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Any ordinary day, in Sales’s book (2018), is the day when something terrible happens to you, to someone you love, or even to strangers who are part of your broader community. After her own brush with death during pregnancy, she began thinking more deeply about how we come to terms with the fact that life can ‘blindside us in an instant’. How do we cope if it does happen? What responsibility do we have to people caught up in some terrible tragedy? And what does this tell us about how we should live?

To try and answer these questions, Sales interviews people who have experienced unexpected loss or trauma, often in a very public way. She talks to them about ‘the shock, the grief, the media intrusion, the community reaction, the struggle to keep going.’ Among the interviewees are a survivor of the Lindt Café siege, the sole survivor of the Thredbo landside disaster, a man rescued after being lost for 43 days in the Himalayas, a man who lost his family in the Port Arthur massacre, and a woman whose husband was murdered by his mentally ill son. She talks to them about how they coped in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term. She finds they had a range of strategies, such as ‘locking away’ memories of lost loved ones, working actively for change like gun control, and creating a practical memorial to the lost ones, like a charitable foundation. Some of her interviewees said their Christian faith was strengthened by their ordeal, though most did not profess any religious belief. Sales also talked with some of the people who offer help in crisis situations, including a detective, a priest and social workers. One of the worst things, one of the interviewees told her, was being shunned by people too embarrassed to offer comfort: ‘You could sort of understand, but by the same token it’s another part of loss.’ Sales concludes that just being there, accompanying rather than actively intervening, is the best form of comfort.

Sales also surveys some of the academic literature around these questions, and this gives context to her interviews. She is interested in finding out why the public is so interested in these stories, in questions of probability – ‘it could have been me’ –, in the incidence of coincidence, in the idea that things are ‘meant’ to happen and the human brain’s the need for predictability. She questions why Australians are sometimes more fearful of things that are very unlikely to happen, and over which they have no control, than of things like behaviour leading to ill health which are much more likely and are within our control. She finds the literature on such issues crosses philosophy, mathematics, law, religion and psychology. She finds, for example, from the relevant statistics, that the likelihood of Louisa Hope, the survivor of the Lindt Café siege being both diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a serious blow she was already having to cope with, and experiencing the siege, were one in 1.39 billion. But it is really the individual’s response to their situation that she is more interested in.

In the book, which is written in the first person, Sales also talks about her personal and professional response to tragedy. She reveals her own insecurities about and emotional reactions to disasters she has reported on. She admits to making some mistakes, mostly arising from insensitivity. But she considers that ‘asking the questions everybody secretly thinks about’ is part of her brief in writing the book. She notes that the media has a huge responsibility when reporting on disasters, as it has ‘enormous impact on our sense of personal security and our collective ability to recover’. She also looks at the ways in which the media can intrude on survivors, and based on a study of press interactions with survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, suggests that despite some lapses, most journalist reported in good faith, the interviewees mostly having positive interactions with the media. She also defends the right of journalists to probe survivors’ stories, though acknowledging that ‘maximum public interest and therefore maximum media harassment coincide with peak vulnerability of the people involved.’ I would probably judge they get it right rather less often than Sales thinks they do.

Overall Sales feels that the responses of her interviewees are ‘life affirming’, and I have to agree that their reaction to tragedy is a tribute to human resilience. I couldn’t help noting, however, that there is only one example of a failure to cope in the book. The coroner found that Private Jake Kovko had died when he accidently shot himself in Afghanistan; his mother has never accepted this verdict. Naturally, Sales could hardly interview her. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to interview anyone whose life was in tatters because something terrible had happened to them. But if the stories of those who do cope are life affirming, does this mean that those who don’t are somehow weaker? Sales might have acknowledged that there is a large element of luck in who gets the necessary support, who has the family backing or the financial means to move on from tragedy. The book is a bit unbalanced without this.

You can read a little more about Leigh Sales, her journalism and her other books here.  Or you could simply watch her on the ABC’s 7.30 program each weekday evening.

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This book, published in 2016, has an intriguing title. It is a French phrase used to describe twilight, where shapes become indistinct and it is impossible to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog. This makes it an uncertain and potentially dangerous time, and it is such a time that Blain chronicles in the lives of the major characters in this book.

The story, which is set mainly in Sydney, takes place on one day and concerns the interplay of the lives of three members of a family and one ex-member.  There are also flashbacks to some of the events that have brought them to where they are. Hilary, widow of a well-known painter and a film maker in her own right, has two daughters, Ester, a family therapist and April, a singer. The fourth member of the cast is Lawrence, a pollster, Ester’s ex-husband and father of her twin daughters. All of them are on the cusp of change, though not necessarily for the better. Hilary has cancer, though she hasn’t told her daughters. They are estranged from each other for reasons that become clear in the story. Ester might be about to start a new relationship, April to find some direction in her career. Lawrence might well be facing professional disgrace (and is definitely facing the impact of technological change on political polling. I was interested to note that this reflects reality; polling methods did change to robo polling about this time. Small irony: one section of the story turns on Ester not answering the phone because she thinks it might be a robo-poll.) The narrative is taken up by each of the characters in turn, but such is Blain’s skill that the end of one chapter seems to slide into the next, like one scene of a film dissolving into the next, as one critic has perceptively noted. True to its title, the story does not fully resolve any of their dilemmas with complete clarity, though some of the outlines are clear and others becoming more so.

The theme of shifting perceptions – maybe wolf, maybe dog – is strong throughout. The interplay of past and present is a shifting boundary. Of Hilary’s film she thinks ‘Yes, it is about death, but it is also about living – about what we cling to and what we relinquish – about how we remember.’ Ester’s professional consultations which occur throughout the day and give the story structure are also an interplay not just between psychologist and client but also between experience and the memory of it. The characters themselves are in flux. Is Lawrence really, as Ester claims, in love with the power of lying and cheating? ‘That’s what Lawrence does,’ he thinks; ‘he lies, he cheats, and he fucks up.’ But now he has lost all sense of himself: ‘he doesn’t know what wants …or what it was he desired. It’s all shifting, and he is seasick with the motion …’ Can he redeem himself, crossing back where he can be trusted?

Liminality is also inherent in the descriptions of time and place in the story. The day in Sydney is rainy; rain on glass reflects and distorts. Lawrence ‘sees himself reflected in the rain-streaked window and flinches.’ It’s still day, but ‘it’s so bloody dark and miserable outside it might as well be night’ says April. Yet the rain can also make things beautiful: Hilary, looking at the wet plants in her garden, thinks ‘The world is a place of wonder’. At the climax of the book it is twilight. ‘It is that hour’, thinks Hilary ‘Where day turns to night.’ And ‘the daylight slides away’. Metaphors reflecting the duality expressed in the title abound throughout the book.

It might be possible to argue that the problems of the characters are of the kind designated ‘First World’ problems. Blain is aware of this; Ester remembers that Lawrence says that as a therapist she ‘pedalled false hopes to a spoilt middle class. She handed out security blankets to children who should just grow up.’ It is ironic that this sentiment comes from Lawrence, who has clearly never grown up. But the story is about growing up. And the pain that Ester as a therapist and all characters in their lives deal with is real, and the issues of love, regret, aging and death are universal, even if most of the characters are solidly middle class.

When I read this book, I did not know that when it was in the manuscript stage in 2015, Blain was diagnosed with a brain tumour similar to the cancer that Hilary is suffering from in the book. Blain died thirteen months later in December 2016. As Kerryn Goldsworthy notes in her thoughtful review in the Sydney Review of Books, ‘It was difficult to read the book through any lens other than a sympathetic awareness of the situation’s terrible irony, and almost impossible, though most reviewers at the time tried honourably hard, to read the book purely as a work of fiction on its own terms, something separate from the fate of its author.’ I was fortunate to be able to read it unencumbered by this knowledge, and thought long before I included mention of her death in this review. I did so because I think the knowledge of it does add depth to an already complex and subtle story.

You can read more about Georgia Blain here. This was Blain’s eighth novel and second to last book. Her final one was a memoir, The Museum of Words, which was written during her treatment for cancer; it is reviewed here, again in the Sydney Review of Books.

  1. There’s one passage – among others- that struck me as particularly relevant to someone of my age. It is an illustration of Hilary’s concern about what we remember and what we forget. She acknowledges that her grandchildren will miss her ‘for a while’. ‘And then life will go on, and I will be someone they remember occasionally, with fondness, but with no real substance to the recollection. And that’s the way it should be … And then there’s a fainter imprint left behind, a period in which you are remembered. After that you are gone.’ How important it is to have someone say this.

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I came to read this book – subtitled The Present and the Future of the World (2018) – by accident. The book my sister intended to give me for Christmas is the one that Frankopan wrote immediately before this one: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). This much longer book turns away from the Eurocentric view of history we are familiar with, and begins with the rise of the Persian Empire, taking the Caspian Sea, rather than the Mediterranean as its centre. The silk roads of the title are the arteries – networks rather than actual roads – along which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed between China and the west. The book chronicles the history of the peoples who migrated, traded and fought across central Asia for centuries before the rise of the west.

The book I did read – The New Silk Roads – follows on from where The Silk Roads ended. In that book Frankopan described how the Silk Roads are rising in importance. In this book, he follows that rise from 2015 -2018. He writes in his introduction that it is not possible to make sense of what is happening today – including Brexit in Europe and Trump in the US – without taking the region lying between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific into account. More and more, he says, decisions that will shape the future of the world are being made in Beijing and Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh, Kabul and Ankara rather than Paris, London, Berlin, Rome or even Washington.

The main reason for this shift in the balance of world power, he argues, is the growing wealth of the east. This in turn is being fostered by the development of a web of economic, political and cultural interconnections between states – like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Kazakhstan – that might on their own wield little power on the world stage, states that are middle powers but rising in importance like India and Iran, major players like Russia, and above all, China, the emergent super power. Discussion of its ‘Belt and Road’ strategy to foster infrastructure like roads, ports, airports, energy plants and pipelines by lending money to countries close by, but also as far away as Africa, is central to the book. China needs the resources of these countries; they need her development assistance.

While ‘the story across large parts of the region … has been about consolidation and trying to find ways to collaborate more effectively’, the story of the west on the other hand has been one of ‘isolation and fragmentation,’ of ‘separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control’’ – as seen not only in Brexit, but also in the rise of anti-globalist parties in central Europe.  He argues that President Trump’s incoherent foreign policy has only exacerbated the decline of American power in the world; he is particularly critical of the tariff war Trump is trying to wage against China, and his application of sanctions against Iran, both of which, he says, only encourage other countries into China’s orbit. ‘While Beijing has been busy trying to find partners in all places at all times, it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the west have along the Silk Roads.’

China’s expansion hasn’t all been plain sailing – ‘because of strategic rivalries, competition for resources and personality clashes between leaders who might be described as charismatic visionaries by their supporters and as having autocratic tendencies by their critics’. There are territorial tensions between many of these new players, like India and Pakistan, and Russia and Turkey, and Russia and China herself. There are also questions about the level of debt that some countries have entered into, with fears that it may inhibit development rather than fostering it. In some of these countries, the new wealth is going only to a few, fuelling discontent among the rest. Frankopan makes it clear, however, that few if any of the countries he is writing about are concerned about civil rights; they will savagely repress any internal opposition. Western style liberal democracy is not an option. But this will not hinder the rise of the Silk Roads.

Strangely for a book about this region, there is no mention of Islam, or any other religion. And I could have done with a map. Frankopan gives a nod in passing to the realities of climate change and the challenges of sustainable development but does not explore their implications for this region in any detail, even though access to water resources is likely to be an international flash point in the region as the climate changes. He clearly doesn’t see the demand for oil rapidly diminishing; any substantial decline would affect the strategic clout of countries like Saudi Arabia, but this isn’t mentioned. In terms of structure and argument, the book, described by one critic as ‘highly discursive and free-flowing’, suffers from a sense that it has been put together in haste, as if Frankopan has asked his research assistants to collect every reference they could find to the Silk Road countries, then thrown them all together.  But this doesn’t stop his major themes from emerging very clearly.

Western leaders, including Australia’s, should be very concerned, as they appear to have no viable response to this changing world. For example, at a time when China is investing in nations in the Pacific, the current Australian government has over the past five years drastically slashed foreign aid and is only now – probably too late – beginning to realise its mistake . The aid to the Pacific in the current budget, which experts say is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, is to fund an underwater communications cable – which would otherwise be funded by China.

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is also Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He works on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia/Iran, Central Asia and beyond, and on relations between Christianity and Islam. You can check out his website here. I’m going to make sure I read the 2015 book as well.

 

 

 

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Published in 2017, this book deservedly won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Quite randomly, a character in the book wins a Pulitzer Prize. ‘It’s not Pew-lit-sir’, he says. ‘It’s Pull-it-sir’. That’s an in joke. Perhaps if you want to be deeply moved or challenged it’s not the book for you. But if you want to forget for a while the awfulness of things, you’ll love it.

Arthur Less is a middle aged, middle brow writer. He lived for a number of years with Robert Brownburn, doyen of the Russian River School of writers in California; he’s the one that wins a Pulitzer. (The Russian River Writers Guild is real; Robert sounds a bit like the ‘beat’ writer Alan Ginsberg.)  Arthur has more recently been living with Freddy, but they have split up, and Freddy is about marry someone else. Though he is of course invited, Arthur cannot bear the thought of being anywhere near the wedding, so he accepts a swag of invitations that will take him overseas – to a teaching post, a conference, a travel article, anything … He plans to spend time in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India and Japan. What could possibly go wrong? The book is the story of his travels, with flashbacks to earlier events; it is also an exploration of getting older, and what it means to love.

Arthur’s surname, Less, is an aptronym, a personal name aptly or peculiarly suited to its owner; think of Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind. Less is – or at least he feels he is – less of a writer, less of a person, less loveable than other people. He is, he says, ‘Nobody’.  When his most recently published book is praised in Italy – having been largely ignored in the United States – he thinks it must be because the translator ‘worked his mediocre English into breathtaking Italian’. Believing he must have been mistaken for someone else and is in the wrong car, he ‘readies himself for full mortification’. Asked to read from the book in Germany, he thinks he is being set up for a ‘writerly humiliation planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.’ In France, criticism from another writer leads him to think not just that he is ‘a bad writer … a bad lover, a bad friend, a bad son. Apparently the condition is worse. He is bad at being himself’. In India, he thinks ‘What an ass he is, everywhere he goes.’

The book is suffused with a gentle, wry humour. Often this arises when things go wrong. He’s (naturally) lost his luggage; ‘he is well acquainted with humility. It is one piece of luggage he has not lost’. What he has lost ‘will circle the globe to no purpose, like so many travellers.’ Sometimes it is because of the disjunction between Less’s catastrophizing and what actually happens; when, for example ‘life has pardoned him at the scaffold steps’.  And sometimes it’s just in the writer’s understated observations, as in ‘the restaurant … is very old and water stained in ways that would delight a painter and trouble a contractor’.

Less’s most recent manuscript has been rejected by his publisher, and one of his hopes for the journey is that he can somehow fix it up at a writers’ retreat in India. This doesn’t happen quite as he hoped, but he does get to revise it. His agent says it is ‘Too wistful. Too poignant.’ Arthur realises ‘with a joy bordering on sadism’ that he can ‘deglove every humiliation’ of his character ‘to show it’s risible lining’. And ‘somehow bittersweet longing begins to appear in the novel … It changes, grows kinder … our benevolent god grants his character the brief benediction of joy.’ ‘If only one could do this in real life!’ And this is exactly what Greer does for Less.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator saying: ‘From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad’. And Greer gives him some victories. Another character says to him ‘You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool, you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won.’ Arthur’s response is of course that he doesn’t feel victorious, he feels defeated. But he isn’t, in fact, the terrible, undeserving person he thinks he is. We know he is a good person from the narrator, who seems to have an overview of Less’s life. I didn’t think much about this narrator at the beginning; it was as if it was just Greer writing about Less. But as the story goes on and Greer inserts the narrator more and more, he or she takes a bigger and finally crucial role. I didn’t guess who he or she was until almost the end of the book, though looking back there are clues there for the more astute reader. These post-modern conceits might in less sure hands – pun intended – have been annoying, but here I think they work very well. As the narrator says, it is a love story.

You can read more about the author and his other five books – four novels and a book of short stories – on his website.

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Being Mortal (2014) is a blend of memoir, research and comment, with a number of case studies which Gawande uses to make his point. The book’s subtitle, Illness, Medicine and What Happens in the End is a useful summary of the contents of the book but doesn’t give any clue to the emotional weight it carries, dealing as it does with death – which in this context is inevitably a reminder of one’s own death.

Gawande bases the book partly on his own experience as a surgeon. He says he learned little about aging or death in his medical course; learning how to deal with the problems of old age and dying had to be learnt first by experience and then by personal research. Thus he also draws on his experience as a son, and son-in-law. His parents, both medical doctors, migrated to America from India, so he never knew his grandparents. The first old person he really came to know was his wife’s grandmother, Alice. Over the course of the book, both Alice and his father get sick and die. This lived experience on his part adds considerable emotional depth to what otherwise might have been a colder, technical discussion.

Gawande is concerned with two related issues: the institutionalisation of the aged, and the medicalisation of death. He understands why families are no longer willing or able to look after their aging relatives, and indeed why aging relatives often seek independence from their children. But he abhors the regimentation many institutions impose on old people, supposedly for their own safety but often for institutional convenience; it saps purpose and hope from old people’s lives. Through several case studies, including that of Alice, he looks at some of the attempts to humanise institutions or find alternatives to institutional care, such as assisted living facilities. This latter was an attempt to meet the needs of old people for independence, rather than subjecting them to regimentation, even if it kept them safe. Though initially successful, he admits that with the proliferation of assisted living facilities, the concept has been weakened, and regimentation, being cheaper, has crept back in.

But no matter how independent old people are able to be, there comes a time when illness, or failing health due to old age, shunt us into the medical system. Where once people died at home, without much medical intervention, they now (at least in the Western world) mostly die in hospital after sometimes lengthy medical intervention has run its course. At what point is hospital necessary? And more importantly, how should doctors treat people who are near death but not yet terminal? This is perhaps even more of a problem for younger people with terminal diseases than for older people, as one of Gawande’s case studies shows. He argues that doctors are trained to solve medical problems, so favour treatment options which may prolong life, even if they reduce quality of life. He considers that medical professionals are very good at offering options for treatment, but very bad at explaining to patients and their families the options for not treating. He acknowledges it can be very difficult to decide when treatment does not offer reasonable hope. Even when patients have specified they don’t want to be resuscitated, the decision to withdraw treatment can be difficult and relatives often press doctors for further procedures against the patient’s wishes, such is the faith in medical science.

While he does not suggest there are easy solutions to such dilemmas, Gawande, from his own experience and research, advocates home hospice care for people who are terminally ill. Hospice care – called palliative care in Australia –  involves provision of pain relief or other medication to ease suffering, but not usually other forms of treatment. But the first step is to find out what the patient really wants, which in turn involves talking about their death. What is important to them? Is being with family and friends more important than living a little longer in hospital? Gawande touches briefly on euthanasia, which is legal in three American states, concluding that while people are comforted by knowing it is available, few use it. He clearly prefers the home hospice alternative, and studies have shown that people may in fact live longer using it than they would have in hospital. His case studies, however, including that of his father, show that no option works smoothly, without pain to the patient or their relatives and friends.

I noted that all the case studies Gawande uses are of people with loving families or concerned friends. Spouses are willing to help their terminally ill partners with daily routines and to make accommodations to all their needs. But what of those without such support of whom there must be many? Furthermore, few people can afford to pay for the personal home care old and frail people require. Institutional care may be their only option. It is not clear in the book how care or treatment is paid for. Most of the forms of care Gawande describes are private, though some appear to be state-subsidised. Indeed, how Gawande has dealt with funding is the only issue on which his book disappointed me. He does acknowledge that being well off means being able to afford better care both in terms of accommodation and medical treatment. But the vast discrepancy in health care between the rich and the poor in America is not discussed, and nor is the growing disparity between the life expectancy of rich and poor Americans.

Gawande’s plea that we think about our own deaths, and discuss our wishes with family and friends is relevant to everyone. But it is particularly relevant to older people like me. I found Gawande’s perfectly correct insistence that old people get ill and die a bit depressing, though challenging. Would what seems like common sense – that quality of life and imminent death are preferable to longer life but extended suffering – look the same when the choice has to be made? But there is also hope in the book that we can retain our right to choose the best death possible.

You can read more about Gawande’s writing, surgery and research here on his web-site.

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The full title of Don Watson’s The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2014) is truly revealing of all the questions he asks in this book. First there is the matter of ‘the bush’ itself, which Watson shows can mean anything from not-the-city, through landscapes such as scrub, grassland, mallee, rainforest or any specific remnant of the pre-European countryside. The nature of Watson’s ‘bush’ is in the eye of the beholder; it is a cultural creation. Then there is the sub-title, which is both literally and metaphorically accurate. Watson travels throughout Australia – inland, into its heart – visiting people and places and telling their stories. But the book is also a journey in the sense of an exploration of people’s different cultural understandings – both past and present – of the bush, of the values that it encapsulates and their place – for better or worse – at the heart of Australian society today.

This is not a ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end’ book. As Watson says, ‘Readers will soon find this story straying all over the place, as the bush does, as I did’. It does start with Watson’s childhood on a dairy farm in East Gippsland, and ends with him living at Mt Macedon, an hour out of Melbourne. But in between, each chapter is to a degree random – swagmen here, pesticides there, and Major Mitchell thrown in for good measure. But there are themes running throughout which give shape and form to Watson’s meditation. These, addressed in no particular order, include the Aboriginal relationship with the bush before European invasion, Aboriginal dispossession – there seems to be reference to a massacre in nearly every chapter- European attitudes to the bush, the struggles of settlers, the degradation of the land by farming and pastoralism and the hold the bush has over Australians’ idea of themselves.

Watson is remarkably fair in his discussion of these themes. Perhaps because of his own rural background, he understands the pride settlers took in ‘civilising’ the bush and making it productive in European terms. ‘Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down.’ On the other hand, he is fully aware of the costs this enterprise had for Aboriginal people, for the plants, birds and animals, both native and introduced, that were destroyed along the way and the ultimate environmental damage white settlement has caused. He recognises all the good and socially useful values fostered by life in the country, but is equally aware of the narrow, anti-intellectual cast of mind it also produced. He talks about some of the attempts to reverse the degradation of the land, as well as the foolish rejection of expert advice about the effects of a warming climate. And he is fully aware, as anyone reading this book must be, that the civilised benefits we now enjoy were made possible by the destruction of Aboriginal society and the natural environment. ‘In the plainest terms,’ he writes, Australians would not be who they are – and would not know themselves – if they had not fought the war with nature. The same is true of the war fought with Aborigines’. All the while reading the book I felt the truth of this; my own ancestors were among those clearing – or destroying – the bush, the creatures, and quite possibly the people – who had lived there.

The sense of melancholy versus the sense of optimism which the book engenders feeds into the dispute between the left and right of politics about what are Australia’s central values. This dispute, commonly known as the ‘history wars’, involves an argument over whether Australia’s history post colonisation offers a bleak vision of destruction of people and environment, as opposed to a triumphalist one of successful white settlement. Watson addresses the central issue in this war; that of national identity. He looks at the ‘Australian Legend’, the idea that the virtues of mateship, solidarity, egalitarianism and disdain for authority were born in the bush and became part of the Australian national character. While the legend was initially part of a radical vision, it has more recently been appropriated by conservatives who have elevated the bush ethos into the ‘national interest’, and gloss over the racism, narrow mindedness and anti-intellectualism that are the other side of the coin. Russel Ward, who described – or -possibly conjured up – this legend, concedes that ‘It is not so much the bushman’s actual nature that matters, as the nature attributed to him by so many men of the day.’ Watson would agree; the bushmen he describes were honest, hardworking, lazy, drunken, idealist, mad and foolish in the same proportion as anyone anywhere else in Australia. ‘It is possible that for every couple of bushmen who chose to be mates’ he writes,’ half a dozen others had mateship thrust upon them.’ His judgement, finally, is even-handed; he gives both to the bleak and triumphal. ‘Along with steady, sometimes near miraculous progress, the record includes not only follies, but repeat offences and incalculable lost opportunities. The mistakes were so many and so devastating in their consequence we have to remind ourselves sometimes that the story overall is one of triumph: over formidable, indifferent, inscrutable nature; over all kinds of hardship, including the self-inflicted kind; over ignorance, fashion and dogma.’

Of the bush, Watson says ‘we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again’. At his home at Mount Macedon, he does not try to recreate the ‘original’ bush, which would indeed be impossible because the bush was never static. Instead, his motto seems to be ‘whatever works’, in his case a mixture of local plants, plants from elsewhere in Australia and introduced plants, chosen with an eye for their fire-retardant properties.’ This balance of local and imported vegetation can stand as a metaphor for the subtle complex of meanings Watson has woven in this book. Dip into it.

You can read more about Don Watson here. Or you might like his book There It Is Again: Collected Writings(2018).

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I admire J.K. Rowling. I love the way she uses her fame to support social justice causes and to call out sexism and racism; see for example her tweets lambasting Donald Trump. After a tentative start with the first couple of Harry Potter books, I enjoyed the series. (Everyone loves the Harry Potter books, but I think they improved as they went along.) I am also very much enjoying Rowling’s crime series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith; here’s my review of the first one. But The Casual Vacancy? Not so much.

This book (2012), the first she wrote after the Potter books, belongs in the category of adult social comedy, though like many books so categorised, it is certainly not funny unless you like you humour very black. It is set in Pagford, a small, post-card-perfect town in the West Country. The town is run by an elected Parish Council (a local government term, nothing to do with the church). The Council is also responsible for the maintenance of a rather squalid housing estate, known as The Fields, just outside the town; it is largely inhabited by welfare recipients. The Council is divided between those who believe that the residents of The Fields benefit from their association with Pagford, and those who want to be rid of any responsibility for them. The casual vacancy on the Council arises when one of the elected representatives, Barry Fairbrother, a keen supporter of The Fields, dies suddenly, leading to a bitter campaign between the two factions to fill the vacancy.

There is a large cast of characters; Wikipedia lists twenty main ones, rather too many in my view, making it hard, at least initially, to remember who is who. While the main plot centres on the battle over the vacancy, all the characters have their own stories, for most part concerning relationships between husbands, wives, partners and friends, and parents, their children and their friends. And there is not a really happy person amongst them.

I have no idea what her intentions were, but to me this book reads as if Rowling, having written only children’s books up to this time (albeit wildly successful children’s books), decided to show she could write about people in ways other than the black and white characterisations we find in the Harry Potter stories. With this in mind, she makes sure that almost every character has both good and characteristics, motivations or actions. This of course reflects reality. The problem I have is that she pretty much emphasises the various ways in which the characters are unpleasant to each other, to the point I found it hard to much like anyone in the book. This undermined my enthusiasm for reading on, and after the account of a particularly miserable dinner party about half way through, I started skipping to find out what happened, rather than seeking to understand the situation of all the characters. A member of my book group thought Rowling was perhaps challenging the reader to go beyond initial dislike and look more deeply at the human condition, but if so, I failed the test.

Some characters have no redeeming features at all, like the Chair of the Council, Howard Mollison, and his wife Shirley. Theirs is not a Voldemort take-over-the world-style evil; it is petty malice, snobbery and racism expressed through gossip and inuendo – a distinction I expect Rowling was consciously making. Others, like their daughter-in-law Samantha have some redeeming features, whereas others again, like Kay Bawden, are basically good, though with insecurities and terrible judgement that get in the way of happiness. Of the five teenagers who play a significant role, four – Krystal, Andrew, Sukhvinder and Gaia – are kids trying to find their way in varyingly difficult circumstances. But Stuart, aka Fats, with his possibly realistic but nevertheless nasty lack of empathy, his calculating selfishness and his self-justifying glorification of a warped existentialism, seems to me to have little going for him. Only Barry Fairbrother, dead by page 4, seems to have been a genuinely nice person, and even then his wife resented the time he spent helping other people. (His grief-stricken wife and children seem more or less ok too.)

As you would expect from Rowling’s juxtaposition of Pagford and The Fields, the book touches on a number of social issues including racism, addiction, theft, domestic violence, rape and child neglect. And the writer being who she is, it is not surprising that while residents of Pagford might like to think that these are issues only in The Fields, they are also issues in middle class Pagford, though manifested in somewhat different ways. Class is also an issue; I was a little surprised that Rowling emphasised the class difference between the Pagford and The Fields residents so starkly in the language they use – standard English versus lumpen argot – but maybe this is an accurate representation of reality. And if the poor characters come off worse, then that’s a reflection of reality too. Given the complexity of these issues, and the minefield of personal relationships between the characters, it’s not really surprising that there isn’t a happy ending for any of them; for some there is tragedy, deserved or undeserved, while for others there is the merest vestige of hope.

It’s a long book. I think it might have benefitted from some judicious editing. I preferred some of the Harry Potter films to the books because the films were rather more condensed, and the same may well be true here. Fans of the book – and there are many – can point out that every character has important interactions with other characters, so none could be left out. And I do agree that underneath the verbiage Rowling weaves a very good plot. This is her great strength; she engaged me so that I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen, even if I finished up not reading every word. But books I really like I know I’ll read again, and this won’t be one of them.

You can read more about the book – its characters and plot, and its critical reception – here. You can read more about J.K. Rowling here. The Casual Vacancy was made into a three-part TV series in 2015.

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