Monthly Archives: March 2011

In which I go on a bit about buying two books

I happened to be in Glebe this morning, and as I had earned a little bit of money last weekend I allowed myself to yield to the allure of the bookshops.

First, the secondhand poetry shelves of Sappho’s beckoned. There were a number of tempting morsels – enough to make me think that a Sydney poetry lover had recently died or radically downsized. There was a book of Philip Martin’s, inscribed in a shaky hand  that suggested he had already embarked on the disease that was eventually to kill him; Adamson’s Waving to Hart Crane signed ‘affectionately Bob’. But the one I bought was a selection of Stevie Smith’s poems. When I worked at Currency Press, our Editor in Chief Phillip Parsons impressed me hugely by reciting the last page of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, and I became a fan on the spot (of Phillip, yes, but also of Stevie Smith). I recently saw a copy of her slected poems on a friend’s bookshelf – I took it down, and behold it was inscribed on the inside cover as a birthday present to a different close friend – a birthday present from me. The birthday girl later denied all knowledge of having given the book away, so I was left with a nagging sense that one or other of my dear friends was a book thief, a liar or an ingrate. Somehow when I saw this book in Sappho’s today – same selection, different cover – it seemed that buying it would make everything all right again. So I bought it.

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good.

And then next door to Gleebooks. I’d listened to Poetica’s excellent two part broadcast on France Webb recently, heard Geoff Page deliver a  lukewarm account of him on the Book Show (Maybe you need more than one poetry reviewer, Ramona! But I don’t need to say much, as commenter named Junius has given you the rounds of the kitchen on this one.) and been prompted to open up my 1969 Collected Poems. This is one of my favourite books – I mean the actual battered, slightly foxed object on my shelf, which I love because I spent quite a bit of intensive time with it in my mid 20s. I was planning on writing an MA thesis on Webb’s poetry. It didn’t happen, but I did a bit of work that left its traces in the margins of my copy (as well as in a little exercise book in which I pasted photocopies of poems by Webb that had been published but not collected). His explorer poems sent me off to read the published journals of Leichhardt, Sturt, Grey and Edward John Eyre. My book has notes on when and where poems were first published, textual variations and any annotations, and occasionally there’s a commentary from me. For example, in ‘Leichhardt in Theatre’, just before the explorer’s party is attacked by the people whose land they have invaded, the poem goes:

————————————Gilbert, the naturalist,
is planting some precious flowers that he has found,
Cradles them in his hands like diamonds

There’s a pencilled note in the margin:

This indicates he had probably not read the Journal - Gilbert was learning to plat (sic)

Presumably it was Leichhardt who misspelled ‘plait’. I imagine these notes would annoy anyone else, but they fill me with an affection for my younger self.

But back to the visit to Gleebooks. On the display table in the poetry section was the new Collected Poems, published by UWA Publishing and edited by Toby Davidson. I flipped it open and had to buy it. Not only does it include the poems I had found in my postgraduate days, plus more. It also promises to correct errors Webb had noted in the 1969 edition (his notes evidently came to light in the 1980s). Am I doomed to read with both books open – one for the poetry and the other for young Jonathan’s occasional comment?

I thought you’d like to know.

Sad news

I notice that my note from last June about Diana Wynne Jones’s illness has risen to the top of my ‘Top Posts’ list over on the right. I assume people are coming here to learn something of her death on the weekend. For anyone who has come for that purpose,  some links:

The Diana Wynne Jones Official Website
Neil Gaiman: Being Alive. Mostly about Diana
Misrule: Saying Goodbye to Diana
Emma Bull on tor.com: Remembering Diana Wynne Jones
Farah Mendlesohn, also on tor.com: Diana Wynne Jones
Christopher Priest in The Guardian:  Diana Wynne Jones obituary

No doubt there are others. The Australian newspapers may mention it, but don’t hold your breath – she’s not a sports star or an obscure US politician. In 1973 it took the Sydney Morning Herald weeks if not months to mention the death of Francis Webb, a great poet who had spent his last decades living in Sydney.

David Malouf and the Happy Life

David Malouf, The Happy Life: The search for contentment in the modern world (Quarterly Essay 41)

If I ever need to be reminded of the depths of my ignorance, I need only read an essay by David Malouf, any essay. In this one, he draws for his argument on Plato, Heidegger, Jefferson, Montaigne, George Herbert, Solzhenitsyn and Condorcet, gives illustrations from Chekhov, Rembrandt and Rubens, and refers in passing to Dostoievski, Horace, Marvell, Shelley – there are cameo appearances by at least twenty writers and artists we know by a single name, that is to say, key figures in European cultural history. He’s not Wikipeding. Nor is he showing off. You know that these writers are part of his mind’s living furniture, that he needs to refer to them if he is to lay out his own thinking. At the same time he realises many of his readers won’t share his erudition, so he becomes a tactful and gracious teacher, elegantly spelling out Heidegger’s interpretation of the Platonic story of Epimetheus and Prometheus, for example, or explaining Condorcet’s pivotal role in the history of ideas. It’s quite a change of pace from the electoral politics of even-numbered Quarterly Essays.

It’s a change of pace in another way too. At least the way I read it, it’s not so much a thesis, a marshalling of evidence and argument to convince the reader of something, but an essay, as in the French essai, an attempt at its subject, a reflective chat with past thinkers and makers, a teasing away at a question and a stab at partial answers. Here’s the question – I should preface it by saying that by us here, he means ‘the new privileged, those of us who live in advanced industrial societies’. (‘The truth is,’ he writes, ‘ that though we are all alive on the planet in the same moment, we are not all living in the same century.’)

How is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives – large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death – that happiness still eludes so many of us?

He explores the question down many interesting paths – because of course the question of happiness has been addressed by great thinkers for millennia – with excursions into art history He reflects on elements of the modern world from the effect of seeing our planet photographed from space to the way we think of our bodies has changed since his childhood in the 1940s (this is as close as he gets to the personal note that is a key element of the classic personal essay). Insofar as he arrives at an answer, it seems to be that ‘we’ need to slow down, shrink our horizons, accept limits. I won’t give any more detail: it’s beautifully argued, by means of a compelling image from a great piece of fiction, and I don’t want to spoil the reading for you. I do want to argue, though, that while this ‘answer’ may appear formally as the essay’s conclusion, it doesn’t resolve the argument. So much of the rest of the essay is arguing for something much more zestful, for the value of restlessness that the reader is inclined to think, ‘Well, if that’s the way to happiness, I’ll stick with my discontent, thanks.’ It’s a subtle, elegant, shape-changer of an essay, not easy to pin down, but very easy to enjoy.

There is one major perspective that makes an appearance only by virtue of an explicit exclusion. While it’s clearly legitimate to ask a question about happiness for the ‘new privileged’, leaving the happiness of the rest of humanity for a different essay, the rest of humanity must surely figure in the answer. No privileged elite is an island, entire of itself, and so on. My crude thought, which amounts to a central article of faith, is that none of us can be content while we don’t challenge and actively oppose the monstrous disparities covered by the notion that we are not all living in the same century. Didn’t we (and I think I mean David’s we) feel a surge of joy when the crowds in Tahrir Square had their moment of exultant hope recently, as if a weight had been lifted from our shoulders? And don’t we sleep less soundly knowing, even while we push it to the backs of our minds, that Aboriginal people in this country are still living in a different century from us, as the result, not of some geological time slip, but of ‘our’ forebears’ deliberate policies, and that ‘we’ all benefit personally from those policies? Someone said, ‘No one can be free until all of us are free.’ I think a corollary of that is that none of us can be happy as long as we are indifferent or ineffectual in the face of the misery of others. I can’t say I’m an unqualified fan of Alice Walker, but the banner that unfurls at the end of Possessing the Secret of Joy comes to mind: the secret of joy is resistance.

That is to say, this is a terrific Quarterly Essay, one that makes ya think.

Airport interlude

Last night I spent a couple of hours at the International Airport. I was waiting for someone who had booked on a JetStar flight from New Zealand. According to the web, their flight was a couple of hours late, at 7.20, and also cancelled. When I phoned JetStar in the afternoon, the person I spoke to said that meant it was arriving at 7.20. Once I arrived at the airport it was clear that it was actually cancelled, but since I hadn’t heard from my friends since the morning it was likely that they had been bumped onto the next available Qantas flight, a surmise with which the Travel Concierge agreed. Customs couldn’t help – the rules are that information about passenger lists can be revealed only three hours after a plane arrives. Thanks for that, regulators! I went looking for someone from JetStar, but their second-floor office was closed and their first-floor check-in desks deserted. I was collecting my email regularly on my phone, and my stranded friends finally managed to get word to me that they weren’t flying out until very early this morning, hoping fervently that they’d make their connecting flight to the US.

But stories about JetStar stuff-ups are commonplace, and that’s not what I wanted to write about. (My friends are now flying across the Pacific.)

An Emirates flight arrived during my vigil, and the waiting area was filled with Middle Easterners – plenty of women in hijabs and one in a niqab, a pleasant music of spoken Arabic, much familial kissing. When I was wandering aout the near-deserted third level, no doubt with a lost and confused look on my face, three young men came bounding up the stairs. One of them accosted me, speaking in rapid, excited Arabic, gesturing for me to join them. ‘I don’t speak Arabic,’ I said. He replied with more incomprehensible syllables, but this time made a fleeting gesture, not so much miming for my information as involuntarily illustrating his meaning – a slight bow of the head and two hands patting the air in front of his torso. ‘Ah, you’re going to pray,’ I said. He had no idea what I was talking about, and rushed off with his friends on their urgent quest.

I went back to the wall map I had been consulting, this time looking for any information about a prayer room. Sure enough, there was a little icon in the legend at the bottom showing a kneeling figure. I called them back and all four of us searched for the icon on the map itself. We found toilets, lifts, a first aid room, maybe a fire extinguisher, but no prayer room. We parted company, me heading back to the arrival gates, them about to settle, I expect, for a deserted patch of corridor where they could face in the correct direction and not be disturbed.

It was a surprisingly sweet encounter. Maybe the most sweetly surprising part was having someone assume I was Muslim, and probably, pink though I am, an Arab. It must be the famous Shaw nose.

Election Horror

When I turned up to cast my vote this morning I saw something I had never seen before. Yes, there was a raffle and a table groaning with baked goods. Yes, there were people in colour coded T-shirts handing out how-to-vote paper. Yes, the cyclone fencing at the front of the primary school was festooned with images of incumbent Carmel Tebbut,  insurgent Fiona Byrne and maybe others whose names I’ve not absorbed. All of this was as it ought to be. And inside the room, there were the usual tables, the usual ridiculously huge sheet of paper for the upper house, the usual cardboard booths, the usual air of muted celebration as we the people (to use an Americanism) exercise our power.

And then there is was: scrawled on the cardboard of the booth where I was to vote was one of those hideous slogans we’ve seen recently in as backdrop to Tony Abbott addressing his bussed-n revolters. I won’t reproduce it – suffice to say it included a hostile pun on the Prime Minister’s first name, a bit of sexist US jail-slang and a pun suggesting another federal parliamentary party leader is a disease.

Who are these people who think it’s OK to write vile graffiti in a polling booth? Isn’t it illegal? What does Tony Abbott think he’s achieving by validating them?

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist seems to have been announced without the usual Macquarie Street gathering for PowerPoint and photo ops. That probably makes sense, given that the Premier has a lot on her mind just now, and barring a total windfall for the bookies she won’t be Premier when the awards are presented in May. Or maybe I just wasn’t invited this year. But I’m not bearing a grudge, and I was busy that day anyhow. For those who find it irritating to have to flick back and forth to read the different short lists on the Awards site, here they all are at the bottom of this post – the links take you to the NSWPLA website’s discussion of the title.

I haven’t read, or in the case of the plays seen, very much from the list at all. Speaking from the heart of my prejudice, I don’t much want to read any of the Christina Stead titles except Utopian Man and Night Street, both novels about eminent Victorians (the State rather than the era). I’m tempted by all the Douglas Stewart titles – this is where literary awards really do serve a purpose, by drawing attention to books like Tony Moore’s history of political prisoners among the Australian convicts, Death or Liberty, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed, at least by me. I’m glad to see Jennifer Maiden’s book on the Kenneth Slessor list, but I haven’t read any of the others. In the past the NSWPLA lists have led me to interesting poets, so I’m inclined to go in search of Susan Bradley Smith, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones (of whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve yet to read a book), Anna Kerdijk Nicholson and Andy Kissane.

Of the remaining lists, what can I say? I’m out of touch with writing for ‘young people’ (a term I understand here as designating teenagers), but my friend Misrule was an Ethel Turner judge, and I’m confident in her judgement. Though I’ve only read one from the Patricia Wrightson list,  I know the work of five of the six writers, and will be delighted whichever of them becomes several thousand dollars richer come mid-May. If the other books are as good as The Three Loves of Persimmon, it’s a vintage year. I’ve seen four of the six scripts produced for the big or little screen, and wouldn’t know how to choose between them for excellence – another vintage crop. I heard Ali Azadeh read from Iran: My Grandfather at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s been on my TBR list since then.

Here are the lists:

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Peter Carey – Parrot and Olivier in America
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
Alex Miller – Lovesong
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Ouyang Yu – The English Class

The Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction
Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons – Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs
Anna Krien – Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Tony Moore – Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868
Ranjana Srivastava – Tell Me The Truth: Conversations With My Patients About Life And Death
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Brenda Walker – Reading By Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
Susan Bradley Smith - Supermodernprayerbook
Andy Jackson – Among the Regulars
Jill Jones – Dark Bright Doors
Anna Kerdijk Nicholson – Possession
Andy Kissane – Out to Lunch
Jennifer Maiden – Pirate Rain

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature
Michelle Cooper – The FitzOsbornes in Exile: The Montmaray Journals – 2
Cath Crowley – Graffiti Moon
Kirsty Eagar – Saltwater Vampires
Belinda Jeffrey – Big River, Little Fish
Melina Marchetta – The Piper’s Son
Jaclyn Moriarty – Dreaming of Amelia

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
Jeannie Baker – Mirror
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood – Clancy and Millie and the Very Fine House
Cassandra Golds – The Three Loves of Persimmon
John Heffernan – Where There’s Smoke
Sophie Masson – My Australian Story: The Hunt for Ned Kelly
Emma Quay – Shrieking Violet

Community Relations Commission Award
Ali Alizadeh – Iran: My Grandfather
Anh Do – The Happiest Refugee
Maria Tumarkin – Otherland
Ouyang Yu – The English Classm
Yuol Yuol, Akoi Majak, Monica Kualba, John Garang Kon and Robert Colman – My Name is Sud

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
Stephen Daisley – Traitor
Ashley Hay – The Body in the Clouds
Lisa Lang – Utopian Man
David Musgrave – Glissando: A Melodrama
Kristel Thornell – Night Street
Gretchen Shirm – Having Cried Wolf

Play Award
Patricia Cornelius – Do Not Go Gentle…
Jonathan Gavin – Bang
Jane Montgomery Griffiths – Sappho…In 9 Fragments
Melissa Reeves – Furious Mattress
Sue Smith – Strange Attractor
Anthony Weigh – Like a Fishbone

Script Writing Award
Shirley Barrett – South Solitary
Glen Dolman – Hawke
Michael Miller – East West 101, Season 3: The Hero’s Standard
John Misto – Sisters of War
Debra Oswald – Offspring
Samantha Strauss – Dance Academy, Episode 13: Family

The men who read The Man who Loved Children

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (©1940, Penguin Modern Classics 1970)

Someone on the Internet recently described The Man Who Loved Children as one of the greatest novels ever written. Jonathan Franzen has championed it, with the result that it has recently been republished. The copy I’ve just reread is the 1970 paperback of the edition resulting from the book’s being championed by another USian, poet Randal Jarrell. I ‘did’ Christina Stead’s For Love Alone at university, and remember it vividly, but this book, which I read independently of any study requirements, had faded from memory, leaving only a recollection of having loved the book and hated the eponymous Sam Pollitt. So I was glad when the Book Group picked it. Logically we should have picked Seven Poor Men of Sydney or For Love Alone because we were after something to follow on from Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South, but evidently those of us who’d read this, combined with those who’d read of Franzen’s enthusiasm, swung the vote.

Before the meeting:
For the first 200 or so pages, as we are taken into the Pollitt family, the book is completely engrossing, though far from simply pleasurable. In fact, it’s a bit like being taken into the implacable embrace of a two-headed boa constrictor. Sam and Henny Pollitt must be among the awfullest parents in literature. Sam is a monumental monster, relentlessly garrulous, playing with the language in elaborate baby-talk with his children, lecturing them endlessly on his own peculiar and increasingly repulsive utopian socialism, turning them against each other by vicious teasing and, whenever anyone takes offence, whining that they have hurt his feelings or defied his authority. Manipulative, narcissistic, brutally sexist and convinced of his own goodness, he makes Henny’s life a misery and is surely giving his children material for decades in therapy. But though we feel for her, Henny is hardly an attractive character. Even when she’s not storming and threatening destruction all round in blind, operatic rage, hardly a word comes out of her mouth that isn’t tinged with venom – against Sam, the children, the world. It’s a horror story. In the first half, there’s little sense of movement or plot progression – just an appalling claustrophobic massing of incident. What makes it readable is the language: both Sam and Henny are intensely verbal, she with an embittered satirical phrase for everyone and everything, he with a pyrotechnicon of silly voices and accents, quotations, nicknames, puns.

As the halfway marks approaches, there’s a blessed reprieve when Sam goes off to Malaya for eight months and Sam and Henny are no longer under one roof. We see Sam’s ebullient, insensitive, visionary self-engrossment outside the claustrophobic confines of his family, and recognise in him a buffoonish version of the ‘obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism’ (I’m quoting Wikipedia) of Graham Green’s The Quiet American. Then it’s back to the hothouse, and things get worse. But now at least there’s movement, downstream of course, to an overwrought climax. Astonishingly, for all its gut-wrenching quality, I didn’t remember how the book ended. Perhaps when I was 20 I read it completely as a fantasy construct, whereas now, sadly, I’m prepared to entertain the possibility that monsters such as Sam do exist in our world.

At the meeting:
There were seven of us. Only one had finished the book. I was 70 pages from the end (I hadn’t reached the aforementioned climax – I said I guessed that adolescent Louie left home and Henny either killed herself or didn’t, and the one who had finished said, ‘Worse,’ and was right). One who didn’t come, wrote to say he stopped caring about any of the characters when he heard someone on the Book Show talk about how Christina Stead rewrote the book from a Sydney to a DC and Maryland setting at the bidding of a US publisher (which, incidentally, she did with remarkable thoroughness). One had put the book down at page 72, too irritated with Sam and the language to contemplate going further. Others had struggled to return to it, and it’s very long.

We had a terrific discussion, interspersed with reflections on the negative aspects of ensuite bathrooms, the terrible prospects facing us at the State elections this weekend, initiatives for peace in the Middle East, quiche and ice cream. I think I liked the book more than anyone: what was the point of all this wretched misery, what insight did it offer, someone asked. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do think that almost any paragraph picked at random offers up abundant riches. And it has to mean something that, as I read yesterday on Literati, the book has been included along with The Female Eunuch on at least one university course.

After the meeting:
Last night and today, I finished it. Let me finish by taking up the challenge implied in my comment about ‘any paragraph picked at random’. [Opens at random.] Here’s one. It’s not what I would have chosen, because it’s part of a scene that takes place away from the toxic Pollitt home, but I did say ‘random’. Henny is talking with her sister Hassie and their mother Old Ellen while Louie and Evie, Henny’s two daughters, eavesdrop. Henny has just delivered a self-pitying aria, concluding, ‘Why was I ever born?’

‘It’s too late to ask me that,’ said Old Ellen. ‘But you mightn’t have been.’ She began to laugh. ‘Your old man sent me anonymous letters himself to make me divorce him.’ She rippled with he-hes. ‘I hung on to spite him. I didn’t want him. It’s my only pleasure left.’ She laughed. ‘All I’ve got left is to sit in the sun and watch Barry booze and sometimes give him a kick in the pants. Sit in the sun and watch barflies, huh?’

(Barry is Henny’s alcoholic brother, and after her husband’s death, Old Ellen will indeed be left to look after him.) Out of context, I suppose the most striking thing about this paragraph is the disjunction between Old Ellen’s laughter and the terrible things she is saying. In context, it’s brilliant for what it does with point of view. We are  wrenched from Henny’s self-preoccupation  to the old woman’s misery, from which she has snatched a kind of bitter, self-destructive victory, and in the process Henny receives yet another blow to her sense of self. When you consider that the underlying point of view is that of the eavesdropping children, the paragraph takes on cataclysmic proportions – or would, except that we suspect they have been hearing things like this all their lives, that Old Ellen has been saying this kind of thing to her own daughters for most of theirs. The only person really appalled by her words is the reader – for everyone else it’s just renaming old pain, adding a further numbing twist to old confusion. Someone at the book group said he found it hard to get into the rhythm of the book; someone else said he thought that was because the point of view kept changing, and no one’s story had room to progress without interference. This little paragraph is a small example of that process at work.  And there’s that laughter. Hitler laughed when Ribbentrop gave him a birthday present of an ornate wooden box containing a copy of every treaty he had broken – Old Ellen’s laughter is about as cheering as Hitler’s. The book is full of  laughter and smiles that make the blood run cold.

No  wonder it’s a neglected classic!

happy birthday

Yesterday she who was formerly known as the Art Student but is still waiting for a new blogname turned 60. Nine of us are in Adelaide to celebrate- partly as a way for her to avoid having a party but mostly because she gets to take us with her visiting childhood sites, and we all get to WOMADelaide. At this morning’s birthday breakfast, I kept to my own precedent and read a sonnet. I wrote the last word just as the former Art Student came to collect me for breakfast, so it hasn’t exactly had time to ripen, but here it is:

For three score years you’ve been alive
and kicking up your heels, down doors,
my love and swive for thirty five,
co-parent, partner, joy’s main cause.
The psalmist gives you ten more years.
The Chinese give you rabbit ears:
wear red, a fresh start now, they tell us.
The Hindus say, Be forest dwellers:
reflect, find meaning now, make art.
There’s grimness, earthquakes, rising seas.
We know one day you’ll break my heart
or I yours by dying. Please,
though earth grows warmer by the hour
it’s still a garden. You’re still a flower.

[With acknowledgement of a line from Carolyn Kizer's 'Afternoon Happiness']

The new Bond movie

The first Bond movie directed by a woman. Starring Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, directed by Sam (‘Nowhere Boy’) Taylor Woods, written by Jane (‘Kick Ass’) Goldman, it’s only 2 and a bit minutes long. Have a watch. And my belated wishes for a happy International Women’s Day.

I saw it on tor.com

Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest, Of Bees and Mist

Amos Oz, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest (2005, translation from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Chatto & Windus 2010)
Erick Setiawan, Of Bees and Mist (Headline Review 2009)

The Re-enchantment web site’s tag line, ‘Not all fairy tales are for children,’ could have been coined with these two books in mind. Both have fairy tale settings (a village in a forest, an enchanted castle) and are shot through with fairy tale motifs. Both introduce supernatural elements in the matter-of-fact manner of fairy tales. Both, in the manner of fairy tales, have spirited, curious child protagonists – or start out that way. And both definitely have an adult readership in mind, though the first doesn’t leave potential child readers in the lurch, as the second does with its explicit sexual content.

Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest has elements of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ and other familiar tales, integrated into a completely serious fable. In a village in the middle of a forest, there are no animals – no birds, no fish, no insects, not even any earthworms. Something terrible happened long ago, when the older villagers were young, and now the village children are faced with a near pervasive silence about the past and stern warnings about the dangers of the night and the forest. Maya and Matti, our heroes, dare to investigate, and find that the adults’ stories about a demon who lives in the forest are both true and misleading. It’s a short read, just 137 pages, and though it becomes preachy towards the end, the preachiness, against the ‘mocking and scoffing disease’ of bullying ridicule, stays true to the fairy tale mode, leaving the reader to savour the deeper themes unharassed.

Those deeper themes have to do with memory and forgetting. As Matti says:

Maybe there should be another word, a special word that includes both remembering and forgetting: sometimes, out of the blue, a mother or father in the village imitates animal or bird sounds for their child. But a minute later, they regret it and correct themselves and explain that animals are merely a fairy tale. Then they sigh because our teacher, Emanuella, confuses us so much with all those crazy animal stories out of her poor head.

This reminds me of The Silence, Ruth Wajnryb’s fascinating book about how the children of Holocaust survivors gleaned hints of their parents’ stories from just such a process of remembering and not remembering, telling and not telling. As Amos Oz is Israeli, he may have had the Holocaust in mind. Or he may have been thinking of the Naqbah. Equally, I found myself thinking how in my childhood the history of dispossession and genocide of Australian Aborigines was both common knowledge and somehow unacknowledged. These reflections and associations arise from the narrative but never disrupt its integrity as a tale about two children and a village without any animals.

Sadly the same can’t be said for the ‘meanings’ of magical events in Of Bees and Mist. I confess up front that I stopped reading soon after page 50, but it was only because I knew other people love the book that I could force myself to last that long. Meridia lives in a big old house whose magical properties – perpetual cold and gloom, a staircase that stretches and contracts arbitrarily, strangely sentient surrounding mists – are pretty well explicitly presented as symbols of her parents’ unhappy marriage, her father’s extreme authoritarian coldness and her mother’s babbling, forgetful misery. Other magical details, such as a woman in the marketplace who grows herbs on her body for customers to snip, seem to be there as decorative afterthoughts. I revolted at the prospect of 500 pages of this sort of thing.

Was it fantasy writer Jo Walton who, when someone asked her what the dragons in her work represented, replied that they were just dragons? I guess I’m the kind of reader who wants my zombies to be zombies. In the middle of a zombie story, I want to be worried for the hero’s brains, not – at least not at the front of my mind – ruminating on modern society’s fear of the mob or feeling for the author’s deeply unhappy childhood.

Not all fairy tales are for children. Some aren’t for me.