Tag Archives: Lisa Walker

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. 

Gripping and haunting – My review of ‘An Untamed State’

19 Feb

untamed stateRoxanne Gay’s debut novel is the story of Mireille, a woman of Haitian descent, who is kidnapped when she and her American husband return to Haiti to visit her wealthy parents. Haiti, it turns out, is the kidnapping capital of the world. Mireille is held for ransom, ‘by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin. . . .’

Mireille’s father, she knows, has always made a point of his refusal to negotiate with kidnappers. For thirteen days, while her father rejects ransom demands, she is held captive.

‘An Untamed State’ is both gripping and difficult to read. The graphic descriptions of the sexual and physical abuse Mireille suffers at the hands of her captors are haunting. As her days in captivity pass, Mireille loses sight of her own identity. Freed at last, she believes it is too late, she is already dead.

The complex characters are a strength of the novel. Flashbacks to Mireille and Michael’s courtship and to that of her parents allow us to understand better the situation they are now facing. Mireille’s father believes he has to save the whole family, not just Mireille. He tells the story of a colleague who paid out kidnapper after kidnapper until he was bankrupted. He needs to show that he will not be broken. There is a protocol to follow – a negotiator is hired.

Michael, Mireille’s husband, loves and cares for her, but is initially able to deal with the broken remains of his wife when she is finally released. Ultimately, it is Mireille’s relationship with Michael’s mother which is to prove most important to her. Gay clearly has a good understanding of the lingering effects of rape.

The novel paints a stark portrait of Haiti, a place of ‘so much beauty, so much brutality.’ One of the most shocking parts for me was the way in which bystanders watched passively as Mireille was dragged from her car in the street. Even when she escapes from her captors, she can find no help in the slum where she is held.

While the violence in the novel means that it is not for the faint-hearted, ‘An Untamed State’ is a feisty, intelligent and page-turning read.

 

I have been out and about talking about ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ and still have a few events to go on the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Byron Bay (see below) so if you’d like to come along I’d love to see you there.

Thursday 26 February 2015

10:30 AM             Event – Elanora Library, The Pines Shopping Centre Guineas Creek Road, Elanora QLD

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 5581 1671.

Friday 27 February 2015

10:00am                 Victoria Point Library, 7/15 Bunker Road, Victoria Point QLD 4165

This is a free event but booking are recommended on (07) 3884 4000

Thursday 12th March

6pm. Mary Ryans Bookshop, Byron Bay – I will be in conversation with Jennifer St George and Mandy Nolan. More details to come!

Finding magic in the everyday

12 Feb

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This post originally appeared at 1 girl… 2 many books as part of my blog tour which is still continuing.  Why not hop on board? 

I come from a scientific background, so I’m basically a pragmatist. But on the other hand, I tend to think that there’s more going on in the world than meets the eye. I think every writer has moments when life imitates art in a way which raises hairs on the back of your neck. Coincidences multiply until you start to feel that the act of writing is almost magical.

I had a couple of funny experiences when writing ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’. I wrote the scene at the Big Redback where Arkie and Haruko find a garden gnome that looks like one of the Seven Lucky Gods early on, before I’d been to any of the Big Things. Eventually I decided I’d better go to the Big Redback and check it out. And lo and behold when I got there I saw this gnome nestled among the bushes exactly as I had already described it in the story.

Another strange thing happened one day when I was struggling with the story and decided to go down to the beach for a swim. I threw down my towel and noticed an abandoned dog collar next to it. The rusty old tag on the collar read ‘mojo.’ Just like Arkie, I had found my mojo! The mojo dog tag immediately joined my little shrine of lucky objects next to my computer.

I don’t really think that there’s anything magical about these events, but it is so interesting the way that once you tune in to something you start to see it everywhere. I expect that’s because you’re so hyper-alert to your story you start to feel like you’re inside it.

I do enjoy this hyper-alert state that I get when I am writing because it makes every day an adventure. It’s like living inside a novel. At the moment I am writing a novel whose protagonist is totally obsessed with all things Parisian, especially the movie Amelie. The other day I went down to our local market and was delighted to find an accordion player there, playing what sounded like a French tune. I was even more delighted when a girl next to me, who would have been about the same age as my protagonist, exclaimed, ‘Oh, that’s the theme song from Amelie. That makes me so happy.’ Life imitates art! I bought a baguette and went home feeling revitalised for my story.

I suppose one of the things that characterises my writing is the idea that we don’t need to look elsewhere to find what we seek. As Haruku says in my book, ‘Everything you need, you already have.’

 

I have been out and about talking about ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ and still have a couple of events to go on the Gold Coast and Brisbane (see below) so if you’d like to come along I’d love to see you there.

Thursday 26 February 2015

10:30 AM             Event – Elanora Library, The Pines Shopping Centre Guineas Creek Road, Elanora QLD

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 5581 1671.

Friday 27 February 2015

10:00am                 Victoria Point Library, 7/15 Bunker Road, Victoria Point QLD 4165

This is a free event but booking are recommended on (07) 3884 4000

 

Release day – it’s a pilgrimage to what?

1 Feb

eiffel tower small 2It’s taken about four years for ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing‘ to come from first idea to publication. This is a good thing in a way as it’s given me plenty of time to get used to the idea that I’m going to have to answer the question – what is your book about?

What I usually say is – ‘It’s a story about a woman doing a pilgrimage to the Australian big things.’ I’ve noticed when I say this that people often look puzzled, so then I add, ‘you know, the Big Prawn, the Big Pineapple…’ And then their faces clear.

But before the Big Things, there was the pilgrimage…

Undertaking a pilgrimage usually hints at a desire for transformation or redemption, which is the case for my protagonist. The story opens at Byron Bay railway station on New Year’s Eve where Arkie plans to end it all. However, as you may know, you’d be waiting an awfully long time to throw yourself under a train in Byron Bay. Arkie is a trendspotter who has carelessly lost in quick succession her husband, her lover and her ability to spot trends,. Hence the need for a pilgrimage.

When I originally started writing this book, I envisaged a story about a woman walking the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, which is a trek taking 60 days and going to 88 Buddhist temples. I read a lot of books about it and it sounded wonderful, but I wasn’t sure when I was ever going to find the time to do it. So, rather than hold off writing the book until I could research the pilgrimage, I decided to write about someone who wants to do it, but can’t. Arkie, I decided, would have her pilgrimage right here in Australia.

The idea for the big things came to me one day as I was driving past the Big Prawn — more or less as it does for Arkie in the book.

So that’s what my book’s about – a pilgrimage and big things.

PS. The Eiffel Tower is not one of the Big Things in the book, but I was there and my book was there and I couldn’t resist…

 

I will be doing a number of events in the coming weeks and I’d love you to come along. Here are the details:

 

Tuesday 10 February 2015 – Sydney

1:00 PM                Ashfield Library – Details here.

6:30 PM                Margaret Martin Library (Randwick)

This is a free event however bookings are required online  http://randwickcitylibrary.eventbrite.com

 

Thursday 12 February 2015 – Lismore

12:00 PM             Literary Lunch

La Vida Restaurant and Bar, 3/178 Keen Street, Lismore, NSW 2480

Tickets are $35 and include a two-course lunch and a glass of wine. Tickets are available via the Book Warehouse Lismore, (02) 6621 4204.

 

Thursday 26 February 2015 – Gold Coast

10:30 AM            Elanora Library

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 5581 1671 or online here.

 

Friday 27 February 2015 – Victoria Point, Qld

10:00 AM Victoria Point Library

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 3884 4000

 

I am also doing a blog tour, starting today! Hop over there if you’d like to follow along.

best wishes,

Lisa

‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage’ – a sneak pre-Christmas preview

12 Dec

Hello,

I hope things are going well for you as the year ends. It always seems like the days are speeding up at this time of year.

It’s less than two months now until my new novel ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ hits the shelves, and Christmas is coming so I thought I’d post a little extract here to celebrate…

 

Chapter Onearkie cover 2

 

It has been precisely a year since Adam left me.

On the streets, New Year’s Eve partying is in force, but here on the station, all is quiet. Byron Bay has turned out to be not at all what I needed. Despite determined efforts to be cheerful, to smile at strangers, to exercise and swim, even to have a Reiki treatment, I have slid further and further over the line.

My feet are placed squarely on the white mark beyond which you may not pass. Two steps and I will be over the edge.

Why a train? Why not pills, drowning or a blade? Perhaps I was thinking of Anna Karenina – the snow, the rushing wheels, the final jump. I always have been fond of trains.

How did I come to this point? Perhaps it is as simple as a loss of pleasure. That’s how it seems. The world feels tuned to black and white. This black and white world has been mine for a year now. It no longer seems likely that it will change.

A Dali print used to hang in the bathroom which Adam and I shared. Every morning and evening, the drooping clocks mesmerised me as I brushed my teeth. They hung off tree branches and walls like melting cheese on a hot summer day. If time was really as soft as a camembert cheese, would I bend it back and do things differently now?

A raindrop lands heavily on my head and a clay-like smell drifts towards my nostrils. I check the battered timetable I have plucked from the drawer in my motel room. The train from Sydney arrives at 21.20. I do the figures again. Fifteen more minutes to wait. I tap my feet on the concrete, watch spots of rain decorate the rails, try to focus my mind, so I will be ready.

‘Excuse me.’

The voice is an unwelcome distraction.  I thought I was alone.

‘Would you like play bingo?’

I turn.

The girl is a strange figure in this setting – neatly cut hair, glasses, a short-sleeved collared shirt tucked into too-high jeans. A briefcase hangs from one hand. Most of the Japanese I’ve seen in Byron are hip. They have jagged-cut bleached hair and low-slung shorts. This girl shares one thing with them – a surfboard in a silver cover is slung over her shoulder.

She doesn’t look like a surfer.

Bingo. I could almost laugh. Do I want to spend the last moments of my life playing bingo? With a girl who has no dress sense? Let me just think about that. Hm, no. I picture the irony. Did you hear? She was playing bingo.  Before she jumped. Sad. She used to really be someone.

‘No thank you.’

The girl bows. ‘Sorry.’ She turns to go.

I feel bad. She seems lonely. She wants to play bingo. I don’t want to leave this life feeling selfish. Pretentious and delusional maybe, but not selfish.

‘Wait.’

She swivels back, her eyes apologetic behind her glasses.

‘How do you play bingo with two people?’

 

A few links… 

Moya Sayer-Jones will be launching ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ at the Northern Rivers Writers Centre in Byron Bay at 6pm on January 30th. All welcome and you can find more information here.

I will be talking at:

– Ashfield Civic Centre in Sydney at 1 pm on February 10th. More details here.

– Margaret Martin Library, Randwick, Sydney at 6.30 pm on February 10th. More details here.

–  literary lunch at La Vida Restaurant, Lismore at 12.00 on February 12th. More details here.

– Elanora Library on the Gold Coast at 10.30 am on February 26th. More details here.

 

My clever son Tim Eddy has made a book trailer for me which you can check out here.

‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ is available now for pre-order in e-book or print. You can do this via the Random House website here.

 

Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

Optimistic and full of a sense of wonder – my review of ‘Nest’ by Inga Simpson

28 Jul

 

Inga-Simpson-Nest-230x350‘She was trying to capture the wild – the essence of leaf, flower and bird.’ Jen, the protagonist of Inga Simpson’s book, ‘Nest’ is an artist, a drawer of birds. After a relationship breakup and her mother’s death, Jen returns to the town she grew up in. There, she regenerates her patch of land and draws the many birds attracted by her birdbath.

 

Jen leads an isolated life. With the exception of her young pupil Henry, who she is teaching to draw, she has little social contact. It is through Henry that she learns a girl from the town has gone missing. The loss of Caitlin brings back memories from Jen’s past and another missing child, Michael.

 

The mystery of the missing children provides a dark undercurrent to Jen’s simple life on her property. As we get to know Jen we learn more about the hurts she is holding inside. Returning home requires her to come to terms with her own history, in particular the disappearance of her father. Revelations fall one on top of the other as the story unfolds.

 

One of the delightful things about this book is the way it immerses us in the natural world.  Inga is an accomplished nature writer and her love of wild places comes out through her character’s observations. The birds and the bush are described in warm detail – ‘The limbs of the brush-box tended to horizontal, like a reaching arm, and their leaves were large and flattish. They not only held the sunlight, but emitted a glow of their own, as if illuminated from within.’

 

Jen is a complex character whose relationship with Henry is touching and authentic.  A lover of nests and tall trees, she learned to climb into the canopy with her former partner, Craig –  ‘… once up in the mist, among salamanders and lichens and liverworts barely seen by another human being, she had found her tree legs.’

 

Like Inga’s previous novel, ‘Mr Wigg’, ‘Nest’ is a gently told book, written in simple, evocative prose. Despite the missing children, it is optimistic and full of a childlike sense of wonder at our world.  The story plays out at a steady pace with the lost children adding a page-turning backbone.  Reading ‘Nest’ left me with a hankering to curl up a tree and have the wind blow me to sleep.

 

Inga Simpson will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this weekend. Read more about Inga here.

This is my fourth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

 

Innocent desire clashes with the wider world – My review of ‘Deeper Water’ by Jessie Cole

27 Jul

cov_deeperwater (1)‘They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know,’ reads the first line of Jessie Cole’s second novel, ‘Deeper Water’.  Jessie draws us at once into the distinct and unusual world of her protagonist, Mema. Already we can intuit that this is a novel about awakening.

Mema lives with her mother in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales – a place of green hills and flooding creeks. Home schooled and naive for her age, Mema has an almost pagan attachment to her land, to the creek that runs through it and the animals –native, feral and domestic – which it supports.

Men are always passing through Mema’s world, only the women stay. Her four brothers and various fathers are long since gone, swallowed up by the wider world. But when she rescues a stranger whose car has been washed off a bridge, just like that everything changes. Even though the stranger, Hamish, is the most ‘passing through’ of men he captures Mema’s interest. A tentative longing builds for Hamish and what he represents – the outside world.

Despite the beauty of Mema’s creek-side home, it is no rural idyll. Their local town has an ugly side and the ‘knowns and the unknowns’ in Mema’s past form a darker undercurrent to the story. Mema’s relationship with Anja, a wild girl who grew up sleeping in a tree hollow, also adds tension. Threatened by the addition of Hamish to their tight friendship, Anja creates ripples that spread in unpredictable directions.

Like Jessie’s first book, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, this novel is distinctive for its careful observations that bring us into Mema’s world. Mema listens to the chickens’ ‘morning clucks’ and imagines her siblings’ fathers ‘washed up like survivors of a shipwreck, lost and beaten by the waves.’

The writing is candid about the pain of first love and longing. But this is not only a story about sexual awakening; ‘Deeper Water’ also explores environmental themes with a light-handed touch. Hamish, an environmental consultant, clashes with Mema over his views on cats and cane toads. Gender relationships are also questioned – when seeing Anja, Hamish comments on her beauty. But Anja is many things, Mema thinks, and beautiful is only one of them.

‘Deeper Water’ is a sensuous portrayal of what happens when innocent desire clashes with the hardened edges of the wider world. Mema will linger in your mind for some time after you close the pages.

 

‘Deeper Water’ will be launched at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this Friday. Read more about Jessie here. 

This is my third post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge
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Fully Sick Backpackers (a short story)

7 Jul

You wouldn’t think changing a hotel’s name would cause such a stir.

I knew that even if I lived to 100 I’d never be a local, but I hadn’t counted on becoming the town pariah in my old age. Not that I care.

I can thank Kenneth’s sister’s son, Derek for the name.

“These scones are fully sick Aunt Jean,” he said to me while tucking in to some afternoon tea after football training.

Well, I saw red. I had him by the ear, before he could stutter out an explanation.

“It…it…it…just means they’re totally awesome.”

The things they come up with. You have to laugh. But the name grew on me. I suppose you could say it was a bit of an ‘up yours’ to the ladies of the CWA. They wouldn’t have me on the committee because I’m from east of the Divide. Not that they said so, but I knew.

The ‘Settlers Rest’ was Kenneth’s first love. And his last. You’d think it’d been in the family for generations, not knocked up in the sixties, the way he carried on about it.

He’ll be turning in his grave now. I’m counting on him getting over it before we meet again.

“The traveling salesmen, that’s our market,” he’d say. “They know a quality hotel when they see one.”

“Move with the times Kenneth,” I’d say. I’d show him the young people in the street with beads in their hair and bags on their backs. Christ knows what they saw in this town. Australiana, I suppose. “We need to get some of them in here. That’s the market of the future.”

“Dirty troublemakers, the lot of them.” Kenneth would say, banging the jugs down on the bar. “Scare off our clientele.”

I always thought they looked nice though. I’d see them down at IGA, pondering over groceries in their foreign accents. It made me wonder what supermarkets were like where they came from, that they seemed to find ours so strange.

Kenneth’s mother hasn’t spoken to me since the sign went up. Her loss.

I’m quite proud of it, especially the smiling Buddha that Derek painted. He said that’s what they like and it seems to’ve worked. He’s a pretty talented kid, though his mother doesn’t think so.

Kenneth was wrong about one thing. The traveling salesmen love my backpackers, particularly the girls. Dear little things they are, with their pierced noses and threadbare clothes. They probably like it here because I remind them of their grandmothers.

I’ve been run off my feet since I got into Lonely Planet. Try Jean’s traditional Australian cooking, it said. Seems that not only are they exotic to me, I am exotic to them.

My scones are their favorite.

“Is this a spashal Orstaylian recipe ma’am?” a lovely American boy asked me.

Got me thinking. I wouldn’t mind seeing a place where they don’t make scones. What do ladies bring to cake stalls in those countries?

If I close my eyes I can picture them leaping out of a Cadillac in sunglasses and high heels with a plate of Pecan Pie in America. I can see them skiing down through the pine trees holding a steaming Apple Strudel in Austria. But what do the mothers do in Japan when the school needs to raise money? Hold a sushi stall?

I asked one of the young Japanese girls.

“Yes, yes, sushi,” she smiled and nodded.

I’m not sure that we understood each other. The idea that there might be completely different ways of doing things wouldn’t leave me alone. Night after night I worried about it. If it wasn’t supermarkets in Sweden or petrol stations in Peru, it was toilets in Tokyo or ice-cream in Indonesia.

Eventually I knew I’d have to find out for myself.

I’ve sewn the Australian flag on my new backpack and I’m counting down the days.

I can hear Kenneth turning in his grave right now.

 

This short story was a winner in the ABC Regional Short Story Competition in 2005 and was read on ABC Radio National. 

Lighthouses and Shipwrecks – my review of ‘Coast’ by Ian Hoskins

20 Jun

Coast-A-History-of-the-New-South-Wales-Edge-by-Ian-Hoskins-610x734In these days of sea-change and the fight for sea views, it’s hard to imagine a time when we shunned the beaches. But our obsession with the coast is a relatively recent one, according to historian, Ian Hoskins. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, our national identity was much more closely linked to the rolling plains and mountains. The early colonists, Hoskins says, avoided living near the beach.

Hoskins has set himself quite a task – to write the first history of the entire NSW coast. Hoskins’ first book, ‘Sydney Harbour: A history’ won the history section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010. In ‘Coast’, he now sets out to explore our relationship with this 2000 kilometre stretch of shore.

In delving into this subject Hoskins covers a broad territory. Chapters include natural and indigenous history, colonisation, convicts, fishing, lighthouses, surfing and the sea change phenomenon. He points out how as we journey along our coast, we can see traces of all the uses that have come before. Aboriginal fish traps and lighthouses have given way to coastal mansions.

The chapter on the people and politics behind the growth of harbours and shipping makes for fascinating reading. As shipping grew in the colony, so did the shipwrecks. By 1921 1300 vessels had been wrecked on the NSW coast, many disappearing without trace. These disasters led to a call for the coast to be ‘…illuminated like a street with lamps.’ The first lighthouse keeper was established at South Head in 1818 and by 1901 twenty-two lighthouses shone along the NSW coast.

Lightkeepers had to be hardy in these remote locations.  Being a lightkeeper, Hoskins says, was ‘a curious mix of the freedom that comes from inhabiting a near-empty landscape and the regimentation that follows such responsibility.’ His stories include that of the plucky lightkeeper at Cape St George, who took to shark fishing to support his eleven children.   It does seem an enviable lifestyle from the vantage of these overbusy times. But even in the late 1800s a visitor to Montague Island noted that, ‘These people are contented enough, and perhaps there are few of us in the bustling crowd, surrounded with problems that are driving the world crazy, as happy as the residents of this lonely sea-girt island.’

‘Coast’ is a beautifully laid out book with many colour and black and white photos, maps and paintings adding to its charm. Written in a readable style and researched in incredible detail through primary and secondary sources, it will satisfy even the most avid coast lover.

This review initially appeared in Inside History.

I’m looking forward to chairing a panel on lighthouses with Ian Hoskins and ML Stedman, author of ‘The Light Between Oceans’, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August.

Tenderness, suspense and dementia – my review of ‘The Night Guest’, Fiona McFarlane

20 Mar

the night guestThe Night Guest is the debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane. This surprising and assured story has just been short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize for Australian Women Writers.

The protagonist of the novel, Ruth, is an elderly woman living on her own in a house by the sea, somewhere on the New South Wales coast. One night she wakes up, thinking she hears a tiger in the house. But she is just imagining it, she tells herself.

Next morning, a woman called Frida arrives at her door. She has been sent by the government, she says, to care for Ruth. Frida appears to Ruth to be Fijian, a characteristic which evokes her trust. Her childhood memories of Fiji press in on her more and more as she ages. But the longer Frida stays, the more reality and fantasy become confused in both Ruth’s and the reader’s mind.

Frida is a character who bursts from the page. Sometimes tender, sometimes fierce, she kept me entranced wondering what she was going to do next. A chameleon, Frida changes her hair daily and shrinks and grows almost magically, in Ruth’s eyes. Suspense grows as she gradually chips away at Ruth’s independence.

Ruth’s wandering lucidity makes her the perfect unreliable narrator. While the reader can fill in some gaps it is hard to know exactly what is going on. A scene where Frida fights the tiger filled me with dread, while doubting its reality at the same time. This element of the story adds a touch of magical realism which is left to the reader to interpret as they will.

The Night Guest was a standout read for me. Something of a psychological thriller, it also covers a wide emotional territory. Ruth’s memories of her first love Richard and her life with her husband interweave with her increasingly bizarre daily life. The story raises themes about aging, trust and dependence

McFarlane tells this story in simple but evocative prose. Inspired, she says, by both her grandmothers having dementia, it is a finely wrought picture of a mind coming undone.

This is a hard book to review without spoilers so I’m going to have to leave it there. Eerie, suspenseful and thought-provoking, I suspect that The Night Guest will be one of my top reads for this year.

My own story about dementia, which coincidentally also features a tiger and Fiji, featured in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14. Read it here

This is my second post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge