Per Knutsen, Vil du ha meg?, Oslo: JW Cappelen Forslag, 2000.

Reviewed by Meagan McCue

9788202203689As the issue of asylum seekers is debated and governments globally see refugee immigration as contrary to the social and economic interests of their population, Per Knutsen’s Vil du ha meg? (Do you want me?) provides a welcome contrast to these negative attitudes. Set in contemporary Norway, the novel begins benignly enough with Emma. She has the expected teenage troubles with her mother, twin sister and brother Tora and Finn, and their father, Kristoffer.   Emma’s biological father is away, mostly in the south, but Emma has the key to his apartment building and begins to go to his flat regularly, unlocking the door to adulthood when she becomes uneasy about the noises being made in an African neighbour’s flat.  As she inhabits her father’s empty home and moves away from the comforts of being a child, she unexpectedly explores her new identity, emerging as a more informed person.

Emma befriends Leo, the African neighbour. He remains nameless for most of the novel, as a symbol of his foreign background with its unimaginable horrors.  Once a child-soldier during Sierra Leone’s civil war, Leo now lives with his aunt in Norway.  He resorts to making money by killing unwanted kittens in his new home, acknowledging to Emma that he is good at killing yet it weighs heavily on his mind.  Losing his family to the ravages of war has taken its toll on Leo, but he takes a chance with Emma.  Both characters find in each other uncomfortable aspects of themselves and an unlikely friendship develops.

Norway has a very liberal attitude towards encouraging young people to be informed on all sorts of topics, and this novel, designed for young readers, is no different.  It examines relevant themes from parental tensions, self-esteem, hitchhiking and shoplifting to, controversially, killing.  But the book is more than just politically correct ideology, it speaks to the readers as much as the reader is ready to handle. More than this, Knutsen’s novel gives us a perspective on refreshing possibilities for the world. So Do you want me? has moving elements that also take us to an unknown place. For a while the story belongs to Emma, and teenagers will identify with her awkwardness and boredom with a seemingly comfortable but uneventful existence.

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rosaliehamRosalie Ham, author of The Dressmaker, interviewed by Neralie Hoadley.

Can you tell us how you became a writer?

Writing was part of my childhood because I lived in a small, isolated rural community, so writing letters was what you did. That was in the days when the postie came twice a day. I used to write to relatives. It seemed that the only thing I was ever good at at school was composition. Then I went to boarding school, as you do if you are a farmer’s daughter, and I nurtured also the writing thing. Then I travelled overseas so I kept writing journals and writing letters, and always enjoyed it but nobody ever said that you can be a writer, because I was a farmer’s daughter. They just said you could be a teacher or a nurse. Anyway, I came back from travelling overseas, and then I decided that I wanted to do something other than nursing so I went off to Deakin University and I did Drama and Literature and learned how to write essays. As part of the Drama course we had to learn how to write plays and scenes, and when I left drama school I had a friend at 3CR and asked me to write a play for her radio show, which I did. So I wrote four plays which were very enthusiastically received by our family and friends. However, it taught me that I didn’t want to write plays because I didn’t like the theatre thing. It is just too hard, you have to do everything and there is no money so I went off to RMIT. I just decided to do the short story and novel course. Part of the course was to write a novel and so I did. I was only in the course about three weeks and then I suddenly thought, this is what I am meant to be doing, this is what I prefer to do. And so I just wrote a novel. That’s it.

You started writing The Dressmaker when you were in the Creative Writing course.  Apart from starting you off, did you find the Creative Writing course helpful?

Absolutely, in as much as it showed us what was good and wasn’t good, how to progress a manuscript and make it publishable, how to write a publishable document. It made us study all sorts of styles that we would never normally pick up and read. But for me it just honed and gave me a direction for my skills, so it was invaluable to me.

The Dressmaker is currently being made into a film. Can you explain the process, and your involvement?

Well, I am very fortunate, because normally when a book is optioned, it is a bit unusual to employ the novelist to write the screenplay, a) because we tend to be a bit precious about it and tend not to want to let our characters go or change the story too much. And b) because we are novelists not screenwriters. But in my case, I had sent the manuscript for the novel off to be published, thinking that it would never be published, and it got picked up first time. It just progressed so that when it was published I had something like fourteen expressions of interest for a screenplay, and I just audaciously said that I would like to write the screenplay. I thought that since I had done one year of screenwriting at RMIT that I would be qualified.(laughing)

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mheald2-0467e640-173c-4cba-9af0-d2bb36fe4996-0-206x304Michael Heald was born in Grimsby, England in 1959.  At the age of twelve, he moved with his family to Perth in Western Australia.  After completing his schooling at Swanbourne Senior High School, and a basic Arts Degree at the University of Western Australia, he worked for a number of years as a squash instructor in Europe, and afterwards completed a Ph.D on contemporary Western Australian poetry, also at UWA. Michael published his first collection of poetry, Occasions, in Shorelines. Three Poets in 1995, and his second collection, Bodyflame. in 1999, both with Fremantle Arts Centre Press (FACP). A third book is presently under consideration.

 Michael lives currently in Ballarat, Victoria with his partner Sharon and their young son, Jim.

This interview was conducted by Anya Daly in Melbourne, in August 2002.

When did you begin writing poetry?

I began writing poems when I was very young. I hardly remember a time when I didn’t write them. My earliest memories are of being in my parents’ house in England, aged about six, and trying to get the words right for a description of spring. In the first year of primary school my teacher gave me an exercise book to write poems in, to prevent my getting distracted and misbehaving. I’m not sure why she did that, but I just accepted it. I cut out a picture of an eagle to stick on the cover, and got started. That predatory image I chose has since intrigued me. Later in primary school, we had a very encouraging headmaster, who gave us poetry ‘lessons’ – he provided a subject, and away we went. Then some were chosen to read theirs aloud, and the class voted on which was the best. I describe this in the poem ‘Subject’, in Occasions. I think it was important because it gave me the sense, at a formative stage, that poetry mattered, and was a legitimate way to engage with myself and those around me.

Are your family happy about your choice in career or did they have other plans for you?

My family have always been very supportive of my writing. I suppose it’s a bit hard to refer to poetry writing as a ‘career’ in the normal sense, since it doesn’t fit in with the formal economy very well. In general, my family has a genuine interest in poetry, and in the expressive capabilities of language, and they have been very understanding in allowing me to follow my literary inclinations. My mother is currently exploring her childhood experiences of the Second World War through writing. My father has a strong interest in Zen, which is, of course, a tradition in which poetry has an important place. And my sister teaches young children, and is very aware, therefore, of the developmental dimensions of language, both functional and imaginative. So I don’t feel like a linguistic oddity in my family by any means.

How did you come to publish your first collection of poetry?

I sent a manuscript to FACP. I’d been able to work on it quite intensively thanks to a residency at the Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in the Darling Ranges just outside Perth. I’d published a few poems in magazines in Australia and England. The press said they could include the collection with two other poets in a series called Shorelines, designed to showcase new poets. I leapt at this chance, but gathered afterwards that I could probably have held out for my own separate collection. However, those kinds of things don’t really bother me. There’s a fair bit of power-mongering and politics in the poetry world, which strikes me as rather ironic, since poetry doesn’t fit very well into a capitalist economy, and is never really going to lead to fame and riches anyway. That situation is at times frustrating and unfair in that many people have well-paid jobs in various parts of the literature ‘industry’, while the actual producers are often job-less and insecure financially.  Despite this it can also be a good opportunity to keep considerations of ego and status out of the process of writing. If I can be high-minded for a moment, I think that the vocation of poetry should be, and can be, rather above the careerism which so bedevils other areas of working life. And I suppose for me, the basic fact is that matters of status and reputation simply bore me – I just can’t get interested in them, even though there are often some fascinating tales around of wheeling and dealing.

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The House Of Illness

April 5, 2002

Kate Jennings, Moral Hazard, Sydney: Picador, 2002.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Moral_Hazard_(novel)Kate Jennings’ powerful new novel is written from Cath’s perspective.  A freelance writer in love and in New York, Cath finds herself working for amoral finance capitalists to pay the exorbitant medical bills of her husband that Medicaid can’t meet.  Despite her “bedrock feminism” that had been examined but not “tested” over the years, Cath had married Bailey, a designer and collage artist twenty-five years her senior.  Bailey was warm, optimistic, and enthusiastic. Cath was pessimistic and introspective.  But they connected.  He could understand her, and she could keep him grounded.  Jennings defines their early years together as happy, with the usual fights and tensions.  But then Bailey began to forget.  He had Alzheimer’s.

Jennings is well known for reworking autobiographical material in fiction, and Cath, the protagonist of Moral Hazard, shares many experiences with Jennings herself.  Both women were left-wing feminists raised in Australia in the radical sixties.  They relocated to the United States and married men much older than themselves.  Their husbands were adored partners, stricken with Alzheimer’s.  Both men were nursed over many years of disorientation and decline before their deaths.  Cath, like Jennings, worked as a speechwriter for Wall Street banking executives, crafting speeches on derivatives and hedge funds to earn enough to pay for her husband’s medical and nursing care.  Cath, a freelance writer with a cynical bent, entered investment banking wary of corporate clichés and macho business ethics.  She knew, in her blunt Australian way, that in her firm “women were as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.”  Cath faced a number of terrible dilemmas that challenged her instincts and stretched the boundaries of her tolerance: working for a craven corporation to earn the money to care for her dying partner; and contemplating ending the life of a man she loved.  Jennings’ novel explores compromise, moral torment, and defeat, but – like the most fully realised scenes in the life of Cath and Bailey – Moral Hazard is at its best when confronting compassion.

Throughout Moral Hazard Jennings uses short, sharp sentences.  Acerbic and direct.  Her writing is usually straightforward and uncomplicated.  But some writers, even in brief, vivid sentences, cannot always resist the urge to remind us that they are writers with impressive vocabularies or large dictionaries.  This is particularly unfortunate in Moral Hazard when the dictates of style jar with the overt content of a love story exploring the painful onset of memory loss and physical debilitation: “He raged, pounded walls, accused me of all kinds of perfidy.  This, the most trusting and uxorious of men.”  (Perhaps a good test for Alzheimer’s disease is for concerned wives to require their ailing husbands, every morning after breakfast, to define uxorious.)

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Tracy Chevalier, Falling Angels, London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Reviewed by Janie Gibson

9780452283206HMany writers choose to write historical fiction. Some however, are far better than others at conveying not only events, but also the atmosphere of the time. In her second novel, Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier again captures the feeling and atmosphere of the period she is using as her background setting. We come to know her characters, both adult and child, not by what she tells the reader, but by their behaviour, their thoughts, the words and the tones of voice they use.

The opening paragraph does not specifically define the time or place. However certain phrases in the text gradually draw the reader into the historical period Chevalier is evoking. Initially the novel appears to be just another story about a difficult marriage, but as the plot unfolds, it becomes multidimensional. Not only do we view the relationships and events through the parents’ eyes, but also from the point of view of the children, the servants and outsiders, such as the gravedigger’s son Simon.

Two families, the Colemans and the Waterhouses, meet through a visit to their family gravestones positioned side by side. The relationship is immediately coloured by the disdain which each has expressed for the other’s choice of headstone: the Waterhouse’s sentimental angel and the Coleman’s austere urn. Unconcerned by their parents’ difference, the five year old Lavinia Waterhouse and Maude Coleman strike up a firm friendship while exploring the graveyard. Here they encounter Simon, the apprentice gravedigger.

The gravestones are but one symbol of the social gulf between the families and their inability to overcome it. The two women hold their ‘at homes’ on the same day to avoid having to invite one another. The Queen has died but the Coleman’s do not go along wholeheartedly with the rituals associated with mourning her, contrasting sharply with the Waterhouse’s devotion to ‘ritual’ and the past. These attitudes are further emphasised by Chevalier through the continued relationship of the two girls.

Chevalier uses events and symbols to convey the differences between the marriages and lifestyles of the adult Colemans and Waterhouses. As the novel progresses, Chevalier explores the Coleman’s marriage problems. While they go to events together, they do so under sufferance. Attending a Guy Fawkes bonfire, Kitty draws comparisons with their actions and their relationship. As she moved closer to the bonfire, Richard stayed back looking up: “That is just like him – his love is not in the heat but in the clear sky”.

Chevalier succeeds in conveying the period and the physical space the characters move through by developing their commentary to include descriptions of their houses and the places they visit.  Thus a description of a particular building might come through a character discussing her reason for holding an ‘at home’ in the front room rather than the parlour. We also come to know the cemetery, which plays an important role in the story, through the actions of the characters, and what happens in the cemetery, as well as from brief descriptions of the gates or the hill leading to the graveyard. Social context is also conveyed in this way. Attitudes to pregnancy and abortion ‘below stairs’ are contrasted with those in ‘society’, and we see the shame that Kitty’s involvement with the Suffragette movement brings on Richard’s family name. Chevalier allows the reader to ‘imagine’ the meeting of the Suffragettes at Kitty’s ‘at home’, while at the same time using Waterhouse’s tone of voice as she describes the meeting to convey the disapproval many would feel at such noisy women being at ‘afternoon tea’. Perhaps for some readers her sparseness may be a problem if they are unable to visualize the scene.

Chevalier successfully attunes her language to the age and gender of the speaker. The book is divided chronologically into sections, but within a section each chapter provides the reflections of a character on his or her part in the action. It is through this ability to capture, for example, Simon’s Cockney accent and feelings as vividly as the more educated Maude’s or the dramatic Lavinia’s reflections, comments, and feelings, that not only is the reader caught up in the events unfolding, but also comes to empathise with the different characters as their lives are changed. Minor characters become individual people, integral to the plot.

Over the ten-year period covered in the novel, the relationships between the two families ebb and flow. As Kitty becomes more disillusioned with her marriage she starts to take risks to gain personal freedom. In doing so she sets in train a series of events that not only affect her, but also change the lives of all the characters.

Chevalier has the ability to tempt the reader to explore further the period she is writing about, along with creating hope that she will repeat the performance a third time.