It’s not news that I love books. I love reading them. I love the way they look on my shelves, my bedside table, my desk, the kitchen bench, in my handbag, perched on the edge of the couch… you get the picture (book hoarder). Just having books around me makes me happy.
Most of all though, I love seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and that is something books are uniquely good at.
Even better than reading a good book and discovering a new author you can secretly love from afar, is reading a good book written by someone you know. There’s the tantalizing thrill of prying open the inner workings of their brain. The fear of what you will do if you don’t like it, and the excitement in letting them know that you do. You try and piece together what you know of them, and how they found their idea. It makes the reading all the more pleasurable.
I met Louise Allan through a workshop group and was struck with how bright and outgoing she is. The best word I can use to describe her is gregarious. So, I knew immediately that I had read her book.
I was not disappointed.
Set in Tasmania, The Sister’s Song traces the lives of two sisters who each mourn the loss of what could have been. They story is narrated from Ida’s point of view, beginning in childhood, as she struggles to live in the shadow of her younger sister’s immense musical talent. As the sisters grow up it seems they are destined to lead drastically different lives. Ida a wife and mother, Nora an opera star. Yet both sisters suffer different but equally devastating loss and find themselves having to reconstruct their sense of self and purpose. The relationship between Ida and Nora is deftly portrayed, exploring the complex and intricate ways that women rely upon, and care for, each other.
Louise Allan’s The Sister’s Song is a book that rings and resonates like a tiny crystal bell. It is delicate and beautiful, and sings with an exquisite melancholy that is somehow touching and heart-warming in its sadness and beauty. There is so much to love about this book. The writing is crisp and clear and there are no wasted words. Instead, Allan manages to lay bare her characters loss and trauma without resorting to melodrama. It simply is, and the story is all the more powerful and devastating for it.
Set in an era where women’s roles were clearly proscribed and defined, The Sister’s Song speaks to all women about their hardships, their losses, their work and their need for kinship. Running through the book is the whisper of hope and optimism that together we are stronger, that there is no one path, and that what was, is no more.
The Binding by Bridget Collins is set in a world where books have the power to take away memories. Binders hear the memories and emotions that their customers want to live without and bind them into books. Binders take away grief, abuse and love.
Collin’s remarkable story is an enthralling and addictive read as it follows the story of Emmett Farmer, who is sent away to be an apprentice binder. He soon discovers that the world of books, stories and the past are not all that they seem to be and that his own power lies in his remarkable connections to the written word.
The Binding is a captivating love story, a skilled fantasy novel in which the single magical shift completely changes the functioning of society, relationships and power, and an impeccably crafted narrative that slowly reveals itself through the act of reading—like the premise of the novel itself.
I’m reluctant to say more about The Binding because it is emotive and engrossing, and needs to be discovered for itself. However, this book is heart-breakingly beautiful in its exploration of love, connection and acceptance.
A must read if you are on the hunt for something special.
N. K. Jemisin’s Broken EarthTrilogy is nothing short of incredible. Often fantasy fiction is written of as “genre fiction” which is code for a good story but essentially time-filling, superficial fluff. In other words, blockbuster material but nothing that is going to change the world. That honour is given to dark, moody, emotional dramas and often books that take two or three readings to really nail down. Given that the bulk of literature consumed is genre fiction this dismissive attitude from some writers, readers and critics of literary fiction must be wrong at least some of the time.
Fantasy fiction has come a long way since I was reading the same formulaic plot of teenage magician, dragons, mages, and journeys through deep, dark forests over and over again when I was a teenager. So burned was I by the generic template of fantasy fiction that I stopped reading it entirely for over twenty years. Then my hairdresser (seriously, I get book tips from my hairdresser) put me on to a few incredible authors and I’m back into a full-blown addiction. Science fiction is still my preference, but there are some serious players in the world of fantasy fiction.
N. K. Jemisin is one of them. Unsurprisingly all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy won the Hugo award, with the final book also winning this year’s Nebula Award and Locus Award for Best Fantasy. These are a series of books that I would call literary fantasy fiction. Why? The prose is superb. The world-building immaculate. The magic system is new, imaginative and explored to its fullest extent. The novels are narrated in third and second person point of view—no mean feat. The protagonist is a middle-aged mother. Whoa. I know. How the *$#% did someone manage to make a middle-aged mother not only the heroine but portray her as tough, with emotional depth, and physically tangible without boring us? (Maybe this touches a nerve).
The strength of Jemisin’s narrative lies precisely in her choice of protagonist. There is no shortage of powerful male characters through which this story could easily have been told, but in choosing a female lead the personal and the political become indistinguishable. Her identity as a mother is inseparable from that of a community member, a “Raga”, or the potential saviour of the world. Jemisin balances the tension between the multifaceted identities of her protagonist in a way that is both heartbreaking and believable. Women, their bodies, their lives, their choices are expressed with nuance and sensitivity and no one identity is prioritised over the other.
These books are ultimately about the myriad of relationships that make up who we are: self, community, familial, maternal, global and environmental.
Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is a short story cycle that masterfully weaves together narratives of time and place. While written as a collection of short-stories, Storyland reads like a novel where the land itself is the central character through which we experience change, growth, drama and loss. It is through the changes to the land, from pristine wilderness to ecological disaster that we observe and reflect upon Australia’s past, and its possible future. The characters who inhabit this landscape across the centuries are as fleeting and transient as the birds that flit between and carry us on to the next story, with the land itself bearing the scars of our actions across time.
Storyland begins in 1796 with the story of Will Martin through the lens of white settlement. We follow three men as they journey through the Illawarra region in search of fresh water and settlement opportunities in a story that explores first contact between Indigenous and colonial cultures. The conflicts, racism, violence and discrimination between colonial settlers and Indigneous Australians is a theme that runs throughout Storyland—from the devastating story of Hawker’s ambition in 1822 to Lola’s determination to survive as a female farmer (for me the most moving of the stories) in 1900, to Bel’s child’s perspective of domestic violence in 1996 and finally to Nada’s story that extends as far forward as 2717 where she recounts the environmental catastrophe and social collapse that ends her world as she knows it—Storyland explores the social and cultural divide that founded modern Australia, transforming the personal and the individual into an allegory enacted upon the landscape.
The time-frame of Storyland is vast against the fleeting span of a human-life or Australia’s modern colonial history, but Storyland alludes to a timeless depth and richness of history held in the land that humanity has barely skimmed, and may potentially lose. Each story is linked by the motif of a bird moving between the narratives, as witnesses that are born of the land, but also free to view it from above. The stories are also linked by place, object and shared narrative with oblique references to common histories to create a network wherein the past is always active in the present.
McKinnon’s narrative voice is clear and light as she carefully guides us through an intense exploration of Australia’s shifting identity, at times dark and shameful, at others bold and inspiring. She doesn’t shy away from the violence of our past, nor the capacity for violence as well as love that still shapes us today and into the future. Storyland is deeply moving, engaging and deceptively simple. This is a book that forces introspection, and self-reflection and leaves an important mark on the landscape of Australian literature.
I recently sat down in the auditorium an the University of Western Australia to hear Mia Freedman speak at the Perth Writer’s Festival. She was in Perth spruiking her new book Work Strife Balance. I had heard of Mia Freedman. I periodically click on the MamaMia links that appear in my newsfeed and smirk at the somewhat irreverent tone of the articles I find there, and I have seen her on television. However, given the catastrophe of my own “work-life balance” of recent years she was a person her existed in my peripheral vision. She was someone I was obliquely aware of but that hadn’t had the opportunity to stand centre stage in my little view of the world as of yet.
So I sat with a room full of other women (and the odd dotting of the Y-chromosome) to hear her speak about why she thought that the very phrase “work-life balance” was “bullshit”. Instantly it clicked. I felt mine, and many heads around the room nodding in approval, mirroring Mia’s broad smile. Because of course it is bullshit. The optimistic and rallying cry of “having it all” is a neat lie the world told me when I was a little girl. That’s not to say I can’t have it all, but I certainly can’t have it all at once and this is where the trite phrase “work-life balance” has tried to gloss over the ongoing tension between family, children, career and financial independence that still plagues women (despite the massive headway made by women in the past century).
I immediately went to the book tent and bought Mia’s book (though the need to get home to my children meant I didn’t stick around for her to sign it), then read it in one sitting the next day. My experience of this book was a two-fold. Firstly I found myself smiling at the open and conversation style. I nodded emphatically at her recounting of some uniquely female experiences with that secret sense of relief that someone had put my feelings into words. That is not to say, however, that I engaged entirely with this book. I felt at times the conversation about how women are to survive and thrive in our current social and cultural context was lost amongst the memoir and at times missed important opportunities to explore just what a different future for women (our daughters) might look like. Beginning as it did with a strong statement about how the conversation around women’s lives (personal and professional) is essentially delusional, that the way our society functions needs to fundamentally shift in its thinking, the book vacillated between this big picture concept and individual coping strategies—rather than strategies for change—women use to navigate the complexity of their lives.
But then, isn’t that exactly what the title signals? That the way our (highly conservative) society is presently structured means that women are always battling against their double-bind. Mia Freedman’s book reflects precisely the way that women’s lives are torn between professional and personal concerns, the desire to fulfil societal expectations (be it through career, motherhood, physical appearance or financial success), can become utterly overwhelming and at times crippling. It is no wonder, that in recounting her professional and personal experiences Mia struggles within the book to find a balance between narratives that are essentially, if not publicly recognised as, intertwined.
For Mia the answer comes, as she explained at the writer’s festival, in lowering the bar. Reduce the expectations. Stop parenting as a verb. Foster independence in our children. Expect chaos, and inequity between home and work. Accept the ebb and flow of stress and chaos that will inevitably accompany the intersection of family and career. And she’s right-ish. But I want more than coping strategies.
Work Strife Balance made me want more. It made me say gratefully, “yep, we have a lot in common (as well as many differences)”, and left me asking “but how can we change?” Not in the sense of performing a miraculous juggling act, but how are we to enact real change that will see the notion of “work-life” or “work-strife” as a naive and quaint concept of the past? It is too much to ask a single woman sharing her story to have that answer. I applaud Mia Freedman’s candid writing, her willingness to share the difficult and personal moments of her life, to give voice to the self-doubt that surely we all feel and to articulate some of the many contradictory experiences of motherhood. And while she doesn’t (and can’t) provide the answers I am looking for, this kind of writing is an important step in recognising how women are living their lives and holding their head above water. Perhaps if more voices are added to the mix, if more truths are told, then we won’t need to simply cope, but will be able to thrive.