Book reviews

In Tasmania
Nicholas Shakespeare. Random House, 2004. isbn 1 740 51271 5, rrp $39.95

In Tasmania is a passionate exposé of one man’s desire to embrace the Apple Isle and explore his genealogical link in its historical context.

This quest for English author and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare contributed to the unearthing of a fortuitous link to his ancestor and ‘father of Tasmania’, Anthony Fenn Kemp. Readers soon discover the irony of such a title—Kemp was a tyrant and loathed for his cruelty both in Tasmania and in his country of birth, England.


One question arises in the attempt to document Kemp’s journey: does Shakespeare use conjecture loosely to surmise the sequence of events around his distant relative? If so, he can be excused for the narrative sounding more like folklore than transcribed fact. It’s an intriguing historical account.
The debates about Aboriginal identity, Truganini as the last Aborigine and the documented genocide of the late 1800s were topical while Shakespeare was writing In Tasmania, and he juxtaposed the debate with his research on Kemp.

Finally, the charm of Shakespeare’s anecdotes encompasses a sincere desire to elevate the heritage of the people of Tasmania and to re-create a bona fide sense of pride for their links to the earlier penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land.  

Lee Beasley

Women and media: International perspectives
Karen Ross & Carolyn M. Byerly (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2004. isbn 1 405 11609 9, rrp $59.95

To any woman who has ever felt oppressed, repressed or suppressed, Women and the Media: International Perspectives is a must read. This insightful text explores women’s relationship with the media—in particular, the media’s stereotypical and negative representations of women who work in the media industry or as citizens ignored in some societies.

Written by six international female scholars including the text’s editors, the topics cover women’s place in politics, movies and online. Karen Ross describes how female parliamentarians are judged by their appearance rather than their policies while Ellen Riordan confronts the reality that perceptions of women are masculinised when cast in roles with male-like qualities (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

The international perspectives studied by Dafna Lemish and Ammu Joseph are eye-opening. And all of the authors resist the temptation to adopt a feminist tone. Lemish reveals that because of the participation by men in the continuing conflict in Israel, the media focuses on the activities of men, ignoring the stories of women. Consequently, this has sustained the perception that women are ‘invisible’ or only seen as ‘sexual objects’ as the reality of their lives is largely ignored.

This book helped me to appreciate the freedoms I enjoy as a female living in Australia and increased my awareness of the issues involved with women’s relationship with the media in other countries. Those of us who have the power of the voice owe it to our sisters in other countries to learn about the media’s misrepresentations of women and initiate change. Sisters, unite—and read on!  

Kathryn Page

Havoc, in its third year
Ronan Bennett. Bloomsbury, 2004. isbn 0 7475 6441 8, rrp $29.95

Havoc, in its third year is a historical novel set in a Puritan northern English town in the 1630s, during the reign of Charles I. In an afterword, author Ronan Bennett acknowledges that ‘when conflicts arise between historical fact and the demands of the novel’, novelists working with fiction ‘tend to settle them in favour of the latter’.

As true as it is that the author is removed from the era of which he writes, it should also be said that it is far more difficult for readers to remove themselves from the concerns of the present. This is probably why this, Bennett’s fourth novel, the one after his best-selling The Catastrophist, has been described by critics as an allegory for our current international political atmosphere—specifically, Christian America (and Britain, and Australia) versus a Muslim Middle East, and more generally, our more prolonged ‘war on terror’.

I think this largely misses the point, which is that the novel is a study in hypocrisy. And perhaps one we all need to read, but only if we apply its message to ourselves, before we apply it to others.

‘I see you very plainly, sir,’ says one of the characters to one of the governors of the town, ‘I see you for the hypocrite you are. You make your voice solicitous and sympathetic but your heart is hard and unforgiving. You have won men over by saying they can be better men and love one another, but better men for you are ... the rich and mighty ... These are the men who have your love. Those who are truly in need of love and grace and pity, they go disregarded and reviled.’

Matthew Lamb

The Tomb in Seville
Norman Lewis. Macmillan, 2005. isbn 0 330 43538 8, rrp $25

The Tomb in Seville sees Norman Lewis in his final book return to territory visited in his first—his journey through Spain in the autumn of 1934. Lewis, accompanied by his brother-in-law Eugene, sets out to discover the location of a family tomb in the cathedral of Seville. His father-in-law bankrolls the expedition. Throughout their meanderings, most of what they observe is beyond their experience and expectation—lush forests, ‘golden steppes’ and extreme poverty. The historical context imposes its presence—they dodge snipers in Madrid and are forced to detour via Portugal as the states of alarm become more frequent. While Eugene is caught up in the revolutionary fervour, Lewis remains dedicated to the notion of the quest and the neutrality of his observations.

What distinguishes this effort from similar accounts (notably Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Gerard Brennan’s South of Granada) is the perspective provided by the passage of time. Lewis is writing in the last stages of his life about events that occurred almost six decades earlier. This distance, coupled with the fact that he has previously tackled the same events, allows him to select the sharpest of images with the confidence that they will speak for themselves. The story is revealed with detached elegance, still bearing all the urgency, colour and wonder of the moment. A remarkable achievement.

Steve Gome

 

 

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