Category Archives: Reviews

Janelle McCulloch’s case of Picnic fever

A Writer’s review of Beyond the Rock.

FIFTY years since the publication of Joan Lindsay’s lauded Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, and with a much-anticipated television series being shot for Foxtel, ‘Picnic’ fever is in the wind again.

Cue a fresh analysis of Lindsay’s engaging story, in the commanding hardback form of Janelle McCulloch’s Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

A biography of Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) is long overdue. The publication of her memoir preceded ‘Picnic’ by five years and she understandably shied away from the tsunami of publicity that rose in the wake of Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation of her only successful novel. Much of the unwelcome attention sought a solution to what became of her three fictitious women who disappeared on the monolith on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1900.

McCulloch’s journalistic approach lends her work an investigative air, and with her skilled eye for design and heritage she quickly places Lindsay in context as a young Australian writer and artist with an Edwardian soul.

But this book is a confection. Seriously padded into something akin to an Art Nouveau ladies’ journal, I almost expected to find pressed flowers between the parchment-thick pages.

It’s not just that most of the content is too light for the gravitas suggested by the format, the problem lies squarely in the author’s complicity in a case of mass denial orchestrated by the original publishers of Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ novel.

The fact is, we’ve known the dénouement of the story about the three schoolgirls and their governess who go missing on a monolith, ever since the publication of the controversial last chapter of Lindsay’s book in 1987.

Originally submitted as part of her manuscript, Lindsay built one of the first credible bridges between European and Dreamtime mythologies in this conclusion, but her publishers decided Australians were not ready to cross it.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

The chapter was lopped off, allowing Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw to disappear into thin air, a decision that firmly defined Joan Lindsay as a rather late-flowering Bloomsbury novelist akin to E.M. Forster instead of a modernist writer with the storytelling abilities of Janet Frame.

McCulloch does very little to analyse this critical decision, and nothing to place Lindsay in the era in which her book was written – the 1960s – a time when writers were experimenting in a similar manner across the world.

Instead, the supposition of Beyond the Rock rests on the same old sleuthing that has always seen news-hounds following the trail of purely fictional hints that Lindsay’s story was based on true events.

In lieu of evidence, McCulloch hypotheses around her conclusions and threatens that she could reveal something “when enough evidence is found to warrant publication”.

Despite acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, who were dispossessed of Hanging Rock in the 1840s, McCulloch is content to let the gossamer veil fall over her research with enough whimsy and flim-flam to satisfy those who would rather have their mysteries unsolved.

“Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form.”

I grew interested when she started to draw links between Joan Lindsay and the work of E.M. Forster, the English novelist often credited with inspiring Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ because he experimented much earlier with tales of people disappearing and being impacted by time slips.

McCulloch references his 1902 work The Story of a Panic, Forster’s first story, inspired by a walk into the hills near Ravello in Italy. In it, a boy encounters the full transformative force of classical mythology in his own time during an innocuous picnic.

In another of Forster’s short stories Other Kingdom a young woman disappears on a visit to a beech copse in an Edwardian remake of the Apollo and Daphne story. His Albergo Empedocle relates the encounter an upstanding young Britisher has with ancient forces in Sicily.

But Forster eschewed mythological plot twists in his long-form fiction, in fact he lampooned his own use of them in his novel The Longest Journey.

LADY LINDSAY Joan Lindsay (1896-1984).

This is where Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form; but only if her last chapter gets reinstated with its courageous surrealism. Until then, she’ll be mistakenly labelled an impersonator of ‘Forsterian genius loci‘.

What McCulloch wisely frames for the first time in a mainstream format is the work of academic Terence O’Neill, a friend of Lindsay’s who researched where her story came from.

A real picnic to Hanging Rock by girls and teachers from the nearby Clyde School (Lindsay’s alma mater) was written up in the school magazine in 1919. All the picnickers returned, somewhat dishevelled, after a twilight ramble to take pictures of the moon, but their experience inspired the telling of plenty of ghost stories.

Forty-five years later Joan Lindsay wove this true tale into a credible Edwardian fable with a surreal conclusion, during the era that spawned a time-travelling Doctor Who and popular novels marrying ancient and postmodern themes, such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

“Despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day.”

Beyond the Rock beautifully connects many of the dots about Lindsay’s hitherto unknown life and work. Particularly revealing are the number of times she and Daryl attempted to live long-term in England, yet were not able to settle emotionally, financially and culturally.

They never became ‘Bloomsbury’ in the way other antipodean artists such as Katherine Mansfield did, but they were able to recreate it in Australia.

It’s after that acceptance of her sense of place that I place Joan Lindsay, sometime in the mid-1960s, seeing her environment for what it was: truly Australian, with its own genius loci, not Forster’s.

But McCulloch looks back from this time, not into it, or forward, to address her subject’s most compelling escape: despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day by entrusting it to her literary agent to be published posthumously.

She wanted the mystery solved, after all, and it’s probably past time Australia started looking.

It remains to be seen if the Foxtel-Fremantle Media adaptation is the catalyst. If it isn’t, the pathway to unravelling Joan Lindsay’s story lies not in chasing a schoolgirl adventure – that was done by O’Neill – but in finding the seeds of the Aboriginal mythology that must have inspired her.

A journey like that would take us further ‘beyond the rock’ than ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Lionel Shriver weighs her options

A Writer’s review of Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother.

FRESH from witnessing the fuss Lionel Shriver inspired at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, defending the right to use her imagination without being labelled a cultural appropriator, I took to this book with a half-baked plan to test out both sides of the argument.

“Hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve.”

That failed at the first hurdle, simply because Shriver’s prose is always so darned good it lifts readers high enough off the earth to forget ourselves; but since finishing Big Brother, with its infamous much spoiler-alerted conclusion, it’s easy to see Shriver’s imagination was not heavily taxed in this novel.

It’s a simple set-up: Edison Appaloosa is a failed jazz pianist who comes to stay in Iowa with his successful younger sibling Pandora. She’s turned her back on a catering business but had plenty of luck with her own start-up.

Last time she saw her brother, Edison was every inch the suave New Yorker, and Pandora anticipates being in his slightly louche orbit again; but the monster who appears at the airport is a man she fails to recognise, literally and emotionally, because the inches have piled onto his waistline.

Huge and hyper-sensitive, Edison is hiding the truth beneath the body fat, and his bluster is a challenge to Pandora and her husband Fletcher, nattily portrayed as a calorie-counting fitness junkie. It doesn’t take long for ultimatums to be issued that drive the drama to unexpected places.

Applying some of the plainest fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in Big Brother, Shriver calls to mind her journalism as much as she does any of her novels, lending realism to what might have been a far more clichéd set of characters.

It comes as no surprise that her experience of a chronically overweight brother Greg ‘fed’ both the need to write Big Brother and ‘flesh it out’ with many believable threads that leave the reader in no doubt the author witnessed morbid obesity up close, and shared its impact.

We are ‘stuffed’ with food references, on our screens and in our language, and Shriver’s book serves as an investigation into the Western obsession with consumption. In that regard, this hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve could have served as a ripping work of non-fiction by simply holding up the mirror.

But even Shriver admits to facing the very paradox she confronts Pandora with – trapped between her loyalty to a brother who has dead-ended his life by becoming grossly overweight, and her comfortable circle of attainment, complete with husband and career.

“As it happened, my brother’s condition abruptly plummeted again, and he died two days later. I never had to face down whether I was kind enough, loving enough, self-sacrificing enough, to take my brother on, to take my brother in. I got out of it,” Shriver wrote in The Financial Times on the book’s release.

When Pandora’s husband demands she make a choice between his fit lifestyle or the fat sibling, she eschews her marriage and embarks on a year-long, weight-loss odyssey that is Shriver’s imagination given free reign and healthy abandon.

Knowing the factual roots of the story only makes Big Brother’s pathos more powerful, because ultimately what Shriver construes is a startling piece of fiction, as unsettling as Tim Winton’s The Riders and every bit as capable of blindsiding readers.

The greatest part of the telling, for me, was not the exploration of weight but the surveillance suggested by the doublespeak of the book’s title, because Pandora’s solution for Edison is as Orwellian as its possible to be.

Despite being powerfully written in observational first-person, it’s in the minutia between siblings and spouses, unbridgeable even between those who ought to be close, that Big Brother makes the strongest claim on the human heart. See if you can keep it down.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

A place for truth in Titanic’s lifeboat

A Writer’s review of David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch.

“This novel grows organically into the rarest of literary adventures: a journey into the very heart of writing and all its private motivations.”

IN the scratchy, indefinite pulses of Marconi transmissions – the standard wireless communication in the era of the great transatlantic ocean liners – first-time Australian author David Dyer rediscovers a story at once indelible and elusive, of human frailty that turned the world order on its head.

This shorthand of ship radio operators, whose brief and highly-coded messaging system kept ships in communication and carried telegraphic messages to shore for passengers, crew and commercial interests, was past its infancy when RMS Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage, but it was certainly not a definitive means of delivering clarity under pressure.

Yet the lives of more than 1500 people came to rest upon it.

the_midnight_watch_0The Midnight Watch holds human communication at its core.

Protagonist John Steadman is a journalist, a newshound the likes of which has all but disappeared in the twenty-first century. He has a keen sense of injustice, having endured grief and loss as a young man, scars that have made him into the industry’s ‘body man’, reporting on untimely, unjust deaths.

By the time of the sinking of the Titanic, this fictional character is so skilled he’s able to navigate his way into what he sees as the real story: the factual mystery of the ‘other’ ship – the Californian – which sat in sight of the Titanic as the latter foundered, firing eight distress rockets, each of which the crew of the Californian witnessed, and did nothing about.

It’s the supreme postmodern maritime mystery, as replete with conspiracy theories as the Shakespeare authorship question, and Dyer tackles it through recreating the players and the dramatic tension that existed before the world knew about the Californian’s failure, taking readers on a compelling journey.

The tale pivots around the inaction of two men: Captain Stanley Lord, who remained in his bed during the two-and-a-half hours the Titanic sank, and his second officer Herbert Stone, who reported what he saw to the captain via a narrow pipe, yet did nothing more when the captain failed to act.

CAPTION
CALIFORNIAN CAPTAIN Stanley Lord of The Californian.

But in the end, Steadman cannot escape the way the ultimate truths remain fractured and inaccessible, lost in the pulsating radio signals that passed suddenly from workaday passenger telegrams to the desperate calls that were heard only by ships too far away to lend assistance; in the breathy, frustrating exchanges between two starkly different men onboard the Californian, up and down the speaking tubes; and in the explosive, beautiful, but ultimately meaningless sparkles of distress rockets that may as well have been fireworks launched for passengers’ pleasure off the listing deck of an unsinkable ship.

You know exactly what is going to happen, and you know the horrifically short timescale, yet you still want to reach out and lift the hapless victims out of the water you know will be too cold for them to endure.

The fate of the 1500 drowned is universal knowledge by now, but Dyer uses it to place the reader in a vortex of failure, after making the case for the thinnest, most abstract and unexpected of causes for the men who allowed the disaster to happen under their gaze.

The entire Industrial Revolution went down with the shock of it, leaving a century of war and insecurity in its wake that many believe we are yet to recover from.

This novel grows organically into the rarest of literary adventures: a journey into the very heart of writing and all its private motivations. Escapism and fantasy, avoidance, guilt, lust, fear and a pulsating sense of injustice.

I agree with other reviewers who noted the author’s unnecessary use of repetition on occasion – readers never require a retelling of moments we’ve already heard; and at times, during the rising action of the book, I questioned the very set-up of the whole fact-fiction combination.

But where it counts, The Midnight Watch is absolutely gripping and does not fail to deliver.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.