Books that made me: Playing Beatie Bow

I have an overactive imagination. I am inclined to spend a reasonable amount of time in my head, and if left to my own devices the head stuff can start to dominate. It is difficult to explain. My mind doesn’t easily brake once a story is let loose, whether it is someone else’s tale or just a notion toodling around in my head. If you’ve seen the film Miss Potter and recall how Beatrix would occasionally address her painted creations, it’s a little bit like that. Rest assured I have all my faculties. I’m just a vivid daydreamer, I guess. On the politically correct school reports I believe exist these days (my teacher-mother once told me she can’t say a student ‘doesn’t understand’ something as that may imply that they’re thick) this habit would be referred to as: Strong visualisation skills. If  only I believed in all that The Secret rubbish.

I impart this weird personal information so that you know that when I say that every time I find myself in The Rocks in Sydney I think about what would happen if I turned a corner and found my modern self back in the ‘olden days’, you know that this is a fairly regular-type thought for me.  Let me explain. One of my very favourite books is Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Published three decades ago it is set in one of the oldest (and thus was one of the most notorious and wretched) parts of Sydney. A teenage girl, Abigail, is transported back to the late 1800s where she is taken in by the Bow family. It is a historical drama where Abigail learns some of the things she’s struggling to realise (or is lacking from others) in her contemporary life—ideas of family, of self-reliance, of love. In Abigail’s time Beatie Bow is an urban legend, a scary woman named in a children’s game. Abigail ends up in the past after following the child Beatie who she spies observing at the edge of one of these games,  through some kind of time slip.

The first time I read Playing Beatie Bow I finished the book, closed it, then promptly opened it and started all over again. I remember exactly the spot where I was sitting on my bedroom carpet.  The novel seemed to have everything a 10 or 11-year-old girl needed (sorry, I can’t quite recall how old I was). In my teenage years I read it several times, and that is rare. I am not a re-reader. Too many books, not enough time… Perhaps I did it more when I was a young thing, before all the necessities of life got in the way.

Why I wanted to re-read this particular novel is hard to explain (and, to be honest, clearly remember) apart from saying that I really liked it and that Ruth Park was a Very Good writer (which is hardly worth the trouble of posting, is it?). What I do remember is being swept up in a story that I never wanted to end, of caring very deeply for the characters (even though the protagonist could be a spoiled brat), of falling in love with the boy Judah just as Abigail did. I suspect that the boy thing had a lot to do with my quick re-reading. I have very strong recollections of some very strong reactions to the romantic elements in this novel. There is a kiss on a rowboat that filled me with giddiness the first (second, third, fourth) time I read it. Perhaps it was just the bloom of adolescence. Perhaps it was just exquisite storytelling.

On the blooming adolescence, there is also a mention of eyebrow licking that bamboozled me at the time and I must say that I am yet to come across it in my adult life  (well what I imagine was meant by it, anyway). It’s an odd thing to recall, I know, and it is merely the author describing some of Abigail’s previous innocent experiences with boys but it has always stayed with me. There are other, small (less odd) things I recall to this day: the lace of Abigail’s dress, a fire. It is not unusual for me to see or hear something even today which will make me think of  Beatie Bow. Especially when I am wandering The Rocks.

I have always been fascinated by The Rocks in Sydney. Harbourside with its wharves and chandleries, its sandstone buildings, narrow laneways and secret staircases, tales of murders and other awful crimes, houses of booze and ill-repute, the cellar rooms where unsuspecting schmucks were shanghaied onto ships, cobbled streets, the garrison church, the oldest pub (where I almost lost Middlemarch last week), and the observatory on the hill watching over it all. Perhaps it’s my convict ancestry which informs my interest. Perhaps it’s just the living, breathing history of the place that appeals. I don’t think Playing Beatie Bow started it (I think it was my mother, who has a great historical knowledge, is a keen family historian and used to take us off on fabulous excursions to places like The Rocks as children) but my affection for this book certainly helped lock this area and its stories into a part of my being.

Ruth Park won many awards for Playing Beatie Bow, both in Australia and internationally. I am not alone in my love or admiration for it. It is still in print (with the same cover I might add) and in the mid eighties a successful TV series was made of it. I suspect watching the series prompted me to want to read the novel, or inspired my mother to give it to me. It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on the book, just that I did.

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Ruth Park died in December 2010.

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Here: Torn Apart by Peter Corris

The city of Sydney, Australia, is many things. Sitting on one of the most beautiful harbours, edged by stunning beaches on one side and breathtaking mountains on the other, it is brash, sparkling, fast-paced, expensive, sprawled, traffic-choked, obsessed with real estate and restaurants, and full of workaholics who play hard and live hard. It is exciting, interesting, fun, confident and charming and knows how to have a good time. It can also wear you down, isolate you and make you hate public transport with a vengeance.

Sydney is sometimes accused of being a ‘hard’ city; all shine and gloss without much substance.  And though I am a Sydney lover (born and bred), I do believe it’s a city which lacks introspection. Sydneysiders don’t often think about what Sydney means, about its special character. Sydney just is. And perhaps because of this, one of the things you don’t associate with Sydney, sadly, is literature. That’s not to say we don’t have wonderful resident writers, nor books which are set in this town, yet the city doesn’t often feature in novels as anything more than a backdrop. But there are a couple of authors who write the Emerald City marvellously, and Peter Corris is one of them.

It was day one of the new year’s cricket test (an institution), and I was sitting in a stand, parallel to the pitch, munching on a corn beef sandwich, sipping on a beer and reading my book, Torn Apart by Peter Corris, during a break in play. Life does not get much better. All I needed was to be enthusiastically conversing about books, and lo I did as one of my co-spectators and I went on to discuss how we both viewed Corris as possibly the best writer of Sydney.*

It is one thing to write a book where the setting is written such that it inspires people to travel to that destination, it is another to write a book where the people who live in the place you are writing of nod their heads in agreement and feel a flutter of affection in their heart for their hometown, it is another again to inspire this beating of romance as your character trails around the city’s seedier domains looking for a killer.

Peter Corris has been writing novels starring private detective Cliff Hardy for as long as I’ve been alive (both Cliff and your little  blogger were ‘first published’ in 1980). Cliff Hardy is a man who knows his city inside out, from the big end of town to the dingiest back room. Beach, bush or high street; park, bar or boxing ring—Hardy has Sydneytown and its people pegged. This doesn’t mean he is a Sydney evangelist (Hardy sometimes seems to loathe it in the way you can only loathe something you are close to) it is more that he acknowledges the way the city pulses beneath his skin, that we are all shaped by the living culture around us, and that we in turn shape it. Hardy would not be Hardy without Sydney, and the Sydney in these books would lose some of its substance without Hardy. 

Peter Corris may not stand on a sandstone block and wax lyrical about the natural beauty and appealing customs of his people, his Cliff Hardy novels may not resemble Oprah’s take on the harbour city, but dammit if he doesn’t write Sydney to a T. You will be equally happy to tag along with Hardy whether he is buying a coffee in the inner city, taking a stroll along an eastern suburbs beach, conversing with a particular subset of the greater Sydney crime population, or trading blows with some deadbeat. It is all so honest and gut-feelingly ‘true’.

Corris writes about the city in a knowledgable and effective way that speaks to those who also know it. But you don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Sydneyphile to enjoy a Cliff Hardy story. But if you do know and (mostly) love this city, you will like his excellent crime novels all the more. Corris’ writing, like his protagonist, is succinct, uncomplicated, intelligent and to the point. As a result, his novels are not long, though you will experience more story than you would in many a weighty crime thriller. And despite the relative slimness of his books’ spines, Corris still manages to include a healthy sprinkling of social commentary, the odd twist, and to delve ever deeper into the ticking of his character. In Torn Apart Hardy meets up with a long-lost cousin, who is his spitting image, and they befriend each other and journey to Ireland to discover their Travellers’ roots. On their return to Sydney his cousin is murdered and Cliff is obliged out of personal loyalty to find the killer, and also to satisfy his curiosity about his newfound family member, who, his instincts had already told him, had a shady side. 

It’s lovely to read books which transport you to exotic, picturesque, inspiring locales. Goodness knows I’m quite a fan of them. But sometimes it’s heartening to spend time in a more authentic place. To notice the unmade beds, the uneven footpath, to acknowledge the everyday business of catching a bus, of contemplating life and other people in the little ways we do most days. Peter Corris succeeds in giving his readers enjoyable, intriguing, original crime stories, against a background of reality. And that reality just happens to be the city I call home, which is why I like them all the more. The Hardy books give glorious fiction-life, to a glorious living, breathing city.

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* Ruth Park was a wonderful writer of Sydney and I just so happened to be having this conversation with another author who ‘gets’ Sydney, Malcolm Knox. There is also John Birmingham’s biography of Sydney, Leviathan, which details the metropolis’ life in glorious, mucky splendour. It was published over a decade ago but is still one of my favourite non-fiction books.

O is for the Ocean

I live on a large island that is mostly desert and thus the vast majority of humanity cling to the coast. Cling, not only because we desire to live on somewhat arable land, but because many of us have a deep-felt emotional and cultural connection to the sea and those golden strips of beach. I am one of those limpets. Stick me in the path of an ocean breeze and I immediately feel recharged; put me in view of crashing waves or sparkling water and I feel happy to a Sound-of-Music degree. Oh yes, I  love the sea. Summer or winter, calm waves or homicidal, rocky or sandy beaches; there is a pull there which comes from more than simply being Australian or having fond memories of family holidays.

O is for the Ocean, and it is represented by Tim Winton and his novel Breath. It’s a rare Winton story that doesn’t feature water, and in Breath it’s virtually on every page. Lapping at your imagination, crashing out behind your subconscious, seeping into your being. Pikelet and Loonie are young teenagers in the 1970s in a small Western Australian, who befriend a legendary surfer while testing their own wave skills in shark-riddled, rip-insane waters.  It is a coming-of-age story, an exploration of risk, a love letter to the art of slicing through the deep blue on a small shard of fibreglass.

Breath is a novel which is about a lot more than surfing; but really, it’s still mostly about surfing. At least, that’s what I liked most about it and what drew me back to the pages. Which, I have to say, kind of surprises me; but the fact that it did became part of my enjoyment of the reading experience. 

When I started high school it was very cool to have a surf-brand wallet and a crush on Kelly Slater. Keanu Reeves was starring in Point Break, Pearl Jam made video clips that were just of dudes catching waves, and a friend and I bought fluoro t-shirts with ‘O’Neill’ blazoned across the front for $15 and thought we’d scored the bargain of the year. But apart from this minor pop-culture fascination, I didn’t really know much about surfing; and when I worked out that my brown hair and intensely fair skin made me the virtual opposite of what a surfie chick was supposed to look like, I moved on to other interests like Jeff Buckley and vampire slayers and never looked back. To me, surfing has always seemed like something you had to be involved in to be able to properly understand, and as a result, it remains a mystery to many of us, a mere background to a beach-side jaunt; impressive, sure, but something you are happy to leave to others. And so, as a green-room ignoramus, how interesting could I find a novel about surfing? Well, in the hands of Tim Winton, immensely interesting and attention-grabbing. I could taste the salty water, feel the sand in the creases of my skin, hear the mighty waves booming as they hit the reef. 

Winton is a most excellent writer and storyteller, and his ability to describe the world around his characters in such detail, and with such feeling and such a sense of what is real (to the character and their experiences) has always made me hold him in high esteem and brought me back to his books again and again. His writing can appear deceptively simple, but like those signs on a creaking jetty: the water  is much deeper than it appears. I didn’t get lost in the pages of Breath, I somehow became a part of them. The story flows so smoothly, and the voice of Bruce Pike, the narrator, seems so natural and, well, internal. Winton has an ear for language that is precise and honest, and an amazing ability to express the feelings, insecurities and wayward thoughts of his characters that can touch you in a place you weren’t even aware was hiding deep inside you.

Tim Winton has changed the landscape of Australian literature and is able to speak to a broad cross-section of readers, perhaps more so than any other Australian literary author writing today. And though he has been criticised for his female characters lacking complexity, his skill of writing about boyhood, manhood and male sensibilities has such a ring of truth to it, and is such a pleasure, that perhaps we should just learn to cope with the idea that his female characters are not always so well-rounded. (Mind you, in Cloudstreet one of my favourite characters is Oriel Lamb, the mother who decides to live in a tent in the backyard and she has always ‘spoken’ to me as a strong female character.)

Breath is about a lot more than surfing, but it was Winton’s writing about the ocean, and the characters’ connections to it which made me like this novel, and appreciate the writing, so much. I’m not sure I agree with all the quotes plastered on the cover of my copy which have every golden reviewer in the land saying it’s the best thing Winton’s ever written (there were a few elements in the story I wasn’t so fussed on, the odd tie missing), but I certainly enjoyed reading it, I valued it, and just like I do with the ocean, I felt pulled to come back to it again and again.

Book 25: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This is one of those books I almost didn’t read because the gushing had become close to overbearing (I tend to the Public Enemy way of responding to this sort of thing: don’t believe the hype). I mean really, how good can a book be? … Well, of course, we all know the answer to that: pretty bloody good. But was this book?

Let’s face it, any story full of banter between friends, cricket-talk and description, writing and book talk, and a sound argument for why Batman is the greatest superhero ever is going to be a book for me. Fill it with sensitive, funny, conflicted, awkward, brave, smart, endearing teenage-boy characters and I’m all over it.

I love Craig Silvey’s writing because I love reading good dialogue and there is a lot of that in this book. It’s strong, funny, informs us of the characters and progresses the plot. I adore the way Jeffrey and Charlie converse.

When reading Jasper Jones I could smell the eucalyptus, hear the cicadas and taste the dust in the back of my throat. Maybe because I was far from home when reading it I was more attuned to these aromas of Australiana wafting through the novel, but I suspect it was more to do with Mr Silvey’s writing.

I’m a little bit in love with all three of the boy-characters, for different reasons. Charlie for his brain and slight awkwardness, for his phobias and uncontrollable adolescent reactions; Jeffrey for his enthusiasm, bravery and sport-loving; Jasper for his strong-silent-type qualities, for his survival… plus he sounds pretty hot. Jeffrey is certainly my favourite – he’s fantastic, hilarious, a gem of a character. I adore him. Though of course he prefers Superman, which is where I must side with Charlie…

I devoured this book in three sittings, which for me is frickin’ fast. Backpackering in Nova Scotia, I had no interest in those pastimes the young kids like to participate in during the evening hours. Pub crawl? Oh no, I have a book to read.

I’m glad in the end that I missed reading Jasper Jones when everyone else – including my book group – was reading it. Sometimes when a book is buzzing you can get caught up in everyone else’s enthusiasm and in some ways, that can deplete your individual enjoyment of it. You have to cast the experience within the group (you remember who liked it and didn’t, forget whether your favourite bit was yours or someone else’s). I now understand their enthusiasm, but am secretly thrilled that I had the Jasper Jones experience to myself.

If you haven’t read it, go and get yourself a copy. Pronto.

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Canadian depository: Bookshelf at Charlottetown Backpackers Inn, Prince Edward Island.