The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

When I was sixteen, I visited my grandma one afternoon and, on arriving at her house, found her in tears. The last of the ‘Old Girls’ had died. The ‘Old Girls’ were her life-long friends – a group of women who had met during the War and stayed close for decades. They always referred to themselves as the ‘Old Girls’, even when they were young women. And so suddenly, my grandma was the last Old Girl. It was deeply shocking for me because, until that moment, I had never really thought about friends dying.

This is the subject of Charlotte Wood’s novel, The Weekend. Three friends in their seventies gather for a last weekend at the holiday home of their mutual friend, Sylvie, who has recently died. There’s former restaurateur Jude, organised and bossy; Wendy, an acclaimed intellectual, who continues to write; and beautiful, flighty Adele, a renowned actress whose work has dwindled to almost nothing.  Over the course of the weekend, the dynamics of their relationships are revealed, and the absence of Sylvie felt.

This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another. Continue reading

Heimat – A German Family Album by Nora Krug

In the mid-eighties, I was an exchange student in Germany. I was hosted in a small town in the south, and Heidelberg was the closest large town. My days at school were routinely interrupted by US airforce planes flying overhead and breaking the sound barrier – teachers and students were so used to this happening that conversation paused and resumed automatically. Likewise, no one seemed to notice US tanks rolling through the streets. It was 1987 and there were daily reminders of the Holocaust; what this nation had done wrong; and who was ‘in charge’ now. That’s what it felt like to me, anyway, and I was fascinated by how the past was felt in the present.

My trip in 1987 remains one of the most significant experiences I have had. Seeing the imbedded sense of guilt and shame carried by people born long after the war had an enormous impact. At the time, I couldn’t name what I was seeing, but we now know it as intergenerational trauma (and in no way do I mean to minimise, or compare it to, the trauma experienced by those persecuted during the Holocaust).

In her graphic memoir, Heimat, Nora Krug traces her family history, in an effort to uncover their wartime past in Nazi Germany, and to understand how her German history has shaped her life.

Continue reading

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

If there is one sub-genre of grief-lit that will have me sobbing more than any other, it’s the one where kids lose their mother. I know we’re in the middle of a paper-products crisis but man, did I burn through my quota of tissues reading Writers & Lovers by Lily King.

It’s 1997, and Casey, in her early-thirties, spends her days working on the novel that she’s been writing for six years; her nights waitressing at an upscale restaurant; and every single moment grieving her mother. Her mother’s sudden death prompts Casey to consider all aspects of her life – her enormous student debt; her failed relationships; and the fact that her artistic friends have all ditched creative pursuits for ‘real’ jobs.

I haven’t mentioned my mother at the restaurant yet. I don’t want to be the girl whose mother just died. Continue reading

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I was still at the point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.

It was apt that I read Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House, while I was at McCrae. McCrae is the place where I’ve spent all of my summers. This year, I saw for the first time, the house that has been built where my family’s fibro beach shack once stood. When the shack was sold (I was devastated) people said to me, “It’s just a house, you still have the memories.” Logically, I knew this to be true but it didn’t explain why I continued to pass the house, seeing the unfamiliar cars in the driveway, and the new curtains hanging in the window, and always wondering, “Did ‘they’ love the house as much as I did?” Continue reading

Here Until August by Josephine Rowe

According to the publishers, the short stories in Josephine Rowe’s collection, Here Until August, explore the point of change in people’s lives. And yes, the collection delivers that – the ten stories examine thresholds, internal and external boundaries, and points-of-no-return. But there’s also a theme of belonging in each of these carefully crafted stories, explored through memory; through people being in foreign places; and people returning ‘home’ (but not necessarily ‘belonging’).

The collection opens with Glisk, a story about the return of the narrator’s older brother to a small town. There’s a past trauma and a deceit, and when the deceit is revealed, it tips everything the narrator has known sideways.

I’m waiting behind the flyscreen, feeling everything I’d neatly flat-packed springing up in me. Continue reading

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Prior to reading Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, my knowledge of the Troubles was limited, and was essentially informed by three things:

    • Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard (I read this multiple times as a teen)
    • a brief visit to Belfast in 2001
    • Lost Lives by David McKittrick et al. – a book that I bought second hand after my Belfast visit. It lists the story of every life lost during the Troubles (3,630 people were killed between the late 1960s and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ). Continue reading

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

We’ve all known a couple that breaks up and gets back together over and over again. As teenagers, that sort of relationship drama seems to be part of the adolescent experience, but once you’re in your twenties and thirties the debriefings and speculation over what has been said and done wears thin.

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip unpicks the relationship between Nora and Javo. It’s predominantly a story of addiction – Javo has a drug habit and Nora has a ‘Javo-habit’. As frequently as Javo says he is giving up drugs, Nora says she’s done with Javo. Neither stop and that is essentially the beginning and end of the story. Continue reading