Category Archives: Novels

Saving Francesca

Saving FrancescaSaving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like Saving Francesca more than I did. After all, it’s about a topic close to my heart: depression. In particular, it’s about the effects on a family when a parent is incapacitated by depression.

It’s not really fair for me to measure this depiction in view of my own experience of a parent with depression. Every family will experience it differently; indeed, every person within a family will experience it differently. So, while Francesca’s experience didn’t always ring true for me, I could appreciate what an important topic it is for writers of YA Literature to address. After reading so many YA books wherein parents die, the far more common reality of clinical depression is due more attention.

The strength of this novel is the characterisation of Francesca’s friend and family groups. As with Looking for Alibrandi, I found myself enjoying the lead character’s interactions with her school friends more than with the love interest. I guess Prince Charming is doomed to be a boring character type. Marchetta also writes developed teachers and school administrators; for the most part, they genuinely care about and respect the young people in their care. (Of course, there’s always one bad apple who really shouldn’t be teaching.)

Overall, I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of Francesca’s friends and extended family, and being moved to tears by her love for her brother. But I screamed internally at some of Francesca’s overwrought monologues and raised my eyebrow sceptically at a group of Year 11’s knowledgeable discussions of multiple Shakespeare plays.

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Does My Head Look Big in This?

Does My Head Look Big In This?Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first thought about Does My Head Look Big In This? was, “It’s Looking for Alabrandi for a new generation.” That impression may have more to do with the narrator of the audiobook version I listened to using the same wide-eyed tone that characterised the reader of the audiobook version of Alibrandi. Still, the similarities don’t end there. Both books have young, female protagonists who, simply because of their cultural and religious backgrounds, have no option but to think about their place in the world. Unlike the predominantly Anglo-Australians each girl goes to school with, they’re required to move between two worlds as often as they go to school and return home each day.

In this book, the central character, Amal, makes the decision to become a full-time wearer of the hijab. Her parents are concerned about the response she will attract from her school and friends, while her school and friends demand to be reassured her parents haven’t forced her to wear the hijab against her will. Inevitably, perhaps, Amal becomes representative of Islam and every act done in its name; consequently, she is required by non-Muslims to explain the atrocity of events like the Bali bombings and, to the well-intentioned, be a spokesperson and educator on her religion.

First published in 2005, I think this might be an early attempt in young adult literature to help young people explore issues of religious identity in a post-September 11 world. In Australia, the Bali bombings, which are featured in the novel, would have added a particular urgency to the need for this kind of discussion. Certainly, there’s a sense that Abdel-Fattah wrote a list of the most common expressions of ignorance and bigotry towards Muslim-Australians and incorporated them into the experiences of Amal, her friends and family. It feels quite jam-packed and sometimes didactic. That said, Does My Head Look Big In This? has made me curious about other books from the perspectives of other western Muslims.

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Looking for Alibrandi

Looking for AlibrandiLooking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

I think if I’d read this book twenty-three years ago I’d have appreciated it more. It’s a coming of age story from what seems to be a more innocent time: pre-September 11, pre-social media; from an era when a family gathering to make a year’s worth of passata was cause for embarrassment rather than a mark of culinary cosmopolitanism and a sure-fire ticket to the MasterChef grand final.

I suppose it’s a good thing that third-generation Italian-Australian Josephine Alibrandi’s narration of the trials of her final year in high school now seems dated; being of southern European descent, a ‘wog’, no longer attracts unfavourable commentary from the casually racist in this country. Not that there’s much evidence, more broadly, that Australian society has become less racist in the intervening years–attention has merely shifted to more recent migrants who have arrived in Australia after fleeing war and persecution in their homelands.

For better or worse, the storyline around the mental well-being of one of Josephine’s friends has stood the test of time. I look forward to the day when John Barton’s fate is rendered unbelievable.

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Laurinda by Alice Pung

LaurindaLaurinda by Alice Pung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a novel about the intersection of class and race in Australia, a country that prides itself on the notion of ‘the fair go’. It begins compliantly enough: the protagonist, Lucy Lam, is successful in her application for the inaugural access and equity scholarship at Laurinda, an exclusive private girls’ school.

Narrated in the epistolary style, Lucy shares her triumphs and doubts, as she, the child of Vietnamese refugees who work in a carpet factory and sew for pittance from home, enters into the elite Catholic society of Laurinda.

Lucy quickly learns that her schooling to date does not meet the Laurinda curriculum standard as she is required to take remedial English via a series of individual tutoring sessions. While she easily understands the explicit educational expectations of her new school, she struggles considerably with the implicit curriculum: the social and cultural values and prejudices that underpin every interaction she has with her peers, teachers, and the school’s administration.

Pung interrogates the rhetoric of access and equity that pervades educational discourse and, indeed, Australian society, revealing it to be less about affecting social change than maintaining the status quo. Laurinda is a tale of noblesse oblige , Australian style.

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A Pocketful of Eyes

A Pocketful of EyesA Pocketful of Eyes by Lili Wilkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Things to like about A Pocketful of Eyes:

1. It’s a contemporary homage to classic fictional detectives from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple.
2. The central character, Bee, has a volunteer job as a taxidermist at a museum. That’s cool.
3. Bee looks askance at anyone who makes dumb remarks about mobile phones and social media.
4. Bee’s nickname for her mother’s new boyfriend is the Celestial Badger
5. I learned the difference between venom and poison thanks to Bee’s nerdy love interest, Toby.

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The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

The AnchoressThe Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I”m not sure where I read that most of the recent literary prize winners by women had historical settings. The writer made this point as a negative criticism, noting that as a society we can’t seem to engage with or acknowledge contemporary women’s lives and ongoing inequalities between men and women.

On the one hand, the writer has a point: doesn’t an historical setting ensure the ongoing injustices of gender discrimination are always elsewhere? Doesn’t awarding these stories our highest prizes serve as a kind of self-congratulatory pat on our collective backs that we’ve left the dark ages behind and are basking in the glow of our enlightened ways?

I remember listening to television scholar, Charlotte Brunsdon, defend historical drama on the BBC once. She argued that historical drama, whatever the setting, will always be an interpretation of a previous era through a contemporary lens. So, if an historical drama has scenes of rape within marriage (this was her example, I can’t remember the specific program), then, given every representation is a matter of deliberate choices made by writers and so forth, this is a way of addressing a form of violence still experienced by many women today.

I am sympathetic to this interpretation, not least because Brunsdon is an alumna of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose methods and legacy inform my own approach to texts and interpretation, but also because, well, no one seems to have any trouble with this very argument when discussing The Crucible: it was too dangerous to talk about the McCarthy trials when they were happening, so Miller turned to history, the Salem witch trials, to tell his allegorical tale.

Perhaps there’s still a criticism to be made about awarding prizes to predominantly historical novels. If we still need to hide behind allegory, then are we still stuck in the 1950s? We do seem to have finally gotten over the inevitable suicide of heroines that characterised the end of many a nineteenth century novel, so perhaps soon more awards will go to stories about contemporary women’s lives.

What does any of this rambling have to do with The Anchoress? Well, these were my thoughts as I finished listening to the last chapters of the Bolinda Audiobook edition, read by Madeleine Leslay. These thoughts were further prompted by my frequent scouring of available audiobooks to borrow from my local library. Sometimes I just want a novel set in contemporary Australia and I’m often surprised by how difficult they can be to find. I suppose I’m trying to find some way to think about the times I live in.

In the end, I did find a way to think through contemporary issues, although it did take a while. After reading about a third of The Anchoress, it put me very much in mind of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. For some this would be a very high recommendation, but that’s less the case for me.

Burial Rites and The Anchoress share an isolated central female character who has been ill-treated by a manipulative romantic interest and is subject to the whims and prejudices of authority: the law and the church. As much as Kent embellished on the life of her heroine, she was ultimately bound by Agnes’s fate; conversely, while Cadwallader draws on her research into Saint Margaret, Three Methods For Reading The Thirteenth Century Seinte Margerete: Archetypal, Semiotic, And Deconstructionist, her character, Sarah, is fictional and so she is afforded agency.

I don’t want to discount the interest of the historical specificities in The Anchoress. The entire concept of a woman living her life in a small room with locked doors praying to God on behalf of others is fascinating. There is so much to learn and be curious about. The physical effects on the body of forced sedentariness and a lack of exposure to sunlight are quite alarming. I also very much appreciated the insight into the work done to produce books in medieval time: a collaboration between a scribe and an ‘illuminator’ or illustrator.

Overall, what eventually captured my attention in this book was Sarah’s arc. In spite of her seclusion, she forms relationships with the community she serves, if somewhat reluctantly at first. Her arc is matched by that of Ranaulf, the young monk and scribe charged to be her confessor. He is as isolated as she, if not physically, then certainly emotionally. Both are gently prodded into friendships with villagers and colleagues. Here, special mention must be made of Eleanor or Ellie, a guileless village girl who alternately charms and annoys them both into submission.

The other main aspect of this novel that elevated it in my estimation was the way both Sarah and Ranaulf engaged with and questioned the teachings they inherited through the church, in the face of their own and other characters lived experience. There is a refreshing spirit at the core of The Anchoress that doesn’t eschew intellect or heart, but shows how each requires the other in order to live the very best of lives.

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Peony

PeonyPeony by Pearl S. Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The appeal of Peony is two-fold. First, it reveals a history of the Jewish diaspora in China–a population I was entirely ignorant of–and second, it was published in 1948, suggesting that Buck wrote at the very time when the atrocities of Nazi Germany’s were revealed to the world. The latter context embeds the book in a conversation about about Jewish identity, a question that was surely uppermost in many people’s minds of the time as they struggled to process such an overwhelming and final expression of hatred towards a religious group.

Peony is a young bondmaid in a wealthy Jewish household in China of the 1800s. She has served David, the only child of the Ezra family, since she was procured as a child, attending to his every need. Now young adults, it was probably inevitable, in such a cloistered environment, that Peony has come to love David as a woman.

If David were more culturally Chinese, this mutual attraction would, perhaps, have easily been admitted; David’s conscience would have allowed him to marry his mother’s choice of a Jewish woman, while taking Peony as a concubine. But David is Jewish, despite his efforts to free himself from the strictures of his heritage that his mother continues to practise.

David’s efforts to reject his religious heritage are complicated, not only by his mother’s religious obeisance, but by news of the slaughter of Jews brought by his merchant father’s partner, along with a caravan of goods from the west. The parallels here to mid-20th century atrocities are clear. David recommits to his religion and so unwittingly introduces a threat in Peony’s mind to her continued service in the household.

The drama of Peony and the Ezra family explores the question of religious identity as it is lived in the face of threats to its integrity: through the dilution of diaspora and assimilation, as well as outright persecution. It explores the personal costs of maintaining that identity in the face of a dwindling community in a largely indifferent culture, particularly in the figures of Madame Ezra and the elderly Rabbi.

Further, and this is what I liked most about the novel, Peony, explores the positions that different religions and cultures afford women. While Peony perceives a threat from David’s proposed marriage to Leah, the daughter of the Rabbi, for Leah, the prospect of her arranged marriage to David comes to be a lifeline out of poverty and servitude to her father and brother. In this light, Peony’s actions seem unkind, perhaps, but then her fears for herself, at this stage, are not unfounded.

I would say there are no winners in these circumstances, but ultimately, Peony does win, to an extent that is better than continued servitude to an entitled, if caring, master. She finds a way to move beyond her indenture to the Ezra household and, indeed, her culture at large, to bloom, as her namesake, for the rest of her years.

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