The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas



James Atlas The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Scribner, 2017, 400pp)

I’m drawn to biography’s sweet melancholy about mortality and recovering fragments of the past.  Biographer James Atlas’s excellent memoir The Shadow in the Garden captures the mood I feel about biography. Continue reading

The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie


Kenneth (Seaforth) Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It is a beautiful prose-poem, a novel about adolescence which amazed me again and again with its evocation of states of mind and the experience of landscape. It tells of a year in the life of fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox, as he begins at a boarding school in Perth, with interludes at his mother’s farm in the South-West where he falls in love with a neighbour’s visiting niece. It’s shocking to read in 2019, with the sexual assault of Charlie by the other students as a hazing ritual in the novel’s opening and the grooming by a paedophile teacher presented as a normal part of school life. Continue reading

My poor fallow blog


My poor fallow blog, my poor neglected readers. I thought I was busy before child number two arrived at the end of winter. But since then, I have been busier, and exhausted with a tiredness that has settled in. (I was going to tell you her name in a previous post, because we still hadn’t chosen it – it’s Sarah, and she’s now six months old, and crawling the length and breadth of the house.) Today is my birthday, and I have a tradition of writing a blog post on my birthday – that and going to a movie, once a regular occurrence, but currently an annual one. I have no wisdom or wit about turning thirty-eight, I’m rather sad about it really. Well, and glad to still be here on Earth in reasonable health. Continue reading

The letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer


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I really like Nettie and Vance Palmer, the Australian literary power couple of the first half of the twentieth century. (And lifelong friends with Katharine Susannah Prichard.) Last year I read both volumes of their published letters – a tiny fraction of the massive archive in the National Library. I was too busy to review the first (old) collection but my review of the new collection of love letters, edited by Deborah Jordan, is now up on the Westerly website.

Katharine Susannah Prichard and David Helfgott: fundraiser this Friday



In March 1966, Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote to her son, ‘I had a wonderful night this week. My young friend, David Helfgott came to dinner – and played to me all the evening… To have so much glorious music – Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt all to myself. It was almost too much. I felt quite drunk with it. But the young man himself is so modest & simple, although well informed about literature & art – discusses with me all the questions of political importance in our time.’ Continue reading

Gold and Wildflowers




I had a good research day yesterday, after several grey ones.  This month I’ve jumped forward in my biography from 1933 (leaving Katharine’s trip to the Soviet Union unfinished) to 1941. The Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference is in Perth in July and I’ve been working on a paper to fit the theme of “Dirt” – “Katharine Susannah Prichard Underground: Ten Weeks in Kalgoorlie, 1941”. I finally submitted the abstract yesterday: Continue reading

Biography of a year


Bill Goldstein The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017).

There’s so much potential in biographies of a year. I have one in mind for my next project, a somewhat random choice of a year in the life of a particular city through the eyes of a range of diarists, some famous some not. But in The World Broke in Two, Bill Goldstein sets the bar high for what makes a year worthy of a biography. And I suspect publishers require a very strong pitch for why a year matters enough for a book. His contention is that 1922 was a landmark year in English-language literature, the year modernism changed everything. As such, the book traces the literary breakthroughs of Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway), E.M. Forster (A Passage to India), T.S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”) and D.H. Lawrence (Kangaroo – the case is less compelling here, but he was also made infamous when Women in Love was tried for obscenity in the USA). It was a remarkable year, though in my opinion arguing a thesis breeds hyperbole; as Goldstein makes clear, all of these writers are responding to James Joyce and Marcel Proust. But that is a quibble; this is a superb biography, a compelling narrative which succeeds in identifying small, telling details and larger arcs in the lives of its subjects. Forster and Eliot visit and correspond with Woolf, bringing three of them together, while Lawrence is an outlier, outside their literary circle and travelling to Ceylon, Australia, and the USA, but providing an interesting contrast. Each of their stories is interesting – and Forster’s particularly moving, as he travels to Egypt for a sojourn with his lover only to find him terminally ill. My understanding of “The Waste Land”, a poem I love, has also been much enriched. In focusing on a year, a different pace, closer to a novel is possible, especially in Goldstein’s capable hands.

KSP’s The Pioneers reviewed on ANZ Litlovers


Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel The Pioneers as part of Australian Women Writers Generation 2 week, co-ordinated by Bill at The Australian Legend.  Lisa quite rightly points to the influence of the romance genre on it and the silence on Aboriginal issues, especially as the South Gippsland area saw significant massacres. Perceptively, she writes, ‘So while the story does feature the obligatory bushfire, clearing of the land, home-building and the planting of subsistence crops, plus a proud declaration that It’s all ours, this land about here, the focus of KSP’s theme is redemption and the creation of a new society in which there were second chances for people who had fallen foul of unjust laws.’ It’s an interesting book for a number of reasons, from its depiction of colonial Australia to the developing voice of Katharine at the beginning of her career. It probably sold more copies than any other in Katharine’s lifetime but does not have the enduring literary interest of her best work.  The Pioneers was the first book I read as I contemplated taking up the KSP biography back in January 2014; I wrote about it here and here.