Book reviews

I recently went to Canberra for four days for a family visit, so it precipitated a lot of reading!

Content note: rape, institutional abuse

"The Natural way of things" by Charlotte Wood

This work of horror fiction is set in the now, described as The Handmaid's Tale meets Wake in Fright, which is apt. But scarily, the book is tamer than our own recent history. Wood has described how she was partly inspired by listening to the Radio National story "Exposed to Moral Danger", which describes the Hay Institution for Girls which was a prison for "uncontrollable" girls in NSW in the 1960s and 70s. Girls wound up there after being hard to manage at another institute. They were sedated as they were sent to Hay, and on arrival had their hair cut off. The whole thing was run in a militaristic fashion, girls were not allowed to talk to each other or even look at anything other than the floor. They were made to do pointless hard labour and solitary confinement was not uncommon, not to mention physical or sexual abuse from the guards. One of the girls was sent there after she told the child welfare department her stepfather was abusing her. As Wood comments in an interview, often these were girls who were being punished for speaking up about how they had been abused, only to be abused further.

...Back to the book. As the cover documents, it has been nominated or won numerous awards, including the 2016 Stella Prize, since being published in 2015. It's in one sense easy to read, a compulsive page-turner - I really wanted to find out what was going on, what was going to happen (the foreboding atmosphere is intense). However it's not exactly an enjoyable read. Reading it is not the graphic self-inflicted misery of watching The Handmaid's Tale series, but the characters are just frustratingly weak. Not weakly written. It's hard not to judge them, especially in the ending. I think it is the case Wood is doing something other than what I wanted. Especially after learning about Hay and reflecting on the novel as a whole, I think I will read it again and see if that gives me a different experience.

"Your own kind of girl: A memoir" by Clare Bowditch

I know Clare Bowditch from her music. Others might know her from radio, or her business ventures, or her acting role on Offspring. This is her first book, a memoir covering her childhood to mid 20s. She covers how family tragedy shaped her childhood, her difficult relationship with her body, anxiety, and finding the confidence to start her music career. It's incredibly easy to read, and I look forward to listening to her albums again with a new eye.

"Salt: Selected stories and essays" by Bruce Pascoe

This is a collection of 35 short fiction and non-fiction pieces, mixed throughout under but grouped into 6 sections - Country, Lament, Sea Wolves, Embrasure, Tracks, Culturelines. Several of the essays are written around the time of Dark Emu, I think, and repeat the themes of that book (which I haven't read, eek, but it's definitely next on my list), such as the case that there is evidence that Aboriginal people farmed and used other technology, however this is inconvenient for the colonial/Christian conquering mindset and has been deliberately overlooked by Australian scholarship and history. The fiction is mostly centred on male characters, and all of the stories have a natural connection to the land or animals that is...grounding and intriguing, as a white city-dwelling reader. I would look up after finishing a story consider the world around me anew. A collection of short pieces is perfect for our recently weakened attention spans. I look forward to rereading this one, too.

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