The Bookshop

Book by Penelope Fitzgerald, published 1978 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize

Film directed by Isabel Coixet, starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson, Australian general release May 2018.

[this review contains spoilers]

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of a middle-aged widow, Florence Green, and her mission to open a bookshop in a derelict and damp house that she acquires in the fictional East Anglian town of Hardborough. Yet this is not a book about books. This is a book about injustice.

There is local opposition to Florence’s plans, especially from the rich woman on the hill, Mrs Gamart, who fancies herself as a self-appointed patroness. Mrs Gamart wields a tyrannical influence and is determined that the old house should become an arts centre. This sets up the central conflict. Florence, an uneducated “retailer” who at times displays a sense of herself as lowly, has an appreciation of art for its own sake that matches her upright and generous character. She contends in a letter to her solicitor that a book is a necessary commodity. Mrs Gamart, meanwhile, is a poisonous individual who uses art to bolster her own status and influence- she wants Hardborough to have an arts centre so that it may compete with nearby towns for tourists. While the local hermit Mr Brundish points out to Florence the laughability of the notion that art can have a centre, Mrs Gamart sees herself occupying this position, as the arbiter of taste and a champion of commerce. Her vision places her at the helm of an engineered battle for the town’s survival.

As the struggle for the bookshop’s viability heats up, Florence asks, “Surely you can succeed when you give everything you have?” The irony is that, while Florence does give everything, she walks away with nothing. Mrs Gamart, through her politician nephew, oversees the passage of legislation that results in the compulsory acquisition of the Old House without the payment of compensation to Florence.

While the town thrives on gossip and some of its disappointed inhabitants could well enjoy the prospect of seeing someone else’s happiness ruined, the class stratifications of Hardborough also underlie the complicity of the characters in the bookshop’s demise. John Gipping, the father of eleven year old Christine Gipping who works after school in the bookshop, is a plasterer who is frequently out of work. It is he who is given the job of assessing the shop for water damage in the acquisition process. Bureaucracy interferes to stop Christine from working in the shop, and her prospects in life are constrained by the failure of the education system to bring out her talents. The primacy of dashed hopes and the inescapability of a dismal fate are signalled even in the names Mrs Gipping chooses for her children; two of Christine’s siblings are called Margaret and Peter, after the real-life Princess and her fiancé, but as Christine points out that “all came to nothing.” Just as Princess Margaret’s love was thwarted by an ascendant institution, so too are the Hardborough residents constrained by their stations in life.

The challenge of adapting a film into a book is to capture its essence in an art form which relies on completely different conventions. While there is merit in the argument that a film should be judged on its own terms, inevitably an adaptation will be compared to its written counterpart. If the book is well-loved, a filmmaker runs the risk of alienating the audience by not being “faithful.” The portrayal of the characters may disrupt readers’ preconceived ideas, resulting in viewers’ antipathy towards the whole production. In the case of The Bookshop, the challenge is to portray dynamics which mostly occur below the surface. Like the character of Milo North, whose “fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage,” the forces in the novel operate through stealth, only becoming conspicuous through their tragic consequences.

Isabel Coixet’s film succeeds in translating these forces into film, capturing brilliantly the claustrophobic and small-minded nature of Hardborough, and the injustice that is perpetuated against Florence, who is played with both radiance and understatement by Emily Mortimer. The quirks of the characters and of the town are brought out from the start with the right measure of comedy. The constant rumours that Florence is subject to are amusing to start with, yet hint at her downfall. The atmosphere transforms into palpable injustice and tragedy towards the film’s conclusion. (When Milo North closes the bookshop for an afternoon in Florence’s absence after volunteering to help her out, a woman in my row murmured “the bastard”).

While much of the dialogue is reproduced verbatim, some minor aspects of the plot are emphasised for dramatic effect. In the novel it is mentioned that Florence met her husband in a bookshop, and that he died of pneumonia on a battlefield. In the film, Florence adds that her husband read to her aloud every night, and thus the bookshop is shown to be a way for Florence to fill the hole left by her husband’s death, and heightens the tragedy of its closure. Furthermore, in the novel, Florence meets Mr Brundish only once, but in the film they see each other more frequently and form an unfulfilled romantic attachment. Mr Brundish’s death is one of the most devastating moments of the film.  Earlier, Florence loses a bright headscarf at the beach. When Mr Brundish’s death is revealed, the camera pans slowly along his splayed out body starting from the head, moving towards his hip pocket from which spills the headscarf, its bright colours dashed against the cold grey of the ground.

In this battle between good and evil, the book reads like a fairytale- but of the original, dark variety where good does not triumph. The presence of supernatural forces suggest something rotten exerting a malign presence. Florence’s vulnerability to forces beyond her control are illustrated through the rapper- a poltergeist believed to inhabit the Old House. It disappears after the bookshop is forced to close, as though it is somehow aligned with the brutal complicity of the townsfolk and the systematic exploitation of Florence’s trusting and generous character. Dark secrets are also hinted at through allusions to incest. Wally, a boy scout who assists Florence by running messages, mentions a production of Hansel and Gretel to her, in particular the scene where the boy and the girl “lie down in the leaves and get fresh together.” Florence tells him that he has missed the point, that Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. That doesn’t make it any different, Wally tells her solemnly.

Coixet also makes judicious use of stylistic elements which capture the fairytale element of the story. The use of narration at the beginning and end evinces a fabular quality. There are visual cues including streetscapes of grey-stone buildings, shots of rambling dead trees sprawled in front of Mr Brundish’s castle-like property, which is sequestered behind decorative wrought iron gates. Shots of the estuary’s smooth waters intersperse scenes containing dialogue and action, hinting continually that all is not what it seems. There is also something of the witch about Mrs Gamart, who lives in a stately home on a hill, and whose brightly coloured frocks, reminiscent of Disney costuming, are the epitome of a showy, pretentious character who has no taste.

The characters do not get their just desserts. Florence’s very humanity is called into question by those in power. When the bureaucrats who notify her of the Old House’s acquisition say it is not fit for human habitation, Florence protests that she lives in it and she is still human. Potential allegiances are nipped in the bud, while those who could wield influence choose not to act. Milo North, a man of letters who works for the BBC, could wield positive influence in the situation but assists Mrs Gamart merely because he is asked to, and acquiescing is easier than saying no.

The film is visually arresting and quirky, eliciting characters that the audience feels strongly about while executing a devastating portrayal of the book’s central premise, that people in life are “divided into exterminators and exterminated, with the former at any moment predominating.” Hopefully the film will spark a renewed interest in the work of Penelope Fitzgerald whose writing is beautiful, simultaneously comic and dark, spare and profound.

Further reading

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee

Don’t wanna live in the city…. SeaChange and Nineties Nostalgia

I think you’d be hard pressed to name a show that captured the zeitgeist of late nineties Australia more than SeaChange.

The show was ostensibly a drama, revolving around city lawyer Laura Gibson (Sigrid Thornton) who moves from Melbourne with her two children to the small coastal town of Pearl Bay to be the local magistrate after her marriage breaks up. It was a drama of the best kind, with complex characters, lashings of humour, and some keen insights into the prevailing pretensions and preoccupations of an increasingly economic-rationalist society.

I was ten when SeaChange finished up on our screens, but that makes me all the more nostalgic for it. Interestingly, I have found this to be a common predicament when trawling the web for past reviews of the show. For us misguided millennials who’d rather be watching re-runs of a show from last century than staring at our iphones, the people of Pearl Bay felt like friends and family. I practically regarded Laura Gibson as my mother- they were eerily similar in their roles as modern superwomen trying to juggle children with a career. In fact, I deconstructed an episode in my year nine English class for a discussion on the representation of women in cultural texts.

Now when I watch it I am literally reliving my childhood. Our family had the box set and my siblings and I would watch the whole three series every Summer holidays. I also grew up on the coast in Perth, so for me it brings back the feeling of languid summer days and the smell of the beach. I am nostalgic for the way my family was united for fifty minutes of viewing pleasure every Sunday night, and for the serious question of where your loyalties lay when it came to preferring Diver Dan or Max Connors (as my grandmother would say, Max Connors can park his slippers under my bed any day).  It’s also good to hark back to a time when Sigrid Thornton could actually move her facial muscles.

But back to that nineties zeitgeist. If I recall correctly, I also claimed in my year nine English class that Pearl Bay was a microcosm of Australian society. Yet the show’s creators, Andrew Knight and Deb Cox, who have gone on to produce Rake and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries respectively, captured this snippet of middle Australia without writing any of the characters as overt caricatures, or turning the humour into farce.  Bob Jelly, the local mayor and real estate agent (played by John Howard), comes closest to caricature, but he is also central to the underlying social critique- he is always chasing dodgy real estate deals and is in perpetual danger of selling the town off to its rival shire up the river.

The parochialism of the townsfolk and their antipathy towards Port Deakin Council could easily be a metaphor for the internationalisation of Australian society that was occurring at this time. Pearl Bay represents a local community with a strong identity and tangible social capital- the complete opposite of the living conditions brought about by the whole-hearted embrace of economic rationalism and the global market that the nation had been living through for close to two decades. Having said this, the show was not moralistic, but had a literary quality underpinned by well-developed characters, smart dialogue, and showed us we could represent ourselves on screen without being cringe worthy. It poked fun at us without bashing us over the head.

Re-watching it now, I am pleasantly surprised at how current the show remains. Don’t get me wrong, the opening theme and the CGI fish are dated, and some of the outfits look like they were designed by Ken Done. The idea of a sea change is cliched now, and those baby boomers who headed to the coast in what Bernard Salt dubbed the “Sigrid effect” have gotten bored and moved back to the city. But the show still cuts through, probably because of the humanity at its heart; social commentary aside, fundamentally the show is about human relationships and the big questions which plague us all- where am I going, and what does it all mean?  I have been genuinely moved to tears in some scenes, and am getting caught up once more in questions like: will Laura ditch Warwick for Max? Will Angus and Karen ever get married? And when will that bridge be fixed?

The faux-liberation of Fifty Shades

The Fifty Shades trilogy is emblematic of a cultural shift whereby the meaning of female empowerment has been turned on its head. We need to understand that “raunchy” and “liberated” are not synonyms.

I happened to be working in a library in 2012 when the first Fifty Shades was published. We were inundated with women of all ages wanting to read it. It appeared that reading it gave you access to a kind of club. If you weren’t into it you were told you were missing out.

The first film adaptation was released in 2015. Though the hype has died down a little, the commercial viability of the franchise has remained, with the release of the latest Fifty Shades film roughly coinciding with Valentines Day.

In Australia, the release of the films has coincided with a time of increased awareness-raising about domestic violence. After Rosie Batty was named Australian of the Year in 2015, the Australian media went into a frenzy on the issue. The statistic “one woman dies every week because of domestic violence in Australia” became a mantra, and for a time, a link to a story about this appeared on the page of every news item about domestic violence. Since 2012, there have been significant public inquiries into abuse that have shocked us, including the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse, and the release of the Human Rights Commission’s investigation into sexual assault on Australian university campuses.

So how is it that a series of badly written books about a woman who gets into a relationship with a man who beats her became increasingly popular while our society simultaneously condemned domestic and gender violence? And why were women, the series’ target audience, seemingly lapping the series up?

The journalist Ariel Levy pondered similar questions in her 2006 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which examined the rise of raunch culture. This is a culture which centres on highly sexualised images of women, and which achieved mainstream dominance through commercial distribution via pornography and advertising.  Levy noted that “[o]nly thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were “burning their bras” and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation.” The women she interviewed viewed the pervasiveness of raunch culture as a sign that the feminist project had been achieved because women now had the right to be a part of “the frat party of popular culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along.” In other words, women are now participating in the degradation of themselves and other women in the name of sexual liberation.

The influence of raunch culture is evident in our daily lives. There is the periodic flare-up of anxiety about the sexualised imagery teenagers post on Facebook. Recreational pole dancing has been popularised, and I have encountered university-educated women in their twenties and thirties who have taken it up “for exercise”. Brazilian waxing is also common. As the anti-pornography campaigner Gail Dines has pointed out, this practice came from pornography – it was a strategy employed to make female genitalia more visible to the camera. Now it is an expectation in the intimate lives of mainstream Australians.

Fifty Shades further exacerbated these developments; amid the frenzy following the first book’s publication, media reports began circulating in North America, the UK and Australia which suggested that the books were also influencing the sexual practices of “ordinary people”. Sex shops stocked outfits and accessories, such as chains and whips, based on those used in the books. Classes sprang up teaching women and couples how to engage in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sadomasochism) “safely.” When Hugh Hefner died in September 2017, he was lauded for “revolutionising” women’s sexuality, yet, as Suzanne Moore pointed out in the Guardian, “strip it all back and he was a man who bought and sold women to other men.”

The Fifty Shades trilogy is emblematic of a cultural shift whereby the meaning of female empowerment has been turned on its head. The assertion from some quarters that Fifty Shades is in fact a product of feminism relies on the assumption that the explicit portrayal of a woman engaging in sexual behaviour is an empowering departure from the age-old belief in women’s sexual passivity. Anastasia gets satisfaction out of her encounters with Mr Grey, and, after all, the series was written by a woman for other women. How could this possibly be construed as sexist or retrograde?

Fifty Shades fits in neatly with raunch culture, and raunch culture perpetuates backward male-dominated ideas about women. The explicit rendering of sexual details in the Fifty Shades books and the targeting of a female audience situates the series as commercial dynamite for a society in which raunch culture is normalised and aspirational. Despite being marketed as an erotic romance, it is a work of pornography, meaning the sex portrayed is repetitive, predictable and unrealistic. Consequently, the series reinforces many of the negative stereotypes found in pornography, including assumptions about women’s sexual availability which Anne Summers called out in her 1975 book Damned Whores and God’s Police: you are either available all the time, or you hate sex. This is reflected in the characters’ names: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Anastasia’s name conjures up an image of coldness and unavailability: her sexual inexperience is elided with frigidity. Meanwhile, Christian’s name suggests a man who is mysterious and whose actions occupy ambiguous terrain. He is not presented as a figure to be condemned by the reader.

Such connotations are further fostered by a bizarre narrative device employed by the author: the existence of a contract between the two characters in which the man is referred to as the “dominant” and the woman as the “submissive.” The contract states that “The submissive agrees to serve the dominant in all ways,” which includes allowing him to beat her when he feels like it.

The violence, albeit a sanitised version of BDSM, heralds a new phase in women’s struggle for equality and respect. The beatings Mr Grey metes out are not presented as wrong. Rather, they are part of Anastasia’s sexual awakening.  Anastasia refers – repeatedly – to her “inner goddess” dancing during their encounters. If one were to attempt a deeper reading of such clunky and unsophisticated prose, one may suggest that Anastasia is tapping into her inner bad girl – the voracious and undiscriminating one-dimensional sex object that is consistent with the dominant male view of women’s perpetual sexual availability. There is a misogynist cliché that there is a bad girl in all of us. Women who flaunt their status as Fifty Shades readers and viewers conform to this cliché. They claim membership to a club, which is like the playboy mansion but at the level of our society: conform to men’s desires and you shall enter. All women have to do is accept the implicit contract – which Anastasia is forced to sign in the book – that admittance entails subordination.

There is a problem, however, in discarding this plot device simply as a laughable example of bad writing, as Andrew O’Hagan did in the London Review of Books. It is the maintenance of men’s power that is at the heart of abuse of women by men. Power is at the centre of the latest celebrity sex scandal involving two decades of allegations against the heavy weight producer Harvey Weinstein, and a myriad of other male celebrities and figures of authority. In the Guardian, British actress Romola Garai, who alleges sexual harassment by Weinstein, gave an insightful analysis of his behaviour towards young women: he put them in “humiliating situations” to prove “he had the power to do it”. Furthermore, Garai stated that: “The transaction was just that I was there…The point was that he could get a young woman to do that, that I didn’t have a choice, that it was humiliating for me and that he had the power. It was an abuse of power.”

The symbolism of a powerful man taking advantage of women was encapsulated by the notorious “pussy grabbing” clip which was brought to light during the US presidential election campaign. That Donald Trump tried to brush it off as “locker room talk” is inexcusable, but telling: it highlights the fact that men who subscribe to the “locker room” ideology don’t understand (or don’t care) that such ideas permeate the public sphere where women bear the brunt of it.

And yet women aspire to be Anastasia Steele. The prevalence of raunch culture and the way that both sexes participate in it and consume it belies the fact that, despite paying lip service to gender violence, we don’t really understand it. We refuse to acknowledge that gender violence and raunch culture are two sides of the same coin. We deplore sexual double standards, and agree that women’s sexual needs should be considered in addition to men’s and that sex should be “consensual” and “respectful”. But the representation of the “liberated” woman’s sexuality conforms to images cooked up for men in the form of the submissive sex object- whether that is a pole dancer, a porn star or Anastasia Steele. Then our degradation is served back up to us as entertainment and we consume it. While we rush to be part of the latest overblown fantasy, like Fifty Shades, there are women struggling to break free from violent relationships in real life. As Levy articulated in Female Chauvinist Pigs: “‘Raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms. It is worth asking if this bawdy world… we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.”

 

Key reads

Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy

Damned Whores and God’s Police, by Anne Summers

 

Another Day In Paradise

Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Canberra, April 2018

 heart gun croppedAnother Day In Paradise is an exhibition of paintings by Bali Nine detainee Myuran Sukumaran, curated by Sukumaran’s mentor Ben Quilty and Campbelltown Arts Centre Director Michael Dagostino. After being found guilty of heroin trafficking by an Indonesian court in 2005, Sukumaran was imprisoned for ten years in the notorious Kerobokan Prison, where he painted prolifically and started an art school within the prison.

After all avenues of legal appeal were lost, Sukumaran was executed by firing squad at 12:25 am on 29 April 2015. Sukumaran’s art captures with poignant dignity the reserve of inner strength that he found to call on. In many works, there is the sense that art was a vessel for him to capture and preserve a part of himself as he faced the knowledge of his certain death. The act of painting provided more than respite from the violence of prison life and the emotional tumult of death row- it allowed him to look to his legacy, one that is inescapably both personal and political.

Another Day In Paradise, according to Dagostino and Quilty, “invites us to consider how art has the power to provoke change and how justice could be sought if, rather than punishment and penalty, human rights and rehabilitation were at its core.” The challenge of the exhibition is to peer into the darkness, and to keep looking.

Of all the work on display, Sukumaran’s self-portraits best capture the essence of the exhibition. He frequently depicts himself with his chin tilting up looking at the viewer, softly defiant, almost daring us to keep looking at a reality that is easiest to look away from. As the act of looking in the mirror and really seeing oneself, self-portraiture is also an act of reckoning, and captures the way that art was, for Sukumaran, a redemptive practice.

To me, some of the self-portraits resemble sketches of an accused in a court dock, and signify an appeal by Sukumaran to those who would judge him. These works,court dock cropped all untitled, feature the subject and background in white, with bare strokes of coloured paint sketching basic facial features and the outline of his t-shirt. If these images were produced during a court trial by another artist, his identity would be reduced to simply being a criminal, yet he looks defiant, even dazzling, as his direct stare emerges from the whiteness. As I looked at these works, I couldn’t help but think of that biblical pronouncement, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It is particularly poignant in the context of what was then an ongoing media frenzy that he would intervene this way in the portrayal of himself and his life. In these paintings, I see a man who is owning his past and asking to be given the opportunity to atone.

The self-portraits convey what public perception doesn’t: complexity. Hidden within the walls of Kerobokan Prison, there was the Myuran Sukumaran that most people never got the opportunity to know, but now can through his art. The Myuran who was previously a heroin addict and convicted drug runner, was also the Myuran who advocated for prisoners’ medical needs and the rights of female prisoners, who pulled fellow detainees out of fights, who established education courses within the prison, and who guarded the gun cabinet during riots after the guards had fled. Sukumaran acknowledged the many facets of his existence, and is quoted in the exhibition catalogue saying:

My lawyer came to see me, to prepare for our final judicial appeal… “You need to come away from the dark side and step into the light,” he said. I don’t know if he was aware of it, but it had a profound effect on me. It was one of those moments when you just understand. I had always dreamed of becoming a hero… taking stock of my life at that moment, it dawned on me how far off course my life had come… I was the guy I always despised in my fantasies and dreams.

duo croppedSome of the self-portraits capture this duality. There are several in which he appears as a double, as though he were twinned. Both faces gaze at the viewer, one defiant with the chin up and the other direct, resigned. He comforts himself, an arm enveloping his torso in a lonely embrace. In another, he appears to be watching over himself, a sorry reminder that though he has come so far the future holds no further possibilities. The motif of the double serves as a visual representation of his extreme introspection through which he sought redemption, and the strength that he had to find within himself to make that happen.

A number of self-portraits have a nightmarish quality that evokes parallels with Edvard Munch’s surrealist masterpiece The Scream. In these pieces his features are obscured with paint that is scraped across his face or dripping from it as though he is melting, or vanishing like a scream into a void, which imparts a keen scream cropped (2)awareness of the impending disintegration of his physical self.

The brutality of the death penalty is most evident in his final series of self-portraits, which he painted between March 15, when he was moved to the island Nusakambangan, and April 29 when he was executed. The heart features prominently, symbolising both life and the taking of it. One painting is of his heart as a disembodied organ alone on the canvas, with streaks of red paint dripping from it. In another, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the red outline of his heart which occupies the white cavern of his torso – a poignant invocation of the execution process, whereby a doctor marks the heart of each victim to show the firing squad where to aim.

This motif is repeated throughout the self-portraits from this period. In many works, his torso is painted white, with the veins and arteries of his neck clearly visible, but they hang suspended above an empty space where his heart should be. The starkness of these images suggests that, through his introspection, Sukumaran attained some sort of intellectual intimacy with the manner of his execution, a testament to his resolve to face the end with dignity. This is also suggested in the paintings of heart final 2AK47s – the precise weapon that would be employed by the firing squad. Sukumaran painted the guns dripping from every orifice, raising the question of exactly who has blood on their hands. Perhaps it is also a symbolic reversal of power relations. As his brother Chinthu wrote in the accompanying catalogue, “It is sad that those who order the executions never have to pull the trigger or look into the eyes of those they condemn to death.” Looking at those guns is a stark reminder of what is involved in an execution.

Complementing these works are still-life paintings of objects that embody the central conflict of his predicament: the struggle for redemption in the knowledge of certain death. Some draw on religious imagery, such as crucifixes, and one depicts a pulpit which resembles a scaffold. Again, these works draw attention to the hypocrisy of a notion of justice that does not take into account the notion that people can change. Another still life depicts a bullet upright on a table, casting a bloody shadow back across the wood. At first glance it looks like an or

dinary object, perhaps a water jug, as it is not drawn to scale. But then we realise it is far from ordinary. How does one continue living, let alone live an ordinary life, amidst the long shadow cast by the prospect of execution?

guncropped

Sukumaran’s paintings are inevitably political. One cannot avoid pondering the futility of the death penalty, or the administration of any system of justice that does not provide the opportunity for rehabilitation, when talent such as this is lost.

This makes it all the more potent when Sukumaran sets out to make an overt political statement. The powerful face off against the powerless in the form of political portraits of Australian Prime Ministers and foreign ministers, alongside Indonesian Presidents and Attorneys-General, which hang opposite portraits of the Bali Nine. On the reverse of the canvas featuring Joko Widodo, Sukumaran wrote in black texter, “people can change.” Possibly the most political is the painting of the Indonesian flag dripping with blood, which Sukumaran asked his lawyer to carry out of the prison facing the crowd after his execution. And there is the final, unfinished self-portrait that, rather than hanging with the rest, is on the floor leaning against the wall as though Sukumaran has just left the room.

What is one to do? It is all very well to be outraged. Outrage is easy. What is not easy is to walk the walk, which, unlike Sukumaran and his family, most of us will never have to do. Dagostino and Quilty honour Sukumaran’s memory by turning the outrage into an ongoing conversation. This is what really elevates the curatorship of Another Day In Paradise – the commissioning of new works that engage with themes in Sukumaran’s art.

The two exemplars for me were the works by Megan Cope and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. Megan Cope, an Aboriginal artist, devised a work called Barracoon, which draws attention to the ways in which state violence is enacted against people of colour. The work consists of a barracoon, originally a soldiers’ tent but which later came to house slaves during the Atlantic slave trade, made from bamboo. The roof and floor are made of shredded legal documents from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Indonesian Supreme Court. The word barracoon, originally from the Spanish barraca, is thought to be the origin of the racial slur used within Australia against Aboriginal people. As Megan Cope notes in her preface, Sukumaran faced systemic violence and racism growing up in Australia, and, like many who have such experiences, ended up incarcerated in an institution that reinforces social inequities.

The Days contains 3665 eggs, which represent the 3665 days that Sukumaran spent incarcerated. Above the nest of eggs sits a dove, and above it a low-hanging globe that illuminates the work. Abdullah notes the importance of individual days as the end of a life draws near, and the importance of spending these with the people who understand you best.

In the exhibition, I felt as though I had entered a dark tunnel and glimpsed something awful and powerful. Afterward, I emerged blinking into the sunlight, dizzy and unsteady. The tears I had held back started to fall freely, but in between sobs I could feel my heart beat and my lungs fill with air. I felt remade. On the way to the Arts Centre, my partner and I had joked about the nondescript urban sprawl of Canberra’s southern suburbs. Now as we drove back I was in awe of green playing fields, where children in football jerseys were warming up for training. I imagined them going home at dusk to homecooked meals and the comfort of routine. Another day in paradise. The succession of anonymous intersections seemed more familiar, even homely and inviting. What had previously seemed oppressive now seemed free, and I was grateful that I led an ordinary life.

second last day cropped

 

Another Day In Paradise will be exhibited at the Bendigo Art Gallery from 7 July until 16 September.

All work pictured by Myuran Sukumaran.Reproduced with permission of curators.

Picture credits in order of appearance (top to bottom, left to right):

  • Self-portrait, Time is Ticking, 25 April 2015, oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm
  • Self-portrait, 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm
  • Untitled (double self-portrait embracing), date unknown, oil on canvas, 140 x 120cm
  • Untitled (self-portrait), 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm
  • Untitled (gun), 2014, oil on canvas, 20 x 50 cm
  • The Second Last Day, 27 April 2015, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm

 

Tops of 2017

I thought I’d kick off with a selection of my tops of 2017.

Top fiction reads (not all were published last year)

Larchfield by Polly Clark

A poet who is coming to terms with motherhood crosses time to meet up with WH Auden. Beautifully written and a challenge to question whether miracles are in fact possible…

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

On of my favourite contemporary authors. Her command of language is magical and totally transporting. I challenge anyone to not be gripped by her work…

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (Miles Franklin winner)

This book about healing deep family rifts really moved me. It is set in Perth where I grew up, and the descriptions of everyday life in the suburbs was very palpable to me. The narrator is a selfish and unpleasant older male, a perspective I found insightful and ultimately uplifting- perhaps selfish men who think they are entitled to dominate (and unwittingly destroy) family life can change their ways.

The Party by Elizabeth Day

The Talented Mr Ripley meets Brideshead Revisited meets The Line of Beauty. The writing is frequently witty but also acidic, cutting through class pretensions and dealing with the unpleasant reality of mopping up when our facades crack open to reveal who we really are.

The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald

We all know that romantic genre full of cosy bookshops where one meets one’s true love. This does not belong to that genre. A good read for anyone with a strong sense of justice. A  review will be posted in June after the release of the film adaptation.

Top non-fiction reads of 2017

Kick by Paula Byrne

A completely different perspective on the Kennedy family, focussing on Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy who caused scandal by marrying into the Protestant Cavendish family and tragically died at age 28.  You can hear Paula Byrne speaking at the Adelaide writers’ festival here

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

Book by the Twitter sensation @herdysherpherd1 about farming the same Cumbria farmland that his family has farmed for six centuries. If anyone has the meaning of life sorted it is this guy.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir of living life to the full by one of my absolute favourite authors. The book was written for her daughter, who has severe anaphylaxis and can die at any moment by coming into contact with everyday substances.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

An analysis of a scandalous divorce case in the mid-1800s. The unhappily married Mrs Robinson becomes infatuated with a young doctor. But perhaps her real transgression was to think for herself and record her thoughts in her diary…

Adult Fantasy by Briohnny Doyle

Framed as a critique of how our society measures success through material acquisition, this compelling and utterly persuasive analysis of how our society is down on millennials, and why we shouldn’t be (clue: the baby boomers have a lot to answer for). I also believe Doyle’s book functions as an exposition on the artist’s life and marginalisation from economic security, as it ponders fundamental questions that are completely left out of our received wisdom, such as what constitutes meaningful employment? Do I have to sell my soul to keep a roof over my head? Highly recommended.

The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain

A moving dissection of our capacity for language and narrative, written as Georgia was losing her ability to speak and join words because of a malignant brain tumour.

Most memorable news article: Suzanne Moore’s article in The Guardian on the retrograde “legacy” of Hugh Hefner

Most memorable cartoon- the mental load (or, why women get lumped with all the responsibility)

Top film or TV

The Crown Season 1- reviewed here

Jackie- reviewed here

On Chesil Beach- review will be posted after general release in April

Top theatre

Richard III, directed by Kate Mulvaney (Bell Shakespeare)

Talk by Jonathan Biggins (STC)

Secret River (Kate Grenville/ Andrew Bovell, Adelaide Festival)