See What I Have Done: book review


Reading Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done is like continually pressing down on a blossoming bruise. It is compelling, uncomfortable and somehow irresistible. Schmidt skilfully reimagines the true crime tale of Lizzie Borden who was accused of the brutal axe murders of her father and step-mother in 1892 as a work of fiction. While Borden was acquitted of the murders and no-one else was ever convicted, Schmidt does not leave any room for doubt over whodunnit.

Schmidt weighs this murderous tale with decay. The novel is thick with decomposing bodies, putrid fruit, rancid mutton soup, rotten teeth, congealed blood, and stinking breath. The Borden family is a chilling study in violence, rage and seething sexuality. Lizzie and her supporting cast are cut-through with psychological wounds that eventually manifest as a brutal blood-letting. The undercurrents of the story run deep and dark. Schmidt steers them artfully just far enough below the surface. All the while, the clock on the mantel tick ticks in the background menacingly.  

Schmidt’s writing style is distinctive and this is a confident debut novel. Her writing is full of brillant and off-kilter images “her mouth lion-wide”, “his long, bony jaw moved like a grip broiler” and “voices were pin pricks in the ear”. This imagery reinforces the unsettling and claustrophobic mood of the novel. The universe created by Schmidt is defective. Her characters are deranged.

There are obvious parallels to draw between Schmidt’s novel and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights. Both are 19th century true crime tales of women accused of murder and both were much hyped. But unlike Kent’s novel where the reader is invited to have empathy for the central character, there is nothing redeeming about Schmidt’s portrait of Lizzie Borden. 

See What I Have Done has been touted as the next The Girl on The Train and the book carries a cover blurb by Paula Hawkins. I haven’t read Hawkins so I can’t comment whether this comparison is merely clever marketing or something more substantial.

However, two other recent novels which sit comfortably alongside Schmidt’s are the bloody and brutal 19th century exploits in The North Water by Ian McGuire and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. And for another brilliant study of the mind of a murderer, MJ Hyland’s This is How is a cracker.

Schmidt is now working on her second novel. According to an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, it is about a woman with a decomposing baby in the backseat of her car. It seems the decay that set in during her debut will be with us for some time yet.

Postscript: It would be remiss of me not to also mention that Schmidt is a librarian from Melbourne. Librarians are awesome, and Schmidt clearly is no exception.

Things That Helped: book review

Jessica Friedmann’s book, Things That Helped, deftly threads essay, memoir and critical theory through the despair of Friedmann’s post-natal depression to weave an impressive debut. 

Friedmann reflects on her experience of motherhood with the benefit of distance, both geographic and temporal. She now lives and writes in Canberra, anchored in an inland city far removed from Melbourne’s Maribyrnong river where she fantasised about drowning herself. The cool, calm river a siren calling her from her misery towards annihilation.

While Friedmann’s focus is her post-natal depression, her essays radiate out across art, feminism, music, the environment, marriage and race. It is an enthralling journey through her expansive knowledge and sharp mind. This isn’t a 10-step recovery narrative. It is a 12-chapter chipping away at the edifice of depression, each chapter offering a thing that helped.

Emily Laidlaw and Kara Nicholson both place Friedmann’s book alongside Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance as stablemates in genre. I found Nelson’s dense critical theory a hard slog. In contrast, Friedmann wears her theory delicately. It never weighs her writing down. Like Wright in her exploration of anorexia, Friedmann deconstructs her mental health struggle honestly in all of its complicated mess. Neither Wright nor Friedmann offer easy answers, instead they raise difficult questions about being a woman. 

They simultaneously hold up a mirror to themselves and to society, laying bare the imperfections of both.

It is a revelation to watch the recent emergence of women’s writing on mental health from Australian writers such as Friedmann, Wright and Anna Spargo-Ryan. Their important narratives open up room for discussion and better understanding of the experiences of the many women wrestling mental health challenges. This kind of writing can save people.

Dying a memoir: book review 


‘The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me.’ 
I can’t imagine feeling anything but sheer terror at the prospect of dying from a terminal illness, when your brief flicker of life faces extinguishment. Conversely, in this short but powerful book, Dying: a memoir, Cory Taylor faces death with sadness, sometimes anger, but mainly resolve and a deep appreciation of all her life has been, both the ups and downs. Taylor laments the absence of discussion about death in our culture and the lack of choice for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity. She ponders death through the lens of an atheist and questions how she might view it differently with religion as a frame of reference. For the most part, the book is a gentle meander down the paths of memory and I had to remind myself at times that Taylor was dying. This is a beautiful book and is as much about living well as it is about dying well. Perhaps our vain attempts at self-preservation by wandering about in denial about our own mortality robs us of the chance to live better lives.

The Museum of Modern Love: book review

What is art? It is a question as inexplicable as asking what is life? But in The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose asks both questions. The lens for examining these questions is a fictionalised account of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance art piece staged in New York’s MoMA. In the novel we meet a cast of characters intersecting with Abramovic’s performance, all at a cross-roads in their lives. This is a clever, well-executed novel and beautifully written. Rose weaves the intertwined lives and narratives of major and minor characters convincingly, though I did wonder if the novel could have worked better if it had been written from fewer perspectives. I wanted something more from the voice of the ghost, but then this wasn’t meant to be a ghost story. This novel ponders the artistic life and ultimately Rose is making a statement, which is that making art is an act of courage. There is something of a manifesto in this novel. I think Rose is saying that we live one life and she is challenging us to live it singularly, to create art. And she has done that with this novel.

From the Wreck: book review


Genre-bending, ambitious, wild and magical. I loved this novel. In From the Wreck Rawson challenges the boundaries of historical fiction with a shape-shifting alien character. She takes us on a journey from dusty and dry 19th century Adelaide, drags us down into the deepest oceans, flings us out past the stars and into space and then reels us back to earth again. This tale of loneliness, trauma and grief is equal measures tender, dark and playful. This novel is original and deeply human. Rawson is masterful at stretching plausibility just enough, balancing a tricky line of believably that never tips too far over the edge and without ever becoming tricksy. I’m not sure if I would use the label scifi, fantasy or magical realism for the novel. It did remind me a little of Jeanette Winterson in books like The Passion, but then I also thought it was completely unique.

An Isolated Incident: review

Although in style Emily Maguire’s novel, An Isolated Incident might fit into the psychological thriller genre neatly alongside Jane Harper’s The Dry, I think that is a short sell for this complex novel. Maguire’s book grapples with a broad range of social and cultural issues including misogyny, violence against women and the portrayal of women in the media. It is more akin in substance to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things if I was searching for a contemporary stable mate.

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the truck-stop town of Strathdee, half way between Sydney and Melbourne, she leaves behind her sister, Chris. The novel is party told in the first person from Chris’s perspective. Chris is one of the most compelling and finely drawn characters I have met in a novel for some time. Maguire completely nails her voice. I loved her vernacular and sassy turns of phrase. We discover that Chris is equally tough and scared, independent and needy, street-wise and shielded. Her sister’s death sends her into a spiral of grief as she grasps onto the threads of her life, not knowing who to trust. I was hooked by Chris immediately. I was propelled along on her narrative at the speed of the road trains thundering along the highway into Strathdee.

The balance of the novel is told in the third person from the perspective of May, a journalist from Sydney who arrives in Strathdee to cover Bella’s murder story and to escape her miserable love life. At first I found the shift in perspective from Chris to May jarring, but came to appreciate the relief of stepping off the juggernaut of Chris and her terrifying crash through life. May is a secondary character, and honestly it would be difficult to compete with Chris, who was such a perfectly realised protagonist. May’s character did serve to expand the plot and gave Maguire the opportunity to explore some themes that otherwise would not have had breath in the novel.

What makes this novel captivating and unique is Maguire’s choice not to shine all of the focus on discovering the perpetrator of the crime. This thread runs quietly in the background. However, the main focus is squarely on the aftermath of Bella’s death and how it affects her loved-ones and her community, and how the murder fits into a broader social context. At its core this novel asks questions about how women are treated in their personal relationships and by society. There is anger in these pages.

I read this novel in two sittings and I adored it.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

The books I loved in 2016 published in other years

I shared my favourite newly released books of 2016 in an earlier post. This year, I also read some crackers published in other years. I had a little excursion into Canadian Literature thanks to a visit to Canadian public libraries and the excellent recommendations of their librarians. I also met a super helpful sales assistant at the John Fleuvog store in Gastown, Vancouver. You have to love a city where you can get good shoes and great CanLit recommendations in one place.

As a result, three of the six books I have chosen are by Canadian authors. Two others are memoir, and one is an Australian crime fiction classic.


A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews

I adored A Complicated Kindness. This CanLit classic came up as a recommendation from everyone I asked in Canadian libraries, as well as being a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It is a coming of age story set in a cloistered Mennonite community in the US. Funny, dark and heart-breaking. Do yourself a favour and read this one.


February, Lisa Moore

Another CanLit recommendation, February, is a story of grief and loss set on the Newfoundland coast in the wake of a catastrophe. Playing with time and switching between the present day and flashbacks, chronology in this novel is less important than the emotional trajectory. It is beautiful and poetic. 


Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese

I asked for some First Nations CanLit recommendations and Indian Horse was suggested by several people. This story of cultural alienation, separation from traditional land, and the reality of life as a First Nations aspiring hockey player is full of sorrow and hope. Beautifully set against the the Canadian wilderness, it draws on myth and magic. A great introduction to First Nations literature.


Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild while travelling through Canada. Some of my journey took me close to the Pacific Crest Trail where Strayed heals her grief through an onerous and sometimes joyful thousand-mile solo trek. I spotted the mountain tops of the Cascades as I traveled by train through British Columbia. Seeing the landscape while reading the novel made me appreciate the scale of the task she had set herself without any training or support. I enjoyed Strayed’s humour and self-deprecating writing. A great travel read.


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of my all-time favourite writers. I don’t love all of her books equally. I have my favourite children, so to speak, but this one is an absolute stand-out. This memoir is the auto-biographical version of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and is the story of her growing up in a strictly religious family with a domineering and clearly mad mother. It is the story of her searching for her biological mother. Most importantly, it is the story of her finding a way to love herself and others. Every sentence in this book is perfect and devastating. The best memoir I have read? Possibly.


The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

2016, the year I finally got around to reading The Broken Shore. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction so I can’t claim much knowledge about the genre beyond a dedicated love of Raymond Chandler, however, I think I can say this would have to be the quintessential Australian crime fiction novel. I loved the men of few words, the Australian landscapes, both rural and urban, and Temple’s writing style. There’s even a scene in the State Library Victoria! I have Jane Harper’s The Dry on my summer reading list so I can expand my adventures into Australian crime writing.