24 February 2015

Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger by Asenath Nicholson, USA, 1847

  During 1844 and 1845, Asenath Nicholson, a Christian widow from USA, travelled around Ireland, mainly by foot but, when the opportunity arose, by cart or carriage. She had come to Ireland to find out for herself why so many of the Irish were emigrating to USA and why they were so exceptionally poor.
She arrived in Dublin armed with a quantity of bibles and Christian tracts, which she handed out to people as she travelled around the country. She was appalled by the conditions where the living conditions of many people were no better than those of the animals they tended - in fact, in most cases, the people and the animals shared the same dwelling. For the majority, potatoes formed the only food and were eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner and, only occasionally, was some variety afforded by stirabout - a mixture of milk and oats. 

Asenath was a Protestant; however, she was able to sympathize to some extent with the Catholics (despite the fact that many of them were completely unacquainted with the bible) and, quite often, remarked positively on the high level of education in their schools. Well aware of the problems caused by alcohol, she admired the work done by the temperance reformer Father Mathew, with whom she spent some time in Cork. 

Through Asenath's eyes, the reader gradually becomes familiar with the wild beauty of the country, the generosity of its people and the injustices of a system where absentee English landowners had little or no thought for their tenant farmers who could be dismissed without reason and without warning. 

The fact that Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger is a first-hand account of conditions in the 1840s (and not an account written from hearsay many years later) makes the book extremely valuable and interesting. We may not agree with all of Asenath's views, but her honesty and her observant descriptions of everything she experienced make this a book a must-read for anyone interested in Irish history. 

Image (inside a house) from
Image of Asenath, drawn by Anna Maria Howitt, from 
Image (outside a house) from

17 February 2015

Tracks by Robyn Davidson, Australia, 1980

An extremely honest and beautifully written book where it is obvious that the author has a deep affinity, not only with the Australian landscape but also with the Australian psyche. Robyn's trek from Alice Springs in the centre of Australia to the Atlantic Ocean on the far west of the continent was 2735.88  kilometres; it was an amazing journey undertaken with only four camels and a dog for company. 
Having walked with one of my sons (no camels or dog) across part of Western Australia, a distance amounting to about a third of Robyn's trek, I fully understood her feelings of being one with the landscape and her all-encompassing need to be on her own. I also understood her reference to people in well-equipped 4WDs rushing through areas of singular beauty and yet missing it all because of a focus on the next photo or on being able to tick off one more thing from a long list of things to do.

To understand the landscape, it is necessary to be able to relate with it physically. You have to feel the sand and the small rocks and the prickly bushes; you have to be able to physically touch branches and grasses and feel the cold creek water numbing your legs. You have to be able to look around you at a circular horizon, knowing that, within that space, there is only you and the landscape.

It is indisputable that this was something that Robyn really wanted to do, in spite of the many hurdles and fears to be overcome. I felt that she was very aware of the importance of being able to push ourselves beyond our 'comfort zone'. If we do not challenge ourselves, mentally, physically and even emotionally, there is a danger of stagnation. 

By surpassing the limitations - the need for conformity - imposed upon us by society and fear of being different, we are able to find ourselves. Robyn does not suggest that everyone should traipse across the desert with a few camels and a dog, but she does suggest that we dare take that step beyond conformity.

As she writes in the very last paragraph: Camel trips (whatever form they may take) ... do not begin or end, they merely change form.

In 2013, Tracks was made into a film with the same name. Hear what Robyn thought of the film - an interview with the ABC.

The photos of Robyn Davidson and the camels are from

10 February 2015

This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner, Australia, 2014

This House of Grief is the story of a murder trial seen through the eyes of Helen Garner. In 2005, Robert Farquharson, drove his car, with his three young boys inside, across the road and into a dam just outside of Geelong in Victoria, Australia. Although Farquharson managed to get out the car, all three boys drowned, and the prosecution argued that the father had driven into the dam on purpose, in order to get even with a wife who had left him for another man. Farquharson maintained his innocence through two trials and claimed that he had had a fit of coughing and had blacked out. He was completely distraught that he was unable to save the boys.

The book, though well-written, is exceptionally depressing, and it soon becomes fairly clear that there is no chance that the word 'accident' will be considered in a case like this: someone has to pay for the loss of three innocent children. Whether Farquharson is guilty: whether it was no accident, and whether the prosecution actually got it right are all things that only Farquharson can know for certain.

The game, which is the court, is chilling in its theatrical displays and puzzling twists and turns of information where winning becomes far more important than finding the truth, and I feel that Garner handles all of this particularly well. She manages to build up a picture of an inadequate and/or flawed justice system where a guilty or not guilty verdict hangs on things as tenuous as the emotional mood of the jury or the proficiency of the lawyer (either prosecution or defence) in creating a reason for either of those two verdicts. 

Although I feel that Garner has done a remarkable job in presenting the inadequacies of a legal system where lawyers play to a disparate group of people – a group which may or may not have the intellectual, moral and/or emotional capacity to decide another person's innocence or guilt – there are a few places in the book where the author herself takes sides (albeit subtly), revealing that even she is not immune to the game being played.

I would not reread the book, and I do not feel that it is one of Garner's best books. This is partially because of the subject matter itself, but it is probably more because of a realization that no one - not even someone giving a neutral account of a trial - is exempt from the belief that 'someone has to pay'. 

Photo of Helen Garner

Watch a video with Jennifer Byrne interviewing Helen Garner

03 February 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, Australia, 2013

Set in the early part of the nineteenth century, Burial Rites (based on a true story) plays out against mainly grey seasons and the predominating harsh reality of a bleak Icelandic landscape. Kent has succeeded in painting this background picture in such a manner that it speaks to all the senses, giving the reader the unique experience of being part of the story.  

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnúsdottir, who, in 1829, is accused of murder and, with two accomplices, is sentenced to be executed. During the period after the murder, and before the planned execution, Agnes is placed with the family of the District Officer, Jón Jónsson. While following Agnes during this period, the reader slowly becomes acquainted with Agnes's past as she talks with Margrét (Jón Jónsson's wife). How guilty was she, and does she deserve the sentence that has been handed down to her?

Photo of Hannah Kent
A suspenseful, thoughtful and well-written novel that remains with the reader long after the last page has been read and the book has been closed.

Because of too many other commitments, I will be posting on this blog only once a week, instead of twice as has been the case. This may change further down the track; however, at the moment, you can expect a new post every Tuesday.