On Gilgamesh by Joan London

I’m about halfway through Joan London’s Gilgamesh and toying with writing something on Goodreads. Just now I scrolled through the reviews to read what others were saying but stopped when I realised there were over 1,800 of them. I really only have one word to add – bleak.

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And I realise much of the bleakness comes not from the story itself but from an absence of emotional reaction on the part of the main characters, along with a paucity of introspection. As is typical of much Australian writing the feeling in the story is embedded in the action as the main character, Edith, goes through the motions of her difficult life. She isn’t the responsive type and I’m left feeling empty.

The story is straightforward. In 1937, on a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, Ada. One afternoon two men, Edith’s cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the farm.

Alongside the myth of Gilgamesh, there is a motif of perversion running through the narrative, stated almost in passing in the most matter-of-fact manner. It’s a motif that evokes revulsion and a sense of doom. 

Overall the narrative is restrained. I think the idea behind this style of storytelling is that the reader is free to have their own emotional reactions, unimpeded by those of the characters. The downside is that the characters are more like automatons. The rich roundness of their beings duly muted in the rendering, they are at risk of appearing one-dimensional.

In it’s favour I have to say that the narrative is superbly crafted and poised, the prose elegant. Gilgamesh is definitely a book I would recommend.

Well, that was more than one word!

Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum

(‘Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum’ by Ness Mercieca was originally published in the October 2015 edition of  The Tertangala)

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They say the mind does not create, and that it only cuts and pastes the stimulus it receives from the outside world.

Author Isobel Blackthorn has a talent for this, in fact, I often get the feeling with her that she is cataloguing my idiosyncrasies. I suspect I am not the only one to suspect this, and that she has an arsenal of our traits and habits to be appropriated for the right character at the right time. It’s the literary skill that brought us Plath’s The Bell Jar, and it goes by the name of semi-autobiography.

When I asked Isobel about her creative process, her words confirmed what John Cleese (whose name my computer insists I correct to Cheese) once said about creativity, that the subconscious will reward you with an idea if you spend long enough contemplating a topic. Here it is in Isobel’s words; “I let the story brew inside me for a while, sometimes years, and when some other far larger part of me has it all figured out, I have a powerful irrepressible urge to write. And I go into lockdown and give that other self total freedom.”

The true art to Plath and Blackthorn’s (Plath-thorn’s, if you like) literary style, however, is dissecting the self. Most authors do it; a mood or thought is isolated. It becomes the embryo from which a new self germinates, and it becomes a complex character. (Ever wonder why writers think of their characters like children? Well, there you have it.) Entire books can be populated by these alternate selves of the author, and a narrative becomes the ship through which the self is navigated.

Who’s at the helm, you ask? Isobel speaks not only of smaller selves, but of a larger one who personifies her creativity; “I prefer to think of my source of inspiration as some other greater me deep inside,” she says, “and every time I write a first draft, I’m paying homage to her, to the muse.”

Isobel’s most recent book, Asylum, is the story of such an alternate self. Yvette Grimm speaks with an incredibly honest voice from the perspective of an illegal immigrant waiting to be told to leave Australia, but having no-where else to go. She has been given a personal prophecy that she will meet the father of her children in Australia, and her hopes of permanent residency depend on meeting him very, very soon.

What resonates the most with me, however, is the creative block that all of this brings about in Yvette. Blackthorn made me want something, as a reader, that a book has never made me want before; I wanted Yvette Grimm to paint. Blackthorn played on a knowledge we all have that when you find inspiration, it’s probably because you’ve found something else too.

The relentless march of Empire

So the sugar cane roots that decimated the land of Central and South America, were taken there by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage from a source on the Canary Islands. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.

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That source was in large part Tenerife, where native forests had been clear felled to make way for sugar plantations.

It seems timely to remember what Empire did to hundreds of millions of people, in Africa, and in the Americas, and the world over. How it was the short-sightedness and avarice of the Spanish and Portuguese, and the calculated and shrewd opportunism of the Dutch and the British, that created a situation of unimaginable cruelty in the name of gain.

Lanzarote, the setting for The Drago Tree, was squarely in the path of this massive expansion of Empire. The island effectively linked the African slave trade to the South American silver and gold and cash crop exports.

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Something about the exodus today of millions of people from war ravaged lands makes me thing of our recent human history (of, say, the last 600 years). Of the arrogant way the major powers choose to treat other nations and their peoples as if the mantle of Empire were still wrapped around their necks.

The Drago Tree is out now at Odyssey Books and through all good booksellers

Lanzarote: the fulcrum of an empire

The history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas upon the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, pivots on an earlier conquest, that of Lanzarote and the Canary Islands.

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Sailing is largely dependent on ocean currents. The Canary current sweeps down from Spain and Portugal along the West African coast, until it reaches the Equatorial current and shoots off into the Atlantic all the way to South America. Lanzarote is the first island in that current’s path.

Lanzarote had long been favoured by marauding Spanish adventurers covetous of the profits procured from dyes and slaves, when, in 1402, Norman knight and ambitious conqueror, Jean de Bethencourt left La Rochelle with Gadifer de Salle and a retinue of men-at-arms. Bethencourt and Gadifer were determined to take possession of the “Fortunate Islands” on behalf of any Kingdom willing to strike a good deal. Following in the tradition of Church-sanctioned conquest, they took with them two priests, Pierre Bontier and Jen Le Verrier, who documented the conquest in a journal that would later become, The Canarian.

And in The Canarian the priests depict Lanzarote as wooded with brushwood, olives and higuerilla. There were natural springs in the foothills of the mountains. There were plains and broad valleys of tillable land. And plenty of rocks to build shelter. And a small and amenable indigenous tribe, (later known as los Conejeros, or Guanches). 

After ‘subduing’ with empty promises the tribal leader, King Guadarfia, Bethencourt sailed back to Cadiz to strike a deal with Henry III of Castile that would make him conqueror and owner of all the islands.

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Bethencourt was a greedy opportunist who knew the islands would bring ample wealth. He’d been keen to acquire the blue dye of the orchilla that clung assiduously to the malpais, and the sanguine sap of the drago trees, for use in his mills back in France.

After much betrayal, treachery and a series of attacks and counter attacks worthy of a Johnny Depp movie, King Guadarfia was a hero defeated. When Bethencourt returned with provisions, men and arms, and of course his permission by King Henry III to conquer all the Fortunate Islands in the name of Castile, Guardafia and his people were worn out and demoralised.

Bethencourt returned to a hero’s welcome. According to the priests, the natives surrendered and were duly baptised. At this point the priests claimed that all present had rejoiced, the heathens brought to salvation at last and a legitimate society born on this beleaguered land.

Of course the priests were biased. Guadarfia had no choice but convert or die.

The stage was set for a later conquest, that of the Americas. Lanzarote was the trading post. Ships laden with gold and silver and other treasures  would put in to harbour en route to Spain, and so began a new wave of piracy.

We’d know a whole lot more about Lanzarote had the island’s official records not been destroyed in 1586, when renegade Jan Janz – Dutch privateer taught by the infamous Red Beards, turned Algerian pirate, Morato Arráez – went on a bloody carnal rampage.

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Based on extensive research for The Drago Treereleased 29 September by Odyssey Books. Available at all good bookstores.

A premise for horror

A premise for horror: If domestic violence is a pyramid, with murder at the apex, then beneath that apex exist all manner of violence. From battering, and below that threat of battering, below that tirades of verbal violence, below that… and so it goes.
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Really, it isn’t a pyramid. It just is.
Domestic violence exists when a person is scared (apprehensive) of their partner, of what they might do or say next. Abuse = a misuse or corruption of power or privilege. Doesn’t have to be violent but it always violates.
And of course we all nod and say yes it sucks, but how many of us can spot a perp? How charming, how seductive, how manipulative they are. They may well have their family and friends and neighbours convinced of their perfection.
I know heaps of people who honestly believe that person X is a, ‘really nice guy.’ When I know for a fact that X is a bloody nightmare. I’m not immune either. I may think Y is a really nice guy, until someone whispers in my ear that they are not.
And if you go to a friend or a family member or the police and say, ‘person Z is gonna kill me,’ then you should expect to be believed and action taken.
We live in a world that is dominated by a perversion of the male archetype. Following Jung’s four archetypes of manliness, The King becomes The Tyrant, The Magician becomes The Manipulator, The Warrior becomes a Sadistic Bully, and the Lover becomes the Rapist. (This is a fuller explanation)
Women are not immune. They, too, can and do adopt the perverse male archetype mantle, especially when they walk into positions of power.
For humanity lacks an awareness of power, let alone mastery of it. Therefore we are seduced by power and as it enters us and we welcome in that delicious Uberman sense of it, our awareness is eclipsed and we are from then on addicts.
It all needs to change. So, what’s to be done? Educate. Educate. Educate. Teach Jung. Start in Kindergarten.
We already know how to change things. But inertia and the pull of the status quo hold sway.
Above all, our desire and our capacity for denial hold sway.
Which makes for a damn good premise, for a horror novel.

Deliria – book review

Initially, with paperback in hand, I hadn’t anticipated that I would review Deliria by Chris Heffernan. Two pages in, I was excited by the fresh, lively voice, and by the way Heffernan, through the eyes of his protagonist, depicts Adelaide with acerbic wit.

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The plot is very simple. William is an intelligent twenty-two year old university student who falls hopelessly for the stunningly attractive eighteen-year-old music student, Deliria.

Deliria is trouble from the first. She tantalises William, lures him into her world of petty theft. She’s a femme fatale. And he’s besotted.

What ensues is a series of little adventures, escalating in risk.

Deliria is set against an urbane backdrop of twelfth-century French poetry, classical music and Thailand. Adelaide  portrayed as the antithesis: crass, and distinctly uneventful. William’s thirst for stimulation is met in Deliria, who represents the sort of adventuress commensurate with the uncouth cultural and social fabric of Adelaide that William sees all around him. With a twisted morality and a series of perverse justifications, Deliria is perhaps an inevitable product of an age of shallow, conspicuous consumption, and its nemesis.

In William, Heffernan portrays the absurdities and intensities of an young man caught up in ennui. Acutely observed, William’s narrative is a perfect balance of introspection and observation, with enough self-awareness to endear the reader.

To my mind, Deliria sits comfortably alongside Phillip Roth’s Indignation. It’s a loose yet apt comparison, both books tackling the consequences of an educated young man’s dogged attachment to a single idea, or feeling. Although each author tackles his subject in a markedly different manner.

I found Deliria a thoroughly entertaining read. 5 Stars

Deliria can be found at Odyssey Books and at all good bookstores.

Asylum Reviews

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Today I found two reviews of Asylum on NetGalley which I just had to share!

The first is by Tanya Brough – “Have you ever felt like just dropping everything and running far, far away? To perhaps an island? That is what Yvette Grimm did. She ran from her life in Malta and her boyfriend Carlos (what an oaf!) and met up with her mother, Leah, in Australia. She wants to stay and her mom wants her to stay. There might even be a man on the horizon, but that will always be a complicated situation with Yvette, a romantic at heart. I thoroughly enjoyed Asylum. Yvette is such a lovable, but emotional human. You can even feel her hurt when her mother is a little cold towards her, always talking about her sister. Asylum is just the right book at the right time for me. Yvette, we sistas in arms.” Tanya gives Asylum 5 Stars.

Then Rachel Bustin wrote,” My initial thoughts were that the cover seemed a little bland, but I always go by the saying, ‘Never judge a book by it’s cover’. I did like the thought of reading a very strong character driven book, and this is what the book is. The story starts off with Yvette Grimm finding herself back in her childhood bedroom at her mother’s Leah’s house in Australia. She is on a holiday visa at the moment, but Leah has sent off her permanent residency forms. Yvette had to leave her old life in Malta. As you read through the book, you discover what Yvette’s life was like with her boyfriend Carlos through little snippets, and why she had to leave. I love this little quote. The author uses a fantastic style of writing throughout, to the point and very clear. ‘Yvette was seeking refuge from the wreckage of her life’ Yvette’s mother tells her that she must get married to stay in Australia, but Yvette is a sort of a hopeless romantic and believes that you marry for love not convenience. The story follows Yvette through her struggles of belonging nowhere. Yvette takes you to a cockroach infested flat, to a cute little house to singing in a choir and a life changing event. It was a beautiful journey that the author took me on. Laughing in places, crying the next. I loved the character of Yvette, she never let anything get her down, she was always expecting the worst, and this made her a much stronger person. I didn’t like her mum Leah, she seemed very cold towards Yvette, and always going on about her sister Debbie, which made Yvette feel alone at times. I think the main idea of the book is to inform you about the difficulties that people have in gaining residencies. Even though Yvette’s mum and sister live in Australia it doesn’t make her a definite case to live there permanently, just because she stayed with her dad in England when her mother and sister moved back when they were children. I find the topic on political asylum quite fascinating and this book does question that. I would love to read other books with a similar topic to this one, it was a fascinating read. I would recommend to anyone looking for a strong female character lead. I gave Asylum by Isobel Blackthorn 4 out of 5 stars.”

Many thanks Tanya and Rachel. I’m enormously chuffed and grateful. Cheers!

Asylum – the story behind the story

Asylum is my first novel. It began life as a story with a number of enticing elements bound together in truth. Like protagonist Yvette Grimm, I was an English-born visa overstayer and I really did invest my hopes in a palm reader’s prophecy that I would meet the father of my children before I was thirty!

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In about six months I produced a first draft. I was pleased with the achievement, producing 80,000 words of fiction is no easy thing, yet the story seemed to meander on, reaching a conclusion that felt flat. So I set aside the draft, reasonably happy never to look at it again.

Yet the title nagged me. ‘Asylum,’ with its double meaning, seemed well worth exploring, but how?

Months later a friend and blogger, Colin Penter,  posted on facebook a link to a book. It was Profits of Doom by Antony Loewenstein. I borrowed a copy from the library and read it from cover to cover in two days. Profits of Doom led me to explore the plight of asylum seekers and I soon found a plethora of online commentary, and much activism around the country. I began to wonder how I could contribute.

It was a gnawing sense of injustice that caused me to return to that draft of Asylum. I axed over half the text, ripping into the narrative scene upon scene until the barest bones were left. I set about making visa overstayer Yvette Grimm an artist because I wanted her to be as different from me as possible and I can only paint walls. I managed to work Profits of Doom into a scene. Things were progressing well but towards the end the narrative still lacked intensity.

That was when a friend, Georgia Matthey, came round for dinner and after I had outlined how things were in the fictional land of Asylum, she began to describe a recent event in her life. Seeing the potential straight away, I grabbed paper and pen and wrote down her vignette and with her permission used it to shape the climax of Asylum.

I could now call Asylum a manuscript and I needed a reader. I was thrilled when writer, feminist and activist Jasmina Brankovich put up her hand. I had to wait weeks for her feedback and when she told me she loved it I knew I could publish with some confidence.

At first I serialised the story in weekly parts on my blog but demand grew for a whole book, so I took the indie path and with the help of Cohesion Press converted Asylum into epub and Kindle editions.

Asylum explores the theme of seeking asylum, Yvette juxtaposing her experiences with those of asylum seekers being held in detention. It is my sincerest wish that Asylum both entertains and contributes to the larger dialogue on the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia.

You can read my non-fiction writing on asylum seekers in On Line Opinion or here on my blog.

Abbott’s barrow of inhumanity

I realise I have a number of Liberal supporters in my friendship network. I am not Liberal in a political sense, but I understand and respect those who are. If I didn’t, then I couldn’t in the next breath champion social democracy. A pluralistic society includes a wide range of views/beliefs/party affiliations and so on.

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Having said that, I cannot condone our current leadership. Yes, all politicians are apt to be very one-sided, to push their own barrows and in so doing make all the other barrows seem full of falsehoods and bad policies.

Abbott, however, is beyond the pale.

And he’s back to his old self. His attack on the Human Rights Commissioner yesterday took my breath away. All aggressive accusations, his defence packed with lies and omissions. He was vitriolic and entirely inappropriate. His reaction was so strong it echoed reactions of despots.

In People of the Lie, Scott Peck said the defining attributes of an evil person are the capacity to lie, and an unwavering belief in those own lies, and to deny, as if in righteous innocence, those lies. Out of that denial, comes the attack/defend dynamic.

I think Abbott displays these attributes. I find him verbally abusive, in much the same way as a perpetrator of domestic violence.

Malcolm Fraser is with me on the same page, and I have included his press release in full here:

““Enough is enough”

The government had the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on children in detention on 11 November last year. They have tabled it on the last possible day. It is now clear that the attacks made on the Commission, especially by senior ministers, has been designed to make it easier for the government to ignore the Commission’s report.

The government’s response is a disgrace. It is based on a lie. They claim to have saved lives by stopping the boats and that the trauma inflicted on children by detaining them, is a small price to pay. They deliberately chose an inhumane way of stopping the boats.

If the Australian Government worked with our regional neighbours and the UNHCR, to process people humanely in offshore processing centres in Malaysia or Indonesia, then there would be no market for people smugglers. Refugees would be flown to their final destination. This is not supposition or hearsay. This was the policy model adopted during the exodus of refugees fleeing Indochina following the Vietnam War. It would work again.

The real question for the government is why did they choose to do this, despite the trauma and harm done to hundreds of children, when there was a decent and proven way of achieving a much better result.

The attack on the integrity of the Human Rights Commission and its President is only to be expected of this government, who uses bullying as their default tactic. The attack is consistent with the way the government has approached legal decisions that have gone against it. This government has also refused to listen to our highest Court, undermining the rule of law and ignoring International Law.

The only conclusion we can really draw is that the inhumanity inflicted on these children is part of a policy of deterrence, which the government has pursued relentlessly. Australians needs to understand that this government has chosen an inhumane path when a compassionate path was available to it.”

Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser AC CH

I’m not a politician. I’ve explored the issue of asylum seekers here on my blog, in articles such as The moral descent of Australia’s policy on asylum seekers. in which I assert that the asylum seeker strategy amounts to, “an ideological war…, one in which the victims of war and persecution in their own lands have become the victims of a war playing out in ours.

Under attack is the very fabric of our morality. We are being systematically conditioned into accepting the cruel treatment of others as necessary and inevitable…”