Pamela Lynch is one amazing woman. She completed a PhD in Classics and Ancient History when she was 55. A few months before her sixtieth birthday, she trekked to the Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas.
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.
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.
This is the second of my six reviews for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This year I have finally gathered courage to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge and to commit myself to read six books by Australian women writers and review four of them between now and the end of 2014. This is my first review. Chosen by the book club to which I belong for the February meeting, the selection was thrust upon me, rather than a choice I made. But Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved is a treasure.
This beautifully written first novel won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Emerging Author (2011) and a place on the Miles Franklin Literary Award short list (2013) for good reason.
Against a backdrop of life in the 1950s in Port Moresby (where Anna Faulkner spent much of her childhood) with excursions to Sydney, Melbourne and Canada, The Beloved is the story of the protagonist’s somewhat stormy childhood in a family fraught with problems.
Stricken at the age of six with polio, the protagonist, Roberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot – yes, really – is left with a disability which means she must eventually wear a boot to correct her gait. Her deformed foot impacts on her perception of herself and how she chooses to dress, as well as forces her to compensate in many areas of her life.
From the outset, the reader is shown Bertie’s exceptional artistic talent. This talent, as well as the child’s passion for her art, puts her in direct conflict with her strictly controlling mother, who aspires to a career in medicine for her daughter. The conflict is epitomised in the mother’s steadfast refusal to give Bertie the box of 72 coloured pencils for which the little girl longs. The battle between mother and daughter draws the story along at a page-turning pace, ensuring an easy read. Bertie’s deception and secrecy as she pursues her art against her mother’s wishes is at the heart of the novel; but hers is not the only deception.
I loved the way Annah Faulkner portrays her characters, even minor ones, giving them a distinctive life of their own. The author’s passion for, and knowledge about art is apparent throughout the book. But what impressed me most was the fascinating use of the voice of the child to tell this story in first person as she develops from a little girl to a thirteen-year old. For the first few pages, I was unsure of the voice. Once I became used to it, I was impressed with the deft way the author manages to maintain a voice which matures as the girl grows older, and becomes more cognisant of what is happening around her, and the implications of other people’s actions.
This is an excellent book club choice and I look forward to discussing it soon.