from my walk to my little patch of peaceful solitude.

I find the sudden acceleration of pace confronting. When a friend suggests we go out to a restaurant for a birthday lunch I am simultaneously excited about seeing friends in the flesh and terrified of being out amongst a crowd of people. One friend calls it ‘fogo’ (fear of going out).

Having adjusted to lockdown life, I feel reluctant to return to the whirly of life as it was ‘before’ and hope to retain some of this more sedate existence.

Grand Dames of Crime: Ethel Lina White

Largely forgotten today, Welsh crime writer Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) wrote 17 novels. In her day she was as well known as writers like Agatha Christie. White started out writing short stories and working at the Ministry of Pensions but left her job to scratch out a living as a writer after an offer of ten-pounds for a short story.

Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for

Ethel Lina White

White wrote three non-crime novels between 1927 and 1930 before turning to crime. Her first crime novel Put Out the Light was published in 1931 when she was fifty-five. Her work often featured lonely but strong heroines in dark country houses as metaphors for repression. She became known for writing suspense that set your heart racing, as well as her colloquial conversation style in dialogue. Some of these skills were probably picked up while indulging her favourite downtime activity of watching films.

Her novel Some Must Watch (1933) was made into a Hollywood Movie called The Spiral Staircase (1946). The Wheel Spins (1936) was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938). Midnight House (1942) was also filmed as The Unseen with Raymond Chandler as one of the script writers.

Bibliography

The Wish-Bone (1927)
Twill Soon Be Dark (1929)
The Eternal Journey (1930)
Put Out the Light (1931) aka Sinister Light
Fear Stalks the Village (1932)
Some Must Watch (1933) aka The Spiral Staircase
Wax (1935)
The First Time He Died (1935)
The Wheel Spins (1936) aka The Lady Vanishes
The Third Eye (1937)
The Elephant Never Forgets (1937)
Step in the Dark (1938)
While She Sleeps (1940)
She Faded Into Air (1941)
Midnight House (1942) aka Her Heart in Her Throat, The Unseen
The Man Who Loved Lions (1943) aka The Man Who Was Not There
They See in Darkness (1944)

Book review: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta Gul is an ageing widow who lives in a small cabin on a lake with her dog Charlie. She is a curiosity to the local townsfolk. Out walking in the woods one morning, Vesta finds a note on the ground held down with stones suggesting a woman called Magda has been killed.

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

There is no body in sight so Vesta decides to become a sleuth and try to work out what happened to Magda. She begins to concoct Magda’s story by writing it down following instructions on how to write a good mystery. She develops characters with elaborate backstories and conspiracy theories inspired by red herrings. She talks to Charlie and reflects on what her dead husband, Walter might make of her antics.

Reading lots of mysteries is essential. That seemed like ridiculous advice. The last thing anyone should do is stuff her head full of other people’s ways of doing things. That would take all the fun out. Does one study children before copulating to produce one? Does one perform a thorough examination of others’ feces before rushing to the toilet? Does one go around asking people to recount their dreams before going to sleep? No. Composing a mystery was a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.

Vesta’s adventure both enthrals and frightens her as she develops a detailed backstories for Magda and all the other characters in her mystery. Walter berates her continually in her head as she goes, as he evidently did in life, and Vesta seems to get some satisfaction out of defying him.

An ax murderer wouldn’t be very quick on his feet, carrying an ax and all. Charlie’s warning would give me time enough to collect my coat and purse, even. I wasn’t worried that I would be hacked to death, fed to the wolves, even if there were wolves out there, which there weren’t. At least none that we’d ever seen. Nor bears. Though there were foxes. But the most they were known to do was break into people’s garbage and make a mess. They were no worse than skunks or raccoons or opossums. Still, I’d taken a butcher knife up to bed with me and had slid it under the mattress. Just in case. Because who knew? Who knew? … And that was what was keeping me awake—not knowing, and wanting to know.

In the absence of human company, Vesta’s imagination recasts her view of the real world. She buys a camouflage onesie online and sets booby traps around her home. The woman becomes more and more unhinged from reality as she attempts to solve the mystery of the note.

Death in Her Hands is the story of an ageing woman facing a life of emptiness who uses her imagination to escape from her solitude.

The book unfolds in long rambling paragraphs across only seven chapters. It is is Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel (the others being Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Death in Her Hands is part mystery, part suspense, and part black comedy.

Book review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

The Ruin is the first book in the Cormac Reilly series by Dervla McTieran. Published in 2018, it is a gritty, atmospheric page turning police procedural.

Rookie copy Cormac Reilly is called out to investigate a domestic in Galway, Ireland in 1993. He is greeted by an under-nourished 15 year old girl at a dilapidated house. Her mother is in bed, dead from an apparent heroin overdose, and she has her much younger brother in her care. Cormac takes the kids to a hospital were the girl disappears and it is revealed the boy has unexplained injuries all over his body.

By 2013, Cormac has risen through the ranks to become a member of an elite anti-terror squad in Dublin. He moves back to Galway to be with his biologist partner, Emma who gets a lucrative research gig there.

Aisling is an ambitious young doctor training to become a surgeon. She lives with her boyfriend Jack. When she discovers she is pregnant, the couple have an intense discussion about whether they should keep the baby. Jack goes out to get some air and clear his head. His body is discovered in the river the next day, and his death declared a suicide.

Jack’s sister Maude, who has been living in Australia for years, arrives back in Ireland and pursues the police to look further into Jack’s death. She does not believe it was suicide. When Aisling meets her she joins Maude in pursuing this line of enquiry. The police view the women as a nuisance.

Cormac finds himself an outsider back in Galway, and is relegated to reviewing cold-case investigations – including the 1993 death he attended as a rookie. It turns our Jack who was found in the river was the little boy Cormac took to the hospital.

Cormac, Aisling and Maude’s trajectories begin to intersect as issues including child abuse, addiction, abortion and corruption are explored.

Book review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Normal programming resumes this week with a book review of Kate Atkinson’s novel, Case Histories, book 1 in the Jackson Brodie series. I listened to this one in audio book format whilst working on the shed renovating iso project. More on that story later.

She should have done science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.

In 1970, a girl called Olivia goes missing at night from a tent in her parents back yard. She is never found. A young woman called Laura is brutally murdered in her fathers city law office in 1994, the killer never identified, leaving her father wracked with guilt. An isolated young mother called Shiriley feels trapped with a baby and a demanding husband and takes to her husband with an axe during an argument in 1979. She goes to jail. Her child, given over to her husbands parents has for all intents and purposes, vanished.

The survivors of the tragedies are haunted by unresolved grief.

When you chopped logs with the ax and they split open they smelled beautiful, like Christmas. But when you split someone’s head open it smelled like abattoir and quite overpowered the scent of the wild lilacs you’d cut and brought into the house only this morning, which was already another life.

Ex-cop, and soon to be divorced private investigator Jackson Brodie is pursuing a flight attendant who’s husband believes she is cheating on him. His other case involves searching for an eccentric old ladies missing cats.

Time was a thief, he stole your life away from you and the only way you could get it back was to outwit him and snatch it right back.

Brodie is approached by Olivia’s sisters. They found their sisters toy hidden in their dead fathers belongings and want Brodie to investigate her disappearance thirty years after it occurred. Laura’s father hires Brodie to find the man in a yellow golfing sweater believed to have murdered his daughter. Shirley’s sister asks Brodie to find her niece who disappeared after her sister went to jail.

The seemingly unconnected cases begin to converge.

Doing nothing was much more productive than people thought; Jackson often had his most profound insights when he appeared to be entirely idle. He didn’t get bored, he just went into a nothing kind of place.

The novel jumps back and forth in time and from case to case. The threads are held together by the sense of isolation of each of the characters as they journey to find connection beyond their own tragedies. The reader is challenged to keep track of the many narratives, and compelled by Atkinson’s vivid and funny character sketches that draw the reader to them. Atkinson lightens the sense of grief and loss that permeates the novel with plenty of humour and perceptive insights.

The plot thickens,” he said, and wished he hadn’t said that because it sounded like something from a bad detective novel. “I think we have a suspect.” That didn’t sound much better. “My house has just exploded, by the way.” At least that was novel.

An intelligent and novel detective novel.

Fourth Hill. Part 6

and still the river flows ever onward
washing away the forests tears
and it’s struggle to make us love it
so it can love us in return

From its source in the Yarra Ranges, the Yarra River flows for 242 kilometres, snaking its way to Melbourne where it empties into Hobsons Bay at Port Phillip. At Warrandyte, thirty-five kilometres from the city, the river is fed by local creeks such as Andersons Creek and meanders through steeply undulating hills and under the Warrandyte bridge as it makes its way through the Warrandyte Gorge.

Early settlers experienced a number of massive floods in 1844, 1849, and one in 1863 that wiped out the bridge. Water would inundate the township’s main street and halt sluicing activity, forcing the miners to wait for waters to recede to resume their work.

The new bridge, contracted in 1875, was submerged by floods again in 1934. The Argus newspaper reported that a house, a haystack, a dead horse attached to a buggy, and a shed swept over the bridge in the turbulent flow. The flood prevented anyone without a boat from crossing the river until the waters subsided. It was not until the Upper Yarra Dam was built between 1947 and 1957 to create a water supply and reduce the rivers flow that massive floods like this ceased.

Warrandyte sits within Melbourne’s green wedge where the confluence of nature and society exist at the urban fringe.

Warrandyte State Park was established in 1975. The park is the result of conservation and recreational groups banding together in opposition to a proposal to develop Black Flat crown land into a country club with golf course, bowling green and swimming pool on the banks of the river.

The 680 hectares that make up the state park form an important habitat corridor that protects about 485 flora species, 202 fauna species and historical cultural values, the signs of which can be seen in scars that remain on the landscape. Over the years additional tracts of land have been added to the parks to safeguard them from development, including Scotchman’s Hill, the parcel of land over my back fence that was converted to state park in 1997.

Outer urban bushland is a contested space that radiates both beauty and fear as only an Australian bush landscape can. Issues of sustainability, and the tensions that exist between environmental, economic and social demands have competed for power, influence and control for almost two hundred years.

Some residents create safe places for wildlife and proudly display Land for Wildlife signs on their gates, whilst others strip their properties of trees out of fear of bushfires or because they wish to build large dwellings. Local councils and State Parks try to balance the desire to preserve environmental values of the area with the demands of residents to protect them in the hottest months.

Only about 30% of Victoria’s indigenous vegetation remains. Warrandyte holds an important part of the state’s remnant vegetation and is part of the green wedge that makes up the city’s lungs. Still, the State Government intermittently turns it’s eyes toward us to consider opportunities for development and roads. For now Warrandyte’s bushland is protected by the limitations on development and the ever-present vigilance of strong local action groups with a mandate to preserve the natural values and heritage of the area.

At only a stone’s throw from the city, the strength and health of the land reflects the strength and health of Melbourne itself. Despite being protected from human structural development, the signs of decline are evident in the forests. The introduction of weeds by careless gardeners, the loss of fragile fauna and flora species from introduced pests such as deer and domestic cats are evident, and the effects of a changing climate on biodiversity creep into the landscape. The changes occurs at such a slow pace that you might not notice if you weren’t paying close attention.

Unless we embrace a greater respect for the environment as a source for our livelihood, health and sustenance, and understand that we belong to it more than it belongs to us, we will rob future generations of places that can nourish and sustain them. That would be a great tragedy.

The spirit of Bunjil lives in the trees, the rocks, the streams, and the wildlife that hold reminders of our histories and the power of nature to recover from our failings. I am confident that nature will prevail in the long run. We need to decide whether it will be with or without us.

Fourth Hill. Part 5

Clara, Boyd and Tucker
painted wattles gold

When mining started to decline in Warrandyte, farming and fruit orchards took over much of the land that was viable and the bushland on unfarmed surrounds started to recover. Transport to the town improved and artists began moving into the area attracted by the picturesque village on the river. It is in part their legacy, along with the absence of a railway, that has thrown a protective veil over Warrandyte and saved it from over development.

In 1905 the landscape painter Clara Southern (1860-1949) married Warrandyte miner John Flinn and settled in her cottage named Blythe Bank on a hill above the river. Clara captured Warrandyte’s natural beauty and spirit in her impressionist landscape works such as The Road to Warrandyte (c 1905-10) Bush Camp (1914), Evensong (c. 1900-1914) and A Cool Corner (1928).

Warrandyte was swept by two converging fire fronts in 1939. More than two hundred residents fled to the safety of the river with nothing but the clothes on their backs as clouds of flame tinged smoke billowed overhead.

Clara’s house was spared, but much of her artwork that had been purchased by local residents was lost in the hundreds of houses that perished in the fires. Blyth Bank eventually succumbed to a later bushfire after her death.

Clara encouraged other painters to visit the area and it is believed her enticements were responsible for initiating the local artistic community. Over time Clara was joined in Warrandtye by Jo Sweatman (1872-1956), Frank Crozier (1883-1948) and Penleigh Boyd (1890-1923). Many others including Albert Tucker (1914-1999), a member of the Heidi circle, and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) visited and painted Warrandyte.

Architects and potters were also drawn by the scenic tranquillity and drew inspiration from the town on the river. Alexa Goyder (1892-1976) developed novel design practices using local stone and recycled materials that stimulated the work of later architects such as Alastair Knox in the 1970’s.

Painter Penleigh Boyd was inspired by the wattles that bloom after the coldest months of winter. He became known for his paintings of the Warrandyte wattle with works such as Bridge and Wattle at Warrandyte (1914), Wattle Gatherers (1918), The Breath of Spring (1919) and Golden Fires of Spring (1919).

The same wattles had a calling to the Wurundjerri who believed the beautiful acacia was bad luck in the home and should never be bought inside.

Fourth Hill. Part 4

growing through history to create a wedge of green
a contested space, the cities lungs
the forest breathes life and fire
glowing with the bright and blinding light of an Australian summer

Warrandyte’s landscape changes markedly from season to season. On windless days in autumn there is an eerie silence in the parched bushland after a long summer. The baked clay floor is covered in discarded leaves as the days become shorter and the nights become cooler and the land awaits the first signs of rain.

Spider webs strung across the tracks glisten with early morning dew above empty cicada shells and sun-bleached butterfly wings scattered on the ground. When the rain arrives the perfume of eucalyptus permeates the forest and there is a flurry of growth as the plants sigh relief that they survived the summer.

After the rains in late autumn and winter when maidenhair, mosses and lichens cling to damp shady areas under tall gums, a colorful display of fungi and toadstools appear scattered through the damp undergrowth. The fungi emerge on verges and cling to rotting logs and tree trunks. On cold winter mornings when the valleys are cloaked in a swirling mist I sometimes go foraging for the edible species.

The rains that swell the river and fill the dams attract an army frogs. My favorite is the pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerrilii) who’s call sounds like a banjo string being plucked. Flame robins and scarlet robins flit around whilst kangaroos graze in open paddocks or laze in the grass taking advantage of sunny days.

When the days start to lengthen, the bushland areas turn golden with the wattles bursting into bloom. Green hood orchids appear from amongst the native grasses, and purple and mauve colored flowers auger the coming of spring.

Spring erupts with early morning bird choruses and the frenzied activity of nesting, mating and raising young fledglings. Reptiles like blue-tongues and snakes start to emerge from their sleepy winter abodes.

Butterflies, bees and other insects take advantage of the bountiful nectar-rich flowers. Sugar gliders hunt the abundant insects while ringtails feast on the new growth of eucalyptus trees. The forest comes alive under the watchful gaze and rhythmic groans of the tawny frogmouth, and the double note of the boobook owl calling.

At this time of year tiny floral beauties burst forth to brighten up the landscapes harsh façade. The bush is ablaze with orange-yellow and red blooms of bush peas, prolific showy white petals of prickly tea-tree, sprays of pink bells and blue pincushions, and the chocolate and vanilla perfume of the chocolate lily. It becomes evident why Warrandyte has, and continues to be such an inspiration to artists.

When summer arrives the brilliance of spring fades and the bush becomes tinder dry. Plants start to set seed, their feathery plumes dispersed by the wind or carried away by insects and birds. The predominantly white Christmas bush and Burgan that flower during summer court butterflies to a background orchestra of cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets.

On warm days skinks and blue-tongues sun themselves on rocks. People flock to the river seeking a quiet corner to cool off, until the gusty north winds send them scurrying from the bush like ants in search of cooler, safer places, away from the threat of bushfire.

Fire has been an integral part of the landscape since the Wurundjeri used it as part of their hunting techniques. Since European settlement numerous fires have swept through the area including one on Black Thursday in 1851 that would have cleared much of the bush in which gold miners were searching for gold, leaving it black and scorched. Parts of Warrandyte were also devastated by fires in 1939, 1962, 1969 and 1991. On most of these occasions the river provided refuge from the smoke and flames for residents who fled there to escape the advancing fronts.

I watched the red orb over Kinglake from my balcony when the Kilmore fires burnt on the evening of 7 February 2009. The heat had been oppressive that day. The wind roared like a high-speed train driving heat from the depths of hell before it. The fire sucked oxygen from the air and ripped tree trunks from the earth. It melted paint from doors and flesh from bones without mercy or discrimination. Many perished that day, but Warrandyte was spared by a wind change that came through earlier than predicted.

Fourth Hill. Part 3

I see their ghosts running through the forest
that consumes the evidence of their passing
as mines and sheds and steel
succumb to natures endeavours

In the late 70’s, around fifteen year after the Monument mine closed, I used to ride my horse through the bushland around Fourth Hill and swim bareback in the Yarra at Warrandyte. I would often tether my horse at the front of a shop so I could go in and buy ice cream to eat sitting in the shade of the willows by the running waters of the river.

About twenty years ago I moved to Warrandyte. Now I go jogging through the forest on the trails I used to gallop along.

The earth’s wounds of the past have grown over with grasses, creepers, orchids and wildflowers that spread their carpet beneath the eucalypts and wattles. The kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas and lizards that scurry around are warned of my approach by the kookaburras, cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets squawking at my intrusion.

I pass abandoned mine shafts sprouting native grasses and the rusted corrugate dwellings falling back into natures embrace. The miners abandoned mullock heaps are cloaked in lichen and mosses and riddled with ant colonies.

I imagine the heart break of the Wurundjeri who cared for this country that sustained them, their culture and language, when their land was taken by those whose eyes only saw land as a commodity. An asset to profit from.

As my feet carry me through the bushland the only gold I see now are the golden wattles that brighten my winter run. Their yellow blooms under the stringybark trees dust the river’s surface with pollen.

Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of the ghosts of those who went before me on the shady banks of the river and around the the deserted mine shafts. I am enamored by how this ancient land has taken back its birthright under Bunjil’s watchful gaze.