Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is written in written in the same stream of consciousness style  as James Joyce’s Ulysses. This makes it  difficult, tedious, to read at times. However, if you can carry on you are rewarded with plenty of meaty issues, many of which are very relevant today. The big ones are mental illness, and what some people might want to call identity politics but i what would say is questions about ‘how does one live’? questions about class, love and sex.

The book has quite a bit of interest for literary types as well. It was 40th on this list of best books of all time, and this review points out that it is 50th in The Guardian’s list of best novels of all time, and its very autobiographical of Woolf’s life.

The blurb for the episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast about Mrs Dalloway says

First published in 1925, it charts a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a prosperous member of London society, as she prepares to throw a party. Writing in her diary during the writing of the book, Woolf explained what she had set out to do: ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity. I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense.’ Celebrated for its innovative narrative technique and distillation of many of the preoccupations of 1920s Britain, Mrs Dalloway is now seen as a landmark of twentieth-century fiction, and one of the finest products of literary modernism.

The feedback from Bookgroupers was not quite so positive. Many struggled with the style style. Whilst the style may have been innovative for its time it is no longer innovative 100 years later, but it remains difficult to read. The sentences are rarely correct. They can be short or long, and the punctuation is eccentric or absent. However, one book grouper offered some good advice which is to read it all as if its all dialogue, because it is all dialogue. its all what psychologists today would call self talk, the characters talking to themselves inside their heads.

While it is difficult to read there are many many lines in it that are wonderful which definitely make it worth the effort. A couple of my favourites

hanging flower-baskets of vague impropriety.

As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within.

It is important to note that although it is a often compared to Ulysses due to the stream of consciousness style; it is set in a different class, different gender, different country and different sexuality. I feel this makes it very relevant to a present day reader because it deals with matters that are very real for present day urbanites in the well developed world.

In particular i think its very interesting because you can see it as a challenge to the identity politics of today, and also to our popular romantic notions about love conquering all and being true to oneself.

it is a challenge to these notions because the characters in this book do not make the same decisions that equivalent characters in present day hollywood films and sitcoms would. This challenge is all the more powerful because the novel is very autobiographical, that means it is being written by someone at the time they were actually facing these decisions, not someone just imagining what its like.

The story is essentially three middle aged, and well to do, brits in 1923 looking back at the way their lives have evolved following their teenage love triangle. Not a particularly steamy one, obviously, as they were upper class brits. Peter loved clarissa, but clarissa loved sally, and sally, kind of loved them both.

But unlike hollywood, clarissa did not marry either of them. Peter was all smart and head strong, impulsive, he wanted to change the world. Sally was shiny and smart, charismatic, and one night she kissed clarissa on the lips.

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it–a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling

It was the best moment of Clarissa’s life but she still chose Richard. Both Sally and Peter thought he was a stupid non-entity, but she still chose him over peter. Likewise Peter went off to India and married other people and Sally married some lord or other and had ‘five enormous boys’.

The moral challenge in all this for the modern reader, if you think identity politics is a good idea, is that its hard to read the book and not agree that they actually made good decisions even if you want to think they are all traitors to themselves. Maybe love does not conquer all? Maybe being out and proud is not always the answer?

However, it may be that I am only seeing that in the book because i am reading it in middle age. Perhaps had I read it as a teenager I would have taken away a completely different message. Maybe I would have seen them all as looking back with regret? i doubt it though. It seems to me the book is saying they made the right choice.

This reading of the book is supported, kind of, by the real life version of the book. Clarissa can easily be read as Virginia Woolf herself and Sally Seton as her lover Vita Sackville-West, and Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway is Virgina’s husband and publisher Leonard Woolf. Although Virginia did kill herself in the end she left a note to Leonard which concludes ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’

it seems to me there is a message to all teenagers, or wannabee teenagers, about that favourite teenage line – be true to yourself. It’s an argument against that line in that it says you can be true to yourself but you might still be unhappy and die, whereas perhaps the better choice is life. That’s the choice Clarissa made and it’s the choice Virginia made for a long time until she could not sustain it

Love destroyed too. Everything that was fine, everything that was true went. Take Peter Walsh now. There was a man, charming, clever, with ideas about everything. If you wanted to know about Pope, say, or Addison, or just to talk nonsense, what people were like, what things meant, Peter knew better than any one. It was Peter who had helped her; Peter who had lent her books. But look at the women he loved–vulgar, trivial, commonplace. Think of Peter in love–he came to see her after all these years, and what did he talk about? Himself. Horrible passion! she thought. Degrading passion! she thought,



February 18, 2017 at 9:40 am Leave a comment



The Scarlet Letter by  Nathaniel Hawthorne is perhaps the most successful book I have ever read because I had heard the phrase the scarlet letter; i had heard the name Nathaniel Hawthorne; i am familiar with the idea that puritanical religion represses children and adults, and dispels joy from the lives of communities; I’m also familiar with the idea that there was a time when people said thee and thou a lot, and that a little later, in the 1800s, people went in for beautifully flowery and ornamental language, for people prior to the 20th century this was deemed literary, the longer your sentences and more complex their construction, the cleverer you were; but I had no idea that all of those things, the title, the name of the author, its message, and the language in which it is written, come from this book like ‘a glimmering light that comes we know not whence and goes we not wither’, to borrow a famous phrase from the book itself.

It is hard to imagine a greater success for a piece of art than this; for all its elements, the arguments, style, artist’s name, and work title; to become so pervasive in a culture that you do not even have to be aware of it, much less to have actually seen it, to be familiar with the world it created. That is the situation for me with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Scarlet Letter.

It is hard to believe a book published in 1850 could include so much that is so deeply relevant to our own time. Reading it brings revelation after revelation. The setting is a town of religious zealots, in a misogynist society, persecuting a young widow for having a child. The story is how that woman and her child, and all the different people in her community react to and deal with this persecution as it continues over the years.

Although it is written in the first half of the 1800s, a time that could be described as pre-modern, and tells a story set 200 years prior, in a almost medieval world, it does so in such a clever way that it creates in the mind of the reader, without the reader noticing, the modern world. It does not preach or speechify, it just tells the story, but nevertheless all the messages that we are familiar with from the post WW2 era of the 20th century, about individual rights and freedoms, are clear and loud.

The characters and all the interplay between them is so beautifully captured and articulated that it alone would be enough have me raving as i am. However there are two key elements of the book that make the book systematically subversive, whilst appearing outwardly to be upholding the Victorian values of the times in which it was published: these are the scarlet letter that the woman must wear as punishment, and the child that caused this brand of shame.

This scarlet letter is intended to be her punishment for life and the writer makes it clear that the character feels that. It is a bright red A, for adultery, that she must wear on her bosom for life. There are long passages about how she continues to be treated years later, how isolated she is day after day year after year. These passages make it clear she feels the letter is the ultimate punishment, because she is so alone even in the midst of people, however they have another impact on the reader: they make you hate the town; they make you understand the power of ostracism; and the barbarity of a legal system based on religion.

To me though that is only one subversive aspect of the scarlet A, and not the biggest. The truly subversive aspect is that she finds a way to use this instrument of punishment as her salvation. She embroiders the letter so beautifully it becomes not only her 24/7 brand of shame but her 24/7 brand. An advertisement of the quality of of her workmanship. She transforms her life sentence into a life long source of income. She achieves economic independence. Something no other woman in town enjoyed.

The Child of the story is also used in a thoroughly subversive way. She asks innocent child questions in an innocent child way about the treatment she receives from the town, including the towns’ children. This is a very clear device for getting the reader to ask those same questions, including the biggest question of all: what did this child do to be treated this way? Obviously there is only one answer: the child did nothing, and the treatment is immoral no matter in whose name, or by whom, it is done.

This is arguably the whole point of the book and one of many reasons why it is a very worthy member of many lists of the best books of all time, for example, it came in at 16 on Goodread’s list of the popular literary canon, and why I would highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a classic. As  this review in the atlantic it is ‘alive with the miraculous vitality of genius’.

There is one caveat to add though based on the experience of Bookgroup, which is that many book groupers struggled with the first chapter.  These bookgroupers made a good case that it is long, has no story, appears to have no discernible point, and is written in the archaic verbose style that i have emulated to some extent in this review. All that is true. In addition, the contents do not relate to or impact on the story, they just purport to tell the story of the circumstances under which the author found the old documents on which he based the story. As a result i would recommend that if readers have an edition that includes this introductory chapter that they skip it, and return to it if motivated to do so at the end.

I don’t think this would be contradicting the author’s intent as the introduction is actually called ‘introductory – customs house’ and is not numbered. The real first chapter, ‘the prison door’ comes after it. So its clearly a separate piece of writing.

However, for me personally this introductory chapter was a real delight. It purports to be written in early 1800s whereas the story that follows describes what took place in the same town, Salem, of witch hunt fame, two centuries earlier in the 1600s. The introductory chapter describes the author arriving back in his home town to take up what in a former time might have been an important role – head of the customs house down in the docks on the harbour. But times are changing, and the customs house is not what it used to be or will ever be again. He documents the occupants of the customs house and their customers, and puts it all in the context of the colonial past and the rise of the newly emerging systems of democracy law and trade in the US of the early 1800s, as they displace the old ways of tradition, seniority and customary practice. To me it felt like reading the birth of the modern world, like watching the election of 45th President felt like the end of the modern world, the end of science and democracy, and the return to the medieval order of superstition and unfettered power.

What ever your thoughts on the introduction, the real joy is the book itself.

February 12, 2017 at 4:33 am Leave a comment


hello one on one

Hello goodbye hello (also known as one on one) by craig brown is a remarkable feat of both clever writing and detailed research – from an unlikely candidate. An english guy better known as a comedian and satirist.

The detailed research  involved is astonishing. All of the 101 meetings described actually took place, and the account given is very detailed despite this all the details are historically accurate. These details, including exactly where, when and what was said, in these meetings has been are pieced together from descriptions of the meetings included in the biographies and autobiographies of the participants. its astonishing he was able to read so many biographies and bring together snippets from all of them to create these factual fly on the wall style accounts.

The cleverness is multi-layered. Firstly its a description of 101 different meetings, and each between two different people but each story flows from the previous story because one of the two characters in the preceding meeting always appears in the subsequent meeting. Its a remarkably clever conceit from which to construct a book. Secondly each of these meetings is described in exactly 1001 words. Why an author would choose to impose such a discipline on themselves is impossible to say, but its impressive. Finally the observations are very acerbic, insightful and funny. They hold these people, some quite beloved  of the books readership, up to ridicule using very plain descriptions of the facts, and often their own words.

However, don’t be deceived by the rather high brow trappings of the research and cleverness. In he end it is a piece of celebrity pop culture. Admittedly the celebrities from an era before the kardashians and brangelina, but still  they are celebrities – pop stars movie stars politicians – and therefore the book fits comfortably in the world of woman day and hello magazine. In that sense its perhaps only really interesting if you are interested in celebrities.

Nevertheless it does have plenty to recommend it to rest of us: its universally scathing of the celebrities described, which makes it a lot of fun to read; its a rare insight into the worlds of these people, a scary vacuous world, but perhaps all the more interesting because of that; and the writing is absolutely clear and precise, a real lesson to everyone both for the craftsmanship of each sentence and the vision displayed by the overarching structure.

So if you love reading about celebrities, especially pre-kardashian, ones you will love this. If you are already convinced they are all empty-headed egotists you might get less from it. However, certain baby boomers could still do well to read it as it does not spare the ridicule for some people still cherished by that generation – patti smith, frank lloyd-wright, leonard cohen, phil spectre – they all come off looking like outrageous idiots. I enjoyed it for that reason, but not enough to read the whole thing.



September 22, 2016 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment



sum: forty tales from the Afterlives is by david eagle man. He is a famous neuroscientist who has written lots of books about the brain, but this is a curious short book about heaven and hell. In 40 very brief stories he imagines various types of  heavens and/or hells.

Many of them are very insightful and topical. Some use the device of an afterlife to explore issue like cancer, articial intelligence, gender,  religion, and ideology, while others make the reader reflect on much more human day to day issues like relationships, why is it we never speak to the bus driver we see every day, or why do we spend so much of our time watching TV and going to work.

It won book of the year from the guardian and a bunch of other publications in 2009, and in the early going you can see why.

It opens with the title piece – Sum. In this afterlife you relive you life – an old idea – but Eagleman has us relive so we do all the same things in a row, sleeping for thirty years for example. This is a cute idea but Eagleman makes it both profound and funny by the list of activities he chooses to point out: nine days pretending you know what is being talked about; or three weeks realising you are wrong.

Other moments when the book is at its best include spirals and circle of friends. Spirals is a very poetic articulation of ideas about artificial intelligence and machine learning. God is a species of dim witted creature that creature a machine to help it figure out the purpose of life – us. So when we die they are there to read our data banks by asking us questions. But because they are stupid and we are smart they can’t ask meaningful questions or understand us when we talk so they can’t even discover that we don’t know the answer or that we in turn have created our own machines.  In circle of friends the afterlife is just like life except it only includes people you remember, initially you quite like this but eventually you miss the crowds and the strangers and you start to complain. Eagle man concludes ‘but nobody listens to you, this is what you chose when you were alive‘.

All the stories have a little moral at the end like this. It is  both the book’s strength and weakness. They are often very clever. For example in metamorphosis you wait in the afterlife until the moment when you name is spoken for the last time on earth. in this ‘infinite airport waiting area’. This means the place is full of very famous people just waiting, wishing they could be forgotten, eagle man concludes ‘ we live in the heads heads of those who remember us. we lose control of our lives and become what they want us to be’.

Many of these morals are interesting, funny, profound or all three, but after 10 or so of these stories most bookgroupers found hat they start to get a bit trite, or ‘too clever by half’ as one bookgrouper put it.

In the end its a great work of imagination, communication and philosophy and I’m happy to recommend it, but despite all that it feels a bit empty and frothy.

You could even say it was formulaic? If you did say that, and you then applied eagleman’s formula to create an eagleman style afterlife for bookgroup it would go a little bit like this….

The afterlife has a lot in common with life. It’s a mixture of tedium, trepidation and genuine excitement.

When you wake up you find yourself seated at a desk with a big line of people in front of you. You are in an endless hall with rows and rows of desks. Behind each desk is a seated person, and in front is a line just like yours, although the lines do vary in length. Some are much shorter than others.

Of the big line of people in front of you can only see the faces of the first few. Disconcertingly, even though you never met them in life you know exactly who they are, and they are clearly waiting to see to you.

When you look at the lines of neighboring desks you realise each line is almost the same, but not quite. You know most of the people in the other lines but not all of them, unlike your own line, and in each case the seated person is speaking to the first person in the their line.

At this point, probably less than a minute after waking up, you realise what is going on and turn to face the first person in your own line.

They are the authors of every book you have ever read. They appear to be in no particular order, a couple of desks over you can see Dr Seuss waiting in a line beside Tim Winton. It’s clear that you now have to talk to each one in turn. They seem to wait patiently no matter how famous they are. You can see Dan Brown just standing there quietly in line while your neighbour talks at length to Bruce Pascoe and then Roberto Bolano. it seems that no matter what you are saying to the one at the head of the line, or how long it takes, the ones behind never interrupt the one at the front.

And so you begin, trying to be charming. ‘What a surprise, how wonderful to meet you, I loved your book.’ But they are not here for that. They know everything you have ever said about them and their books, and they want you to explain why. It’s no use saying ‘I never said that’, they just quote you time and place and who you said it to.

The first few days are the worst. After that you get a thick skin and you develop some stock lines that seem to keep them happy ‘it wasn’t the writing so much as the characters – I just didn’t like them’.

You develop the knack of stealing glances further up your line so you can start thinking up responses, and planning a strategy for each. Will it be faster if I just to say – ‘well Mr Macarthy I said that about The Road because I really didn’t like book start to finish’? Or would a more diplomatic approach get it done quicker? ‘I know it won the Booker Prize Mr Flanagan, and richly deserved I agree, I just couldn’t finish it because I felt I already knew as much as I needed to about that story. I might have liked it better if it had been about a less well known person, or chapter in the war, or another war?’.

There are great moments: when you get to meet a favourite author like Barbera Kingsolver; or when you find yourself unconsciously apeing their speech. You find yourself sounding like a New York Jew as you explain to Phillip Roth why you didn’t enjoy reading about his teenage masturbations, or suddenly you have a gorgeous French accent as you gently explain to Muriel Barberry why you think there is a question mark over the ending of ‘Hedgehog’.

But even here it can be frustrating. They are not here to answer your questions. Jeff Vandermeer won’t tell you what is really going on in ‘The Tower’ and Doris Lessing won’t tell you how she felt about leaving some of her children in Africa. They are here to ask you questions, and you must reply.

When it gets really bad, like explaining to Proust what you meant by calling him a boring narcissist, you realise no matter how bad it is at least you aren’t a book reviewer. You can see them dotted around the hall, their queues snaking for hundreds of metres off in to the distance. And at the head of their line, animated authors quoting them back to themselves. Some of them sit at their desks weeping.

But the biggest question raised by the afterlife is the people sitting at desks with no lines.

Mostly you look at them enviously, ‘lucky so and so, if have to justify one more time why I said paragraphs made of one sentence are annoying I’ll scream’.

At times though you wonder would that really be a better afterlife – no one to annoy you, no-one to demand you justify yourself – but no-one to delight you either.




August 7, 2016 at 4:57 am Leave a comment



Coming Through Slaughter is a 1976 book by  Michael Ondaatje who went on to be famous for winning the booker prize with his 1992 novel the english patient. Its a fictionalised account of one of the founders of jazz, buddy bolden. Little is known of bolden, beyond that he lived in the seedy side of new orleans at the turn of the 20th century and went mad, so ondaaje makes it up.

The most surprising thing to bookgrpoupers about the novel was when it was written. Presumably for the jazz effect, its comprised of a series of half to one and half page fragments. These fragments jump back and forth in time, they also switch point of view between characters, and change in their writing style. although familiar now, in 1976 this structure and format was very ahead of its time.

The ahead of its time nature is reflected in this savage, and fairly accurate, 1977 new york times review

When asked how he could see his sculptures in a block of stone, Michelangelo is alleged to have said that he simply chipped away everything around the image until it emerged. A novel like “Coming Through Slaughter,” made up of shards of various techniques, works in just the opposite way. The author gives us all the broken pieces and leaves it to us to infer the final form

however to the modern reader this construction of fragments still manages to be coherent. we are now so familiar  with this style we almost expect it, we understand that the author is giving us pieces and that we are to put them together, and we know that over the course of the book the author will give us clues to help us. the 1977 reader didn’t know all that.

i’m afraid i’m envious of that 1977 reader. this style became fashionable in early 90s. so much so that by the late 90s, after the success of pulp fiction, and to some extent still today it seems every novel and movie was done it the same style.

given that, and his booker prize, it is not surprising that more recent reviewers looking back on the book are happy to give it high praise, such as in this 2011 review by nikki gemmell. These modern reviewers say ondaatje chose the book’s form in an effort to recreate in words the improvisatory, incoherent, but hopefully tuneful style of jazz.

Another recent  review calls it a poets novel as a way of excusing the the fragmentsion the NY Times reviewer is complaining of, although its also a reference to the fact that its ondaaje’s first novel after previously publishing only poetry.

Although modern reviewers might love it not all modern readers do. The goodreads page for the book includes wildly varying reviews – lots of one stars and lots of five stars. Book groupers were more in the middle, excited by the writing in places but largely underwhelmed.

In summary, if you like obtuse poetry, or jazz, or better still both, you will probably love this. The style and content will also appeal. However, if you like stories told from beginning to end, you like to know what is fact and fiction, and you don’t like jazz, give this a miss.


August 3, 2016 at 11:27 am Leave a comment



Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden is the story of Clara. A smart, beautiful girl from the working class north. Its the 60s. The education policies of the post-war British welfare state are beginning to have real affect in the lives of people like Clara, as the Australian version was, and would continue to, for many of us in bookgroup.

Being smart she realises early that she is good enough at school to get in to university, to become the first, or close to first, in her family to do so. But like all knowledge this is not an unadulterated joy. Knowing she might one day leave she learns to long for that day, spending her childhood preparing for her future leaving, rather than loving her present staying. Nobody from home is good enough, and nothing about home is interesting.

Clara is a baby boomer in England, but her teenage and 20 something feelings reflected my experiences a decade later on the other side of the world. As a country boy I always knew I would leave home as soon as possible; that there were whole worlds I would not see unless I did, and whole categories of people I was desperate to meet, and hopefully become. Reading the book I constantly felt that my 70s/80s genX experience was very like Clara’s 60’s baby boomer story, set to different music with different costumes and set design.

Towards the end of her undergraduate time in London Clara meets Clelia Denham and the Denham family. They are artists, writers, bankers – the type of people she had always dreamed of.

She began to realize that she was in the presence of the kind of thing for which she had been searching for years, some nameless class or quality, some element which she had glimpsed often enough, but which she had rarely at such close quarters encountered.

I remember feeling like this at a similar age, but also many times since. Every time I have developed a new passion or enthusiasm Clara’s experience re-occurs. First there is the idea of how great this new passion is. Then there is the process of eventually meeting, getting to know, and even becoming one of ‘those’ people. And finally, at some point, it occurs to me ‘so this is what they are like’ or ‘so this is what its like to be one of them’. I remember feeling like this at multiple times in my life at different times depending on what I admired at the time – when I started to meet wealthy people, smart people, powerful people, outdoorsy people, or back in the 80s – ‘politically aware’ hippie types.

Clara’s story captures this beautifully. The transition from one place and culture in to another, and the feelings of fraud it causes.

She felt that she was being supported and abetted by fate in some colossal folly: that circumstances were conspiring maliciously to persuade her that her own estimate of herself, that high and grandiose self-assessment of adolescence, was right. She had considered herself too good for such as Walter Ash, and she had got Gabriel. There seemed to be no end to the possibilities of mad aspiration. And yet, she could not feel that this was the way the world should go, she felt that she was breasting, rashly, the marching currents of humanity, and that she would in the end be forced to turn about.

Reading this I remembered feeling as a younger man that this is the fate of we, the not upper class. Forever a stranger, never a native in the new world, but no longer able to fully belong to the old. Like an immigrant in your own country. Not only migrating from one place to another but more importantly from one class to another. Luckily for me that feeling faded – after you meet enough of them you realise everyone is a fraud.

The book is able to extract these complex feelings from the reader because it is so well crafted. It reminded me of Ian McEwen. The point of view and tense is often very complex – ‘imperfect’ – because the point of view is that of a narrator but the narrator is describing Clara’s view. Despite the complexity Drabble pulls it off perfectly, just like Ian McEwan

For the truth was that her first sight of Clelia had not impressed her. In the light of future impressions, she found it hard to credit this disturbing historic recollection: it seemed to convict her of such gross insensitivity. Nor did she like the implications of accident that this initial blindness carried; she felt, looking back, like a lover who had met and passed by, indifferently, without recognition, the one love of his life, distracted from his destiny by the need for a drink, or a fixed intention to have an early night.  

As you would expect from a work of English ‘literature’ there are some funny and astute observations about the north/south, or  working class/middle class divide. My favourites relate to the way they speak.

I particularly enjoyed the way Clara’s wealthy new friends spoke about themselves. They appeared to so concerned about being polite their whole conversations were a series of prevarications. They are so unwilling to be certain that they even speak of themselves in the third person and never commit to or decide anything even about their own experiences or feelings. Everything is might, maybe, or possibly, as if what happens to them is fate not choice.  Clara likes this and adopts their style.

I suppose you will probably get married, will you?’

‘I never seem to feel like getting married,’ said Clara.

We get told later that Clara’s affectation is not an accident, she has consciously noticed this difference. On returning to the north, a doctor tells her very bluntly of her Mother’s impending death and the narrator says.

His lack of circumspection pained her, for she had grown used to the circumspect, and she would have preferred a veneer of sympathy, no matter what indifference it might have covered, for she felt herself forever alienated from this world where brutality presented itself as sincerity. 

In summary, the book is beautifully written and very reflective of the experience of those of us that have moved places and/or classes, or perhaps even just grown up. Female book groupers also felt it did a great job in capturing mother-daughter tensions, and the experiences of being a young woman leaning to head out in to the world. You can see more about that aspect of the story at the totally 4women book group here.

Its not action packed, its not a thriller, its also not a depressing piece of gritty realism. Its characters are all quite nice, reasonably well off, and don’t do anything particularly horrible to one another. I loved it for all these reasons, but readers looking for any or all of that would be better off looking elsewhere.

Bury your dead

and leave the north

what  are you worth

is there a price on your head

do you know what she said

when you left

that you were blessed

even though she was bereft

August 3, 2016 at 8:26 am Leave a comment


dark emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? makes a claim on all Australians. It wants us to reimagine pre-colonial Australia. It wants us to look again and see something new. On the basis of the words in the first white explorers diaries, it wants us to acknowledge that our landscape, ‘the bush’, is a cultural artefact, a product manufactured and maintained by the oldest culture on earth. It is a strong claim and convincingly made. It argues that what the explorers report is clear. There was no ‘wilderness’ here in 1788, and there hasn’t been one here for 60,000 years. Instead there was a group of cooperating nations applying a shared technology and law, to meet their economic and cultural needs.

In a way it throws white Australia’s words back in our face. It seems to say, in a very polite way, we don’t know why but you seem to thinks its important to believe we were nomadic hunter gatherers that didn’t plant crops, build houses or use pottery. The problem with that is that on many occasions the descriptions of us written by your own people at the time of first contact describe us planting and harvesting crops, and living in villages with houses, cemeteries and food storage facilities. So why is it that you have paid no attention to the words of your own people? Is there a reason you want to think of us as hunter gatherers only? if it was to help you justify taking our land and murdering us – where does that leave you now?

The message and the method of the book can be illustrated by an example from pages 204 and 205. They contain a quote and a drawing from Major Mitchell describing an Aboriginal cemetery he saw on the Darling River. Both the description and picture of the cemetery make it sound absolutely beautiful, and extremely familiar to european eyes of either the 19th or 21st century. After describing it and drawing it he says

With all our art, we could do no more for the dead, than these poor savages had done

This quote sums up the book’s message, and method, because it uses one unedited sentence, directly from a famous explorer (in this case Mitchell), to show us:

  • Aboriginal people had cemeteries, of a kind we would recognise
  • they were constructed with paths and gardens and therefore Aboriginal society had all technical the skills and the organisational power needed to produce a manicured landscape on a large scale for a ceremonial purpose
  • the explorers knew of them, recorded them, and recognised the technology and organisation required to make them but managed to maintain their belief in the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal Australians
  • historians, and anyone else that has read the explorers diaries, must have known about these observations and knowingly chose not to tell anybody else about them
  • there must be reason for this selective and wilful forgetting.

All the book groupers loved the book. We were amazed we had never heard of all these observations before. The existence of the diaries and writings of all the famous white ‘exploerers’ was very well known to bookgroupers, as it is to all Australians because we have heard of people like Mitchell and Sturt, and read their quotes, our whole lives. But until now we were never told these writings included detailed descriptions, even drawings, of Aboriginal houses, crops, cemetaries, and large scale permanent fishing and and farming enterprises. Bookgroupers felt it was embarrassing and extraordinary that we didn’t know about any of this.

The book is very short and easy to read, which is a good thing, but in my case I found it a bit frustrating. Its argument is so convincing and so important i would have liked a lot more. Often it refers to other books and academic parers, just giving the reference and saying, ‘it reported this or that..’ but i often wanted the detail because i was so interested. However, I have to acknowledge the book is fully referenced, like an academic article, so i can go and look up all the references if i want to.

The first chapter deals with agriculture. Like the rest of the book, its full of quotes from the explorers. What these quotes clearly demonstrate is that Aboriginal people in a large part of Australia (a map of this region is provided on page 63) cultivated grain for processing, manufacturing and storage, while in other regions they cultivated various root crops generically called yams.

One of the quotes about grain crops is from Major Mitchell (p39)

the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest, 

One of the quotes about yams is from George Grey in Western Australia in 1839

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [the yam plant, Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles [5.6 kilometres] traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.

A key point to make about this chapter is the difference between it and what we have heard from other previous authors about Aboriginal land management. Tim Flannery talked about firestick farming in ‘the future eaters’ and Bill Gammage got a lot of press for the ‘the biggest estate on earth’ which made a similar argument to Flannery. That argument is referred to in this book and summed up with a quote it uses from Gammage saying ‘people farmed in 1788 but were not farmers’.

In my view though the quotes above, which are just a fraction of those in the book, seem to show that such a distinction is worthless. Whether you call them farmers or not, it seems clear that these people were doing agriculture, and that is not what we have been told.

The next few chapters of the book move on to what archaeologists call material culture – the stuff people make.

Remarkably, for those of us that grew up being told Aboriginal people did not build anything or live in one place, one of these chapters deals with housing. Two quotes from Major Mitchell illustrate its point in relation to housing

some huts… being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.14

In crossing one hollow we passed among the huts of a native tribe. They were tastefully distributed amongst drooping acacias and casuarinae; some resembled bowers under yellow fragrant mimosae; some were isolated under the deeper shades of casuarinae; while others were placed more socially, three or four together, fronting to one and the same hearth. Each hut was semicircular, or circular, the roof conical, and from one side a flat roof stood forward like a portico, supported by two sticks. Most of them were close to the trunk of a tree, and they were covered, not as in many other parts, by sheets of bark, but with a variety of materials, such as reeds, grass and boughs. The interior of each looked clean, and to us passing in the rain, gave some idea, not only of shelter, but even of comfort and happiness. They afforded a favourable specimen of the taste of the gins, whose business it is to construct the huts.141page 83

Another quote talks about stone houses big enough and strong enough to ride a horse over, which sounds extraordinary – and a little dangerous.

The book includes a lot of examples of material manufacture other than housing such as fish traps, wells, irrigation systems for harvesting water, and battues for harvesting wildlife, and food storage such as granaries.

Page 84 talks about the remains of a battue in Euroa in Victoria

This particular drive brought kangaroos from a huge flat area to the foot of the range and then shuted them into a series of holding pens where narrow apertures could direct animals designated for slaughter one way and those to be released in another.

The stone works and nearby housing associated with these drives represents an incredible labour investment and a move towards sedentism comparable to that represented by the fish traps at Lake Condah and Brewarrina. Sites such as these are begging for further investigation.

And on page 87 another quote from Mitchell talks about fishing nets

the net, which, even in quality, as well as the mode of the knotting, can scarcely be distinguished from those made in Europe

The final three chapters move on to what these observations mean. The discussion covers two issues:

  • what it says about white society that these observations have been ignored; and
  • what these observations say about the nature of pre-colonial Australian society.

On the first issue the book makes a number of hugely important points. Firstly it says we need to rewrite our history (p144)

the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.

As a natural resources person i think it also means we need to rewrite our science because it means the landscape we are seeing is not ‘nature’ its a farm. It reinforces the point Tim Flannery made 20 years ago that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is nonsense. This book reinforces the message. There has been no wilderness here for 60,000 years

Most importantly though, as the last chapter points out, we need to admit the obvious reason why the writers of white Australian history have wilfully ignored these specific passages of texts that they have analysed and reanalysed. All over the world colonisers have found it to be in their interests to present the people and the places they colonise as ‘primitive’. Its the ‘warping of history and archaeology…to justify extermination..’ (p348) and dispossession. That is what has gone on here. Its obvious and we need to admit it.

To his great credit Pascoe also acknowledges that an additional reason that we have not heard more of Aboriginal agriculture and material culture (beyond racism, colonialism, war and dispossession) maybe that it was women doing the agriculture and the building. All Pascoe’s quotes have the explorers saying it was the women building the houses, harvesting the grain and digging the yams.

I think he could have been much stronger on this point, but he does cite someone writing on a similar situation in North America and says

One of the further impediments to the revelation of this aspect ,,,was that the gardens were constructed and farmed by women and children — and such knowledge was never revealed to male archaeologists. Even after the engineering of the gardens had been examined by independent scientists, there was enormous reluctance to accept the results

On the second issue, of what these observations say about pre-colonial Australia, the book does get a little romantic at times, but less so than i expected. On page 144 he even anticipates the romanticism problem I was worried about

You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they are making guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary

True to his word he does largely avoid it although not entirely. For example there is a lengthy quote from Bill Stanner on page 283 that paints pre-colonial life in utopian terms.

However he absolutely nails the key message and the key way forward – that is -what do these revelations mean for post-colonial Australia?

Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people. Despair is reinforced every day an Aboriginal person has to argue for her pride in the past, for his determination to honour the achievements of the ancestors

In case you think my take on the book might be idiosyncratic. this blog compiles a lot of reviews of the book in the one place, and the quote below which echoes my view is from here

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. Accomplished author Bruce Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

As book grouper Trish put it – In addition to saying sorry we need to say thank you.

April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

Older Posts Newer Posts


  • Blogroll

  • Feeds