I am a ravenous beast when it comes to reading. I’ll read anything and everything, it’s as if I fear that in one second every book in the world will disappear and only memory will keep them alive.
There weren’t many books for me to devour when I was growing up, and although my mother is now a voracious reader, she wasn’t when we kids were young. There was a battered copy of Exodus by Leon Uris in the shed which I read without comprehension, but the brief passages I did get; the battles, the love story, were thrilling. (When I later backpacked through the Middle East and read it again, I saw with new eyes, just how brilliantly Exodus worked as a propaganda tool.)
As a child the best time in my life was when the mobile library van would roll into town. What a program! For rural kids like me, it was the best. I’d borrow as many as we were allowed, return the ones I could find (my brother drew penises on Mr Percival, Mr Proud and Mr Pander, which made handing back Storm Boy difficult) and then read my head off—avoiding jobs at home and paying no attention to my father who was my teacher at the small bush school I attended. That library van! Atreasure chest on wheels: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, February Dragon, The Silver Crown and anything by Georgette Heyer. Those library vans have existed in Victoria since 1974 as part of the Mobile Area Resource Centre (MARC) program for small regional schools—their sticker, ‘Reading Be In it’ a motto to live by.
In my High School, I moved on to Sweet Valley High novels, Jane Austen and the Brontes. I found Moby Dick boring and laboured over To Kill a Mockingbird. Dracula was a treat. Wuthering Heights was too blustery for me, and yet Kate Bush’s enigmatic Running Up that Hill, first produced in 1985, kept me interested. As an accompanying soundtrack, it’s divine.
In 1990 I left my town for Melbourne and University, and there I encountered reading snobs for the first time. In a first-year tutorial, a young malein a beret took me to task for preferring Louisa May Alcott over Hemingway. ‘No comparison,’ he scoffed. ‘The man was a revolutionary! Superior prose, style and intellect.’
I got that,I got all that, I just didn’t like how Hemingway wrote women. I was reading Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Jolley, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Bayntonand Margaret Atwood. I also liked Victoria Holt, but I didn’t admit to that.
Years later, for my PhD in Creative Writing, specialising in Australian landscape, I read among many others—Eric Rolls, Kim Scott, James Bradley, Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Tim Winton, Anita Heiss, Val Plumwood and Judith Wright. These works opened upnew and insightful ways for me to read the land.
Crime came later. It was Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, set around the town where my family lived, that blew me away. Here was a book where place was rendered so exquisitely, I could picture exactly the jagged cliffs, the arctic wind and the trees bent low in supplication. In The Broken Shore, crime is secondary to the damaged characters and landscape, and the plot is better for it.
A couple of years later, I read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks and marvelled at Faulks’ unreliable narrator, compelling, creepy, but also funny. The implied crime, the growing dread, the landscapes: the genre was growing on me. Sections in bookshops were collapsing: crime could be literary, fiction, creative non-fiction, historical fiction—and what the hell was women’s fiction?
I’m a Year 12 English teacher, so the bulk of what I read is student work and school texts. It’s mainly a joy, but I sometimes despair at the lack of fun in the senior curriculum. Kids would love a hard-boiled detective noir, a romance or to disseminate Stranger Things, but I doubt we’ll get either of those soon. We’re reading Ransom by David Malouf at the moment and fortunately, it’s one of my favourites. Reviewer Peter Rose claims that, ‘Malouf is incapable of an ugly sentence.’ I think he is correct. Students who despise reading, who have never heard of Priamor Patroclus, are held breathless in Malouf’s prose, as the grieving father meets his son’s murderer in the enemy camp.
My debut crime novel, Cutters End, was a best seller and this means that I now receive books in that genre to read and comment on, to write by-lines for, to prepare for in upcoming panels. The crime writing community in Australia is quite small and we’re very encouraging of one another, so I’m happy to provide support when others were so good to me. It’s a joy when we get to meet in person. I’m still recovering from last weekend, when Chris Hammer and Sulari Gentill came to Beechworth. Drinking red wine in a cellar beside replicas of Ned Kelly and Queen Victoria, what’s not to like?
Tonight however, I’m reading student essays. They are analytical pieces on media issues ranging from the virtues of The Squid Games to 1080 bait, to motorised scooters, to political protests at the tennis. There are dozens of essays to get through. Dozens!
When I fall into bed, I’ll be finishing Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, her sequel to The Silence of the Girls. Besides being brilliant, they are excellent companions to Ransom.
Not sure what I’ll read after that. Maybe a good old Georgette Heyer or a Victoria Holt. Stick that, Hemingway.
Margaret Hickey is an award-winning author and playwright. She holds a PhD in Australian literature and works as an English teacher. Margaret is a regular guest on ABC regional radio and is a judge for the Joseph Furphy literature prize. Her first crime novel, the best-selling Cutters End was published in 2021 by Penguin Random House and her new novel, Stone Town, is out now. Margaret lives in Northeast Victoria with her husband and three sons on the edge of a gorge.