Tag Archives: memoir

Why We Swim

Non-fiction book about the history and psychology of swimming

I came across this book on Twitter a few months ago when the author ran a contest for World Swim Day. I didn’t win, but I was intrigued by the book. I don’t think I have ever been tempted by any book remotely resembling sports biography, but this book hooked me. I was a keen swimmer as a kid and every year trained for months in the lead-up to the inter-school swimming carnival in my local area. I’m a strong swimmer, if not a particularly fast swimmer, and after years of not winning any ribbons in high school I was thrilled to get 2nd place in a race in my last ever swimming carnival. Over the years since then, I’ve come back to the pool again and again and I can still easily swim 1km. A couple of years ago my partner bought me a set of swimming headphones and I even have an aquatic-themed playlist I listen to when I swim. There’s something that draws me to the water, and I was interested to see what drew other people as well. I saw that it was available as an audiobook, so I bought a copy to listen to.

Why We Swim cover art
Image is of a digital book cover of “Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui with one arm cutting through water against a navy background

“Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui and narrated by Angie Kane is a non-fiction book that blends memoir, journalism and anthropology to explore what it is that draws us to the water. Tsui provides a brief overview of swimming throughout human history using a few modern day examples, and then interviews extreme swimmers including a man who survived freezing Icelandic waters, a woman who smashed international distance swimming records while training to regain mobility and a man who started a swimming school for beginners in a war zone. Alongside this, Tsui shares her own experience as a swimmer and how the joy of swimming connects her with her family.

Tsui is a spirited writer who curates remarkable stories of swimmers who defy the limits. I particularly enjoyed the story of Guðlaugur and the speculation about prisoners who escaped Alcatraz by swimming. I was also fascinated by the history of different strokes and the different types of swimming that emerged through Samurai culture in Japan. The exclusivity of swimming and swimming clubs in relation to gender, race and class in the United Kingdom was also very interesting. There was recently a controversy here in Australia very recently about a women’s swimming pool in Sydney that stated in its policy that only transwomen who have undergone gender reassignment surgery would be able to use the pool. The policy didn’t go into detail about how exactly staff would be checking this, but understandably there was considerable community concern and the Association responsible for managing the Ladies’ Baths has updated their website in response.

In addition to some of the social issues surrounding swimming, Tsui spends quite a bit of the latter part of the book on research about the impact that swimming has on our bodies, and the physical, emotional and social benefits of swimming which really resonated with me. I also found Tsui’s reflections on her own family’s experiences with swimming really touching, especially how the skill and affinity for swimming is being passed on to her own children. Kane was a clear narrator who was easy to listen to.

While this book certainly explores swimming around the world, it definitely has an American focus and a particular interest in exceptionalism. I was probably a little less engaged with the story of a swim school for beginners in Baghdad set up by an American soldier and stories about record-breaking swims than I was some of the others. I was really fascinated by some of Tsui’s writing about human swimming ability and physiology that makes us suitable for swimming, and although it is certainly an extremely contentious theory, I was surprised she didn’t mention the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis just for interest’s sake.

A thought-provoking book that has reignited my enthusiasm for swimming and inspired me to look into distance swimming here in Australia.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

The Porcelain Thief

Family memoir about lost wealth and retracing history

I can’t quite remember where I found this book, but I certainly bought it secondhand. Although I often struggle with memoir as a genre, there is a very niche subset of memoir that blends personal history with actual history like “H is for Hawk” and “The Hare with Amber Eyes“. When I picked this up, I remember being intrigued by the premise. As I draw to the end of 2020 and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I thought it would be a really good time to read this book.

Image is of “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu, a hardcover edition pictured on a wooden table next to a Chinese style white and blue bowl, a ceramic spoon and a chopstick rest

“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu is a memoir about American journalist Huan who decides to finally take up his uncle’s offer to work in his Shanghai company. However, Huan’s decision is not fuelled by a desire to carry on the family legacy but rather a desire to trace his family’s history and the stories of his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection. However, once he arrives in Shanghai, things are not so straightforward. Stymied by his patchy Mandarin, close-lipped relatives, family hierarchies and a culture that, after growing up in America, is indecipherable to him, Hsu will have to take some real risks if he is ever going to find out whether the stories about the buried porcelain are true, and whether or not he has a shot at finding it himself.

This is a complex and challenging book. Through Huan, we see that navigating family history is indistinguishable from navigating family. Despite Hsu’s excellent research skills honed through his career as a journalist, this book is at heart about relationships and identity. Hsu is unflinchingly honest in his writing, especially about himself, the criticism levelled at him by his relatives, and the mistakes he makes in his quest to return to his ancestral home. Some of the most powerful parts in the book were the clashes Hsu has with local Chinese people in which American-born Hsu is certain of his cultural and moral superiority. It was interesting seeing this approach mellow as the book progresses and Hsu realises that if he wants to succeed, he will need to befriend more locals and defer to their cultural expertise. Another powerful part of the book is the rift that forms between Hsu and his very elderly grandmother over her reluctance to discuss what happened after the family fled their home, and the way it mirrors the rift that formed between his grandmother and her own grandfather, the patriarch of the family, so many years earlier. I really enjoyed reading about how his grandmother and her sisters and cousins got an education, and the generally good-natured feuds between his uncles and between himself and his own cousin.

This is a well-researched book and Hsu weaves family history with China’s history. Understandably, among the relatives and old neighbours that Hsu interviews there are significantly differing accounts of the family history, the character of his great-great-grandfather and the stories of the lost porcelain. To try to make sense of the different histories, Hsu traces each relative’s story from the source: his great-great-grandfather. While this structure had logic behind it, it made for difficult reading. It felt like Hsu was rehashing the same experiences over and over from slightly different perspectives, muddling the central narrative which I think should have been his own experience. I completely understand the desire to show off all the research that he did, but I think a book like this needs to be really carefully curated. I was hoping that everything would come together in the end, but the ending itself was a bit disappointing as well.

A fascinating, touching and at time frustrating book that I think could have benefited from a structural reshuffle.

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Seduced into Darkness

Memoir about abuse of power by a psychiatrist

Content warning: sexual abuse, mental health, suicide attempts

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

Seduced Into Darkness, Transcending My Psychiatrist's Sexual Abuse by Carrie  Ishee | 9781948749480 | Booktopia

“Seduced into Darkness” by Carrie T. Ishee is a memoir about being sexually abused by a psychiatrist. After becoming depressed following a break up with a boyfriend while at university, normally outgoing and studious Carrie is referred to psychiatrist Dr Anthony Romano for treatment. Soon after she begins seeing him, Dr Romano begins to push the doctor-patient boundaries, asking Carrie questions about her sexuality and inviting her to “sessions” outside the practice. Before long, Dr Romano has distanced Carrie from her otherwise tight-knit family and started a sexual relationship with her with questionable consent. When Carrie finally finds the strength to cut emotional and professional ties with him, she spirals into depression again. She is finally hospitalised after two suicide attempts and it is there, under the care of other doctors, that she is finally able to confront what happened to her and find a way forward.

This is a disturbing story about the imbalance of power between doctor and patient and how that power can be abused. I initially agreed to review this book because the subject matter is of considerable professional interest to me, but it is a very compelling story in its own right. Ishee’s personal, academic and professional experience in mental health make her a very well-rounded storyteller and she sheds light on both the strengths and weaknesses of mental health support. I was really interested in the legal proceedings that arose as a result of Ishee’s experience and the disconnect between civil law outcomes and regulation of the medical profession. Even though Carrie was able to sue Dr Romano for the harm he caused her, he did not receive significant professional sanctions and was able to continue commencing relationships with other vulnerable patients.

Throughout this book, Ishee seeks to find meaning in her experiences and the strength to start a new life following her passions: art and mental health. Ishee is clearly a very spiritual person who, throughout her life, has turned to higher powers for guidance and support. Given this, I completely understand the desire to find a framework or metaphor to encapsulate the trauma she went through. However, from a narrative point of view, I’m not sure that the Greek myth of Persephone added much to Ishee’s story which was already powerful in its own right.

An impactful first-person account of the damage that can be done through inappropriate and abusive relationships with medical practitioners.

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The Good Girl of Chinatown

Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai

Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence

Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.

“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.

However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.

This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books

Always Another Country

Memoir about belonging and growing up in exile

Quite some time ago, I was running late to an author event. It was being held at the Australian National University, but in a theatre that was quite far away from the entry to the campus. I’d raced over after work and tried to sneak quietly into the back to find…an empty theatre. I was a day early. Anyway, I returned the following evening and saw the author give an incredibly articulate and compelling talk about her life growing up in exile. Afterwards, I bought a copy of the book and had it signed, but it wasn’t until now that I managed to pick it up to read it.

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I found this old Virgin Australia ticket and couldn’t help myself

“Always Another Country” by Sisonke Msimang is a memoir about growing up outside your own homeland. The daughter of South African freedom fighters, Sisonke is born in Zambia and spends years there with her two sisters before the family moves to first to Kenya, then Canada. After a brief visit to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is freed and the end of Apartheid begins, Sisonke moves to the USA to start university. There, she makes new connections, develops her political views and falls in love – three things that have a profound effect on her life. When she returns to South Africa emotionally fragile, she reconnects with her family and begins to develop her career. However, this is the first time Sisonke has really called South Africa her home and she is faced not only with the nation’s Apartheid hangover, but with the gulf between the idealised vision for South Africa and the reality playing out.

This is an important book that provides a unique perspective on South Africa’s political transition. The child of freedom fighters but growing up outside South Africa, Msimang has the perfect balance of lived experience and objectivity to provide what reads like a very unbiased social commentary. I felt that I learned a lot about South Africa from this book, in particular the hard work that went in to dismantling Apartheid – often work that was happening outside the country’s own borders. In between reflections on how South Africa’s political situation impacted her and her family, Msimang also provides insights into how living as a third culture kid provided her with particular strengths and vulnerabilities that she had to grapple with as an adult.

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that memoir is a genre that I have difficulty with with. While I continue to believe that this genre is critical to ensuring that more diverse voices and stories are heard, ultimately memoir is the curated highlights (and lowlights) of a person’s life, arranged to highlight a particular issue or point of view. In this book, I felt that Msimang went into great detail about some things such as her relationship with Jason, her experiences in Canada and her friendships in the USA, but skated over some of the parts that I was much more interested in: visiting South Africa for the first time, her ongoing relationship with her South African relatives that she only met in her late teens and the day to day of living in the country post-Apartheid. While Msimang provided glimmers of these parts, I felt that these were the strongest parts of the book and really exemplified Msimang’s struggle with reconciling her birthright as a South African with her own developing values.

A necessary memoir that explores South African identity, citizenship and nationhood that I wished had a little more South Africa in it.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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How to be a Medieval Woman

Believed by some to be the first autobiography

Content warning: mental health, religion

This book was posted to me by an old friend who has a passion for classic literature in the Western canon. Now, because I was trying to get through my reading goal for 2019, and it was a reasonably short book, I brought it down with a few others over Christmas (yes, I am that far behind in my reviews). Now, a relatively recent by great tradition at my family’s Christmas is Dirty Santa. Basically, everyone wraps a cheap gift, you draw numbers from a hat, and in numerical order choose either to unwrap a gift or steal someone else’s unwrapped gift. Anyway, I had been very poorly prepared, so I decided I would wrap a book. Unfortunately, after a bit of confusion at home, someone kindly wrapped the book I hadn’t finished reading yet, and I had to quickly duck home and make the switch. When I returned, we played the game, and Grandma, who knew that I had been reluctant to wrap a book, had a concocted a devious ploy to make sure she chose it so she could give it to me afterwards. However, she didn’t realise that I had swapped books, so it was pretty hilarious when she unwrapped this one. Anyway, this review is dedicated to you, Grandma, and thank you for taking the photos.

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“How to be a Medieval Woman” or “The Book of Margery Kempe” by Margery Kempe is an autobiography believed to have been dictated to two separate scribes in the 1400s as Kempe was herself illiterate. The book describes Kempe’s life, and begins with her experiencing a significant crisis following the birth of her first child where she experiences depression and visions of demons and Jesus Christ. When she recovers, she starts some businesses and when they don’t succeed, grapples with sexual temptation and her desire to be a devout Christian. As the years go by, Margery grows more and more religious and continues to see visions. After convincing her husband to agree to celibacy, she undertakes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she visits sites of spiritual and historical significance.

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This is a strange story that has two primary interpretations: one is that Margery is a mystic, a woman who receives messages from god, and the other is that Margery had some type of mental illness. Now although I am certainly not a psychologist, but Margery appears to experience a mental health episode after she gives birth the first time, and throughout the book refers to voices and visions which could well be hallucinations. Margery also appears to have difficulty maintaining relationships, observing that people around her tend to grow to dislike her, and to have difficulty regulating her emotions, though she sees her tears as a divine sign. Regardless of the interpretation, or the general likeability of Margery, it was nevertheless very impressive that she took herself on a pilgrimage to see a part of the world that intrigued her given the times. Maybe there is a third interpretation: that she was sick of being a wife and mother and wanted to go explore the world on her own terms.

I have to say, despite it being such an unusual story, it wasn’t a particularly easy one to read. It is told in the third person, and Margery is herself referred to as “the creature”. I think the tension in reading the book – whether Margery’s experiences are legitimate religious experiences or symptoms of a mental illness – is mirrored in Margery’s own experiences. Everywhere she goes, people doubt the legitimacy of her visions and experiences in the same way the reader does. In fact, a lot of the story is taken up with Margery crying, being abandoned by companions, annoying the locals and being asked to leave or threatened with legal action. Ultimately Margery speaks convincingly enough about her faith and she is allowed to move on.

Not necessarily gripping read, and perplexing and frustrating at many points, but certainly an insightful snapshot into the life of a medieval woman.

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Beauty (Guest Review)

Guest review of memoir about eating disorder

If you spend any time on Twitter, or on the news, you might have come across the #AuthorsforFireys campaign where authors in Australia and around the world ran mini-auctions of great prizes to raise money for the areas affected by bush fires this summer. I offered two auction items, and one lot was the first ever guest post on this blog. The winner was Sydney writer and reviewer Julia Clark who generously donated to the NSW Rural Fire Service, and this is her review. 

Content warning: eating disorders, sexual assault

After the success of her first book “Eggshell Skull“, which saw Bri Lee take on the Queensland justice system for its treatment of sexual assault survivors while she also pursued her own justice, the author returns with another traumatic subject in “Beauty”. Lee takes the opportunity in this extended personal essay to explore her experience of disordered eating, especially as it materialised during promotion for “Eggshell Skull” in 2018. Lee’s representation of her illness is honest, laying her obsessive and circular thought patterns out on the page, but her story never strays into grotesquery in her refusal to make her illness a spectacle.

First Picture

Photo by Julia Clark

This second release again demonstrates Lee’s strong and balanced approach to memoir and trauma writing particularly in her invocation of Aurelias and rumination on the concept of “self-control”. As an intelligent and highly educated woman, Lee must navigate the age-old dichotomy of mind and body as made paradoxically difficult by society’s patriarchal expectations of what a woman “should” be. For Lee, the push and pull of demands to be pretty but not too pretty and smart but not too smart manifested in a desire to transcend her body entirely, to shed her womanly form in order to free herself. When explaining the impulse behind her disordered eating Lee says, “I wanted to be full without food, to transcend it.” Then later, when embarrassed by her appearance, “It transported me back to the newsagent’s and the longing for invisibility—or, more accurately, really, for people to see past my body.” The need to live as and nourish this body, which is the marker of a “failure” to meet societal expectations, remains as the unreconcilable question on which hinges Lee’s self-loathing in “Beauty”.

Second Picture

Photo by Julia Clark

While Lee’s writing shines in its candidness and vulnerability, the book falls down in its attempt to extrapolate and speak to women’s experience of beauty more generally. Two key touchstones of the essay remain largely uninterrogated: 1. Repeatedly beauty is equated with thinness without examination and with little mention of the alternates of ugliness and fatness. 2. Lee easily slips between “I” and “we” in her analysis of beauty standards but does no work to acknowledge the many different ways in which “we” (i.e. women) experience the world and the standards impressed upon us (i.e. through differences in race, gender, age, ability, size, etc). When lamenting how the beauty industry sells images of happiness as much as skincare, Lee writes, “When all our images of happiness and success are also skinny, young, and hairless, it becomes a never-fulfilling prophecy.” Never mind the fact that these images are also almost always white, able-bodied, cisgender, without any kind of facial difference, or without any of the other visual markers of deviance from the beauty standard that Lee leaves unnamed. The assumption held throughout “Beauty” is that the reader is approaching the world of beauty from the same place as Lee, which immediately erases the possibility of other experiences or interpretations outside of Lee’s privileged social position.

With all of that said, “Beauty” is not completely insubstantial as Lee provides a reference and recommended reading list with titles from writers with long careers of interrogating beauty from mainstream and marginalised positions. In this way, Beauty operates as a starting point, a door cracked open for anyone who is searching for the vocabulary to discuss their experience of feeling inferior in the face of the monolith Western beauty industry.

Julia Clark is a PhD student, poet, and theatre reviewer in Sydney. She’s interested in the intersection of aesthetics, objects, and bodies. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s at the theatre. You can read more of her work at juliaclarkwrites.com.

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Say Hello

Memoir about living with a disability and facial difference

Content warning: discrimination

I had heard about this book long before it was published because I have followed the author online for some time. When I heard she was coming to Canberra to speak about her book, I not only went along to watch but scored myself a signed copy.

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“Say Hello” by Carly Findlay is a memoir about growing up and living with a skin condition called ichthyosis. Arranged as a series of essays covering various topics, this book is a candid account living with a disability and a facial difference, but living with society’s insensitive and often cruel reactions to her appearance and barriers to accessibility.

Findlay is a clear and frank writer whose book combines her personal experience, the stories of her friends and fellow activists and her significant knowledge of disability activism. I consider her courageous not for living her life (as so many people tell her), but for discussing deeply personal issues in such a public way and for building a platform to advocate for disabled people and raise awareness about the barriers that they experience throughout both Australia and the world. Some of the most powerful chapters in this book address the often well-meaning but ill-considered comments she constantly receives from people she meets and the diverse and sometimes diverging perspectives within the disability community. However, I think my favourite chapter was the chapter on fandom. Findlay’s experiences struggling to make friends throughout school, the difference to her life that getting a job at Kmart with a supportive manager and team made, and her discussion of how friendship as a skill we must learn and practice really stuck with me.

Memoir is a genre that I believe is very important to ensuring diverse stories and perspectives are heard, that I read quite a lot of, but that ultimately I struggle with. One criticism that you may have seen me make is that I often feel like the author hasn’t given enough information or detail. However, how much to share with the reader is a question of balance, and I think Findlay may have tipped a little far towards too much detail. One thing that I hadn’t realised until I googled something I was reading in the book is that Findlay has adapted many essays she has written in the past as chapters for her book (something that I understand a lot of writers do). This means that quite a few of the chapters are overlapping, and because Findlay’s writing has improved a lot since she first started blogging, there is a bit of a range in quality. I think it also meant that this book didn’t always have a clear thread or audience, and I felt that it would have benefited from some more robust editing.

This is a very important book that highlights the impact that unsolicited comments have and the nuance and diversity within the disability activism space. Regardless of my own struggles with the genre, there is no doubt that memoir is critical to building empathy and this is a book that definitely builds empathy.

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Eggshell Skull

Memoir about working for and seeking justice in the Australian legal system

Content warning: sexual assault, trauma, mental illness, eating disorders, sexism

I’ve mentioned a couple of times a book club we kicked off at my work where we put together a list of books and everyone read as many as they could. There was a bit of a flurry of book lending, and this is another book I borrowed from a colleague. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to see the author speak in Canberra last year, so I only had a general idea of what the book is about.

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“Eggshell Skull” by Bri Lee is a memoir about a law graduate who wins a prestigious job working as an associate for a Queensland Supreme Court judge. Initially, Bri is focused on trying to do a good job, to not be intimidated by the other associates and to forge a positive relationship with the judge. However, as she is exposed to more and more criminal matters through her work, especially sexual assault matters, Bri finds it harder and harder to ignore the trauma of being a survivor of sexual assault herself. Increasingly disheartened by the daily reality of how rarely perpetrators are convicted, and constantly reminded of what happened to her, Bri finds herself drinking and her bulimia worsening. Eventually she realises that unless she reports the crime that happened to her and tries her luck in a system hostile towards victims, she will never be able to move forward.

This is an excellent memoir that approaches an extremely fraught area of justice from two unique perspectives: an officer of the court, and a victim of crime. By comparing these two experiences, Lee is able to shine a keen light on the barriers to people seeking justice via the courts and how substantial those barriers were, even for someone so literate in the justice system. Lee explains how the justice system expects a perfect victim and that how, even today, it is so common for victims to be blamed for the crimes committed against them. She particularly examines the impact his has on women, who are already known to be much more likely to experience crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence than men. Lee also explains how unnavigable the legal system can be, how traumatising it is to have to have your story told and scrutinised over and over, and the stress of having to face your assailant in court.

At the very beginning of this book when I realised it was a memoir of a judge’s associate, I initially had a bit of an internal eye-roll. Having also been a law student (though admittedly a far more mediocre one than Lee), I’ll be honest – I was expecting a bit of a stereotype. However, I very quickly realised that any preconceptions I had were vastly misguided. Lee is incredibly down-to-earth and self-deprecating and has a real flair for explaining complex legal concepts in plain English that, to be frank, the legal sector desperately needs and will sorely miss. She is a very relatable narrator and as a reader, it is very easy to empathise with her desire to succeed, her struggle to overcome barriers and her journey towards a fulfilling career.

As an increasingly popular genre, I frequently reflect on whether the author has reached a balance of enough or too much information in their memoir. I think that Lee has the balance just right. She is unflinchingly honest about the impact her trauma has on her mental, emotional and physical wellbeing and details her difficulties with her eating disorder and intimacy in painful detail. However, sometimes you can tell a lot by what an author doesn’t say, and I felt like there wasn’t a superfluous sentence in the entire book. This is a book that deals with plethora of sensitive and private issues, and Lee carefully omits unnecessary personal details about the perpetrator, the judge she works for and family members while still providing strong characterisation.

I legitimately don’t have any negative things to say about this book and it is hands down the best book I have read this year so far. It is well-known that the justice system as it is is ill-equipped to deal with sexual crimes. While nobody has quite found the solution, Lee’s book goes a long way towards identifying the specific problems that the very well-educated and privileged people who often find themselves administering justice may not necessarily be aware of.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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No Friend But the Mountains

Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention

I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.

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“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.

As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.

The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.

Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.

I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.

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