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Fiction reviews


Bronwen Lichenstein - Touching Sweet; Gail Morgan - Walk to Kulentufu; Peter Shrubb - Family Matters

10 October 1988

Touching Sweet
short stories by by Bronwen Lichenstein
Greenhouse Publications

Walk to Kulentufu
by Gail Morgan

Family Matters
by Peter Shrubb
Hale & Iremonger

Published in The Australian


Bronwen Lichenstein's often pleasant collection is overtly Jewish, and sometimes brings to mind the wry, subtly teasing Isaac Bashevis Singer: she has also copied Singer's technique of addressing the reader as a confidante. None of the Nobel laureate's wistful passion, and sense of tragedy, are evident however: the stories do sometimes have a ho-hum flavour.

The Fire in Joe Kalish
at least breathes life into the characters (who are gathered round Joe's graveside) by forcing a female apparition on them. It is Maria, the Polish lover who died to save Joe from the Nazis. The narrator lays the ghost by returning to Poland, digging up Maria's remains, and interring them alongside Joe.

Tree and Coffee tells of a migrant woman given a tree at her citizenship ceremony, which subsequently dies of neglect. Hampered by a silly title and silly similes (she rather labours the comparison between her culturally transplanted narrator and the tree), the story is still satisfying overall. Perhaps because of its credo:

The world will forget and not mourn me, but by then the seedling which grew into a giant [her son] will have branched and borne a forest with strong roots binding the soil. The sun, bees and birds will depend on the forest and gather strength from its growth and I...will have given the land its bounty.

This collection, though dealing with the oft-overlooked Australian Jewish experience, is at times not a million miles from The Women's Weekly.

GAIL MORGAN'S Walk to Kulentufu is described by its PR hack as "extremely unusual in the current Australian context" (sigh) because "it is a strongly narrative novel, and Gail has written about a man as her central character". As if that wasn't enough to change the face of literature as we know it, she "has looked at the difficulties of migrants trying to find their cultural identity in Australia..."

Vowing never to read so much as a cover-blurb again in my life, I began Gail Morgan's book with a heavy heart. But within twenty pages it became apparent that Morgan is a writer of wit and concision. The novel is about Wojtek (VOYtek), a young Polish emigre, and his 32-year-old lover Anne, a gutsy (and well-drawn) Bondi art dealer. Anne's way of curing Wojtek of his despair at Australia's cultural blandness is to invite him to the wilds of New Guinea, where she is heading to buy artefacts. The juxtaposition of his Polishness, Anne's Australianness and the locals' ways, provides much of the fodder for the novel's many cultural musings. These unfortunately get out of hand eventually. The dialogue, in particular, is often too complex and thought-out to be convincing.

Still, Gail Morgan pushes her story forward with every line - a pleasant contrast to the aimless page-filling of many of our writers. The novel could have been a triumph, were its cultural observations not so forced. (Wojtek, for example, sonorously compares himself to Russia, and Anne to Poland.) Morgan tries too hard by half for metaphors, and the Rich Ironies of Modern Life:

No more food-queues, yet his Polish friends chose to diet. Hunger by choice - that too was a form of philistinism.

Or a way of losing weight. As for the crowd of sunbathers on the beach, "It was the smell of burning skin which sickened him, an odour of concentration camp creeping into the flat." The exaggerations reach their nadir with, "Not many people, thought Wojtek, were capable of love."

Morgan's characterisation is often good - but virtually all her characters, from the travel agent to the New Guinean doctor, tend to be verbose and philosophical. Indeed the doctor, when Wojtek is about to wallop him, launches into a little homily on the subsistence economy to deter him.

Nevertheless Gail Morgan can write, and may one day surprise us with a masterpiece. She has it in her.

FROM DIFFERENT NARRATIVE points of view, Peter Shrubb's first novel, Family Matters, traces the lives of the Sturts - an unspectacular middle-class Sydney family. It begins with daughter Jessie leaving home (third person narrator), then back we go to the week leading up to her parents' wedding (told by David, her father), their early married and working life (as told by Emmy, her mother), then finally the demise of David's mother (in the third person again).

An ambitious structure: but Shrubb's style is too lacklustre to make it work. And when he tries to get eloquent the results are generally gruesome:

All the way home, sought and inescapable both, trapped in her head like a song that won't go away, the memory of the two times he had been protective kept appearing like a new constellation in her heaven, a new chamber in her heart.

Later David asks:

Was it just night, the old black engulfer, to my little anxieties what the first wave is that slides up the beach to the derelict sandcastles it first softens then erases?

Come again? For all this muck, and poor editing, parts 11 and 111 (dealing with the ups and downs of family life) are frequently convincing. It is mainly when Shrubb tries to break ground that his shortcomings are apparent:

Your mother sniffed, but had no cold. To tell you the truth, she had a warm. Warmly, after a minute, she said...

The novel's main problem, however, is that all its narrators sound the same. Jessie's mother and father, for instance, both write long, turgid, analytical sentences, peppered with parentheses. So for all its attempts to look at this particular diamond through different facets, Family Matters lacks both variety and cohesion.

Gail Morgan stands out as by far the most promising writer of these three. The sooner she buries what she learned in her masters degree in literature, the more interesting she will become.

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