Archive | March, 2015

An insightful look at morality – His Other House by Sarah Armstrong

29 Mar

his other house‘His Other House’ is Sarah Armstrong’s second book, coming ten years after her Miles Franklin shortlisted debut novel, ‘Salt Rain.’ Both books are set in the Northern Rivers Region and the lush environment is an intrinsic part of the story.

‘His Other House’ is a tense domestic drama focusing on a love triangle of sorts. The book was inspired, Armstrong says, by a news story she read about a man who lived a double life with two wives and two families for many years.

Quinn is a doctor whose marriage is pushed to its limits by efforts to have a much longed-for child. A succession of IVF rounds and miscarriages leave him drained and needing a break, but his wife Marianna wants to press on with another attempt. She can’t see how her life will ever be complete without a child.

While Quinn lives in Brisbane he is doing a stint as a visiting doctor in Corimbi, a town much like Mullumbimby. Here he meets Rachel, a disillusioned journalist taking a break from her job. A night-time swim in the town pool leads to an unplanned kiss and soon Quinn and Rachel are involved in a passionate affair.

Quinn’s intention to leave Marianna is tested when she unexpectedly falls naturally pregnant. It is at this stage that the tension ratchets up. Quinn decides to keep his relationship with Rachel a secret, a decision which involves him in a web of lies. ‘He was dismayed how readily he took to lying. He’d always thought of it as a decisive abandonment of the truth. Instead, he realised, it was simply a matter of one word slipping into the place of another.’ While it would be easy to judge Quinn, by now we know him so well that we can only empathise, even if we suspect that it’s going to end badly.

The time this novel has taken to come to fruition shows in its insight and many delightful turns of phrase. As in ‘Salt Rain’ Sarah’s writing is evocative and striking.  While all the characters are believable and finely drawn, it is the children who linger most strongly in my memory. ‘His Other House’ is both a page-turner and a powerful story of morality within relationships.

This review originally appeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.

This is my first review of 2015 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Better late than never!aww-badge-2015

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Big Things – a taste of Nostalgia

19 Mar

big banana 1972In my book, ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’, my protagonist Arkie and her friend Haruko are sometimes bemused and sometimes captivated by the Big Things they encounter on their journey. While they agree that some Big Things are better than others, it turns out that even the most lacklustre have their attractions. The Big Pelican has eyelashes to die for and a rather flirtatious look about it and inside The Big Shell, Arkie can hear the roar of distant seas. The Big Prawn is rather intimidating. A twenty-five metre prawn would be enough to make me flee the water forever, Arkie reflects.

While Big Things first started in America it is probably safe to say that no other country has embraced them with quite the gusto of Australia.  Big Things were originally conceived of as extra-large agricultural products, designed to show travellers how country folk live. They were, in effect, farming theme parks. But that original intention later expanded to embrace practically anything that could be reproduced in a super-sized form.

Big things kicked off in Australia in the 60s with the Big Scotsman, The Big Banana, the Big Stubby and the Big Staircase.  While some folks were sporting Afros and peace symbols, eating pork with prunes and carrying flowers, others were busy building Big Things.

The 70s was the decade of pet rocks, hot pants, pineapple cheese balls, curly perms and platform shoes. It also brought us the Big Captain Cook, the Big Crab, the Big Macadamia Nut, the Big Pineapple, the Big Penguin, the Big Mower and the Big Cow. Quirky times.

Some will remember the 80s as being all about pedal pushers, Rubik’s Cube, prawn and avocado cocktail, big hair and acid-wash jeans. But, more importantly, this decade also brought us nineteen big things including the Big Bulls, the Big Mandarin, the Big Avocado and the Big Chook. It’s a wonder people got anything done at all in the 80s with all those Big Things to build.

To me there is something quite surrealistic about Big Things. They raise questions such as, why would you build a Big Cow? Or a Big Prawn for that matter? I suspect that the answer is, Why not? As Arkie says, they are an opportunity to reflect, Magnified to many times its normal size, a cow forces me to consider the essence of ‘cowness’. Cows of course are sacred to Hindus and are often revered as a symbol of wealth and abundance in other religions too. Is building a Big Cow therefore a subconscious effort to call forth good fortune?

Even if you don’t believe, like Arkie, that Big Things are deeply meaningful, you may still think, as I do, that there is something weird and sweet about them. I don’t know about you, but somehow they always make me smile.

PS. The photo is taken circa 1972 of my sister and I with my mother at the Big Banana.

This blog originally appeared at Starts at Sixty.

The Japanese Connection

5 Mar

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In ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ my protagonist, Arkie, meets her friend, Haruko at Byron Bay railway station on New Year’s Eve. Haruko introduces Arkie to her own way of celebrating. First there is bingo at fourteen minutes past nine, then soba noodles at fourteen minutes past ten and a prayer at fourteen minutes past eleven. At fourteen minutes past midnight Haruko gives Arkie a present in a drawstring bag – the Seven Lucky Shinto Gods. These gods become a touchstone for Arkie on her journey. There is fat and happy Hotei, whose stomach you rub for good luck, Ebisu, the god of fishermen, Bishamonten, who heals the sick and Fukurokuju the god of wisdom.  Arkie’s favourite, the only goddess in the group, is Benzaiten. Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows, her shrines are usually situated near water. She is fertile and a competent wife. Everything I am not, Arkie thinks.

Haruko tells Arkie that every New Year’s night the Lucky Gods travel around to houses on their treasure ship. Arkie must draw a picture of the Lucky Gods and place it under her pillow. If she has a good dream then it will come true.

I was drawn to the Lucky Gods because I kept seeing them everywhere I went in Japan. Sometimes they were ancient statues covered in snow, sometimes little models for sale on the street. I began to notice how the individual god’s names popped up everywhere. Ebisu, for example, is both a brand of beer and a locality in Tokyo. I bought a model of the Lucky Gods and brought it home. It sat next to my computer while I wrote the novel and gave me inspiration when I flagged.

Haruko’s present becomes an integral part of Arkie’s journey but she also introduces her to many other facets of Japan. When Haruko writes a trendspotting proposal about pilgrimages she includes a picture of Tori gates – archways which guide you from the everyday world to the spiritual. The picture is from a temple near Kyoto where you walk through hundreds of Tori gates on your way to the shrine at the top of a hill. This shrine, called Fushimi Inari, is for the fox goddess, Inari, who is also associated with fertility.

Inari appears in my story in the form of a white foxy dog with a mysterious influence.

‘Inari possesses you through your fingernails,’ Haruko says.

‘What happens if you are possessed by Inari?’ says Arkie.

‘You go a little crazy,’ says Haruko.

Strange things start to happen. Each way Arkie turns she finds a little bit of magic. A dusty teapot picked up on the side of the road could be Tanuki, Haruko tells her. Tanuki is a racoon dog who is a bit of a trickster. Tanuki takes many forms and often turns himself into a teapot, Haruko says.

Under Haruko’s guidance Arkie’s pilgrimage becomes much more than just a journey to the Big Things. Two worlds merge and every day is filled with new revelations.

 

mary ryanHappily Ever After? 

I will be talking with author Jennifer St George and the always hilarious Mandy Nolan at Mary Ryans Bookshop Byron Bay at 5.30pm on Thursday 12th of March. Join us to explore the joy of books, writing and love. 

This is a free event, but bookings essential on 6685 8183.