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.

 

 

Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 23: Boating for Beginners (Jeanette Winterson, 1985)

Books left: 3. Weeks left: 6 (just keep swimming).

‘I’d rather play Battleships but we haven’t any graph paper, have we?’
They hadn’t, and so they were forced to talk about the Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not you should write books which clearly fixed themselves into time or books which flouted the usual notion of time in order to clear the mind of arbitrary divisions.

boating for beginners

I revere many novelists, but it’s fair to say there are some for whom my feelings run deepest.

They include Peter Carey. Carol Shields. Lucy Maud Montgomery (shush). Isobelle Carmody. John Marsden. Tim Winton. John Wyndham.

And Jeanette Winterson.

My affair with Winterson (and it seems entirely appropriate to describe reading her books as such) began during my English degree with The Passion. This novel was assigned for a unit on postmodern narratives, but don’t hold that against it.

I’ve actually only read a couple more of her works since then, but this was enough to make Winterson one of the authors to make the most lasting impressions on me.

Long after the details of The Passion‘s alluring stories of labyrinthine Venice have faded, I remember how arrestingly its language and characters hit me, the pull of its mystery.

Winterson’s writing is sensual, thematically complex and unexpected. Her power of invention is so dazzling it seems inadequate to term it imagination or originality. Her creativity is not about novelty, charming though her novelties are; it is about what they ultimately serve to reveal, the truths about how people think and what they desire.

At least, that’s how I remember it. Is it any wonder I haven’t picked up one for so long? After uni, I craved meat and potatoes reading for several years, hence my impressive mental crime novel catalogue. And sometimes you just get out of the habit of wanting to be really moved, really unsettled. You just think… I’ve had a long day at work. I need some simple entertainment.

This sort of thinking has resulted in me hoarding several unread Wintersons for more than several years, so I thought it time to see if we still clicked, or whether my love was one best left in the past.

So I open the book and the storm hits.

Boating for Beginners, which I shamelessly chose because it was short, features a romance author called Bunny Mix, a God made of animated ice-cream and Noah, who created that God in a culinary accident.

They are pretending to make a blockbuster film, but they are actually planning to wreak havoc, destroy the world and rewrite history.

Unless, as synchronised swimmer-turned-transsexual potter Marlene says, a group of girls succeed in making “one heroic attempt at foiling that cosmic dessert and the little chocolate button that created him.”

‘I like reading books,’ insisted Marlene, ‘but I’m more concerned with how to get rid of the cellulite on my thighs. I mean, there’s plenty of books around but I’ve only got this one body.
‘Art shows us how to transcend the purely physical,’ said Gloria loftily.
‘Yes, but Art won’t get rid of my cellulite, will it?’
‘Art will show you how to put your cellulite in perspective,’ replied Gloria, wondering for a moment who was feeding her her lines.
‘I don’t want to put it in perspective,’ Marlene tried to be patient. ‘I want to get rid of it.”

Boating for Beginners turns out to be what the author herself described as a “comic book with pictures”, a laugh-out loud alternative to the Biblical flood myth, and a gimlet-eyed look at why people react to the story so powerfully.

I need not have feared it too smart to be fun. This story about people believing any story put to them, and creating their own histories, is wonderfully, confidently absurd.

I have decided to keep my pile of unread Wintersons and be less shy about dipping into it next time. Winterson is by no means a one-trick pony. She sparkles – and surprises – every time and deserves to be read now, not kept for another day.

We’re back on, in other words.

Keep or kill? In my new tradition (I am learning from this project) I am going to pass this on along with my other already-read Winterson titles. But I’m keeping those yet unread and I’m keeping The Passion.

 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 11: The Amphora Project (William Kotzwinkle, 2005)

Books remaining: 15. Weeks left to read them: 28 (I laugh in the face of danger). 

As a pubescent, I read Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a novelisation of the legendary 1982 Steven Spielberg film and thought the book just about better than the movie. Don’t throw rocks at me. The book was excellent.

Hence when I came across an original Kotzwinkle several years ago I snapped it up and, true to form, didn’t read it. Until now.

The Amphora Project

The Amphora Project

This is the story of Amphora, the immortality machine, and the humans who foolishly try to use it to achieve eternal life, at a time in which the Earth has long stopped being habitable, and people have long stopped accepting the idea of going quietly into that good night. When it becomes clear that Amphora is unstable and threatening the very existence of the race trying to use it, a band of fugitives makes one final attempt to destroy the device.

Lovers of a good robot, look no further – little Upquark, who converts himself into a suitcase in times of stress, is drawn haplessly into the battle and is hands-down what most endeared this story to me.

Upquark stared about in wonder. There was sand in his rollers, but excitement in his emotional card. Highly unusual circumstances were unfolding, for which he had no reference. He’d tossed and turned for hours in Ren’s ship, analysing for hours the terrible sequence of events he and his friends had undergone, and then, quite on its own, a train of nondeductive inference had begun, culminating in a picture of himself as a dangerous outlaw with a high metallic luster. Now he tried out a menacing gesture with his grippers, but no one seemed to notice. Perhaps he required Pugnacity Firmware.

Special mention, too, goes to the ‘junkernauts’, hazardous monoliths formed of obsolete, lunatic and half-broken robots determined to go on functioning in whatever capacity possible, with the result that they join to form these enormous oddities that sail about the galaxy, spectacularly destroying everything in their paths.

With its invention, whimsy and vivid stable of lovable, repulsive, weird and sexy characters, this would in fact itself have made a great movie. As a book it was a little hard to get, and stay, immersed in.

Though I put this down to lack of time to ‘get a run at it’, I find myself questioning this conventional wisdom. Surely the lack of ability to ‘get into’ books is not all because we all now have woefully short attention spans and even less free time.

When I feel truly captivated by a book I make the time, constantly rushing off for five minutes more to poke my nose into it, deciding to let this or that task slide so I might polish it off. Perhaps if we are so time-poor and have so much competing for our attention we should only keep reading any book if we feel that pull, and never let anything less suffice. (Though had this been my philosophy always there would doubtless be no chance I ever would have finished, for example, Mrs Dalloway  – a bit painful, sure, but undoubtedly worth it). But as a general rule…

I vaguely knew Kotzwinkle’s work, sure, so picking up the book was justified. But as you keep reading a book that is not compelling you, what else is going unread? Right now because of this project, I am not reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia. I’m not reading Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought or Don Watson’s The Bush or letting the Matriarch pass on her latest book club book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves or sharing the Ministry’s new obsession with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp thrillers.

Did I enjoy The Amphora Project? Yes. Would I recommend it to a sci-fi lover? Yes. Was it worth feeling cut off from the new book world for? Not really. Welcome to my learning curve.

Slowly I am realising I don’t actually want to read every single one of the hundreds of unread books I own, though I feel like saying it quietly in case they hear me. It is not that they have no value. It is just that I am realising the value they have to me, and to who I am, lessened over the years I carted them around.

Now what I value is freshness and space, clarity and time. A load of books is not proof of personality or taste and nor should it be. If an object is in my home, I should get joy from touching it and seeing it, not a vague sense of guilt and overwhelm.

There are only so many rainy days I will have in my life.

This is why from now in on How to Cure a Bibliomaniac that for each letter I do as the second half of the alphabet approaches – if I pick one book above the rest, with the internet as my witness, I will get rid of the others if I’m not serious about reading them.

And I’m not going to keep this book either.

This post was inspired by The Minimalists.

The Dig Tree (Sarah Murgatroyd, 2000)

This is the book I’ve been intending to read ever since it was recommended to me by DOELD after I read, and raved about, The Supply Party by Martin Edmonds (see post below).

Where that book was about a particular, largely forgotten part of the famously ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, this is basically the ultimate history of the entire thing.

A sadder, stranger tale it would be difficult to come across.

Sarah Murgatroyd has a peculiar sympathy for the peculiar character of Burke, a man so spectacularly unsuited to the role of outback explorer – as she details – it is hard to believe she speaks the truth.

But she does, and the book’s precise detail and fat bibliography attest to Murgatroyd’s painstaking and extensive research.

Despite this, it has the nail-biting, absorbing qualities of a suspense novel, once you are firmly into it.

It is a testament to her humanity and obvious affinity with the tale that she manages to humanise the – frankly, horrible-sounding – Robert O’Hara Burke.

I was as profoundly affected by this book as I was by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a revolutionary kind of journalism, and Peter Carey’s historiographic metafiction (sorry, university moment) True History of the Kelly Gang.

The latter is a novel, but one rooted in fact and with its style drawn directly from Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter.

It is worth noting such similarities between these works, all incredibly memorable, disturbing and suberbly crafted, and between the feelings they have the power to create in the reader.

I needed a good hour staring quietly into space after turning the final page.

I will be entreating everybody I know to try this book. Stick with it and you will soon be unable to tear yourself away.

My only regret is that I didn’t read it the first time I was told to.

The Supply Party (Martin Edmond, 2009)

Part biography, history and travel narrative yet surpassing all in sum, Martin Edmond’s story of the Burke and Wills expedition is told through the life and death of its scientist, naturalist, collector and artist, Ludwig Becker.

Reflective and atmospheric, Edmonds’ descriptive work fleshes out the human side of Becker and the expedition and teases out the tragedy at the heart of what I previously thought of as a rather dry story, told to death.

Snippets, anecdotes and quotes taken from Becker’s notes illuminate the atmosphere and humanity (both good and bad) Edmonds picked from the story’s bones. Edmond makes Becker real and immediate, so much so that by the end I really don’t want to hear the rest; for it’s not a particularly happy story.

Nevertheless I am compelled to go on.

Now it has taken a place in my mental collection of haunting representations and stories: alongside Sidney Nolan and Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly; Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Joan Lindsay and Perer Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Past and present blend as the narrative alternates between Burke & Wills’ expedition and that of the author following, albeit much more safely, in their footsteps years later.

The land he is seeing draws the author’s thoughts repeatedly back into the story of the doomed expedition, and one of Edmond’s major achievements is to give you a sense of not only what the land looks like today and how it looked 150 years ago, but 50 000 years ago before he, Ludwig, Burke or Wills ever walked upon it.

A finely worked sense of ominous inevitability grows in the reader as we hear the now-familiar details of the party’s demise.

Discord grows between the dwindling numbers of men in the party. Gradually, and necessarily, they discard the camels, trackers, people, other supplies and hundreds of litres of rum which were catalogued with such pride at the journey’s beginning.

Becker is eventually required not for his artistic services but for the extra pair of hands that may make the difference between life and death. He is forced to leave behind the careful records, the tasks and equipment that constituted both his life’s work and his purpose for being on the expedition.

Edmonds draws a vivid, heartbreaking picture of Becker: ill, injured, bullied by the sadistic Burke and forced to make his observations and artworks at night. His love of his work, and unshaking commitment to it, is fully realised as we are shown the completeness of his exhaustion yet his absolute determination to continue with his mission as long as he is able to pick up a pencil.

The uniqueness of this book is its marriage of the human story with art history; Edmonds clearly has a deep respect for Becker’s artwork. I was as affected as he by the uniqueness of the work, which Edmond describes as in the tradition of miniaturing and portraiture – mixing scientific precision and detail, yet illuminating its subjects with whimsical, the fantastic and the grotesque.

In this crucial aspect the book is let down by its publication in trade paperback with a few measly reproductions in the centre, so small that the reader is forced to read the words and use the pictures as a sort of imaginative aid to help fill in details and colours described and vitally important to the story thematically, yet invisible in the versions shown.

I would love the opportunity to buy this in a coffee-table, hardcover format, with full-page glossy reproductions and more illustrations taken from Becker’s notes, already so painstakingly sourced by Edmond.

As Edmond’s background to this process recounts, he says to the librarians who want to know why he wants to access Becker’s jealously guarded sketchbook and poorly lit paintings that there is no substitute for seeing the originals. And why block access to art the public doesn’t know or care about anyway?

Therefore, it is a shame the scale and pathos of these rare reproductions weren’t given justice, though I recognise the market for such a book would be almost negligible.

To give the art community access to a book that rests firmly in the Australian history section would achieve Edmond’s goal far better – to give Becker his rightful place and recognition in art as well as history. As it is, the book is forced to be less than it was originally capable of, much like Becker at the close of his journey.

Yet this cannot undermine the subtle, scholarly elegance with which Edmond has written his elegy; it will certainly remain in my consciousness, as will Edmond himself.

Turbo blog

Presenting my guide to what I’ve been consuming recently. You’ll be happy to know I’m not including foodstuffs. I don’t want anyone to know these. 

  • Parrot and Olivier in America (Peter Carey, 2009)

Sadly, the picture of the cover is not that of the incredibly DROOLINGLY HANDSOME BLACK LEATHER-BOUND WITH STAMPED TITLE LIMITED EDITION SIGNED BY AUTHOR WITH RED RIBBON BOOKMARK copy that I have been reading. But I can’t really take a photo that will showcase its beauty.

I haven’t finished this yet. But as his novels get bigger and weirder, the more I love them. Even if you start a Peter Carey book thinking “oh, this is set in a place/time/culture that I know” you will soon leave your own realities far, far behind, scrabbling for footholds in Carey’s completely unique universe. No two books are the same, except for his reliably amazing writing, and – so far – this one has not disappointed. It’s talked about By Jennifer Byrne and the team on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club Christmas Special, 5/12/10. Watch the video here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/

  • SAS: The Search for Warriors. Two-Part Documentary: Military History, 2010 

For the first time in 25 years the SAS has allowed documentary photography. The resulting two-hour-ish experience spread over two episodes is unrelenting, adrenaline-filled, clear-your-schedule viewing and should not be missed. Whether you’re a military history devotee or absolutely not, you have my personal guarantee that you will be fascinated by every solitary minute of this deeply impressive and thought-provoking doco. Watch it here: http://www.sbs.com.au/documentary/program/sasthesearchforwarriors

  • Independence Day. Movie: Science Fiction/Action, 1996

Once again, the L.A.P.D. is asking Los Angelenos not to fire their guns at the visitor spacecraft. You may inadvertently trigger an interstellar war.

You can’t go wrong with this movie. You need to watch this intermittently throughout the whole of your adult life to retain top mental functioning and psychological health. An admirable choice for your Boxing Day stupors, now and in the future.