The Well (1986)
I read Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well in the first year of my postgraduate study after recognising, in vague, dispiriting shame, that I was ignorant of most writing by Australian women. I’d fed myself on a steady diet of British and North American writers in the heady days of my first years at university, and while I would have earnestly regarded myself as widely read, a feminist and a lover of literature, I had, in my zealous pursuit of ‘culture’, entirely neglected my own countrywomen. Feeling embarrassed, I picked up The Well out of dry, almost punitive duty to educate myself about my antipodean literary heritage.
What an idiot. As soon as I began to read Jolley, I realised that I had been short-changing myself for years. Reading The Well was the first time I encountered the Australian gothic, and I revelled in its delicious breed of darkness. Growing up in the Adelaide Hills, with parents and grand-parents who had lived in the riverland, I was well versed in long rides home with headlights striking stringybarks and red gums, anecdotes of roo bars and spotlighting, old wells, and the way isolation could act on a person already made slightly eccentric through a repressed upbringing, personal misfortune or proclivity to the odd. Miss Hester Harper, emotionally impoverished, crippled and fond of throwing dirty dishes down the well, seemed like someone I had already heard of.
It was also in The Well that, with a huge amount of pleasure, I first saw the countryside I had been raised in reflected back to me in startling and poetic precision:
The road between black paddocks edged with the black shadows of the saltbush is flat and straight. Every now and then swirls of white mist come towards them and sometimes, when there is a dip in the road, they are completely enshrouded as if in a light white endlessly winding garment.
I now recognise that The Well has also had significant influence on my own writing. While both my novels are set overseas, Jolley’s slow build of narrative tension in The Well is something I have been attempting to emulate in my own work. What happens if you place manipulative characters together in an otherwise isolated environment? How might loneliness work upon a person? How do you, as a writer, slowly tighten the strings, imperceptibly at first, until there is suddenly an overwhelming tension, until something snaps? Jolley’s disturbing depiction of the claustrophobia of small communities, of the slow inevitable souring between Hester and Katherine after too much time in each other’s company, has given me much narrative inspiration.
Storm Boy (1964)
To read Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy as an adult is to enter a portal to my childhood. Made famous through the 1976 film of the same name, it is the story of a young boy who rescues and befriends a pelican, while living in a coastal humpy with his father, Hide-Away. Named Storm Boy for his familiarity and love of the landscape, and his fearlessness in its frequent storms, he is a character I loved dearly as a child. I both saw myself in him and longed to be him.
Storm Boy is set on Ninety Mile Beach, the vast strip of South Australian coastline that stretches from Goolwa in the north to Kingston in the south. It is an area that I spent a lot of time in as a child, and to read Thiele’s description of the Coorong and surrounding coast was to be powerfully reminded of my own sensory memories of Goolwa, Port Elliot, Granite Island, Kangaroo Island and Robe:
From thousands of miles round the cold, wet underbelly of the world the waves come sweeping in towards the shore and pitch down in a terrible ruin of white water and spray. All day and all night they tumble and thunder. And when the wind rises it whips the sand up the beach and the white spray darts and writhes in the air like snakes of salt.
There are few books that take me so immediately, so sensorially, back to the Australian landscape. Reading Storm Boy is to feel the sting of sand against my bare calves, the shock of cold under my bare feet on a winter’s day. In my mind’s eye I see the foam peeling off the breaking waves, the wind whipping it back to Antarctica, and the thump of the Southern Ocean resonates once more in my chest. I never heard the Southern Ocean, so much as felt it: heavy, thunderous, booming. Storm Boy takes me back there.
Thiele demonstrates a powerful understanding of the way children experience their natural surrounds—‘he couldn’t bear to be inside. He loved the whip of the wind too much’—and the way they relate to animals and recognise cruelty and injustice against them. As a child I felt, too, that ‘all living creatures’ were my friends, and I recognised Storm Boy’s distress at seeing animals hurt or wounded as my own. Storm Boy’s relationship with Mr Percival, the pelican, is solemn and beautiful and real, and to this day I cannot read its inevitable conclusion without crying. If there is ever a book for children about loving and letting go of animal companions, it is surely this one. And if there has ever been a more beautiful line or truism than ‘For birds like Mr Percival do not really die’, I do not know what it is.
Botany Bay Document (1996)
I first encountered Jordie Albiston in my mid twenties after reading her excellent ‘procession of poems’, The Hanging of Jean Lee (1998). Taking the real story of Jean Lee, who was hanged for murder in 1951 at HM Prison Pentridge in Coburg, Victoria (and who would be the last woman executed in Australia before the abolition of the death penalty in all states and territories in 1985), Albiston narrated the events of Lee’s life—from birth to death—with extraordinary insight and sensitivity to the social and cultural context of Lee’s crime and sentencing. I found Albiston’s poems, many of which ‘inhabited’ Lee’s first-person voice, haunting in their intimacy—their up-close-breathing-in-your-ear quality—and on finishing the verse novel I immediately searched for more of her work.
Albiston’s Botany Bay Document, published two years earlier, is subtitled ‘A Poetic History of the Women of Botany Bay’, and it is this, the collection’s deliberate muddying of history and imagination, that I adore. An author’s note informs the reader that the collection is ‘documentary poetry’, by which Albiston means poetry based on historical source material that nonetheless takes certain licences in order to ‘aid narrative meaning’ or ‘facilitate the transformation of document into poem’. The result is a collection of poetic biographies of real and imaginary women that have a cumulative effect of suggested, multitudinous history. It is intoxicating stuff.
Some of the best poems in Botany Bay Document come from the voices—collective and individual—of convict women. As representatives of those who were often illiterate and could not articulate nor preserve their stories in writing, and who therefore had little claim to historical perpetuity, these poems have a memorable, subversive quality to them:
We are cut-purses housebreakers
strumpets and Whores we
are shoplifters Curse-makers
footpads and more. We’ve
no morals or manners but
are debauched and depraved
anonymous sweepings from the Old Country floor.
No matter that these women may be imagined. Their voices carry emotional truths, problematising the notion of historical knowledge, while simultaneously reinstating the historical context as significant and determining.
After a primary and high school education that informed me about Australia’s colonial, convict and white-settlement history through reference to official sources and ballads, both traditionally white male preserves, reading Botany Bay Document was a welcome reminder that the historical record, as it was handed down to me in the classroom, is woefully incomplete. While Albiston refrains from writing from an Aboriginal perspective (finding herself both ‘incapable and ultimately unwilling’), she acknowledges Australia’s black female presence throughout the period in question, and in doing so recognises the stories that remain absent, even as she reinstates the narratives of others. •