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Book reviews

The Pyjama Girl Mystery, Richard Evans.
Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76936 6, rrp $30

‘Who was the Pyjama Girl? Who killed her? I don’t know.’

Writers who eschew tidy resolutions are hard to come by. But crime writers who leave unanswered the classic ‘whodunnit’ conundrum are almost unheard of. In the face of a complex case of murder, the conclusion of The Pyjama Girl Mystery is refreshingly non-committal. Author Richard Evans traces a decade-long series of mistaken identifications, bizarre theories and official oversights following the 1934 discovery of an unidentified female body near Albury in New South Wales.

The picture he paints tells many stories: of a corrupt and incompetent police force; of a blind faith in forensic science despite its fallacies; of a pervasive social compulsion to sexualise and render responsible female victims of violence. The former journalism lecturer’s real talent lies in his ability to unravel the web of myth and hyperbole spun by the Australian press. Accordingly, his own account of the case is determinedly matter-of-fact. The style is simple, economical, and self-consciously devoid of literary flamboyance. What remains is an unreserved indictment of those all too willing to dispense with evidence in their pursuit of a more seductive, more convenient version of the truth.

Jess Low

Stargazing: Memoirs of a young lighthouse keeper
Peter Hill. Vintage, 2004. isbn 1 740 51276 6, rrp $22.95

‘Open your curtains over the black starry night sky above Hampstead, or Boston, or Sydney ... and read a favourite poem. Then stare at the sky and contemplate the vastness of the universe. Gradually, you will turn into a lighthouse keeper.’

In 1973, art-school underachiever Peter Hill applies to the Dr Who-ishly named ‘Commissioners of the Northern Lights’ for holiday work doing a job that everyone must have fantasised about at least once. Despite his waist-length hair and 19-year-old Aquarian idealism, he’s accepted and spends six months as trainee keeper on various tiny islands off the Scottish coast.

Despite the realities of Watergate, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War seeping in via TV and newspapers, Hill’s world contracts to a cocoon of story telling, midnight watches and endless rounds of biscuits and cheese with tea.

In an age of ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’, he’s thrust into close quarters with some colourful and often crusty older men who offer low key but lasting mentoring in life, love and gourmet cooking.

Though the gap between the events and their retelling occasionally shows as characters and places can blend into one another, Stargazing is a gentle, whimsical and elegiac story about vanished youth and an equally vanished profession. While Hill decides that lighthouse life isn’t for him (today he’s an artist and critic living in Australia), it’s clear that the beauty, peace and sense of wonder of that time have never left him. Recommended.

Sally Cloke

The Sparrow Garden, Peter Skrzynecki.
University of Queensland Press, 2004. isbn 0 702 23426 5, rrp $22.95

Peter Skrzynecki’s memoir The Sparrow Garden traces the journey of his family’s immigration from the displaced persons camps of Germany to their new life in the late ’40s.

We follow Peter as he explores personally haunting and memorable events, from his experiences as a child in the Parkes Migrant Camp, to the new family home in suburban Sydney, and later parts of his adult life. The selected memories allow us insight into the struggles involved in the refugee experience and the nature of childhood, but perhaps most significantly, into the powerful connection between family, particularly parents and children.

The strength of The Sparrow Garden lies in its emotional honesty. From the Skrzyneckis’ innate grief at the loss of their homeland to Peter’s boyhood jealousies and frustrations; the emotions conveyed are real. It is Skrzynecki’s raw presentations of humanity that make the text moving and cement many moments in the memory.

The beauty of The Sparrow Garden is found in the language and poetry used to encapsulate these emotions and experiences. The accompanying poems add to the text, and the author’s ability to capture the essence of his experiences in a few verses is powerful. Skrzynecki’s acute attention to detail in describing his surroundings, both past and present, is also strong, painting meticulous images (particularly of the treasured family garden after which the text is named) that linger in the mind of the reader.

Rachel Hewitt

Sacred Space, The prayer book 2005, ed. Michelle Anderson.
Michelle Anderson Publishing, 2004. isbn 0 855 72348 3, rrp $24.95

Juxtaposed to the momentum of the commercial Christmas rush is the timely release of Sacred Space, The prayer book 2005. This daily devotional follows the same format as the popular website by the same name. Alan McGuckian sj and Peter Scally sj of the Jesuit Communications Centre in Ireland created www.sacredspace.ie in 1999 as a response to all those ‘seeking a sense of spirituality’.

The richness of this structure is in its simplicity. At the start of each week there are six topics—The Presence Of God; Freedom; Consciousness; The Word; Conversation; and Conclusion—to contemplate, as well as a daily scripture reading and a series of statements and questions in response. The need for spiritual substance in our world is a quest not only for those already practicing their faith. Sacred Space knows no denominational limits and is as much an invitation to those estranged from church as it is for those with no faith background at all.

While over 11 million hits have been recorded at www.sacredspace.ie, there are still many who find solace away from technology. The commitment to seek daily comfort in the pages of this book would be the greatest gift or New Year’s resolution the reader could give themselves. Holding tight to the spine of this prayer book may create a sacred space that becomes the backbone for their spirituality.

Lee Beasley



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