Sarah Turnbull, All Good Things, – a review

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All Good Things is an intensely personal memoir written by Sarah Turnbull, author of Almost French (2002). Sarah was a warm and engaging participant in several sessions during the 2014 Perth Writers Festival and I was very pleased when she offered to pose with me for a photo after she had signed my copy of her new memoir.

Sarah Turnbull signing my copy of her book at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival

Sarah Turnbull signing my copy of her book at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival

In her first book, we read about the protagonist’s move from Sydney to Paris to be with Frederic, with whom she had fallen deeply in love, and her joys and trials as she settled into a new relationship, home and culture.In All Good Things: a Memoir, the reader follows Sarah and Frederic to French Polynesia, where they settle on the tiny island of Mo’orea, a ferry ride from Pape’ete, the capital city of Tahiti. The eventually leave Polynesia and return to Sydney.

While Frederic works in the capital as a lawyer for a Paris-based law firm, Sarah attempts to complete the novel which she began in Paris. Every morning, she swims the same laps in the lagoon. The couple are befriended by local people, entertaining and being entertained as they begin to understand more about the new culture in which they’ve immersed themselves. They learn to scuba dive; they travel around ‘their’ island and further afield.

But underlying this delightful lifestyle is Sarah’s and Frederic’s painful, passionate longing for a child. When Sarah discovers she is already prematurely perimenopausal they understand that she is unlikely to conceive. They almost have given up hope of becoming parents. But after talking with a counsellor Sarah decides to have one final attempt at in vitro fertilisation.

Sarah immerses herself daily in the lagoon. In the same way, she immerses her reader in lyrical descriptions of the natural wonders of the island where she and her husband live. While occasionally humorous, All Good Things: a Memoir is also poignant. Her desire for a baby is almost tangible. I hurt with her longing, felt her anxious impatience as she and Frederic waited until the pregnancy was established, and rejoiced with them when baby Oliver was born.

When I opened this book, I hoped for a continuation of Almost French, which I thoroughly enjoyed when it was first published. All Good Things is not a continuation. It is a stand-alone story, different in many ways from the first, and just as good.

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2014

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014

 This is the second of my six reviews for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

2014 Perth Writers Festival – afterwards

Books are piling up on my tablet and beside my bed as a result of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival last weekend. The collection surprises me. At face-value it is such a different selection from my usual choices.

For example, before the Writers Festival I’d almost forgotten my penchant for travel memoirs, although in the past I’ve read dozens of them. I have a special interest because my own first book, Other People’s Country, fits firmly into that genre, although when I was writing it as part of a Writing PhD I vaguely hoped it would also be considered as a ‘literary’ work.

Since publication, Other People’s Country has been acclaimed as journalism and history. And it has ended up on the shelves of university and public libraries in the obscure section on Aboriginal Health, and not as memoir at all. It appears on some university reading lists under ‘community health’, because it is the story about the time I spent working as a nurse on a remote Aboriginal community in the Western Australian desert.

Maybe my newly completed (as yet unpublished) memoir will end up in the ‘romance’ category, or even as ‘chick-lit’. I wonder if there’s word for a story about romance in later life? Surely there’s something more appropriate than ‘chick-lit’.

Following the Writers Festival, there are four travel memoirs on my immediate ‘to read’ list. Travel memoir is in a class of its own when it comes to books and writing. The authors don’t merely recount their journeys like travel writers. Travel memoirists also invite readers to enjoy their stories and adventures and to glimpse their experiences of personal growth as they reflect on  aspects of new and sometimes alienating cultures, and what it meant to immerse themselves in a new place.

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Sarah Turnbull’s new book, All Good Things, is a memoir about her life in French Polynesia, where she moved with her husband from Paris. At the Writers Festival, the Australian author explained to her audiences that this new book differs from her first, the highly acclaimed Almost French, because it describes a more personal journey. While her husband, Frederick, was at work all day, she had  time to enjoy beauty of the island and to think. She said All Good Things recounts many intimate details about the longing for a child shared by her husband and her. I will review this book soon for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

The next three travel memoirs might not have come to my attention if I hadn’t heard their accomplished, highly entertaining authors speak in a session at the Festival. Xavier Toby, author of Mining my own Business, is a comedian who was in Perth for the Perth Fringe Festival that preceded the Perth Writers Festival. His book is about a six-month stint on a mine-site in Queensland, where he went to earn money to repay debts. I was immediately intrigued when I heard him say, ‘Miners talk in anecdotes. They don’t have conversations. I’ve known a few fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, and wonder about the lifestyle, but Xavier Toby seems to have taken it in his stride.

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The next author on my list, Tim Cope, is an intrepid adventurer, filmmaker and writer who has to his credit several books and documentaries and a number of travel awards, including the Young Australian Adventurer of the Year, 2002 and the Australian Geographic  Australian Adventurer of the Year 2006. He travelled from Mongolia to Hungary on horseback, an amazing journey if ever there was one. It took almost four years for him to cover the 10 000 kilometres. His book is On the Trail of Genhis Khan, An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads. 

Brendan Shanahan calls himself ‘a reluctant journalist-turned-writer’. His latest book is Mr Snack and the Lady Water Travel tales from my lost years. It is a collection of what have been called ‘darkly wicked’ stories from his travels around the world, including one about buying a house in Las Vegas, unseen, from the internet.  I can’t wait to read a book about which Annabel Crabb has said, “Eccentric and darkly hilarious. I’d read anything Shanahan wrote, but I’d never travel with him anywhere.”

The book for our next book club meeting at the end of March, chosen by a member after several of us heard the author at the Festival, is Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, and I’m looking forward to that, too. Jo Baker said that this literary novel began from her speculation on the way ‘things got done’ in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: a letter was delivered; the laundry was done – simple everyday events that seemed to have no agent. She asked herself, ‘Who did that?’ and ‘What would that be like?’ Taking her clues from historical research and the life and novels of Austen, Baker wrote from what she called ‘absences’. She imagined the servants and others who did the hidden work in those days, and the characters in Longbourn began from there.

9781742613093[1]And then there is Debra Adelaide’s collection of short stories, Letter to George Cluny. I’ll review that, too, in the near future, for the AWW Challenge.

There was more, much more, that attracted my attention and compelled my interest at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival. But this list is a good start to my reading plans for the next few months.

2014 Perth Writers Festival

The University of Western Australia

The University of Western Australia

Searing sunshine. Beautiful buildings and gardens at the University of Western Australia. The Swan River. Pop-up shelters on green-grassed ovals. Bunting. The smell of Moreton Bay figs crushed underfoot. Smiling faces. Encounters with old friends. Congenial conversations with strangers. A buzz,  excitement,  movement. Packed performance theatres, lecture theatres, tents, Winthrop Hall. Local writers centres seeking new members. Children, craft and ice-creams on Family Day. Writers, would-be writers and readers mingling.

Sensory overload.

Sun shelters in UWA gardens

Sun shelters in UWA gardens

The four-day festival included a day-long seminar on publishing; sixteen three-hour workshops with experienced writers and one hundred other events, as well as a day-long program of activities especially for children on Sunday. Almost one hundred and eighty novelists, memoirists, biographers, journalists, travel writers, comedians-and-actors-turned writers, poets, academics, retired politicians, several lawyers and a Catholic priest  stimulated, enlightened and entertained their audiences in a number of venues.

Crowd outside Romeo Tent

Crowd outside Romeo Tent

There were international speakers, among them Margaret Drabble, Jo Baker, Lionel Shriver and Simon Garfield; a strong contingent from other parts of Australia as well as numerous locals. Experienced and emerging writers spoke about their latest books and discussed their writing processes. There was something at this festival for everyone.

With so much to choose from, John and I missed things we might have otherwise attended. But we did the best we could with the program published a month earlier, and ticked and crossed those sessions we thought would best suit our temperaments and our interests.  In spite of our plans, we often changed tack and went to different sessions which we mixed and matched according to whim, and often to our great delight.

I’ve been going to the Perth Writers Festivals for decades. One that I remember with great fondness was held at the Fremantle Arts Centre, a tiny venue by today’s standards. That year, a dear friend and I booked into bed and breakfast accommodation within walking distance from the Centre, because we didn’t want to miss anything. We went to everything on offer, including a bus tour of Fremantle.

The festival has moved on since those early days. At at various times it has been held at the Perth Concert Hall and the Perth Art Gallery. Each place offered something unique, but UWA provides a delightful setting with a central hub and nearby venues. After speaking at Writers Festivals in Melbourne and Sydney, I’m convinced Perth’s festival is best. Biased? Perhaps.

Novelists Hannah Kent and Jo Baker with Chair Rachel Robertson in a discussion

Novelists Hannah Kent and Jo Baker with Chair Rachel Robertson in a discussion

There were many highlights, of course. and other people might choose differently. But some of my stand-outs were the wise Dame Margaret Drabble, author of seventeen wonderful novels; the fresh new writer, Xavier Toby, who had doubled as a comedian the week before in the Perth Fringe Festival;  Angela Meyer, whose careful research and bubbly persona made the sessions she chaired a special delight; and a thought-provoking session about the current political language being used in Australia to talk about asylum seekers. Speakers in this conversation were Thomas Keneally and  Rosie Scott, who have edited A Country Too Far, a book of asylum-seeker stories contributed by eminent writers; Debra Adelaide; and ‘reformed’ asylum-seekers, last year’s Young Australian of the Year, Akram Azimi, and Carina Hoang.

Last week, I wondered if perhaps I was too old now for writers festivals. Tonight, I know I am! I won’t need rocking to sleep. But I have so much new information to think about, so much to process, so many new ideas to share, that I’m glad I’ve attended another festival. And I look forward to doing it all again next year.