Sunshine, Kim Kelly

The lives of three men and a women, returned from the front after World War I, intersect in a new offering from Kim Kelly – an historical novella set in the fictional hamlet of Sunshine in far north-western New South Wales, ‘out the back of Bourke’.

Snow, Grace and Art are each looking for something real in their lives to fill the holes left by war. Snow blames himself for the death of a dear friends, Art’s trauma left him hospitalised and shamed by a nervous paralysis, and Grace, a ‘surgical nurse and do-it-yourself butcher’ has seen too much.  A fresh start is offered by the Australian Government’s Solider Settlement scheme—a well-meaning though ill-considered plan to give returned soldiers parcels of land on which to farm.  Many divisions were worthless, unable to yield a decent crop and the scheme was eventually abandoned. Kelly’s gentle examination of a nascent modern Australia reminds us also of its founding on theft through the Scheme’s dispossession of the Indigenous population. These intertwined stories about citrus crops along the Darling River illustrate some of its hopes and successes.

After serving Australia in a foreign war, Aboriginal horseman Jack Bell returns to a nation which has broken his family and removed his livelihood. On five shillings a day, signing up was a leap into riches, and respect, impossible at home. He muses, ‘No such distinction as black of white but yes sir and no sir, get on with the friggen job. Why did it have to take the insanity of war to make things so equal and reasonable as that? Stupid friggen question.’ Now, the Government wants him ‘looked after’ on a mission. Bucking at that, he returns to the land of his birth and finds it divided and apportioned to other returned soldiers. White soldiers.

Snow McGlynn receives such an allocation. He has retreated within himself, wants no company, and needs to throw himself into his farm to forget the pain of war and loss. Snow muses early on, ‘He didn’t have anything against blacks, not really, but they always made a mess and had their hand out … ‘  Through his developing relationship with Jack, Kelly opens our eyes to Australia’s rank hypocrisy as Snow becomes alive to Jack’s knowledge of and connection with the land, and the racism underpinning Snow’s own good fortune. Both returned soldiers—one rewarded, the other stripped of his dignity and self-determination.

Art Lovelee has been hospitalised with a  phantom paralysis. Shamed and infantilised, the prevailing medical view was to ignore their symptoms and jolly them along, like children. Through Art, Kelly quietly reminds us that the ‘deranged’ have forever been feared, their illness taboo. ReadingSunshinebrought back Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy(Penguin 1996) which powerfully evokes soldiers’ trauma in the First World War and Kelly includes in her epigraph a verse from Siegfried Sassoon, the wartime poet who features so strongly in Barker’s work.

Art finds himself in the care of Grace who coaxes him back to health, then follows him to Australia. She has her own demons. She remembers too well the screams of the boy whose eyes she had to wash of poison gas from ‘the green cloud, from the devil’s very breath that swept across Flanders Fields.’ She remembers the amputees and the men carrying metal bullets in their bodies.

Kelly’s writing is clear and joyous. While she writes of dispossession and death, her message is hopeful. There is beauty all around—Grace, transplanted from cold, damp England to a parched and hot land looks to the future. Bending down to pick up a scrap she thinks has come from her washing, she sees it is a daisy,

… a little blue daisy, sitting in a sparse and thirsty-looking clump of grass. She crouched down to peer at it: a baby-blue wheel, so stark, so fabulous, here upon the rich red timeless soil: and such a surprise: she reminded herself all joy was surprising, never coming as dreamed or planned.

Kim Kelly Sunshine Jazz Monkey Publications 2019 PB 222pp $20.53

First published by the Newtown Review of Books  on 5 March 2019

The Museum of Modern Love, reviewed in Newtown Review of Books

I was late to this party. I’d heard about this novel, and when I finally found time for fiction this year, I lost myself in it immediately. Heather Rose has written a masterpiece of introspection. The reader pauses to look up from the page and reflect, to remember a passage over the course of the day and stop for a moment, or longer, to ask us why? What would I do?

Wrapping her stories around the work of a living artist—Rose sought, and was granted approval—is a gift. To read is to learn, and the book is set around the life and work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, specifically her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Over 75 days, she sat in a simple wooden chair. When a visitor took the seat opposite, she would lift her head, open her eyes as a veil lifting, and sit in that stance for as long as her counterpart stayed. ‘Is it a staring competition?’ ask visitors to the Museum.

What is art? A question surely as old as art itself. Abramović suggests that art is life. And just as the artists invited those who sat with her to participatein the art, Heather Rose asks us to turn inwards. We are not observers. We are participants who need to reconcile with life. The Museum of Modern Loveasks us, How do we learn to see what is before us?

Rose invites the reader into the life of Arky Levin, a famous NY composer. Arky’s perspective guides us though the exhibition and he forms a companionable, though disinterested bond with Jane Miller, a tourist and fellow gallery visitor. They are both distracted, lost andcontemplating uncertainty.  Jane’s husband has died, too young; her grief, one year on, still palpable. Jane ‘has always liked certainty. It was one of the pleasure of being a teacher…’ She wants more time: time with her husband, time for her own life.

Levin is flailing. His wife, suffering an inherited degenerative condition has removed herself from his life,  admitting herself to fulltime care in an institution.  ‘She had been certainty. When everything fell apart, she would be there. It was partly why he always felt so angry when she got sick. He didn’t like that the whole world wobbled when that happened, and he felt small. Small and alone.’

There were questions that terrified his sense of order. His deepest sense of how life should be lived. Ought to be lived. But should and ought were words for certainty. What words belonged to uncertainty?

Abramović, their mirror, faces uncertainty each time she takes up her position in the performance, opening the door to new knowledge. The intensity of their Museum experience forces both Jane and Levin to focus their gaze, to see what cannot be avoided. And finally, Levin understands, ‘with vivid clarity that the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know…’

In a further twist on the role of observer and the observed, occasionally Rose draws back and follows the participants going about their day through different narrators, hovering on the edges. One is perhaps the muse, or a higher consciousness. ‘I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside … For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amendable to an interruption…I watched him. There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work….’  Yet another is from Marina’s past who shows us how a childhood of physical and emotional deprivation in times of war shaped her performance art. We are reminded of the power that the dead have over us.

Other characters, students and commentators seamlessly integrate the artist’s background and body of work into the story taking the reader on a journey through her life. And Rose has held a mirror to us, the reader, through the very ordinariness of those who sit opposite. A young man slumping, ‘[Jane] wanted to tell him to sit up straight’, ‘a young woman with a tiny pair of shoulders and long lank hair…she appeared to be bowed under the weight of a short and exhausting life….’, those frail, and others defiant.

This is also a New York story. For those who love the city, from the residents’ style and beauty —‘three-day growth on his perfect jawline’—to the  food—onion bagels get more than one mention, to the buildings, streets and avenues, every page is a delight. Levin knows that New York’s light obliterates a darkness, a void that is both the universe and his own sense of aloneness. For Jane, the visitor, it is a temporary haven.

Rose has written a powerful story of lives interrupted and of seeking, and finding and learning. The Museum of Modern Love is about both understanding our choices and finding the strength to make them.

First published in The Newtown Review of Books.

The Museum of  Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin 2016 RRP $27.99)

 

Pre-release review of The Rosie Result – the final in the Don Tillman trilogy

The Rosie Result, Graeme Simsion, 2019, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.

It’s been four years since The Rosie Effect(Text 2014) and it’s a joy meeting up again with Don Tillman in this third and final instalment. The Rosie Result is Graeme Simsion’s clever way of bringing us a young Don Tillman, in today’s world. After 12 years in New York, Don and Rosie have returned to Melbourne where Rosie has landed a plum role. Unhappily uprooted from his childhood home and friends, Hudson, their ten year old son, is having ‘issues’ at his new school. Showing many of the same characteristics Don had in his childhood, the reader gets to delve into Don’s past as he and Rosie are torn between different ways to help.

Seeing social isolation and possibly depression in Hudson’s future, Don wants to find better ‘solutions’ to those that well-meaning but ignorant adults foisted on him in his youth.  His plan is to engineer a different outcome through a series of targeted interventions to give Hudson necessary life skills. He is going to bring all his science acumen to The Hudson Project.

Don’s foibles and idiosyncrasies – so familiar to those who have read the first two in the series – charm and infuriate from the first page. Shucking oysters, in pjamas, while pondering a neglected performance review, his rampant overthinking leads him to discard ‘objectivity and intelligence’ as key strengths. He fears this might imply that his colleagues were lacking, which would be tactless and best avoided. Oh, the excruciating and endless squeezing ourselves into acceptable boxes to tick. Been there. Rosie counsels, ‘“Just say problem-solving.”’ Problem-solving is to become a key theme in The Rosie Result.

To spend more time with Hudson, Don’s plan includes temporarily ceasing his work in genetic research – where he has swum into difficult waters – and opening a uniquely themed bar (solving the income and availability problems in one hit). Then he brings Dave, a friend and refrigeration mechanic, over from New York, solving another few. Getting inside Don’s head, working through his stages of problem-identification, analysis, options and resolution, we see the world the way Don might. Simsion’s adroit use of language, especially in dialogue, dislocates the reader as characters spar on issues. When Don and Rosie go to an autism awareness evening, the sudden dissonance between the two presenters is unexpected – the language suddenly forceful – and we sit up, as indeed Don does.

Simsion has written a book about belonging. In following Don and Rosie’s exploration of whether Hudson is a boy ‘with autism’ (person-first language), or not – and whether it matters – Simsion asks us, how much of our individuality is erased by society’s demands that we fit in? While they love him as he is, Don says that is not going to be enough. He knows that his natural traits of practicality and forthrightness are valued less than the social lubricant of empathy, compromise and conformity. The escalating tensions of parenting self-doubt, bureaucratic rules and ethical dilemmas converge at meetings with the school, bringing home the irrationality, the absurdity of inflexible institutions.

Readers are given the premises of different arguments and we are asked to make a logical deduction, to find the right solution. Rosie and Don are every parent. The self-doubt is endless, as are the surprises, as they discover more about this person they are raising.  Simsion pushes our buttons on anti-vaxxers, alternative therapies, truth-telling, choice and ethics. Don and Rosie want to raise Hudson without stigma and labelling. Yet…they want the best for him too. The parents of Hudson’s new friend, Blanche who has a medical condition, are hostile to conventional treatment. Yet at what cost? Simsion asks us to think about what is ‘good’ behaviour and when is deviating from accepted norms and standards acceptable, or necessary? Simsion is asking us, is there a ‘right’ way to live?

In amongst the problem-solving, we are treated to Don’s gorgeous ability to render the bleeding obvious in new ways. When a bird is stunned flying into a window, he notes to himself, ‘ ‘birds cannot afford to carry much natural armour due to the flying requirement.’

The Rosie Result is a funny, generous and thoughtful trip through finding fulfilment and living with the choices we make. This reader found it impossible not to calculate her own BMI again, just quietly… and the many references to cocktails throughout had her looking wistfully at her watch, willing it to be that hour.

Cheers.

#TheRosieResult

#GraemeSimsion