Book review: Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele

It is rare that I read a general fiction novel set in rural Australia. I thought I better spread my wings a little, so here’s my review of Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele.

“When Tamara Slender disappears from an isolated property in Western NSW in 1975, gossip runs wild with rumours she has run off with a local man, Roger Bryte.

Months later, Tamara’s teenage daughters, Nancy and Mary, realise they encountered Bryte in caves on their property the day before their mother disappeared. Despite their suspicions, their father refuses to involve the police, and the girl’s grief, fuelled by the town gossips and their father’s inaction, drives them apart.

In 2007 a stranger arrives at the farm seeking information about Roger Bryte. His questions give Nancy a reason to contact her estranged sister. The sisters are reunited, and their mother’s disappearance is finally solved when Mary returns to Tamarlin.”

My thoughts:

K. M. Steele has penned an intriguing novel of two sisters and the dark mystery that separates them. Return to Tamarlin is well-written, slow-paced and rich in sense of place. Steele’s rendering of a sheep farm in crisis as its owners battle drought and plague, along with the prejudices and gossip of a small country town are spot on. This social realism provides the perfect back drop for a story involving the disappearance of Nancy and Mary’s mother on the very day they decide to try to re-enact the disappearance of the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock, at some caves on their property called the Limeholes. Two weeks earlier, another local disappears, a local the girls encounter when they visit the caves. Are the two disappearances connected? What is it about their mother and her past that troubles both her daughters, and causes one to fiercely defend their father, and the other to flee the farm for larger horizons?

Good characterisation and a well-crafted plot hold the story together and the various tensions within the family and in the local community are convincingly portrayed. Tragedy, loss, grief and belonging are the emotional themes underpinning Return to Tamarlin, themes many a reader will relate to. This novel will appeal to those who want to lose themselves in an Australian rural setting and re-visit Australia in the 1970s, with all of its social prejudices intact.

You can buy a copy here.

 

 

After the fanfare

9781922200365-Cover (1)So, I’ve published a book. That’s fantastic news! All those years of slavish labour coming to a glorious culmination – the release. The Drago Tree is my second novel published by Odyssey Books in this auspicious year of 2015. My year! I’ve made it. Crossed that line that feels like the Grand Canyon. There’s the endorsement. There’s the kudos. There’s the fanfare of the press releases, the radio shows, the launches. Fans grab their signed copies. Friends congratulate me on my success. It’s such a high. Then…

You wait…and nothing happens.

No Google alerts. Nothing on Goodreads. Or Amazon. You run an eye down the urls in your daily book x self x review search and all you see is, ‘be the first to submit a review.’

Doubt kicks in – They don’t like it. They’re not even reading it. They’re using it as a door stop. They’ve left it, face down at page two, on the bus. They think it’s too long, too short, too, too, uninteresting.

You wait…

Someone writes a great review. You’re swinging from the chandelier. You post, blog, tweet, pin it. You get as much mileage out of it as you dare.

You wait…

You think of recycling that one review but pride won’t let you.

You wait…

Is the story really that bad? All those review requests you sent out last week and only one reply? Perhaps you haven’t got the review request tone right. Face it, you’re no good at this game. Then there’s the timing. Requesting book reviews at the end of the year is bad timing. All the prestigious blog reviewers have shut up shop for the year. But what’s to be done? The publishing calendar doesn’t end in August.

You wait…

…feeling jinxed. Review copies go astray in the post, no doubt making the journey from Canberra to Melbourne via Marble Bar. Anticipation has morphed into despondency. You wake each day feeling heavy. You no longer feel a frisson of optimism when you search for a book review.

You wait…

You stop yourself from searching for that one person who told you in a comment on Facebook how much they loved your book, and begging them to join Goodreads.

You wait…

Your local press and community decide not to join in your fanfare and launch promotion. ‘You’ve had a lot of coverage already this year with your first book, Isobel. Now it’s someone else’s turn.’ Turn? Ouch. You know it’s irrational but the rock-solid support you thought you had feels like gossamer. You begin to wonder if anyone will turn up to your launch. You begin to wonder who your friends are, or even if you have any.

You wait…

You bury yourself in your latest work. Tell yourself you’ve raised your expectations way too high and the world doesn’t revolve around you and your book.

Face it, you’re too impatient. It’s only been a few weeks.

You remind yourself of persistence, perseverance, resilience – that’s what it takes to be a writer. You tell yourself not to be so, needy.

You wait…

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.

Launching Asylum on World Refugee Day

Just got home from the launch of my novel, Asylum, at Well Thumbed Books, Cobargo NSW, as part of local activities for World Refugee Day. We raised $1,000!!! Big thank you to all who came and made it happen. I’m so proud to live in this warm-hearted and generous community.

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We showed the world that refugees matter!

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Standing room only!!! What a turnout!

 

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Asylum is a rewarding read, rather like a meal when you savour every mouthful instead of gulping it down because there are better things to be done!” – book critic Ann Creber.

Read more about Asylum here

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…”