My youngest child drove herself to work this morning. Her after-school and weekend job is across town in the martial arts school where we have both trained since she was five. We have been driving across Sydney, from the trees and water of the land just north of Parramatta River, the river that cuts through Sydney opening into the Harbour, to the denser, dirtier, livelier inner-south-west for twelve years.
My review of Jane Caro’s new novel, published by the Newtown Review of Books
Though I knew the gist of the issues raised by The Mother before I began – I’d read the devastating stories of victims of domestic violence, watched the news, and thought I understood the issues – this novel still shocks.
Two books released in this nascent year recount women’s trauma and silencing by men, and their rage.
In On Reckoning, an essay in Hachette’s ‘On’ series, Guardian journalist Amy Remeikis documents the rising tide of women’s anger that led to thousands marching in last year’s March4Justice. In The Furies,novelist Mandy Beaumont carries that anger in a compelling story of trauma, both inherited and present.
My review of The Furies, Mandy Beaumont and On Reckoning, Amy Remkeikis was published by the Newtown Review of Books.
After the success of her debut, Kokomo, in 2020, Victoria Hannan’s second novel is another study of friendship. Its five characters have been friends since university. They are now in their thirties and each is grappling with a pre mid-life but post first-flush weariness. But this weariness is not ennui; through their shifting points of view, Hannan brings us their shared sorrow.
Marshmallow lays out the raw pain of grief and its weight, its pervasiveness, its ‘inconvenience’ and, piercingly, its loneliness. There has been a tragedy that has impacted all five of them, and Hannan brings a rippling tension from the first page.
Read the full review at Newtown Review of Books.
Oh William! follows the same ensemble of characters as Elizabeth Strout’s finely honed novel My name is Lucy Barton,and the accompanying collection of stories Anything is Possible (reviewed here), and I did wonder what more she could bring to this new novel. She had plumbed the aches of sadness, estrangement, poverty and mental illness in her earlier work, and her evocation of living with hurt, with isolation, but also love and beauty, was piercing. What more could she wring from the familiar cast in the small town outside Chicago? I need not have doubted. Oh William! is another extraordinary insight into being human.
When the novel opens, Lucy is mourning her second husband, David, a man who was the love of her life and whom she misses deeply. William is her first husband, whom she had married soon after college, and they were married twenty years with two daughters. His affairs, her thwarted ambition, his absence, all led to the end of the marriage, but they have remained friends. When he invites her to accompany him to Maine to explore an explosive piece of family history he has uncovered, she agrees, albeit reluctantly. She, and his subsequent wives, have always taken care of him and always been under-appreciated; the rewards, in the end, not enough for any of them.
At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable. But worse. Because beneath his height of pleasantness there lurked a juvenile crabbiness, a scowl that flickered across his soul, a pudgy little boy with his lower lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person—he blamed me, I felt this often. He was blaming me for something that had nothing to do with our present lives…
It is this needling from the past that propels their journey. There is no escape from the past, though the pain is buried deep. The history they explore relates to William’s mother, Catherine, who entered Lucy’s life as her prospective mother-in-law, a woman very different to Lucy’s own withdrawn, sometimes abusive mother. ‘We loved her. Oh, we loved her … She was vibrant; her face was often filled with light.’ Yet Catherine is not all she seems. Early on, a lack of empathy, a controlling presence, jar the reader, and the book turns on the slow reveal about Catherine and her past. Catherine has reimagined her life at a terrible cost.
Lucy has also recreated herself, more than once. She left her family, who live in desperate poverty, to take up a scholarship, and we understand here that in leaving William she felt she had abandoned her (grown) daughters.
But William asks her, are we free to choose, or is that an illusion, even an act of egoism? ‘We just do—we just do Lucy …’ Lucy is taken aback:
It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage. I kept myself separate.
What she understands is that our actions may not be self-indulgent but necessary. Likewise, we see Catherine acting to save herself. The pain she carried and which seeped into William was a consequence, perhaps inevitable.
Strout’s ability to take us inside a character’s personal journey, to walk with them, is on every page, in everyday banalities—cleaning teeth, filling a car with petrol—and in their memories. Lucy recounts how once she was missing her parents so much she called them from the fancy lobby of the hotel where she and William were staying. Lucy suffered terrible privations in childhood yet the loneliness of new experiences, of feeling out of place, drove her to seek comfort in the familiar, even when it was a source of hurt. ‘And I said, I just blurted it out, I said, “Daddy, we’re in Puerto Rico with William’s mother and I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do in a place like this!”’ And she is comforted.
We are always in Lucy’s frame of reference. She takes us aside, into her private musings: ‘Please try to understand this …’, ‘I should have mentioned earlier …’ or ‘I will tell you just one more thing …’ Strout’s deliberation with words and their placement creates space, slowing us down. She uses few contractions.
The complexity of women and men is infinite and under Strout’s observant eye, the motives and actions of her characters resonate. Her handling of private trauma is as deft as ever.
Published first in the Newtown Review of Books.
Elizabeth Strout Oh William! Penguin HB 256pp $29.99
I have recently come across Unbound. It’s an exciting shake-up of publishing where books are crowdfunded, then produced with that committed support. It recognises that the answers, or at least some of them, are in technology. As an advocate of digital, I have watched the publishing industry hamstrung by nostalgia which is obscuring an important debate about how to improve returns to creators.
Many in the book world still see support for digital as a betrayal of the experience of reading, or of the author. The book culture’s defence of the artefact rather than the artist is the change that needs to happen. If we want more returns to authors, to creators, we need a serious conversation about digital options, including different streaming models, preferably author-led.
In thinking about more equitable returns on writers’ labours, I looked at the music industry. The digital transition – by artists, listeners and music producers – happened in waves over a decade or more, long before books. And yes, it’s been hard. Returns for musicians have plummeted with album sales all but disappearing but there’s no going back. There’s been a niche return to vinyl and CD sales are still a chunk of the market but the retail ship has truly sailed.
And Bandcamp, established in 2007, grew out of frustration with the paucity of returns to artists. Its mission is to support the culture of music through a service that returns more than eighty percent of profit to artists, and where fans find new music directly in an online community.
Independent singer/songwriter Imogen Heap took technology to a new plane with myceliaformusic.org, an online commercial marketplace and network which uses encrypted blockchain technology to pay artists and the supporting creatives (cover art, licensing, instrument brands) directly. An individual ‘Creative Passport’ for music-makers tracks and pay for services rendered. She told Ellen Peirson-Hagger in New Statesmen in September 2020 that “Right now we are individual musicians with no union. If we can prove that by having your information organised and being able to connect to all the different services that you use in your own micro eco-system…we can shift it around.”
Heap told the Guardian that she wanted to close the ‘gap between fan and artist and the journey of their music’, saying in, ‘in the data-driven era, the movement of music, money and feedback should be frictionless. A total rethink is in order.’ That call hasn’t hit books hard yet. Authors are certainly not revolting against either their publishers or the third parties, still in lock step with traditional models.
Imogen Heap says that while she doesn’t have a perfect view of how the future of the music industry is going to look, she feels that the answer is in the technology. Authors have to grasp the technology and make it work for them. Similarly with books and writing. We need better, cleverer models which work with authors to distribute their work and allow for communities to share it.
Unbound is an step in that direction.
Torrey Peters has written a complex and deeply moving novel about the ties that bind us – ties that govern our choices about who we love, how we love, and the costs. Detransition, Babyfollows a trio: Reece, a trans woman; her ex, detransitioned Ames (formerly Amy); and Ames’s new partner, a cis heterosexual woman, Katrina, as they each struggle with the idea of parenthood.
The narrative moves between two time periods, chapters named for the years before or weeks after conception.
Reece and Amy meet eight years before conception. Reece is trailing a history of (sometimes abusive) relationships with cis men and Amy, a ‘baby trans’, is overwhelmed by her new knowledge that she is ‘a girl in love with a girl’. The conception in question is Katrina’s – Ames has found that his ‘atrophied testicles’ are, after all, capable of impregnation.
The novel is among the first by an openly trans woman to be published by a big-five publishing company. Torrey Peters received some vicious criticism when it was longlisted for the UK’s 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, but the judges publicly affirmed her right to enter the prize.
The novel interrogates traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Our world devalues femininity and its identifying behaviours, which are seen as submissive and weak, and are ridiculed when adopted by men. In her influential book, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, first published in 2007, biologist and trans activist Julia Serano asserts that defining masculinity and femininity as a ‘non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires’ harms us all. The reclaiming of femininity makes trans activism a feminist movement. Detransition, Baby is a profoundly feminist book
This familiar story, the introduction of a baby into a relationship, is wrought here in a context that strips away contrivances. The politics of birthing and raising children, a cradle of feminist struggle, is finely rendered by Peters’s three characters. Reece wants a baby, Ames struggles with the idea of ‘fatherhood’, knowing that Amy is still a vital part of his identity, and Katrina is torn. Peters observes motherhood’s myriad contradictions: expanding in love while simultaneously exhausting and impoverishing women; its very private anguish and joy while also being a public service – a duty on which all have an opinion; and its privilege, which is granted and withdrawn by public policy governing access to contraception, abortion, adoption, and reproductive technologies.
Katrina challenges Reece on some of her assumptions about who is considered a ‘deserving’ mother.
‘Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term “welfare queens” or “anchor babies”. All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate … I’m not criticizing your feelings, Reece … I’m telling you that I feel the same. Because everyone gets criticized about how they should or shouldn’t be mothering.‘
Motherhood may be presumptive for cis women, but when these women do not adhere to the procreative norms, they are ‘treated like silly whores, obsessed with themselves, lacking some basic capacity to love’. Julia Gillard is a case in point, labelled by her political enemies as unfit for leadership because she was ‘deliberately barren’.
Peters brings us up close to the reality of living outside gender norms. It is to live with exhaustion: constantly alert, ready to defend, or retreat. It is to live with shame. You are not worthy of love, from a partner, or a child; you are not worthy of a job; trans women are tricksters, untrustworthy. Reece applies ‘in stealth’ for a job in childcare. When she and Amy go to an adoption information evening, Reece says, ‘I feel naughty. Like we’re passing ourselves off as just a normal lez couple.’
It is also to live with sorrow, to be hardened by another death, another suicide, another funeral. In Australia, the LGBTIQ Health Alliance 2020 reports that 35 per cent of transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime.
But cis and trans women share much, including a fear of cis men. A violent assault is a trigger for Amy’s detransition and she begins this path with sorrow.
[Amy] had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself. But honestly, that’s all she wanted at that point.
Patriarchy has no time for sentiment, ambivalence or uncertainty. The humouring of the male ego is so internalised in cis women that Reece is floored by a man’s off-colour joke about his penis, and the muted reaction from the audience of cis women who ‘laugh politely’.
Something else shared is class privilege, a theme woven throughout the novel. Wealth is a protection racket buying safety in housing, medical care, influence. Reece is enraged when she sees ‘Tranny’ plastered all over a wall as part of a book promotion.
Those rich trans bitches. These fucking assholes who transition with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to protect them from ever hearing someone say ‘tranny’ to them on the street, so that one day they can write tranny on the streets themselves, and congratulate themselves on being so punk. As if, in a climate of political dread, no one has ever written Jew, or faggot, or hung a noose, or painted a swastika where some poor target tried to pass a small life.
Detransition, Baby is all this, and also so funny, poking fun at our rituals, our clothes, our allegiances; it is a glorious journey about friendship and facing our truths. Torrey Peters has written a story about how to live.
Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby Profile Books 2021 HB 320pp $33.75
First published in Newtown Review of Books
Someone recently tweeted that if we gave male violence the same attention as Covid, men would have been under curfew for ever. Published in 2021, this prescient novel deals with both themes, taking the sickness inhabiting the world as an extended metaphor. Though the book’s few time-markers place it in separate periods in the millenium’s teens, the before times, both the virus and the impact of male predation are woven throughout as real and malevolent presences.
Adam has moved from Sydney to Beijing where he is working in some ill-defined marketing role helping ‘deliver bespoke global brand solutions’. The office is in a modern building designed with exposed bricks and pipes to lend it that start-up feel. He is brought down by a mystery illness and leaves work to go home, where he sickens rapidly. Mills draws out every sense. He hallucinates, his body sweats, itches, he is weak with nausea, diarrhoea. The symptoms shriek with recognition: he loses his sense of taste, he can’t breathe. He closed his eyes. The virus, infection, whatever is was, was moving around inside him, waiting for him to fall asleep. The passages where he continues to interact with his colleagues, people in the street, in shops, are overlaid with pandemic tension. Stop!
Alternating chapters mark an earlier timeline where Adam is sharing a house in Sydney with some other students, including Yun (who is studying virology). Adam is drawn to Yun but his interest is not reciprocated. These chapters are heavy with tension. A woman, a fellow student, has been murdered in a nearby street, and a vigil is held for her.
The Airways opens not with this murder, but with a different violent death, a death which releases the anima who narrates half the book: the ‘they’ whom we follow, who journeys through cities, through new bodies, looking for the one it wants to inhabit. It is a slow stalking.
These chapters are named for sensation – Heat, Hunger – and also for emission, or transmission: Smoke, Steam, River. The airways are breath, life, and ‘they’ are seeking a new body, expelled from their own. As they move into new bodies, trying them out for size, making a home for a while, they learn, become more awake.
The transitions are becoming easier, even if control remains beyond them. They flip through bodies like pages, looking for lines they recognise, that leap of meaning.
Again, in Covid-times, it is impossible not to see a parallel with a virus adapting. Mutating. Cells have an intelligence in The Airways, behaving like sentient beings as they watch a division, ask what changes it brings, even argue with each other.
Adam’s girlfriend, Natasha, has left. He tells people she’s visiting her family for the weekend, but we gradually learn of an invasive video he has posted of her. This is not his only transgression. Adam has his own trauma, unexamined, but it is his ordinariness that jars. In a recurring pattern, he comes face to face with different people who try to move around him, but they collide, bump. He is a man who cannot, or will not, read the signs. He is awkward, carrying a clear sense of inadequacy, and entitlement: ‘He should have gone with them’ quickly becomes ‘They should have asked him to come.’
Male entitlement manifests in other scenes. An unnamed man leans over a counter:
… looks plainly at the tops of her breasts. Want in his groin … Sinking lower, trying to escape his skin and enter hers. When she reacts, frowning, sitting back, he gets a shot of pleasure.
This is a hugely original exploration of the banality of violence, its unremarkable perpetrators—and its hold on those violated, both living and dead. ‘So many people are like this,’ says Mills’ narrator, ‘carrying around their private violence, their body’s understanding with the world.’
Reading, rereading, and untangling The Airways’ strange pursuit is a deeply rewarding journey.
Jennifer Mills The Airways Picador 2021 PB 384pp $32.99
I’m a martial artist, a black belt in taekwondo. I can perform the core techniques, from foundation white belt kicks through to complex kicks which require balance, accuracy and power. I can spar up to three opponents simultaneously. I can also repel attacks to any part of my body with different self-defence techniques. My strength and agility is demonstrated through breaking boards with spinning and jumping kicks. I incorporate weapons into different routines, an element of show which calls on our dexterity.
It also means I can perform patterns—the complex dance-like, or choreographed, routines which the sport’s founders incorporated into the art to allow for a mock fight without injuring each other. They comprise multiple steps of kicks, stances and hand techniques, moving from left to right, forwards and backwards, turning and twisting. They must be performed perfectly to pass gradings.
They are also incredibly hard for me to learn. I don’t think visually, or spatially. I have trouble recalling sequences—from street directions to recipes. I still make left and right-hand mistakes under pressure.
I learnt the first two black belt patterns in classes at my school, the Australian Martial Arts Academy, joining up with other students to go over them again. And again. And again. Even when they are embedded, they still require complete concentration—focusing on each turn or technique one by one through the sequence.
Learning the third dan black belt pattern, Guem Gang, required something different. I, like most of NSW now, am in lockdown. We are supported by videos taking us step by step through the pattern but I didn’t know how hard I would find it translating those remote visuals. I would watch them, pause the video, step again, but it was incredibly frustrating not being able to retain more than a few steps in my head at once. Each move is, in itself, a complex combination of arms, legs, feet, head. I was trying to see the video over my shoulder, or from too far away. It was hard to resume after pausing mid-sequence, the pattern interrupted. I got the first 10 to 15 moves, but then couldn’t progress.
But I am a writer of, among other things, technical, operational, instructional material. I had to write it out. I watched the videos again, pausing every few seconds to write down each move and its component parts: a stance, a turn, a direction. Then I recorded myself reading out those steps. I put in my AirPods and listened to the exact instructions, moving through the pattern. This helped me learn the intricacies of each step, but I forgot the sequence, the flow, as soon as I tried without the instructions. I needed to commit the moves to memory in a way that made sense to me.
I re-recorded it, this time counting before each move: one through to ten, again one to ten, and finally one to seven: all 27 moves. I practised again and finally, a breakthrough. I found I could remember the move that accompanied the number, for instance, crane stance was 8, 5, 8, and 5 again. We count the moves in class but I could only see how they fitted together when I wrote them down.
There were times I thought I’d never get it, and my ‘aha’ moment was only this afternoon, but I know the pieces have fallen into place. It’s another demonstration of the many different ways there are to learning the same thing and why technical writing is as much about understanding the user, as it is the system we are describing.