Quick reviews

The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood. Text Publishing, 2005. isbn 1 920 88595 1, rrp $22

My brain often hurts just thinking Margaret Atwood: it’s one of those distinctly heavy names, with words like Booker, Feminist and Literature dancing around behind it. No surprises, then, when Atwood—along with Achebe, Byatt, Winterson and Tartt, just to name a few—was asked to contribute to a new Myths series, in which Atwood rewrites Homer’s Odyssey as her own Penelopiad.

What was surprising, however, was my initial disappointment: the first person prose from beyond the grave felt awkward and childish; and irritatingly, I could feel Atwood’s presence behind every word. Could see her, pen poised, thinking, How can I construct this as a feminist text?

Having said that, this story is difficult to resist: it has drama, rage, jealousy; not to mention adultery, violence and a good old-fashioned giant Cyclops. A fantastic, melodramatic yarn; much like an episode of Neighbours, but with less Toadfish and more Trojans.
And how brilliant that a story, first told an unfathomable number of years ago, still finds its way onto our Da Vinci Code-infested shelves. Read it for Atwood’s breathless feeling for the macabre, and her aggressive reweaving of myth, threading new colour and light through the old and faded.

Brooke Davis

No Place Like Home
edited By Sonja Dechiam, Jenni Deveraus, Heather Millar and Eva Sallis
Wakefield Press, 2005. isbn 1 862 54686 X, rrp $19.95

‘I can’t believe that just over a body of water is the difference between heaven and hell,’ writes Irene Guo, aged 12, in ‘Linda’s Story’. Many of the short narratives in No Place Like Home are stories of escape from hellish situations, whether from regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or communist China, or from war in Iraq or Sudan. With the current debate over Australia’s decisions to detain asylum seekers, this powerful collection makes the reader proud to be Australian, but also brings home the fact that simply arriving in Australia is not the end of the hardship for many refugees.

Written with the simplicity and honesty of children and young adults, these are stories of hope and joy at the possibility of a better life in Australia, but also a reminder that Australia does not necessarily welcome all refugees with open arms, at times treating refugees little better than did the regimes they risked their lives to escape. Najeeba Wazefadost brings home just how inhumane our detention policy can be in ‘Surrealistic Nightmare’: ‘We came to get freedom. We were locked in detention centres, treated like criminals for no reason. The detention centres are really punishment centres for non-existent crimes. They should be closed down.’
 
There are stories of racism and hatred, hope and love, war and its aftermath. It is essential reading for contemporary Australians regardless of how we came to be Australians.

Merrin Hughes

Breastwork: Rethinking Breastfeeding
Alison Bartlett
University of New South Wales Press, 2005. isbn 0 868 40969 3, rrp $39.95

Breastfeeding is presently caught between sentimental representations and clinical circumscriptions from scientific discourses, leaving scant room for the acknowledgement of actualities—particularly for women in contemporary society. Alison Bartlett creates a generous intellectual and relaxed space for critical and sensitive exploration into a diverse range of cultural themes drawn from postmodern and feminist perspectives—without the theoretical jargon.

Passé modernist perspectives on breastfeeding are shown to be holding us back from becoming a more civil society. Revealed at another level are lucid and illuminating connections with complex social issues such as race relations. Given that current representations of breastfeeding are fraught, Bartlett contends with the subject beautifully. Her overall assertion—that even hegemonic narratives such as medical science can never be conclusive in reality—is vitally convincing. Breastwork is a journey deep into our cultural and social landscape, a welcome and refreshing read for new mothers.

Kate Chester

Saving Fish from Drowning
Amy Tan
HarperCollins, 2005. isbn 0 007 21989 X, rrp $29.95

Narrated from beyond the grave by an eccentric San Franciscan socialite, Saving Fish from Drowning tells the story of 11 American tourists who disappear into the Burmese jungle. Bibi Chen was to lead the tour until she is found dead in her shop window in the novel’s opening pages. Before they leave, the group toast Bibi and ask that she travel with them in spirit, not expecting her to do just that. As their spirit guide, Bibi is an omniscient witness to the events that follow, and to each character’s individual thoughts and misunderstandings.

Amy Tan found inspiration for the story at the American Society for Psychical Research, where she learned of a medium who claims to have channelled Bibi’s account of the doomed travellers. As a writer, Tan was unable to visit Burma—renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1990—while researching the book, so she relied on second-hand sources to create a picture of the country. The title is borrowed from a story about a man who claimed that by taking fish out of the sea, he was saving them from drowning. It’s a fable about the dangers of oversimplification and arrogance such as that of governments and outsiders who offer alternative suffering disguised as salvation to people like the Burmese. The novel is allegorical, vividly imagined, compassionate and engaging.

Cassy Polimeni

 

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