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The Last Garden by Eva Hornung

Published by Text, 2017. This is I think the first book Eva Hornung has published since her masterpiece, Dog Boy, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction in 2010. I reviewed it here: https://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/eva-hornungs-dog-boy-challenges-what-it-means-to-be-human/

9781925498127

The Last Garden has some similarities in theme, in that it imagines a boy crossing the border between human and animal, becoming animal for a time, and experiencing the world from a double, human-animal perspective. Benedict Orion, the hero, aged fifteen, returns home from boarding school to find that a terrible crime has shattered his childhood paradise, the farm outside the Wahrheit settlement. His father has shot his mother through the heart, and then himself.

The crime is not explained, and the year in Benedict’s life that the book covers is in part about his quest to understand it. Yet he goes about this by escaping to the barn, where he lives with the horses and the chickens and a cat, and avoids human contact, except for the irregular visits of Pastor Helfgott, who believes, for a time, that Benedict may be the Saviour that the religious community is awaiting. At the same time, he protects Benedict from being ‘civilised’ by the members of the community and allows him time to heal, to live half wild, bringing him offerings of food and reminding him to eat and pray. Benedict, who responds to the shock that has shattered his life by not speaking for a long time, is haunted not only by his father’s crime but by a fox that flickers on the edge of his vision, and brings murder and death back into his world, wounding and killing his beloved hens and roosters. The fox enters his consciousness and becomes God, taunting and enslaving him.

I have not forsaken you, said the fox, one night. I am with you always.

He has encounters, perhaps dreamed, perhaps real, with black people, and they heal him of self-inflicted wounds.The fox reminds him that he needs only him and this is his farm.

Finally, he confronts the fox and kills it.  The voice of God is gone, yet there is a profound mistake. He has killed a vixen, mother of suckling cubs. This takes him back to his own family and his father’s crime, and he reviews his life. He begins to understand how his father had made such a terrible mistake.

Maybe if Matthias had counted to ten, as Ada always told him he should, if Matthias had seen himself in the eyes of a dead fox, a horse, or for that matter a koala—any god would do— if he had let the wave of whatever pain, guilt or madness pass…

There are other strands to this story, and other voices, mainly that of Pastor Helfgott. I found this strand less convincing.

I prefer the two-dimensional world of Dog Boy, where the boy’s consciousness is the main voice.

I have to say that this is not an easy book to read. It is enigmatic and much is unspoken. I read it once and immediately began to read it again. I recall I did the same thing with Dog Boy. But I can say that this book haunted me and still does, though not as much as Dog Boy did.

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Reworking

The fragment below is from my third memoir, Found, which tells the story of my life after the breakup of my marriage and loss of my children, who were abducted by their father to the United States. It was 18 months before I saw them again, on an access visit. I went with my mother as my chaperone in enemy territory. The arrangement my ex-husband decreed was that Mum and I would stay at his house during the week, and he would stay with his girlfriend; then at weekends we would swap over, and Mum and I would go to the girlfriends’ house.

***

In his house, during the hours the girls are awake, I act like a normal mother, and keep busy when I’m not cooking or looking after them by doing crochet and embroidery. I am making a shawl for Mum in creamy wool, with an elaborate border of flowers in purples, dark reds and pinks. The pattern is wrong, and as I sit un-pulling and reworking sections, I think of all the steps that have brought me to this place, all the choices I made without realising the consequences. I drop the crochet sometimes — will I ever finish it? — and creep into their bedrooms. I bend over them as they sleep, watching their faces, uncreased and innocent, and inhale their sweet breath.

When I tire of the wayward shawl and the repetition of the pattern, I turn to another piece of work, an embroidery for the girls. Under my fingers, slowly, a picture grows of forest foliage with a faun’s face peeping out, and words from The Song of Solomon: ‘… the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’

One afternoon when the girls come home from school, Mum and I take them shopping and choose material for a dress for each of them, and for new curtains for Sophia’s room, in bright greens, yellows and reds, with fauns leaping amongst tangled vines and trees. Mum helps me cut out the dresses and pin them, and when I have sewn them, she does the hand finishing, the hems and buttons, and helps me hem the curtains.

But when they are asleep and Mum has gone to bed, the numbness returns. I drink red wine and sit listening to music until at last sleep seems possible. In the morning, I look in the mirror and see my face, the face of a woman older than me. The lines under her eyes and round her mouth are sharply etched by the dry mountain air, cold winds and lack of sleep. I can’t stay here. I will dry up and wither away before I grow old.

leaping fauns

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My Sewing Box

My mother had a Singer treadle sewing machine, and made most of the clothes we wore. She bought Butterick and Simplicity patterns; sometimes her efforts turned out well, but sometimes they were disappointing.

When I was about eleven, I went to my first dance, the Picnic Races ball. Our friends and neighbours, the Ramages, were going, and I had a crush on their older son, Henry. He was about three years older than me, and to him I was just a little girl. He had honey blonde hair that hung over one of his delphinium blue eyes, golden brown skin, and a husky voice.

Mum bought some lavender marquisette for my dress, and some taffeta to line it. She got Baxter’s Drapery to send away to have a tailored belt made for it, and covered buttons. The bodice had pintucks, the sleeves were puffed, and the skirt gathered.

She sat up late the night before the dance, hemming the skirt. I crept into her room in the morning and tried it on. The buttons and the belt were beautiful, the pintucks perfect, but it was too big for me. My breasts were just buttons, so the bodice sagged over my rounded stomach where my waist should have been, and was too long for my short torso.

I was a wallflower that night. My dreams of dancing with Henry faded when I saw him in his tuxedo and long trousers, dancing with a girl with the same name as mine, from a wealthy pastoral family on the Lachlan. She had shoulder-length blonde hair, silky and smooth, and golden brown skin like Henry. She went to Frensham, an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the tablelands. I was still doing Correspondence school, and had little experience of talking to people my own age. I was the youngest of five children, and after my father left when I was seven years old, I became my mother’s helpmeet. Together we did the jobs that my father and my brothers, now away at boarding school or university, had been used to doing, and I became a little adult in a child’s body.

My mother was a conscientious needlewoman but not a talented one. She was very good at darning. She had a wooden darning mushroom, which she inserted into the inside-out sock and stretched the toe or the heel over. She used her little embroidery scissors to trim the ragged ends of wool, then made a knot with her threaded needle and ran a running stitch around the edges of the hole. She laid a grid of parallel threads across the hole, then wove her needle in and out to form a latticework pattern.

She tried to teach me how to do it, but my parallel threads were uneven widths apart and my weaving was irregular, so that the effect was a cobble compared to her perfect grid.

In her old age, when time hung heavy on her hands, she took up tapestry. When I was sorting through her things after she died, I found two cushion covers she had almost finished. I packed them into my trunk of sewing projects I’d half-finished or not started, and carried them with me for the next thirty-six years, through all my moves. About twenty years ago I cleared out my trunk, letting go of my dream that one day I’d be a crafty old lady. But I kept a few things — some Jacobean embroidery I’d started, a tapestry church my youngest daughter had made as a craft project at school, but not assembled (it was missing one small panel to complete the gabled roof), her guiding badges which I had meant to sew onto a blanket for her, and my mother’s two tapestries. One day, I thought, I’ll sew these onto cushions.

Recently I was looking for something in my box of unfinished projects, and found them again. I got them out and pinned them onto a couple of cushions in my study. When I say pinned, I have no pins, so I used needles from my jar of about a hundred needles I’ll never use for sewing. From time to time, while listening to podcasts, I worked on one of them, a bouquet of roses in shades of pink, mauve and red with a central yellow rose, with greenery shading from khaki to sage. Using tapestry wool, I managed to sew it onto a cushion, with great difficulty, as the needle that had a big enough eye to hold the wool had a blunt end that had to be pushed and wangled through the fabric of the cushion edge. Stubbornly, I persisted, and after a month or two, I finished it. There is a mildew stain in one corner of the canvas, and one side has a bigger border than the other, because I applied it unevenly. But the traditional picture pleases me.

The other tapestry is quite different in style, a loose arrangement of gum leaves and flowers, in shades of blue-grey, olive green, pink and red. One little section of a leaf is not filled in. I found some tapestry wool of a shade that is a close match and tried to fill it in, but my stitches looked clumsy, and I didn’t have the patience to teach myself how to do a proper tapestry stitch. So I’m leaving it empty, reflecting my mother’s desire to create a thing of beauty, unfinished. The edges of the canvas have frayed, so today I cut the frayed edges off and pinned some braid around. It’s not a perfect square, as the fraying was uneven.

Mum's tapestries

So neither cushion will be perfect. But at last my mother’s work, so laboriously done in her old age, will grace the couch in my study. She didn’t become a crafty old lady, but she made a better go of it than I have. In both of us, there’s been a dream of making things with our hands, and she passed that on to me. Both of us are more readers and writers than makers. Both of us love beautiful things. She had more patience than I have, and did things more in the proper way. I take short cuts, and botch things a little. Our making is imperfect and unfinished, and for both of us, it kept us sane in times when life was difficult and we needed something to occupy our hands and take our minds off worries and troubles.

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Memoir of Childhood Survival

https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/the-lost-woman

The Lost Woman by Sydney Wayland Smith (Text Publishing 2012) is a remarkable story. This is a review where I struggle to find words that are effective without going into the exclamatory, over-the-top register. Why? Because it tells the story of a child who nearly didn’t survive her childhood. Her upbringing was erratic, cruel, uncaring and perverse, and she makes it very clear on the first page that she wasn’t taken care of; the roles were reversed. She had to take care of her mother. Her mother, it often seemed, ‘wasn’t there,’ although she was there in the flesh.

…while she was enormously present in her fat, rolling flesh, she was absent in other ways, taken possession of by a dream that filled her mind for days at a time, that helpd her face immobile in a pose of passionate preoccupation.

Yet if her daughter left the room the mother would demand to know where she was going. She was imprisoned by invisible chains, fixed in silence, free to do as she liked only when she was walking home from school and could stretch time a little by visiting the library. Reading was her refuge. Her mother was a problem she had to solve, but she was never able to. We never know what the mother is thinking, what makes her tick, except that she regards the child as her possession. The child’s father is not a cruel man, but he is mostly absent and quite ineffectual against the mother’s power. Her brothers live their own lives, and are allowed to, for the most part. Whereas the child is prisoner to a woman who is cruel, erratic, absent, lazy, cunning, possessive, unforgiving, and probably mad. Yet she is never analysed. This is one of the strengths of the book. The narrator as a child did not understand her mother, and does not try to as an adult. She just describes her mother’s behaviour and her own responses to it in simple, direct prose that shatters us with its bleak, hopeless despair.

I was the housemaid. School was wasted on a housemaid.

I couldn’t stop resenting the unjustice. Nor could I give up trying to shirk my chores…

I had to be careful how far I pushed her. Any little thing might set her off. I had to stand at the twin tub, waiting for it to finish its cycle. If I wandered away and Mother caught me, she grabbed my ponyutail and hauled me back into the laundry room, hit me round the head a few times and napped, ‘Now stand there and don’t move.’

Yet, this child feels compassion for her mother. It hurts her that their neighbours think of her mother as a witch. Yet she was a witch to her as well.

But I knew it left out aspects of her that only I saw: her loneliness, her injured, angry helplessness. Witches weren’t supposed to be helpless or lonely; they were supposed to be self-sufficient in their power. The label hurt me too, because I understood how it tainted me. I couldn’t forget that I was the witch’s daughter and that the mark was permanent.

The mother is Maori and the father is pakeha.  The mother grudges talking about her childhood on Chatham Island, a tiny archipelago 830 kilometres east of New Zealand. She was actually of Maori and Moriori blood, and had been sent to boarding school at age 13; there, ‘Anyone caught speaking Maori got the strap.’ For her daughter, this made it even harder to imagine abandoning her mother, when she was all alone in the world. She is an enigma that her daughter never solves, at least within the covers of this book.

Every avenue led to questions or dead end. And that worried me. If she was nothing, what was I?

The child’s secret is that she writes stories. But her stories frighten her, because they always end in violence. The end of her school years looms, and she is worried about what she will do. She cannot imagine a future beyond that of an

eternally adolescent role while at the same time withering, like one of those child-sized people who aged and died without ever growing up.

She does manage to get a job and hold it for a while, and then another — undemanding clerical jobs, which leave her mind free to work on her problem of how to escape from her mother. She does, one day, taking a train to a town a few hours away; but she only lasts a week. When she returns home, she doesn’t leave the house for nine months.

The last three chapters tell of her fall into a frightening world where cameras are hidden behind the mirrors, and her mother can read her thoughts. She has fantasies of killing her mother, hideously, with a boning knife. Writing remains her passion and her shield from her murderous hatred.  Under an ultimatum from her mother, to find a job or die, she takes the boning knife and contemplates killing herself.

The young woman does escape; but only four years later, helped by an outsider to the family, a doctor. A one-way ticket to Melbourne is her escape from this cruel, hopeless existence. The doctor has helped her to see that she is responsible for her own actions, and can unmake her mistakes, and learn not to be a victim. The doctor cannot explain her mother to her. She remains an enigma. She leaves with hope, hope of being her own person, on her own terms.

So this moving, compelling memoir of an impossible childhood ends with the redemption of the victim through her own actions; she emerges into a future of possibilities, a future, we know, that will involve storytelling. For this woman is a consummate storyteller. Her prose is spare, translucent and accessible, with moments of lyrical intensity.

I’m not sure if this 2012 memoir is still in print; I had to get my copy from Abebooks. It should be. It joins a few select memoirs of childhood on my bookshelves which I regard as classics — The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Popeye Never Told You by Rodney Hall, The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe.

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Only connect!

Let us connect! From E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910):
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
 As writers, we connect with our readers.
As readers, we connect with the worlds imagined and created by writers, and live gratuitously the lives of many. We extend and deepen our universe by entering other worlds — some like ours but different, some quite unfamiliar. We are adventurers, led by the writers we like.
As writers, we are guides, opening up new worlds for our readers. As humans, we are all connected, but can become very disconnected by our circumstances, pressures, losses, illnesses, traumas. Literature can help us re-connect and remember we are one of a community of humans, and can live and share and love in our daily lives and in our imagination.
I love supporting and helping other writers. I write book reviews, posted on Goodreads and on my blog, https://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/. I was Writer-in-Residence at Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Perth, in 2012, and spent a great deal of my month there mentoring other writers.
I am available to judge local writers’ competitions, and would love to extend my practice in this way, encouraging all those emerging writers out there to find their voices, to put their words out on the ether, to speak to the audience. There is a rhizomatic connection of writers-with-writers-with-readers, which the Internet fosters, but which is also kept alive through local writers centres and writing groups. I know how much inferior literature as published (while not denying there is much good writing published); and I also know how many good writers are struggling to have their voices heard, to have their work published. I am constitutionally for the underdog, and so my passion is to connect the emerging or new writer with their audience.  
Long live writing! Long live books! Long live the writers! Long live the readers!
 

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Survivors of parental child abduction

I now have a special Facebook page for the project of writing the stories of mothers who’ve survived parental child abduction. On it there is a button where you can email me: https://www.facebook.com/memoryandyou/

Writing Lives

Hello lovely readers, and happy new year! May 2018 be a year of love, laughter, creativity and compassion.

I have a mission this year, beyond my usual writing and editing practice. It came up for me unexpectedly, when my eldest daughter returned to me a bundle of letters which I had written to her father 35 years ago. When I began to read them, I felt heavy, sad, frustrated. I put them aside for a couple of days. I started to read them again just after Christmas, and realised I need to do something constructive with them. The first task is to type them up as a record for me and my children. But as I started to do so, I began to feel more positive, even empowered. I had forgotten all the details of that agonising time, one Spring morning in Sydney, when the phone rang and he told…

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Survivors of parental child abduction

Hello lovely readers, and happy new year! May 2018 be a year of love, laughter, creativity and compassion.

I have a mission this year, beyond my usual writing and editing practice. It came up for me unexpectedly, when my eldest daughter returned to me a bundle of letters which I had written to her father 35 years ago. When I began to read them, I felt heavy, sad, frustrated. I put them aside for a couple of days. I started to read them again just after Christmas, and realised I need to do something constructive with them. The first task is to type them up as a record for me and my children. But as I started to do so, I began to feel more positive, even empowered. I had forgotten all the details of that agonising time, one Spring morning in Sydney, when the phone rang and he told me he was on the way to Colorado with our three little daughters, aged 7, 5, and 2 and a quarter. “You are a deserting wife and an abandoning mother,” he said, “and you’ll never see your children again,” and put the phone down.

It took me 18 months to get access to them, and from then on, I saw them no more than twice a year, until the youngest one, at age 14, chose to come and live with me. They had been back in Australia for the past few years, and by then, the law had changed, so that a child of 14 or older could choose which parent they wanted to live with without going to court and testifying.

The circumstances around our separation and their abduction were fraught, and the reasons that he was able to do what he did complex and for the most part, ones I had no control over.

I realised as I began to type them that there may be many other women out there, in Australia, who have lost their children through parental abduction. So I have decided to start canvassing for their stories. I am also interested in finding a collaborator writer/editor, who could help me compile them into a collection, and if possible, a source of funding, a small publishing grant. I would like to find agencies or groups who support and work with women who’ve lost their children, so I can contact these women and see if they would like to tell their story. I am more interested in women whose voices have been silenced, than celebrities or women who’ve had high profile public cases. And I have to narrow the field to parental child abduction, not institutional or governmental forced adoption or separation. Also, I would have to exclude the children’s stories; that is a very big field, and would be another volume!

If you or someone you know has had a similar experience and would like to tell their story, you or they can message me on my contact page at https://www.perfectwordsediting.com

Or on my Facebook page, which has an email button: https://www.facebook.com/memoryandyou/

I will create a contact from for this page, but at present I can’t get it to work; will solve that.

To end, here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote, an unusually emotive one; usually I tried to be civil and rational, since he had all the power and I had none, and his mode of conflict was driven by fear and expressed as control and threat.

I never wanted to lose my children, and I protest strongly against the injustice of your attitude that they are your children, and that you will protect your home and possession of them from me at all costs. I have never behaved as a mother in a way that justifies this. My decision to leave the family was as much yours as mine, in fact it was proposed by you, as you will recall. I love my children, and they love me, and you have no right to put so many obstacles between us. Had I known you would behave in this way, I would never have allowed you (by default)[1] to leave the country with them. At every stage since I left Mackay, you have progressively tried to reduce my status as their mother and your ex-partner and to deny me the right to any say in their lives and their relationship with me. Please remember I gave you freedom from an incompatible relationship, as much as I have sought my own.

Up until the time you left Australia with the children without telling me, I felt affection and concern for you. I am afraid you have since destroyed that. The best that can be salvaged from the ruins of our relationship is co-operation, based on legal guarantees, over my access to the children. You are ‘adamant’ about protecting your ‘rights’. I, too, am adamant. I want from you the legal guarantees I have asked for over my access to the children, and I will not co-operate any further until I have them. You have far more to lose than I have.

[1] Although he had stated his intention of taking a job in the US, he had not told me of when this would happen, and had promised to send the children down to visit me in the September holidays. He had persuaded me in England, before we returned to Australia to visit his family,  to let him put them on separate passports, saying it was not fair they should be on mine. This suggests that he anticipated a move when he would take them out of Australia without my consent. When he abducted them, my lawyer was still trying to negotiate through his lawyer re joint custody and some sort of financial settlement to give me some support while studying so I could have a career and become self-supporting.

 

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