8 July 2021

The Canberra bookshelf: hunkering down for a winter feast of local writing

| Barbie Robinson
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Emma Batchelor's Now that I See You

Emma Batchelor’s Now that I See You won the Vogel Prize for an unpublished manuscript. Image: Supplied.

Between shutdowns and cold, July is certainly a great time to hunker down with a good book.

Three vastly different novels from local authors this month – Catherine McCullagh’s Secrets and Showgirls (Big Sky Publishing), Emma Batchelor’s Now that I see you (Allen & Unwin), and Irma Gold’s The Breaking (Midnight Sun Publishing).

Known for her children’s books, short fiction and as an editor, Irma Gold’s first novel, The Breaking, is a compassionate work focussed at plot level on the elephant tourism industry in Thailand. It’s also about love, charting its heroine Hannah’s hesitant and rocky path as she sorts out her sexuality and her relationship with her parents. There’s a coming-of-age element there.

The author’s experience in a country with elephants and a lifelong admiration for them add not only realism to this tale but also a good measure of her own passion. The complexities of the relationship between foreign tourists in poorer parts of the world and the industries they spawn and support are unstintingly explored.

Along with the cruelties wrought on elephants, Irma Gold casts a balanced eye upon the living conditions of the Thai handlers. It’s good not to be too judgemental as wealthy visiting farang after all.

This book will have you burning the late-night candles and which will reward you with much to consider of your own unwitting part in unsavoury aspects of animal welfare and tourism.

Catherine McCullagh's Secrets and Showgirls

Catherine McCullagh’s Secrets and Showgirls is a historically well-grounded wartime drama. Image: Supplied.

Joining a growing collection of current works about various aspects of Nazism and World War II, Catherine McCullagh’s fictionalised history Secrets and Showgirls examines the effect on the ordinary Parisian citizen of German Occupation during the period known as Vichy France (1940 to 1944).

Beneath the froth of its title lies a dark story of hardship, the need for secrecy and suspicion, of moral ambiguity and compromises made for survival. It’s also a story of loyalty and friendship, resourcefulness, celebration and love. Seen largely from the point of view of the cabaret showgirls of Le Prix d’Amour, it’s an exploration of oppression but also rebellion.

The artists are on the fringe of society for one reason or another, their manager is a businessman by default and their housekeeper a necessarily wily and astute domestic manager and observer of human character and behaviour. It is their camaraderie and teamwork that pull them through the war despite numerous threats to their safety.

The author, a writer with military history expertise, includes all manner of interesting, factual titbits about everyday life under the Occupation. Her insider knowledge of the life of the showgirl also adds verisimilitude to this story – it’s of almost epic proportions, so settle in for a long and deep read.

For the most part, though, it is an adventure story laced with derring-do, romance and drama, and populated with a cast of entertaining characters, from the endearing to the villainous to the outré, as we might expect in the Parisian cabaret scene.

Emma Batchelor was the winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for her manuscript Now that I see you (Allen & Unwin 2021).

This award is given for an unpublished manuscript by an author under the age of 35. It has been the launchpad for many successful writers, including Tim Winton, Kate Grenville and Mandy Sayers. We can only hope that Canberran Emma Batchelor will go on to such heights.

The story is classified as autofiction and is, for the most part, the author’s truth about the dissolution of her relationship with a partner who all of a sudden discloses that ‘they’ are transgender. It is thus also the story of Emma’s attempts to come to terms with this shocking reality, her descent into severe depression, her self-doubt and the beginnings of a recovery.

The work is very moving, written mostly as a series of journal entries and emails. Swapping deftly between the immediacy of shock and sadness and reflective narrative, the writer holds our attention and evokes our sympathy and, it must be said, curiosity.

While the circumstances of this situation are unusual, most readers will be able to understand, and some recall the feelings Emma expresses, her inability sometimes to function at all and her emotional isolation when she feels she cannot speak about what is happening to those nearest and dearest.

All in all, this is a page-turning read, highly accessible and a stunner of a debut.

Barbie Robinson is co-founder and a content creator for Living Arts Canberra, a not-for-profit media outfit supporting arts and community in the Canberra region and books worldwide through its website, podcast interviews and a 24/7 internet radio station.

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