‘Bring Larks and Heroes’ by Thomas Keneally

larksLaying bare the horrors of the Australian convict era, Keneally’s Miles Franklin Award winning Bring Larks and Heroes was one of the earliest fictions exploring the period. Seen from the witty, irreverent perspective of Corporal Phelim Halloran, the Irish Marine, the fictional penal colony in the South Pacific is a mirror of the settlement of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) with key dates shuffled to be suitably non-specific.

A man destined originally to be of the (Catholic) cloth, Halloran instead joined the Marines to avoid his fate as an Irish nationalist arrested at an illegal gathering. Intelligent and idealist, it is Halloran’s love for the young serving girl, Anne, that drives him to take risks. But it is also his witnessing the inhumanity of the so-called civilising society, where dissent is crushed (400 lashes), simply ended (the hanging of an accused rapist in spite of the man being a eunuch) or, in the case of the indigenous population, simply left to die from smallpox. The worst excesses of English society and an unjust system have been transported thousands of miles to the other side of the world.

It is the injustices that ultimately lead to the eventual downfall of the honest Halloran (and Anne) and his conscience as he is called to task by Hearn, the clerk and political prisoner who has come about a tract reporting the French Revolution (Keneally has altered dates, remember). Choose your side, demands Hearn, knowing where the young Catholic Irishman’s sympathies lie.

Bring Larks and Heroes is an early work by one of Australia’s foremost novelistsHimself an outspoken Australian Republican and former seminarian, Keneally explores the individual’s commitment to faith and personal morality without being overly doctrinaire. But his style is slight and erring towards obscure; language overbearing; narrative non-compelling.

It’s a subject Keneally was to revisit in the 1987 novel, The Playmaker – to my mind a much more successful and significant narrative and which was later adapted for the stage by playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, as Our Country’s Good for the Royal Court Theatre in London. Bring Larks and Heroes was awarded the 1967 Miles Franklin Award.

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‘Janet King’ (Series 1)

janetkings1A mix of courtroom thrills, suspense and melodrama ensures the Sydney-set Janet King is an entertaining and engaging eight-episode TV series.

A feisty, no-holes-barred Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp – Jack Irish, A Place to Call Home) returns from maternity leave to find herself thrown in the deep end from the off. The NSW Assistant Police Commissioner has been charged with assisting in the premature death of his wife, dying from cancer.

Whilst King is dealing with in-house politics at the Department of Public Prosecutions (and a new, ambitious prosecutor in particular), the assistant commissioner disappears. She finds herself thrust into the limelight as the search for the high-ranking official becomes intertwined with an investigation into a child pornography ring. It soon becomes apparent it involves politicians along with senior members of the legal and public services.

Political pressure from the very top for results – and fast – result in mistakes being made. And King and her family are forced into safe-house protection as she receives threats to her life.

More than a hint of soap-opera with plenty of melodrama – and glossing over legal detail – make Janet King a light, readily-accessible drama. But it’s Janet King herself who adds a degree of depth – frosty, aloof, highly intelligent. It’s only at home with her two young children and partner Ashleigh we see a vulnerable side.

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland

3vm2w2y5-1398227068A fair-dinkum 1970s Aussie bloke’s story – an everyman’s tale of life centred round the pub in an Australia already dying when David Ireland wrote this wry, compelling novel. Away from the glamorous beaches of coastal Sydney, it’s the working class western suburbs, pre-gentrification, pre-multiculturalism and by far pre-2000 Olympic Games.

It’s a vernacular tapestry of life in The Southern Cross, with short one-page observations or three page chapters of events and local characters as they come and go as told by our narrator, Meat Man. (It’s a man’s world, remember – size does matter and Meat has earned his monicker).

The Southern Cross is no welcoming drinking hole as the regulars comfortably spend six days a week looking into their beer. “On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.”

Along with Meat, characters such as Alky Jack, Aussie Bob, Serge, The King and the only woman of significance within the hallowed walls, Sharon the barmaid, populate The Southern Cross. In this territorial world, casual strangers are at best frowned upon, but more usually invited “outside”. Drunken philosophies, pointless arguments, sudden outbursts of extreme violence abound.

Yet, in spite of the violence and the fact there’s an awful lot of deaths (natural and suspicious), there’s also plenty of (laconic) humour on tap. And Ireland never judges his characters – he simply presents them as they are in all their honest rawness and flawed humanity.

It’s a subculture long lost (mostly) within contemporary Australia and few tears are shed for the demise of a brutal, misogynist maledom. Yet Ireland’s vivid characterisation reminds us of something that once was.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland’s fifth novel, won the 1976 Miles Franklin Award (adding to his 1971 win for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner).

 

‘Ellipsis’

ellipsisA Sydney-shot dramatic rom-com, with Emily Barclay (The Light Between Oceans, In My Father’s Den) finding herself without a phone after colliding with Benedict Samuel (The Walk, The Stanford Prison Experiment). A night of adventure unfolds before she must return to her fiance in London.

Like the unfolding night, Ellipsis is something of a meandering narrative as the two find themselves in various locations around Sydney. It’s pleasant enough – and debut director David Wenham pays homage to the city itself. But the real drama and human interest lies with the phone repairman (Ferdinand Hoang – Mao’s Last Dancer, The Quiet American) and his family.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 42%

‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

allthatiamannafunder_reheat

Collecting the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, the debut novel from award-winning non-fiction writer Anna Funder is an absorbing read but which is, at times, deeply frustrating.

Based on true events and (mostly) real characters, All That I Am is the story of German resistance to the rise of Nazism, focusing on a group of well-heeled individuals centred round left-wing expressionist playwright Ernst Toller. Recently released from prison for his part in the 1919 Bavarian revolution, Toller represented, to the group, a more hopeful future away from the disastrous aftermath of World War I, the Weimar Republic and subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

With its split timeframe – modern day Sydney and 1939 New York – we are presented with a reflective narrative and two perspectives of the same series of events.

Toller himself, holed up in a New York hotel prior to the declaration of war in 1939 and prior to his suicide, provides us with the wider political context. But the more intimate detail of life in Germany and pre-war London as refugees comes from centenarian Dr Ruth Fabian. At her home in Bondi, it is she who has recently received the last writings of Toller, which have come to light as the result of the demolition of the Mayflower Hotel in New York.

Alternating chapter by chapter between Toller and Fabian, we hear of events as the playwright dictates to his young American secretary that elicit a different, more personal response from Ruth a few pages later.

More than 70 years on, Ruth is forced to remember, to remember a time when she lost her family, her friends, her husband but also lost hope and all understanding: the rise of fascism in Germany and all its potential threats were ignored both at home and, inexplicably, by the rest of the world.

But this is not agit-prop political dogma, nor is it a historical tome. Ruth Fabian and Ernst Toller may be the narrators as Anna Funder explores memory, perception and the reconstruction of the past, but central to the novel is Dora Fabian.

Beloved older cousin of Ruth, political activist and part-time lover of Toller, Dora’s idealism and determination to change, challenge and harangue is the driving force of All That I Am. (It is no co-incidence that the novel bears the title from a quote of Abraham Lincoln, a president associated with human rights and freedom from slavery).

Whether it be smuggling Toller’s manuscripts out of his Berlin flat under the noses of the Gestapo or providing information to British parliamentarians and journalists about Hitler’s re-armament of the German army; organising political rallies or furthering the rights of German refugees in London, Dora was generally at the centre of events.

But for every political discourse, there are many complementary non-political observations from Ruth. Descriptions of wild, extravagant Berlin nightclubs in the 1920s, dour attic rooms in London, painterly pictures describing active trade unionists, pompous academics, suspicious neighbours, dangerous politicians, depressed refugees.

Life has changed for the band of friends as they are forced to flee from a life of luxury and privilege into exile, forbidden to involve themselves in politics (something they ignore) and fearful of covert Nazi reprisals.

The friends and various associates, both German and English, struggle to increase the awareness of the terrible threat of Hitler and Nazism. And, based as the novel is on true events and real events, we know they ultimately failed – or were simply ignored.

And it is because so much of All That I Am is based on true events that there is little in terms of suspense and which, strangely, lacks an emotional intensity that would be expected of such a story.

It is in part due to the split narration and the two characters telling the story. Ruth Fabian remembers Dora. It is Dora who needs to be remembered. Toller, on the other hand, writing much closer to the action in time (1939), also reminisces about the importance of Dora. But ultimately, in spite of the fact he kills himself in the hotel, the pompous playwright cannot let go of his central role in the unfolding of wider events.

Anna Funder lovingly crafts her novel and beautifully develops the narrative. Yet suspense is jettisoned at the expense of authenticity and, in its clinical, clear writing of the story very well told, something is lost.

That something is an extra level of emotion. Described by The Evening Standard in London as “… an absorbing study of exile, courage and memory”, it is just that – a study. And whilst it’s thoroughly enjoyable, just occasionally I was looking for a little more.

‘Oscar & Lucinda’ by Peter Carey

imgresFirst published more than 20 years ago, Oscar and Lucinda has firmly established itself as a contemporary classic and is regarded as one of the most important of Australian novels.

It holds a unique position in the world of literature having been awarded, in 1988, the Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award – the only book to have won both. Author Peter Carey was jettisoned into the international literary arena. His reputation was further enhanced when he picked up a second Booker Prize in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, making Carey one of only three authors to have received the prize twice (an honour he shares with J M Coetzee and Hilary Mantel).

Described by The Financial Times as the most original and rewarding novel to appear in the English language for many years, Oscar and Lucinda is a complex, gently comic love story and historical powerhouse of a novel. An imaginative tour de force, it introduced two of the most memorable characters in Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier and a love story of denial and misunderstood scandal but which takes more than half the 500-page novel to introduce the two to each other.

Oscar Hopkins

Young Oscar is, by contemporary definition, a geek. Bullied and pitied by the townsfolk of the small 19th century Devon village of Hennacombe, the physically uncoordinated Oscar renounces the strict Plymouth Brethren faith of his father.

Instead, the precocious child turns to the Church of England and the poverty-stricken Anglican pastor, who reluctantly supports him before sending him off to Oriel College at Oxford University. It is here Oscar meets Wardley-Fish and the ways of gentlemen in 19th century England, including the most sinful of all pastimes – gambling.

Obsessive by nature, always the outsider, Oscar works out a system on the horses to finance his years at university. But aware of his sin, he is strict about his winnings – they are never to be more than his needs. As a result, Oscar is able to justify his gambling, in his own mind, as God’s will.

Guilt and remorse, however, continue to follow Oscar, to the point he believes his only option is to challenge himself and his faith, signing up to travel by boat to distant New South Wales and the Australian colonies, a task made more arduous by his stultifying hydrophobia.

Lucinda Leplastrier

An orphan at 16, Lucinda is a reluctant heiress made wealthy by the unwished-for subdivision of her parents’ Parramatta farmland to the west of Sydney. Sent to live in the city by her guardian, she purchases, on a whim, a glass works.

Like Oscar, Lucinda too is an outsider, a forthright, strong-willed young woman with an unruly physical appearance not at one with the evolving Sydney society. Scandal after scandal follows as she unintentionally compromises friend and Randwick vicar, the Reverend Hasset, and discovers the joys of card-playing, which she plays with a passion until the early hours of the morning.

Destined to meet, Oscar and Lucinda’s two paths finally cross on board the Leviathan as the lonely first-class passenger returning from a fact-finding trip to England (and hopefully a husband) finds solace and company round the card-table on the second-class decks.

Oscar and Lucinda

Attempting to provide the minutiae of narrative and plot development of Oscar and Lucinda is to do the novel a disservice. It is a sweeping historical work, as much at home with Oscar’s philosophical question of faith or discourse on phosphorescence aboard the Leviathan as it is with guarded conversations between the two main protagonists around everyday subjects or a discussion about Lucinda’s failure to keep her maids for any length of time.

The two are bound by their loneliness, their willingness to take risk and, over time, their shared love of gambling. Oscar has his faith, but it is not an unquestioning one and it’s certainly flexible. Lucinda, more pragmatic, has her floundering business, made the more difficult for it being owned by a woman in 19th century Australia.

The novel is certainly not a love story in the more traditional sense. As their feelings for each other creep up, so they remain unexpressed amid confusion and ill-read signals. As the two enter into an agreement on their final and outrageous folly – the transporting of a glass church to Reverend Hasset and the (literally) godforsaken Boat Harbour, 400 miles to the north across unchartered territory, Oscar sees it as the opportunity to prove his love for Lucinda.

He need never have played such an extreme hand, but those signals remained ill-read. Totally unprepared for the arduous trek across untamed bushland, events unfold to ensure the ultimate gamble results in a wholly unpredictable outcome.

Oscar and Lucinda is a glorious tale, epic in scope, intimate in detail. From the religious fervour of small town Devon to the irreligious Boat Harbour on the banks of the River Bellinger, from the mores of English society to that of emerging 19th century Australia, from the poverty of working-class life to the ill-treatment of the local indigenous population, Oscar and Lucinda is compassionate, wry and a darned fine work of fiction.