The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Australian writer Matilda Woods is exquisite! It is as the title says about three unlikely companions — the boy, the bird and the coffin maker. It is a tale seeped in grief but also in so much beauty and hope. It is utterly magical. Unexpectedly the reader falls headlong into the story from the first line. It has been beautifully illustrated in two tones by Anuska Allepuz with details on every page, full page illustrations tipped in and the end covers are a dream. The art work complements the story fabulously without really constraining the imagination of the reader by attempting to illustrate every description in the story. The book is a keeper. Matilda Woods next book will be orth looking out for.
Matilda Woods The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker Scholastic. 2017. Pb.
Australian writer Hannah Kent’s second novel The Good People is about three women – Nora (Honora Leahy), Nance (Anne Roche) and Mary — in early nineteenth century rural Ireland, County Kerry. Nora was recently widowed who had been left the care of her four-year-old grandson, Michael Kelliher. A wild, crabbed child no heavier than the weight of snow upon a branch. A clutch of bones rippling with the movement of wind on water. Thistle-headed. Fierce-chinned. Small fingers clutching in front of him as though the air were filled with wonders and not the smoke of the fire and their own stale breath. The constant attention he demanded accompanied by his shrill needfulness exhausted Nora. She decided to hire a young girl to help her on the farm but be the primary caregiver to Michael. Fourteen-year-old Mary Clifford, tall and thin-faced, used to minding children having looked after her eight siblings agrees to work. She does the household chores and looks after the grandson.
When Nora’s husband, Martin, died suddenly while digging ditches Nance made an unexpected appearance during the wake to keen. Her entrance had been met with silence as none ever imagined she would show up at the cottage but she did.
Nance had never become accustomed to the way conversation stopped in her presence. It was one thing to enter a wake house and have the company fall into respectful silence It was another to move through a crowded yard in the pricked air of others’ wary regard and to hear laughter at her back. They made her feel like nothing more than a strange old woman plucking herbs, her eyes clouded with age and the smoke of her own badly-fired hearth. No matter that some of these men came to her with their carbuncles and congested lungs, or lay their wheezing children by her fire. In the broad light of day, amidst the noise of industry, their stares made her feel scorned and feeble.
Nance lived alone up in the hills close to where the Good People lived– Piper’s Grave, where the fairies dwelt. She was considered to have knowledge and magical powers that could help cure people of ills. Sometimes, in the company of suffering, Nance felt things. Maggie [ her aunt] had called it an inward seeing. The knowledge. Sometimes as she guided babies from their mothers and into the world, she sensed what their lives would be like, and sometimes the things she sensed frightened her.
Martin would care for his crippled grandson gently and be empathetic towards his condition but his wife had little time. Their daughter Johanna died leaving her son in the care of her husband, Tadgh. After a while unable to care for Michael, Tadgh left the child in the care of his maternal grandparents. After Martin’s death Nora became convinced that the Good People had taken away her real grandson and in his place left this cretin, a changeling. Soon instead of referring to him by his name she began referring to him as “it”. Nora first took him to Father Healy for healing but when he refused she took him across to Nance hoping she could help recover her true grandson— as she remembered him at the age of two laughing and playing. Despite Mary’s misgivings the two older women decided to “put the fairy of out of it”. During the treatment (which included administration of foxglove juice notorious for slowing down heartbeat) Mary was worried about the child and of the repercussions but did not stop the women. Once it was evident the treatment was clearly not going the way expected Mary ran to the neighbours and gave an account of the events. From there on it happened quickly as witnessed by the community. When they spotted the police returning from Nance, they wondered whether all three had been in league with the fairies, blinking the valley and thinning the butter in the churns, killing animals for devilment. Setting piseogs [ superstition] against the priest. It did not take long. By sunfall the valley was humming. An accusation had been brought against Nora Leahy, Mary Clifford and Nance Roche. The fairy cretin Nora had hidden from sight had been drowned in the river, and they were calling it murder.
The Good People is set in 1825-26 just before Catholic Emancipation, a process in Great Britain and Ireland that involved reducing and removing many of the restrictions on Roman Catholics. The most significant measure was the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which removed the most substantial restrictions on Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom that had been imposed with Reformation. Hence in keeping with the intensified political campaign for Catholics the new priest, Father Healy, is far more strict about observance of church discipline and is not indulgent towards people like Nance who believe in the Good People or observe heathen rituals like keening at wakes. He preaches “We’re to be paying our pennies to the Catholic campaign, not to unholy keeners.” Later during a conversation with Nance he says, “The synod forbids professional keeners wailing at wakes as an unchristian practice. It is a heathenish custom and abhorrent to God.” To which Nance retorts “But the people here do be having a spiritual temper, Father. Sure, we all have faith in the things of the invisible world. We’re a most religious people.” Although Nance never attended Church on Sunday the village folk went regularly and she felt the impact. The parade of sickness to her door had thinned since Father Healy had preached against her. No doubt her patients concern for their souls was now greater than their anxiety over chapped hands or the fevers glittering through their children. Her days had emptied.
It is this space between reality, spiritual and mystical — inhabited by people even today –that Hannah Kent explores in her magnificent novel The Good People.While quoting W.B. Yeats in the dedication she says “When all is said and done, how do we not know but that our own unreason may be better than another’s truth?” As Nance’s aunt Mary had told her once ‘There are worlds beyond our own that we must share this earth with,…And there are times when they act on one another.” As with her award-winning debut Burial Rites, Hannah Kent’s second novel The Good People is historical fiction inspired by true legal events recorded in documents. As she says “This novel is a work of fiction, although it takes as its inspiration a true event of infanticide. In 1826, an ‘old woman of very advanced age’ known as Anne / Nance Roche was indicted for the wilful murder of Michael Kelliher / Leahy (newspaper accounts list different names) at the summer Tralee Assizes in Co. Kerry. Michael had been drowned in the river Flesk on Monday, 12 June 1826, and had reportedly been unable to stand, walk or speak.”
Despite being Australian Hannah Kent has chosen subjects of both her novels to be set in lands far away from what she is familiar with — Iceland and now Ireland. In the process she has shown extraordinary craftsmanship in creating incredibly marvellous stories. She discusses it in this podcast. As Graeme Macrae Burnet points out that The Good People can be a true example of crime fiction. In fact both her well-researched novels are structurally similar beginning with a traditional local ballad that captures a story relevant to the novel, being about women who are possibly headed to the gallows for a “crime” and by harking back to the past Kent comments on the present situation of women. Her fictional landscapes are inevitably set in periods before women’s rights were even recognised. Yet by raising issues of how challenging life can be for single women (whether by choice or widowhood) Kent highlights how little has changed in the twenty-first century. As Nance says “An old woman without a man is the next thing to a ghost. No one needs her, folks are afraid of her, but mostly she isn’t seen.”
Hannah Kent explores the grey area between logic and mysticism without intruding with an authorial voice and bearing judgement. To be impartial allowing the reader to create their own opinion of the case requires immense dexterity in creating the plot. The Good People confirms Hannah Kent as a talented master craftsman.
Hannah Kent The Good People Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2017.
It has been a hectic few weeks as January is peak season for book-related activities such as the immensely successful world book fair held in New Delhi, literary festivals and book launches. The National Book Trust launched what promises to be a great platform — Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati. An important announcements was by Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair wherein she announced a spotlight on India at the fair, March 2017. In fact, the Bookaroo Trust – Festival of Children’s Literature (India) has been nominated in the category of The Literary Festival Award of International Excellence Awards 2017. (It is an incredible list with fantabulous publishing professionals such as Marcia Lynx Qualey for her blog, Arablit; Anna Soler-Pontas for her literary agency and many, many more!) Meanwhile in publishing news from India, Durga Raghunath, co-founder and CEO, Juggernaut Books has quit within months of the launch of the phone book app.
Saikat Majumdar says “Exciting news for 2017! #TheFirebird, due out in paperback this February, will be made into a film by #BedabrataPain, the National Award winning director of Chittagong, starring #ManojBajpayee and #NawazuddinSiddiqi. As the writing of the screenplay gets underway, we debate the ideal language for the film. Hindi, Bengali, English? A mix? Dubbed? Voice over?
7-hour audio book that feels like a movie: Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and 166 Other People Will Narrate George Saunders’ New Book – Lincoln in the Bardo.
Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects
New Arrivals ( Personal and review copies acquired)
Jerry Pinto Murder in Mahim
Guru T. Ladakhi Monk on a Hill
Bhaswati Bhattacharya Much Ado over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Katie Hickman The House at Bishopsgate
Joanna Cannon The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Herman Koch Dear Mr M
Sudha Menon She, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide
Zuni Chopra The House that Spoke
Neelima Dalmia Adhar The Secret Diary of Kasturba
Haroon Khalid Walking with Nanak
Manobi Bandhopadhyay A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal
Ira Mukhopadhyay Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History
I interviewed award-winning Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, for the fantastic European literary website bookwitty.com . It was published on 27 July 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/a-qa-with-australian-author-and-2016-stella-prize/57961bbeacd0d0170d1e421a . I am also c&p the text below.
From Stella Prize website
Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, is a an allegorical tale about the power relationships between women and men. Winner of the prestigious 2016 Stella Prize for women’s contribution to literature and the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Award, the Natural Way of Things is about ten women who have been kidnapped and taken to an abandoned station in the Australian outback from which there is no escape.
These women have little in common with each other save for the public scandals associating them with prominent men – politicians, footballers, clergymen etc. “… they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.” The story is set in an altered present that explores deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in society and yet, as the story proves, these gendered equations are a mirage; women and men are equal. This is apparent in the gradual transformation of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, who take on what would otherwise be deemed as “manly tasks” of hunting, skinning rabbits and providing food for everybody.
It may be fiction, but it is a landscape that echoes what a woman feels on many occasions. Having worked with women artisans, in a feminist publishing house, curated the visual mapping of the women’s movement in India by documenting posters made across the country since the 1970s and now reading a lot of women’s literature, I am more than familiar with many of the stories women share. What continues to amaze me is how similar the experiences are across continents and how various forms of violence, whether physical or psychological, exist in patriarchal structures across socio-economic classes. The sensation of being trapped with no hope is ghastly, but in Wood’s novel, with no escape route possible as illustrated by the electric fence encircling the compound, it is suffocating. The rules are set by a diabolical corporation, Harding International, represented by the two men hired to guard the ten women; Boncer and Teddy. Mostly their arbitrary rules are horribly violent. Their swift, violent reprimands echo real life.
It is remarkable how the bleak and rough landscape turns into an symbol of sisterhood. In reality this exists too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Unconsciously women who may be complete strangers to each other will band together if need be. This is brought to life in the description of the chained women mastering “the rhythm of marching when chained so none of them is jerked or stumbles. This way of moving, shackled together, has become part of them, unremarked, unconscious.”
Charlotte Wood has imbibed the vocabulary of feminist activism, turning it to her advantage in storytelling, neatly encapsulating a range of feminist discourses.
The dystopian representation of a woman’s world in the novel may be too close to reality for many women. Women, universally, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, are often trapped in situations from which there is no escape.
Charlotte Wood, who is deep in the throes of writing her next novel, kindly agreed to an email interview.
Why this story? What inspired it?
Charlotte Wood: The first glimmer of the story came to me in an ABC Radio National documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural New South Wales, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1960s. At this place, which operated in extreme cruelty until 1974, the girls were forced to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them. I was drawn to writing about a place like this, and how someone might survive it, but I needed to immediately to unshackle my story from the real place – for various reasons, including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies, and I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. Equally importantly, I needed the creative freedom to go anywhere with the story, without sticking to established facts or history.
But a more powerful engine even than this arose in the early stages of the writing, which was that setting the book in the past, in a purely naturalistic style, was not working at all. The writing was dead and sludgy and lifeless.
Around this time, when I was having this difficulty and trying to make the work live, I began noticing something. It was already in my mind that the reason many girls were sent to the Parramatta and Hay homes in the first place was that they had been sexually assaulted – at home, or wherever, and had told someone about it. It was this – speaking about what had happened to them – that got many of them sent there. They were deemed to be promiscuous and ‘in moral danger’. This seemed to me the cruelest thing, that their crime was that they had been abused, spoke the truth about it, and were punished for doing so.
I began noticing things in the news, things happening around me in contemporary Australia, that showed these attitudes about punishing women for speaking up were not of the past. We had David Jones department store CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the Australian Army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere secretly filming a fellow (female) cadet having sex, and broadcasting it to their mates. In both these cases, the woman was vilified for speaking out. The David Jones employee was labelled a gold-digger, the army cadet became known as ‘the Skype slut’ by her peers. Around this time there were also football group sex scandals where the women were reviled for speaking about it and public apologies by the men were made to their wives, families and employers – the assaulted woman, by implication, deserved what she got. We had women assaulted by the likes of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby derided as liars and money-hungry, publicity hunting ‘sluts’.
And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s not old, this stuff. These attitudes are not historical, they’re absolutely flourishing right now.’ And then, partly out of this sudden bucket of cold water and partly because the book was not working – set in the past, written in naturalistic prose – I decided to do what I sometimes do when things aren’t working: try the opposite. So instead of setting it in the past, I thought, what if I set it in the future, or some kind of altered present? Instead of writing ordinary realism, what if it became a bit surreal in its narrative style? And I started writing about ten contemporary, urban Australian girls who find themselves abducted and dumped in this remote prison because they’ve been involved in some kind of sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, and they either spoke about it or were found out.
And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker.
And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker. I just came to understand that I could only keep writing the book if I let it get weird, as weird as it wanted to. More than any other book I’ve written, I feel almost like someone else wrote this, sort of through me. I don’t believe that of course, but this tapping into the darkest and strangest things in my unconscious, or subconscious mind, was the only thing that would let this book come out.
At the same time, I was actively keeping a lookout for contemporary representations of incarceration – which in our country, mainly come from images and discussion of our immigration detention centers. The grotesque cognitive dissonance between the bland, PR-spin language of corporations that run these prisons and the horror stories emerging from them (all kinds of violence, sexual assault of women and children, self-harm, suicide, illness and death) attracted me as an artist. You go to stuff that is complicated, contradictory. A quick scan of the real company Serco’s website, for example, yielded a slogan for my fictional corporation Hardings International: ‘Dignity & Respect in a Safe & Secure Environment’. That seemed simply bizarre and obscene to me, that a company running a prison could use such schmaltzy language.
How long did it take you to write the novel? How much research was involved? Some of the descriptions such as skinning the rabbits & cleaning the leather with rabbit brain to create fine chamois must have required research.
CW: Around three years. Strangely, not much research beyond the first radio documentary (I deliberately did not seek out more information about the Hay or Parramatta homes), and visiting an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of images and objects from children’s homes in our country (where many, many children were abused and ill-treated). For the rabbit skinning, I did watch a few YouTube videos (!) and I had heard about using the brains to cure skins on a television program somewhere. I grew up in the country and had friends who lived on grazing properties where rabbit traps of the kind in the book (now illegal) were used. I kept a file of images from the internet of all kinds of things to do with my book, in a Pinterest board – you can see it here. Other than that, I used my imagination rather than research.
Why is the character Verla given so much space in the story especially when it comes to her feverish dreams?
CW: She’s one of the two main characters. Dreams were a way of creating another consciousness, a world where she could drift into her memories and experiences of beauty and culture, a way of escaping the horror of her present experience. Her fever dream where she finds a river and feels the kangaroos rushing past her is a way of looking at the beauty of nature rather than the horror of their prison.
How did you feel while writing this book and later editing it?
CW: For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness – but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book’s main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won’t they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?
Tell me more about the title The Natural Way of Things?
CW: The title comes from a section in the middle of the book where the authorial voice steps away from the characters and muses on whether the girls will be missed in their own lives; whether anyone cares that they have vanished; and ultimately, whether harm that comes to women is their own fault – it’s the ‘natural way of things’. But the title also plays with the question of what a ‘natural’ female body is, plays on the notion of a return to nature and whether there is such a thing as a ‘natural state’ for humans – and whether that natural state is to revert to primitivism in gender relations. It also reflects the book’s interest in the natural world as a redemptive force, if the girls choose to see it that way.
If your book was ever optioned for a film or television do you think it could ever capture the feral anger so dramatically etched in your story?
CW: The book has been optioned for a film to be made by a team of young women filmmakers in Australia – I have handed all creative control to them as I would like the film to be a completely new creation of its own, and for them to have total ownership of it.
You can read an extract from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Thingshere.
Charlotte Wood The Natural Way of Things Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2015. Pb. pp. 316