Sex, death and Ned Kelly: How love fits into the legend

One from the archives! Yes, an essay. BUT, not full of jargon or padding and I’m posting it because the love for the works shines through it even 14 years after I wrote it. These two paperbacks – first, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, in which Ned Kelly tells his own story of the man behind the mask, in the idiom of the famous Jerilderie letter; second, Sister Kate, about the girl whose family loyalty would destroy her, have survived every Minimalism Purge since, and remain in pride of place at home. It’s books like this that opened my eyes to what literature can do. If you’ve already read one or both, enjoy this deep-dive revisit; to me, the quoted passages have lost none of their power in the years since they were published. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll be intrigued! I’ll be happy to lend you mine.

So without further ado, on to the sex and death…

In Sister Kate and The True History of the Kelly Gang, women’s experiences of love are represented as inextricably bound with the experience of death: of being part of the Kelly legend itself. Love is intense, physical and fleeting, snatched in the private moments that don’t have a place in the grand Kelly narrative. However, these moments of rare peace and joy seem inevitably overshadowed by the reality of life inside the legend – the Kelly gang, their husbands and lovers, are committed to their internal loves and ties within the family and the gang, and seem fated to a cycle of pride and revenge that causes the destruction and death of both their loves and themselves. The salvation that love represents is ultimately sacrificed.

Love in these two novels is experienced in the background of a high-drama, high-octane story. Moments of peace are snatched and never figure in the Kelly’s grand plan, as Ned says in the Kelly Gang; “I told her I had never imagined marrying anyone but now I could imagine what a peaceful life a man might have”. He can see Mary only rarely and when the police are searching for the gang must come to see her briefly, under cover of darkness and constant threat of discovery. Love becomes a thing as desperate and hunted as the Kellys themselves. “All I could think were to lay with her one last time I were mad as a dog and didnt care the traps was meanwhile humming like a hive of bees not 400yd. away”. Loving encounters are based on the first thrilling days of sexual desire, and this intense physicality also has a desperate quality. The whole tone of the book suggests that love must come in high concentration, as another chance to be close might never come.

There is a similar situation in the love of Kate Kelly and Joe Byrne in Sister Kate. Their relationship exists almost exclusively at night or under cover, over a few occasions, and physical contact has to bear all of the significance because they have neither the time nor the liberty to take things any slower. A sense of hushed urgency pervades every encounter. “He came later when the others were asleep, with his hand on his lips in case he startled me awake…before dawn he slid away…I did not look at Joe but my body sensed his near all day, as it does when you are caught up in that madness of the flesh that we call love”. One of the last times Kate is able to spend alone with him they spend in a lean-to in the bush and this experience is as high-voltage and intense as the first;

“Our bodies clung, and we kissed and kissed until it felt that we drained out of ourselves and into each other. Sometime in the night I woke and he was sitting on the bed watching me, a look of such tenderness on his face that I have never seen before or since on anyone. If I was not already melted that look would have destroyed me”.

Immediately after dawn Kate must be awakened with the news that they have to get up and ride a full day – the show must go on, so to speak, and love must be snatched in the available time. As Kate says before she goes to see the gang in the bush for the first time, “If I had not grabbed my chance at happiness then it would have been too late”. This sense that time is precious characterises all of the love experienced in both books and the moments of stolen intimacy become rarer and more dangerous as the Kelly noose gets tighter. They are offset by long periods of isolation, worry, poverty and hardship for the women when the men are absent, hiding in the bush or horse-stealing, or in prison.

In both books, the descriptions of horses and riding are visual symbols of the freedom of sex and love against an ominous backdrop. The characters feel an exhilaration, peace and joy on horseback that is also found in their rare encounters with each other, and in Sister Kate and the Kelly Gang, Kate and Mary are both associated with horses, symbols of beauty, liberty and also fragility – moments stolen with them are akin to the horse-stealing the men are constantly accused of.

As Ned describes Mary, “She were a foal…she swayed and hummed a little song about a girl who dreamt of great white horses”. They are a symbol of the hope and possibility of flight, of the escape that love represents in their otherwise grim lives. When Ned’s daughter is born, he receives a telegram, encrypted for security from the enclosing police, that simply says “DAM AND FILLY AT PASTURE IN SAN FRANCISCO FEED IS PLENTIFUL”. Ned and his friends and family celebrate with a show of exuberant riding.

“My daughter it were you. You was born…Galloping in a circle round the paddock then a figure 8 I stood astride the mare one legged my pistols in my hands and all the boys stared…Then what a show of riding they put on to welcome you and what a knees up promptly followed”.

In Sister Kate as well, horses represent the happiness, freedom and independence Kate gets from her secret visits to the gang in the bush, where most of her few memories of Joe are made. She calls riding “the only sheer pleasure any of us really ever knew”. Later, after the death of Joe and Ned and she is living at home again after her illness, she cannot face the countryside and the love it represents – “She knew she could not remain where she had ridden with Joe Byrne and her brothers almost everywhere”. The horses Kate remembers are symbols of her lost hopes of happiness. She searches the horizon every morning, “where the brothers often rode across the border with Joe Byrne; watching the first sun lightening the valleys, straining for what I knew I would never see – the growing shapes of four men on their horses”.

Even after her marriage, Kate finds horses still a comfort and associates with them this past happiness. They are still present in her life at the period she recalls where hope is still possible for a complete life without Joe.

“After Freddie was born we took over the livery stables in Rankin Street, and some of that time is still clear in my mind. How I loved that familiar smell of the horses, even our clothing was saturated with it. It was a brief space of great contentment to me, working, riding, grooming, feeding, the baby in his basket beside me, or later toddling around underfoot, him knowing the rhythms of a horse before he could walk, as we all did. But, of course, as my mother always said, the good times do not last and it is only foolishness to think that they will”.

This prediction is proved by Kate’s slow deterioration as the years go by. There is a sense of inevitability about both novels in which the lives and relationships of the Kellys and their loves move inexorably towards destruction. Shadow, once bought her by a man she thought she might be happy with after Joe and kept throughout Kate’s marriage, is sold by Kate in a final gesture of apathy and defeat – a sister and lover of members of the Kelly Gang, her life and identity is touched by them still long after they are gone. “I did not ride myself – I did not seem to have the heart for it – so they used the mare in the livery stables in return for her keep. I have sold her now. I could not bear any longer the reproachful looks she gave when I walked past”.

The legacy of the Kelly family is made clear in both novels; women experience not only love but a family and the “gang”, both of which possess internal loves and loyalties that are inextricably bound up with their men. In the Kelly Gang, Mary cannot love a Kelly without becoming one and dealing with these loyalties – she has to accept and exist alongside Ned’s commitment to both the gang and to his mother – in Ned’s words, him and his mother were “grown together like two branches of an old wisteria”.

Kate struggles to understand and respect the ties between Joe and the other gang members that seem to shut her out, and also the hold that being a Kelly has on her own identity – by name as well as by choice, to Ned and Joe together, she is tied to the legend and this tie cannot be broken by all of her name-changes and wanderings. Her attempts to live a life detached from the memories are defeated at every turn.

There is a certain blurring of the lines usually drawn between love of family, friends and lovers in these novels, and the women must cope with these altered boundaries. It is hinted in the Kelly Gang that Ned’s love for his mother goes beyond the filial – his love for her appears the highest priority, and he attempts to protect her from her wayward husbands with something akin to jealousy. His need to have her released from prison becomes, seemingly, more important than his need to be with Mary. As he is taunted by his own brother Dan, and held up mockingly in comparison to his mother’s husband;

“True said he your ma is your donah as everybody knows.

Shutup.

Hubba hubba Mamma is your girl…you got a grudge against George cause he married your girl.

“The coppers dropped about a chain behind us but that was close enough to hear my brother declare George King a better horse thief than I would ever be”.

This passage, as well as illustrating the complexity of the ties between Ned and his mother, also is another example of the many that forge a continuing connection between love, women, horses and horse-stealing.

There is a similar preoccupation in Sister Kate with the nature of relationships between family members, and also within that limitlessly significant area of love, intimacy and loyalty known as “mateship” to all Australians and embodied by the boys in the gang. It is suggested that being a Kelly means being far above and beyond what human beings are normally called to do to survive, that unusual relationships have grown out of this. Like transvestitism is continually brought up and contested in the Kelly Gang, and remains a site of unresolved conflict, Sister Kate deals with questions of incest and homosexuality, with consideration to how this is significant in terms of the wider concerns of these books – what it was that set the Kellys and their loves apart. As Kate says,

“They loved my brother. They loved him as much as men can love other men without it being the disgusting thing that Aaron Sherritt later suggested. I do not know what physical release men can find together, but I cannot believe it is the mockery Aaron made it out. Not that I think they loved like that – yet, maybe they did…now I hope there were the times when they moaned away their need and their fear in each other’s arms. Love is where you find it, and we cannot always be the ones to choose…”

The issue of choice is an important one – both novels are pervaded by a sense of fate, of the injustice which is a form of fate because they argue that persecution is brought upon them by a name and not by themselves; as Ned is put into prison for the first time, he says “I knew I were finally in that place ordained from the moment of my birth”. All of the characters are thrown into a narrative that seems greater than themselves, that they rail against, but swear to fight, and in doing so complete their own prophecies. The women are exposed to loves outside the ordinary, but there is a sense that this way of life was not chosen but forced upon them, and they have reacted by loving in newer ways, with different loyalties.

This is why Ned resents being made to choose between his mother and Mary; and why he makes the choice that we find strange, even slightly wrong; his mother over his wife. As seen in this argument between him and Mary before Mary leaves to have their baby in safety,

“Is it true do you really love her more than me?

It aint the same…

But you promised to buy our passage once the bank was robbed.

I cannot abandon my mother Mary you know that.

Then what of me?

What of you?”

The tension also shows when Mary travels to the hiding place of the men and tells them the story of Molly’s children; Ned is clearly torn between his friends and Mary as their differences of opinion are raised and Joe is rude to Mary.

A similar situation is seen in Sister Kate; Kate Byrne is forced by this conflict to leave Aaron Sheritt because he is a traitor to the gang. As Kate tells her of what is believed about Aaron, Kate realises the consequences;

“Her face closed. You may love someone more than your own family, but you may never admit it.

“My mother wants me to break with him. She says if I marry a man who betrays my brother I’ll be cast out of the family forever”…We walked back and when we came to our clearing she would not stop for tea but galloped off with her head high and her jaw clenched, straight to Aaron, I think, to tell him she did not want to associate any more with her brother’s enemy”.

 

The blurring of the boundaries between wife and mother are shown too in the confusing in both books of Mary and Ned’s mother, and in the kind of love Kate feels for Joe. In the Kelly Gang, Ned is given to descriptions of his mother, particularly on horseback, as a young and attractive woman, full of spirit, and the observation is often one that could be from any man, rather than from her son. He also mistakes the figure of Mary for his mother – “that crow black hair that white skin and in my confusion imagined that it must be my mother made free. I felt a bolt of joy the worry lifting off me. Ma I shouted…but the woman heard my cry she turned and to my shock it were Mary Hearn”.

In Sister Kate, the lines distinguishing mother and lover are also complex, and faintly disturbing as throughout the book Kate’s love for Joe is linked to her maternal instinct – it appears that when Joe dies, her ability to love her children is also impaired. This link is first made clear early on when Kate remembers her love affair in its earliest days;

“Since I have had children I recognise that urge I had then to crush his face to my breast, to protect him from everything. Why did I not act? I was in limbo myself, holding to him, waiting on his decisions, like a mother letting him come to me. Perhaps I knew, somewhere, that I could do nothing”.

The echoes of the implications formed by these feelings are seen later in the book. Kate is distant from her children. She refuses to breastfeed, in direct contrast to the feelings she describes in the above quotation, and becomes less and less competent at caring for her children. This reflects a shattering of her protective urge and ultimately her belief in love against the forces of life, or fate; unable to form this bond with her children, she chooses to leave them and rejoin her place in the Kelly legend, just as Joe once chose a life other than one with her.

Women’s experiences of love in these two novels centre around this trope of love in spite of everything. Love is what defies the hostile world that relentlessly closes in on the Kellys and everyone they care about. Yet love exists in opposition to it and so only exists in this form because of it; they know they will never lead a quiet life, that they are doomed to persecution and harassment, violence and brutality always, and so in the heart of every person in question there lies the assumption that love, although a beautiful and liberating thing, will not be what endures. Love is something to be snatched in the face of disaster, in the remaining moments before an inevitable catastrophe. This tone is preserved in both novels; from the structure of Sister Kate in which we know throughout that Joe Byrne dies and Kate will go mad with grief, and from the unmistakable, drawn-out beginning of her decline. There is a stony promise in words like;

“It should have been the death of all my hopes then, what I saw by the light of the fire and the dying sun in that clearing, but it would still take many months for the end to be complete, for the hunters to have their kill”.

In the Kelly Gang also, a great deal is made of the issue of fate, and Ned’s reminiscent tone to his daughter is used often to point out to her that a happy memory was the calm before the storm, that a certain mistake was to cost him highly and all the way through that Ned was hunted for who he was and not what he did, and that he was destined to seek revenge for the collected injustice of years. There is an increasing tone of desperation to these asides; and they are worded in powerful and uncompromising ways. He describes his mother’s selection as they ride past: “All them dead and ringbarked trees was the grave of honest hope”.

And in a particularly chilling description of his brother Dan: “Dan were sitting in front of the fire with his back to us but now he stood his bright eyes shining from his dirty face this were a boy no longer but a Kelly burnt and hardened by the fates”.

The path of revenge, not of love, is the one eventually chosen by the gang. The ties between mates and family are the ones that remain until death; love remains impossible. The women internalise the Kelly legend but it in return leaves them out. In Sister Kate Kate puts this conflict and the ultimate choice into words;

“I think they were all relieved to see me go so that they could spring back into their hard, passionate struggle against the earth. Even Joe, though he held me so tight I could not breathe when he left me in the foothills, the tears running down his haggard cheeks. I think now that he fought a battle with what he thought was the soft side of his nature, and somewhere he was happy to be able to relinquish what I offered, though he did not say this. We made and remade our vows, crossing our fingers against the inevitable, always talking of ‘When it is all over’. Well, I truly half believed that soon it might be and that we would be together somewhere. Right up until the end I tried to cling to that hope, and perhaps it would have been better if I’d let it go then, into the mist and the swirling snow, as his form became shadow and disappeared”.

A metaphor for this ultimate choice can be found in the Kelly Gang in Mary’s description of Molly’s Children, as she explains to them why Steve should not be wearing women’s clothes, as it is a mark of loyalty to an Irish group that took their revenge on a Lord they could not confront by torturing and killing his horse.

“They done to the horse what they dare not do to its master. The stick were sharpened to a point then hardened in the fire and the man with the wren mask thrust it in the horse’s belly…she heard grown men blame the horse for taking their common land they said the proof were having Ireland on his head and they demanded of the poor beast why they should not take Ireland back from him. Much horror the girl saw and heard the horse were shrieking horribly”.

As Mary tries to dissuade the gang from the path of violence in the name of an oppression they cannot confront directly the threads of a larger narrative are seen in this story. Eventually, in both novels, horses suffer. The Lord’s horse is tortured to death, Kate goes to work in a circus that pretends to cure horses of ills they have caused by tormenting them before the show. Later Kate sells her Shadow, and in the Kelly Gang the men are reduced, in the final denouement, to eating their beloved horses to survive. The descent of the Kelly gang and their loves in this way is a metaphor for the growing power of their quest for revenge and an impossible justice over all else – they make the choice to injure and leave their women, and horses, and this marks the beginning of the end. Women’s experiences of love are subject to the knowledge that they will be sacrificed in commitment to another ideal.

The writers use powerful symbols throughout to associate these twin heights of emotion, joy and pain. Kate’s wedding flowers are bought from an undertaker and her child, whom she planned to call Joseph in a final blurring of the mother-lover lines, is “born dead after so much pain and blood”.

However, not the least factor in these novels is what we bring to them as readers familiar with the Ned Kelly legend. Whatever is contested or mythologised, every version of this chameleon legend has its common factor; the irrefutable deaths of the Kelly gang. We are hyper-aware of this; death makes the Kelly legend what it is. Any exploration of a woman’s experience of love here must exist alongside the knowledge that this love will be cut short in violence. Love and death are inextricably intertwined, and this is perhaps the most crucial and meaningful part of the representation of love in both Sister Kate and the True History of the Kelly Gang.

 

 

Growing up gay in Gero: how Holden lived to tell the tale

Sheppard contacted a suicide support service that promised an email back within 24 hours. He’d rush home, open his computer and gratefully open the email from the only other human being who knew how he felt.

Holden Sheppard with a friend, aged 19.

Holden with a friend at 19.

He would listen to a song, Joining You, by Alanis Morissette, that told him his thoughts were not the only reality. He would listen to this song on repeat.

With these small actions he tethered himself to the world and waited for the darkness to lift.

Holden Sheppard now.

Holden now.

Sheppard’s now one of Australia’s brightest young literary stars. Thousands of followers check in for his latest daily cheeky Instagram selfie, guessing what colour his mohawk will turn next. He’s attracted national attention for his debut novel, Invisible Boys, which has already won three major awards before its official release on October 1. He’s spending October touring Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. He’s an ambassador for Lifeline.

How did he come so far in just a few years? Read the rest of Holden’s moving and uplifting story here on WAtoday

  • If you, or anyone you know, needs mental health support, please call a helpline such as Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636; Mental Health Emergency Response Line 1300 555 788 (Metro) or 1800 676 822 (Peel); Rurallink 1800 552 002; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; The Samaritans Crisis Line 08 9381 5555.
  • For specialist help lines including for men, young people, the LGBTIQ+ community and rural residents, see this list.

Review: Driving into the Sun, Marcella Polain

How can she go forward, go anywhere but back, when the past is all we see? Future a creature always approaching, striking us always from behind?

 

I like a balanced book diet. Classics to further my education and knowledge. Non-fiction to give insight and navigation skills for the modern world. Random recommendations, to ensure ‘wild cards’ and connect with my loved ones who are also readers. Literary fiction to challenge myself intellectually and inspire me and savour words. Easy children’s, crime and horror novels to relax and escape.

All give equal joy, in different flavours, and keep my brain healthy and happy.

Like all diets it could be improved. I could seek out more international authors, for example. More books from minority voices. But already there is so much and sometimes such a program gives rise to an uneasy consciousness that there isn’t enough time.

It was this mindset in which I picked up Driving into the Sun, the first literary fiction work I’d read for a while, and felt myself trying to storm through it like it was the new Dervla MacTiernan crime thriller.

Well, it does open with a death: the cruelly sudden taking of a man, a husband and father.

For Orla, a child living in suburban Perth in 1968, her Daddy was everything.

After his death she, her mother and little sister are ripped from their comforting nuclear bubble into a fractured family with a single working mother, in financial and personal limbo.

Orla’s mum is not particularly maternal and her little sister Deebee is not particularly sweet. They all cope in their own private ways, leaving scant room for comforting each other.

Orla, already a quiet child, folds into herself as she grapples silently with a new situation she can’t accept in a world she already scarcely comprehended.

She lacks the bearings we get as adults: the means to tell ourselves stories about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

This book strips away that comforting narrative, catapulting you back to a time in which you had no power and no meaning, except that you could make from your senses, and later, scraps of sentences caught from adults who tossed them carelessly away within earshot.

Orla had overheard her mother telling Kit that he was living with a woman up north. At school, Orla has looked in the atlas. There was a lot of world up north. Maybe Cora missed him like Orla missed her father. If she did, she never let on. And they were adults, Cora, Henry, Kit. She was a kid. And they must know what’s best: not talk about things pretend everything’s normal, and that way it would be.

Privy to Orla’s sight, touch and hearing, and with the benefit of experience, the reader is in the unusual position of knowing what is happening to a character better than the character herself.

This is the second novel of Western Australian author Marcella Polain, whose first novel, The Edge of the World, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

She has also published three books of poetry – and who but a poet can better speak the sense-language of a child, inhabit those levels below conscious meaning?

There was a sound like the flap of a bird’s wing that made her press her eye to one of those gaps. She had seen the old lady before, folding clothes at the washing line next door and she was there again, her back turned, this time pegging up a shirt. She bent slowly, took another from the basket, held it along its bottom edge and flicked it, one, two, three times, that wing-billow sound, then pegged it up beside the other. Shirts hung upside down like kids on monkey bars.

Yet like when reading poetry (or growing through childhood for that matter) a different pace applies. When I tried to read it fast, to find out ‘what happens’, impatient with Orla’s fumbling through life, it began to slip through my fingers.

I was recently at a writing workshop with the author Brenda Walker who spoke about books such as Elizabeth Jolley’s, or Joan London’s – books that “take the reader on a kind of dance”.

“You don’t read them to be taken on a charge through the plot,” she said. “You read them for the atmosphere.

“You have to throw yourself into the sea … it’s quite frightening, but it bears you up.”

She noted that forces such as Netflix and the TV revolution have fundamentally changed storytelling, made it almost entirely about plot and character.

That readers seldom now want to truck “with the oblique and the poetic” – that they respond instead to “limpidity and simplicity”.

I don’t want to be like that, I thought suddenly, 80 pages in. I just bought a novel that took 10 years to write. Why this need to get it done in a weekend?

I slowed down, and began to concentrate. And then I fell in love with this book, which is one of the most pure and true descriptions of grief I have ever read.

It teases you with hope and the possibility of simple redemption and healing, only to trick you back to square one again and again – just as grief itself does. On page 237, completely absorbed, I began to cry.

Polain captures utterly what she has herself phrased as “the complex interior life of children”: that time in which you were so aware of the way everything looked and felt and sounded and tasted, somehow bigger and more intense than now; that time in which your parents were your entire universe, frightening and mystifying and utterly necessary.

So don’t buy this book if you want a whodunit. Buy it if you love words, and want your heart, like Orla’s, to lurch “with loss and wishing”. If you want to explore the deepest experiences of human existence: grief and love and guilt and coming of age.

Buy it if you want to throw yourself into the sea, and have it bear you up.

 

 

Review: The Dry, Jane Harper

My colleague Heather handed me a book. Just read the first page, she said.

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

 

The drought had left the blowflies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny lifestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.

 

‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer …

 

The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation…

 

Of course, I instantly borrowed the book, a debut novel from Australian journalist Jane Harper that has bagged so many awards that the stickers jostle for space on the cover.

I had to find out what happens next, as enigmatic federal agent Aaron Falk goes home for the funeral of Luke Hadler, the best friend of his childhood and teens – who has, it appears, taken his own life.

It’s no ordinary funeral, though: before his final decision, Luke also shot his wife and little son, sparing only his baby daughter.

The town largely accepts that the searing drought, the heat, and perhaps the prospect of his farm going under all combined to send Luke over the edge.

But Luke’s parents are desperate for some alternative answer. And so Falk, a financial crimes specialist, makes a reluctant promise to them that he will have a poke through Luke’s affairs.

In part because of old loyalties, in part to protecting a secret of his own from that long-ago past he and Luke shared.

Falk finds that the local police sergeant has his own doubts and suspicions about what happened on that farm and together they begin an off-the-books investigation.

But things get increasingly nasty in the town as the heat builds, and you begin to wonder if Falk can solve this increasingly sinister riddle before violence breaks out once more.

Harper’s parched and lonely setting forms a backdrop to a plot that’s like kindling, artfully laid to build to a fast and furious burn.

And her crackling creation of Kiewarra proves itself as much a character as Luke, or Falk, in the heart-stopping role it plays in a nailbiting climax.

I never expected this debut novel to be quite so complex and layered – I guessed again and again, but the truth shocked me when it came, like a cold plunge into a deep river on a sweltering day.

A riveting blend of literary and crime fiction, it is full of disquieting truths about about rural life and community.

I had to work to make myself keep it going for three days; luckily, I’m late to the Jane Harper party, so I can immediately go on to the sequel, Force of Nature, also published by Pan MacMillan.

There’s also the film version coming, optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, starring Eric Bana as Falk.

Read and liked The Dry? Then you might enjoy this recent interview with Jane Harper on literary podcast The Garret in which she discusses the book and her path to publication.

Markus Zusak gives glimpse behind the scenes of latest bestseller, Bridge of Clay

Some people were disappointed Markus Zusak’s latest novel Bridge of Clay, about which he will speak in hotly anticipated events at Perth Writer’s Week, isn’t more like the book that catapulted him to global fame: The Book Thief.

Zusak’s six novels have earned him ten years on the New York Times bestseller list and established him as one of Australia’s biggest authors. The Book Thief has been translated into more than 40 languages and is now a major movie.

The Book Thief has been called "the best book of all time"... no pressure, eh?
Markus Zusak

But while The Book Thief’s Nazi Germany and Bridge of Clay’s suburban Australia tell wildly different stories in almost diametrically opposed settings, they share more subtle likenesses.

Both deal deeply with grief and pain, forcing the reader to feel and recall emotions at once deeply private and universally human.

Yet both do so artfully; far from being simple stories about loss, they both employ the device of an all-important, all-seeing central narrator who shows how people’s lives become intertwined through love and shared history.

Bridge of Clay is about a dying mother; but it is about far more than that. The 600-page saga is set up like a mystery, its pages littered with clues: a mattress. A mule. A murderer. An obstacle course. A clothespeg. And the iron gamepiece from a Monopoly set. Just to name a few.

Read the rest of this story on WAtoday.

Read my story on the Perth Writers Week program: Toil, timing and a dash of luck: Perth Writers Week books the big guns

 

Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. and for fucksake don’t get in my way.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Australian fiction: Afternoons with Harvey Beam, by Carrie Cox

As a young man, Harvey Beam got the hell out of his hometown, confirming his suspicions that you can successfully run away from your problems. But after forging a big-city career in talkback radio, Harvey is now experiencing a ‘positional hiatus’. The words aren’t coming out right, Harvey’s mojo is fading and a celebrity host is eyeing his timeslot.

Back in Shorton, Harvey’s father Lionel appears at long last to be dying. It seems it’s finally time for Harvey Beam to head home and face a different kind of music.

In wading through a past that seems disturbingly unchanged, the last thing he expects is a chance encounter with a wonderful stranger…

Perth journalist Carrie Cox is the author of Coal, Crisis, Challenge and You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Bus. This is her debut novel but it reads as though she has been writing fiction for years.

The premise sounds rich with the promise of drama and the narrative didn’t disappoint, unfolding in a way that kept me guessing right up until a neat tail-twist I never saw coming.

Cox has a gift for evoking places and people with deft, apt descriptions that are never laboured or overdone.

Her characters are filled-out, humanly flawed and likeable.

She gracefully manages the balancing act of focusing on and building the internal life of Harvey Beam, while spinning you through the story.

She invites you to understand the joy and madness, the peculiar intimacy and alchemy of the talkback radio world.

She has unerring insight into people and families, but still respects the mysteries at their centres.

Her creation of an eye-rolling teenager in Harvey’s daughter Cate is spot-on. It’s no caricature, however, but a sympathetic and sweet portrait of a girl who becomes an unexpected sidekick for Harvey in his family drama.

The topics are deep but Cox’s touch is light; all the while she is unfailingly, confidently funny.

She has nailed it and I can’t wait for the next book.

*Afternoons with Harvey Beam is at bookshops now. I got mine from Boffins.