Book reviews

Labour of Love: Tales from the World of Midwives
edited by Amanda Tattam and Cate Kennedy. Pan Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 0 330 42166 2, RRP $25

I have never given birth myself. Two decades on, however, tales of my own birth are still a popular topic of family conversation. Dad remembers clearly the doctor in his ‘white gumboots’, but in Mum’s stories the two midwives who were present take the lead role. It is this special and often neglected relationship between midwife and mother that Tattam and Kennedy probe in Labour of Love.

They allow midwives to tell their own stories, taking us across the continent from the isolated Wimmera to the pandemonium of a busy city maternity ward. They chart not just the elation of ‘textbook’ births, but the deep despair into which families sink when something goes wrong. Central to each story, however, is the bond of support forged between midwife and mother.

Readers may find the vivid descriptions of birth and its aftermath confronting. Often it feels that we are unwelcome intruders in someone’s private joys and sometimes-raw grief. It is precisely through such intimacy, however, that Labour of Love captures the anticipation, excitement, and pain of birth and the adventure that follows. The great virtue of the book is to give voice to those often forgotten central figures, the midwives, and the vital role they play at birth and beyond. Thanks to this book, I will now listen to stories of my own birth a little more appreciatively—even the one that starts, ‘Becca had a face like a squished-up prune.’

Bec Butler

The Long, Slow Death of White Australia
Gwenda Tavan. Scribe Publications, 2005. ISBN 1 920 76946 3, RRP $32.95

Gwenda Tavan’s book is an account of the history of the White Australia Policy. It grew out of her PhD thesis of the same topic. There were times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in fact trawling through one of my history tutorial readings.

Beyond the style, Tavan has written a decent public history of the policy from Federation to present, tracking it from its nationalist beginnings through the postwar pressures for social change and up to its legislative end during the Whitlam days. Leadership and community values issues are themes flowing through the book. Was it the vision of people like Whitlam, Grassby and Fraser that brought Australia into its multicultural era? Or simply politicians responding to society’s changing views on matters of race? Chickens and eggs, really. Tavan seems to suggest that courage in politics had a large role to play in the momentous changes like the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.

This is a worthy read, if a little lacklustre due to the focus on official, orthodox history. At a time when the prime minister has started making some encouraging noises about reconciliation, and government members are openly pressing for changes to mandatory detention, it’s interesting to ponder the racial undercurrents at play. According to Tavan’s analysis, the politics of modern Australia present a country that officially dismantled White Australia but continues to encounter its ghost.

Emily Millane

The Dead Place
Stephen Booth. HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 0 007 17206 0, RRP $29.95

Sometimes fictional crime series sneak up on us, so that the next pleasure is going back to where they started and working through. For Stephen Booth, a former journalist and a guest at this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival, The Dead Place is the sixth outing that he has given the prickly DS Diane Fry and the optimistic, intuitive DC Ben Cooper. The setting is Derbyshire, an unfashionable territory for crime writing before now, or indeed writing of any kind. There is a forlorn reckoning of how few authors have been drawn to this part of England, although Jane Austen wrote some of Pride and Prejudice at a local inn.

Booth remedies this lack with flair, leading us around a damp landscape where rain is only ever postponed, up desolate crags, into marshes. Here poaching thrives, while abandoned ancestral homes have their own basement ossuaries and fresher bones turn up on lonely hillsides. The plotting of The Dead Place involves a masterly set of bewildering clues fairly laid. The novel’s striking tone is of desolate menace. Cooper’s generous gifts are complemented by Fry’s suspiciousness. There is bleak jesting too, fit for one of the novel’s principal settings—a family-run funeral parlour. The ‘dead place’ of the novel’s title becomes a metaphor for loss, as well as several frightening, concrete locations.

The detective duo is such a familiar staple that Booth’s deft and original touches with Cooper and Fry might pass unheeded. His interest is in why they have become as they are, and what they make of their troubling legacies. On a broader scale, but congruently, it is the psychology rather than the sociology of crime that engages Booth’s imagination. In particular he dissects the consequences and pains of loneliness. The Dead Place is crime fiction of a high order.

Peter Pierce



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