Tag Archives: australian literature

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.

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“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.

This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.

In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land.  Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.

Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

A Briefcase in Transit: Undiplomatic Reflections of a Trade Commissioner

This review is a bit special because I actually know the author. Bruce Nicholls, author of “A Briefcase in Transit: Undiplomatic Reflections of a Trade Commissioner”, is my uncle. One of the advantages of knowing people who write books is that it is really, really easy to get signed copies.

“A Briefcase in Transit” chronicles Nicholls’ time working as a Trade Commissioner for the Australian Foreign Service from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. A recent graduate, Nicholls had applied and interviewed for a position with the Trade Commission, but after never hearing back had taken up another role instead. Months and a phone call out of the blue later, he’d received his formal offer, accepted it, commenced training and was finally notified of the location his first posting. Over the next decade and a half, Nicholls would live in India, Germany, China and Hong Kong; grappling with new cultures, a healthy work/life balance and the eccentric and charismatic people he met along the way.

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This book is probably best understood as a collection of anecdotes and vignettes that provide both broad and detailed observations about the nature of the Trade Commission before it was replaced with AusTrade in 1984. Nicholls paints quite a romantic picture of the Service, with echoes of the British colonial lifestyle in the lavish parties, the importance of sporting events and the lingering distance between foreigners and locals. Most of the book is dedicated to Nicholls’ escapades in India and China, with Germany understandably providing far less opportunity for drastic cultural clashes. With an enthusiastic, humorous often self-depreciating style of writing, Nicholls brings the characters and events of his memoirs to life. However, the book is not by any means a pair of rose-tinted glasses looking on the past. One of the most interesting parts about this book is its inclusion of some extremely eye-opening official documents from the times. It’s hard to think that that only a couple of decades ago, sexism could and did so blatantly influence internal government policy and Nicholls does not shy away from honest commentary about such failings.

“A Briefcase in Transit” has a very strong professional focus and the book almost entirely concerns Nicholls’ working life. While it is entirely understandable that he would want to keep his family life private, I think that including some more stories about his home life, and how his wife and children were coping with moving from country to country, might have given the book a little more of a central narrative. It’s a tricky balance, but I think that the result is that this is a book which is going to perhaps appeal to a more niche audience with a specific interest in the history, politics and industry of Australian foreign trade.

Nevertheless, Nicholls’ book is a critical work of history, documenting an era in Australian diplomacy that was about to change forever. “A Briefcase in Transit” is a fantastic addition to Australian writing and is a unique insight into a highly prestigious profession.

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Filed under Australian Books, Non Fiction, Signed Books

A Fortunate Life

I knew very little about this book when I bought it. I was captivated by its beautiful hardcover and tinted edges as one of the Penguin Australian Classics currently available at the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. I took it with me to read when I went to a festival out past Ipswitch, Queensland and reading about the hard life and unforgiving landscape was a stark contracts to the lush, hedonistic, semi-glamping experience that was my weekend.

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Originally published in 1981, “A Fortunate Life” is the autobiography of Australian war veteran A. B. Facey. It chronicles his incredibly difficult childhood in rural Western Australia, his experiences in Gallipoli, and his life after returning to Australia. The picture Facey paints of life as a settler and farmer in Australia at the turn of the 20th century is very bleak. The systems in place to protect children from abuse and exploitation today simply did not exist in Facey’s time, and it was astonishing to me the amount of power his mother wielded over his life despite not having seen him since he was 2 years old.

Denied the right to go to school, Facey was illiterate until late childhood and his ability to read and write was mostly self taught. In a way, his writing style could be described as childish or simplistic, as though even as an older man he had never truly become fluent in the written word. While perhaps not beautifully written, Facey’s story is honest and heartfelt and his descriptions of his life are detailed and immersive.

Interestingly, his childhood and his recollections of his time at war make up well over half the novel, even though they made up only a quarter of his life. After Facey’s return from Gallipoli, the novel feels a little rushed. While there are more than a few indications that these were the happiest times of his life, Facey skims through them. This was a little disappointing for a reader who really wanted to see Bert get some wins. He also touches on his political and religious beliefs somewhat in this part of the book, but they seem a little disconnected from the story overall.

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Ultimately though, this is a book that really speaks for itself. Facey was clearly a man with boundless courage and optimism who met challenges and adversity face-on and managed to carve himself a niche in a hostile land. It was incredible the things he was able to learn and contribute despite being unable to read and write, and his knowledge and expertise was valued and rewarded many times over. His tenacity really shines through, and the fact that he managed to write the book at all despite missing out on opportunities that all children should have is a testimony to his perseverance. An admirable contribution to Australian literature.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges