Reviews for Bruny

Bruny has had so many great reviews. And I’ve conducted many interviews. Here are a few if you’re interested.

Review by Rohan Wilson – The Australian or here  

Review by Helen Elliott – The Age  

Profile by Stephen Romei – The Australian  or here  

Profile by Melanie Kembrey – The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age

ABC Radio National with Sarah L’Estrange – The Book Show

ABC Radio  National – The Bookshelf –  with Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh on satire – The Cockroach by Ian McEwan and Bruny by Heather Rose

ABC Radio Perth with Gillian O’Shaughnessy

‘More a hand grenade than a book’

Review by Rohan Wilson in The Australian‘s Review magazine Saturday November 9, 2019.

Chafing satire and explosive views

Heather Rose – Bruny Island – photography Peter Mathew

For the most part, Australian literature in the 21st century is fairly toothless.

On a good day, our writers can muster up some anger at the appalling treatment of our First ­Nations people or for the equally appalling treatment the LGBTI community suffers.

But outside of these worthy causes it seems as if our writers enjoy a middle-class contentment that turns their gaze inward to domestic life, rather than outward to civic life.

Meanwhile, the world is going through an economic revolution. The billionaire class and their neoliberal political attack dogs have convinced us that competition is the defining characteristic of human ­relations.

Wealth inequality is causing epidemics of depression, suicide and obesity. Property ownership has become an impossible dream for whole swaths of the community. A handful of powerful corporations are busy ­destroying our climate. Are our best writers asleep to what’s going on around them? ­­Or worse, are they happy with the status quo?

Heather Rose is perhaps the last writer I would have expected to come out swinging. Her previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, won a swag of awards for its depiction of performance artist Marina Abramovic and her piece, The Artist is Present. It was a quiet, contemplative novel about the way art can bring people together and give us hope.

Now we have Bruny, which is more like a hand grenade than a book, with its excoriating satire and explosive views on our political and economic trajectory. It’s the best evidence we have yet that Australian writers are finally waking up to the unfolding crisis.

It begins with an explosion on the newly built Bruny Island bridge in the south of Tasmania. The bridge is meant to connect Bruny to the mainland, making life easier for the locals and boosting tourism.

Bruny Book
Bruny launched October 2019

The explosion has the hallmarks of a terrorist plot and it quickly becomes a central issue in the looming state election. Enter ­Astrid Coleman. Astrid is called in by her brother, JC, the premier of Tasmania and Liberal Party strongman. He wants a speedy resolution and thinks Astrid, who is an ­expert in conflict resolution based in New York, can bring together the various factions fighting over Tasmania’s future. But as Astrid starts to dig, she soon learns that JC’s motives are more nefarious than she first ­assumed.

Rose takes an episodic approach to her story, with Astrid in the field gathering information from bridge workers, restaurant owners, greenies, and anyone who might have reason to blow up the bridge.

A picture of contemporary Tasmania begins to emerge. We see how the politics of austerity have impoverished the community, we see how privatisation has given more and more power to unaccountable private tyrannies, and see, perhaps most frightening of all, that China has moved in to take advantage of Tasmania’s clean, green potential.

Astrid is not without her own problems, too. We learn that her parents’ marriage wasn’t as happy as it seemed and that it has left her with some anxieties to work through. Her own marriage fell apart after her husband revealed himself as a ­misogynist.

While she is world weary and somewhat cynical about her brother’s agenda, she maintains an optimistic outlook and a deep love for the island of her childhood. But her optimism is seriously challenged by the conspiracy she uncovers as the facts behind the destruction of the Bruny Island bridge come to light.

This is where the satire in the novel really starts to bite. The Chinese Communist Party views Tasmania as yet another Third World location where it might win some influence through investment in infrastructure. It ­insists that Chinese workers be shipped in to complete the repairs to the bridge and the Liberal government enthusiastically agrees.

Astrid starts to think that the bomb plot may have been staged in order to win support for a change in local employment laws to allow foreign workers to be shipped in wholesale. In fact, the truth is much, much worse.

As I read on and the scale of the conspiracy became clear, I had to put the book aside because I was laughing so hard.

This is audacious writing. It exposes the lies at the heart of neoliberal economics more clearly than any book in recent memory, and it does so with a vicious sense of irony.

And there’s something here for everyone. Whether it’s Astrid’s rule-breaking romantic interest in Dan, the manager of the bridge workers, or the family drama between Astrid and JC, or the political commentary and piss-taking, there are moments on every page that keep narrative tension bubbling away.

I certainly expect to see this book feature in major prize shortlists over the next 12 months. It’s the wake-up call we needed.


By Heather Rose. Allen & Unwin, 424pp, $32.99

Rohan Wilson‘s most recent novel is Daughter of Bad Times.

From Heather: Rohan’s wonderful novel The Daughter of Bad Times shares many of the same concerns as Bruny – but is set in 2074 … do go seek it out!

NPR Reviews “The Museum of Modern Love”

Art Restores The Soul In ‘Museum Of Modern Love’

December 10, 201812:00 PM ET


The Museum of Modern Love

by Heather Rose

Paperback, 286 pages

My guess is that you’ve never read a book quite like Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. I know I haven’t. This is the Australian author’s seventh novel, though it’s her first published in the United States, and it’s a real find. Rose celebrates the transformative power of art with an artful construct of her own — the profound response of a handful of fictional characters to Marina Abramovic’s performance piece, The Artist is Present, in which the Serbian artist sat perfectly still and silent at a table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a total of 736 hours over the course of the performance.

Between March 14 and May 31, 2010, more than 1000 people took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze, while thousands more came to observe from the sidelines. Rose places her characters among them as the exhibit’s time clock ticks down. Most are at a painful crossroads in their lives, which heightens their susceptibility to Abramovic’s performance.

Even if you’ve never cottoned to Abramovic’s transgressive, self-flagellating body of work and regard the lengths she has gone in her explorations of physical endurance and the relationship between the artist and her audience as more stunt than art, Rose’s passionate take on it opens readers up to a fresh look. That said, the knife slashes, razor blades, and Great Wall of China trek make for sensational reading, but The Museum of Modern Love wouldn’t work if Rose’s characters and their stories weren’t as compelling as her appreciative assessment of this controversial artist whose “metier [is] to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.”

Central among the novel’s cast is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks and an “immensely sad” and limited — but sympathetic — human being who “didn’t know how to solve anything but music.” Rose writes, “It’s hard to imagine a man more capable of living in his own cocoon than Levin.” He loves solitude and “didn’t even like living on this planet particularly.”

But until 2010, Arky thought he was happily married. That’s one of many assumptions he has to reassess after his beloved wife, starchitect Lydia Fiorentino, becomes gravely ill. Shortly before we meet him, Arky has learned that Lydia made advanced legal arrangements to sequester herself in a nursing home, with a court order to keep him from visiting — having long doubted his ability to care for her should her congenital illness turn critical. But their daughter and friends question Arky’s willingness to abide by draconian arrangements Lydia is no longer capable of overturning. At a loss, he finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic’s MoMA performance.

Other characters converge with Arky as they, too, are mesmerized by Abramovic’s MoMA show. Jane Miller is a recently widowed middle school art history teacher from Georgia. Brittica van der Sar is a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic. Healayas Breen, a beautiful black art critic and singer raised Muslim in Paris, was a former girlfriend of Arky’s former musical partner — who disappointed them both when he moved on to younger composers and girlfriends. Abramovic’s performance teaches each of them lessons about time and stirs a desire to catch some of her courage, daring, and resolve.

Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader.

Rose, who lives on the island of Tasmania, displays a deep appreciation of art and a deft ability to blend fact, fiction, abstract ideas, and sentiment that recalls Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. So, too, does her willingness to venture beyond the confines of reality with an omniscient, incorporeal first person narrator — a sort of art-angel muse who spans centuries. An offbeat exploration of Abramovic’s difficult relationship with her mother, whose ghost haunts the MoMA show, also evokes Smith’s novel.

Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader. Her narrator remarks, “There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work. They are as waterfalls shot with sunshine.” The widowed art teacher explains great art’s ability to touch deeply and expose something “indescribable … A kind of access to universal wisdom.”

Amid searching but never tedious discussions about what constitutes art, and reflections on Abramovic’s grueling performance, Rose posits, “Perhaps art was evolving into something to remind us of the power of reflection, even stillness.” Her viewpoint is best summed up in an epigraph from Stella Adler, one of many inspirational quotes that punctuate The Museum of Modern Love: “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”

Sydney Review of Books – by Peter Pierce

All her fiction presents challenges to the heart and to the inquiring mind. 

Written by


17 February, 2017

The Mischievous Artistry of Heather Rose: The Museum of Modern Love



Heather Rose’s career as a novelist has been pursued with a calm daring. Her four adult novels are notable for their narrative experimentation and for the different ways in which each tests readers’ credulity. In her first, White Heart (1999), a young Tasmanian woman gives up the prospect of a musical career, moves to Melbourne where she runs a second-hand bookshop and then – to the dismay of her partner and father among others – journeys for years to the United States where she participates in Native American ceremonies – sun dancing, fasting, piercing. The Butterfly Man (2005) imagines that the fugitive British peer and presumed murderer, Lord Lucan, had ended long, arduous and secretive travels under an assumed name and a Scottish identity on the slopes of Mount Wellington. Rose’s short novel, The River Wife (2009), is a fairy tale, a piece of eco-fiction perhaps, in which the eponymous heroine – woman by day, fish by night, living far from the city in a chilly lake district – falls in love with a human. Most recently, in The Museum of Modern Love (2016), she has turned to another real, although certainly living character, as the focus of the novel: Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramović, whose work inspires both adulation and derisive scepticism. In between, as ‘Angelica Banks’, and in collaboration with fellow Tasmanian author, Danielle Wood, Rose has written three books for older children concerning the adventures of the teenager Tuesday McGillicuddy in the world of story: Finding Serendipity (2013), A Week Without Tuesday (2015) and Blueberry Pancakes Forever (2016).

This carefully spaced output, the artful deliberation with which each book is finished, seems to be a series of radical departures, one novel from the next. In fact, Rose might equally be reckoned to have fashioned a body of work intensely linked in themes, preoccupations and techniques. The mention of a few will introduce a longer look at Rose’s fictional world: mutilation, metamorphosis, accidental deaths, artists working ardently in various mediums, the remote shores and landscapes of Tasmania (in the first three novels, but not at all in the fourth, save that much of it was written at MONA in 2012-3 where Rose met Abramović), the impingement of a benign spirit realm on the daily lives of some of her characters, whether fully known to them or not, strange yet enduring marriages among the many that of course do not last, people ostracised or outcast from whatever need, fault or compulsion. To the handling of this mixed and potentially intractable business, Rose brings a skilled and at times almost mischievous artistry, not least in effecting narrative surprises that both disorient and persuade.

Born in Hobart in 1964, Heather Rose had a weekly sailing column in the local newspaper, the Mercury, at the age of sixteen. There was a distinguished predecessor. George Johnston’s first published piece of journalism, ‘Ill-Fated Voyages: Tragic Wrecks on the Australian Coast’, appeared in the Argus when he was the same age. He was paid five guineas. (In the fictionalising of these events in My Brother Jack, 1964, David Meredith uses the pseudonym ‘Stunsail’.) Rose won the Tasmanian Short Story Prize in 1981, finished school the next year, then went travelling. The blurb for White Heart describes her work experience in Europe as a goatherd, youth hostel manager, chambermaid, companion, fruit picker. In her twenties (and this was the basis of much of her first novel), she journeyed each year to the United States and became involved in Native American spirituality. From 1984 she worked in Melbourne as an advertising copywriter before returning to Tasmania in 1996. She founded and managed an advertising agency (in this line of work her literary forebears include Peter Carey, Barry Oakley and Bryce Courtenay), Coo’ee Tasmania, part of an international network. In 2004 Rose was named Telstra Tasmanian Businesswoman of the Year.

By then, Random House had published her first novel, White Heart. Its epigraph, from Mark Wagner, instructs us that ‘Initiation is a passage from one place to another. A doorway that once opened can never be closed’. The Prologue announces arrestingly: ‘My brother Ambrose is a tiger hunter’. This is one of the terse, beguiling openings that are a stylistic signature for Rose. The narrator whose brother is mentioned is Farley Willow. The tiger is the Tasmanian variety, the marsupial wolf, the thylacine, believed extinct since the last recorded death of one in captivity in the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1936. Its afterlife has nonetheless been vigorous, with many reported sightings and search parties whose occurrence has only diminished in the last few decades. In fiction, 1999 saw the coincident publication of Rose’s novel and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, about a quest to find the tiger as determined as that of Ambrose Willow. Once again the evidence of some Tasmanian literature at least was that the most vital fictional material was extinct, or at least of the past: Aboriginal people, the convict system, the thylacine.

Farley knows this. As she remarks:

In other parts of Australia people grow up on Tasmanian stories of incest, dog-like men, heavy-faced women, of impenetrable forests and savage animals. These tales, true and embellished, are the shadow of Tasmania.

Here, in ‘one of the last places of pure wild’, the almost uninhabited western regions of the island, the children’s grandfather, Papa Kempsey, had long ago killed a tiger. Farley and Ambrose, who sometimes stay at their grandparents’ shack in remote Liberty Bay on the West Coast, hear that story as well as tales of the convict settlement on nearby Sarah Island. The tiger’s remains are kept in a box, a reminder of the shame that Papa Kempsey still feels and an incitement to his grandson to find the animal that he believes must yet live. Thus Ambrose, his ‘hat sewn from a wild cat pelt’, is a hermit in the ‘hushed sanctuary of the rainforest’, from which he emerges rarely and as a wraith to those who are surprised by him: ‘He is a man beyond the weather, with his breath in the sky and his heart on the track ahead’. His habitat is the tiger’s: ‘the dripping, growing, breathing ancient world slung with thick creeping vines and brilliant mosses’.

The novel’s first part opens with more family business. As Farley relates, her father, Arthur Willow, ‘came to God through marriage’. That is, he grew devout during the religious instruction that he received prior to the ceremony. The bride of this bank teller and later manager is Phoebe Kempsey, who works in the typing pool of the Globe newspaper in Hobart. Arthur thinks that her eyes are the loneliest that he has ever seen, even before he learns how ‘all her life Phoebe’s parents had flittered off here and there’. When Harriet was painting, ‘Phoebe knew that her mother would be gone from her and gone into the landscape’. At other times she is put in care, for which the euphemism is ‘your mother’s having a nice rest’. Thus it is, at least in the first years of their marriage, that Phoebe ‘loved that nothing [Arthur] did ever surprised her or startled her’. As Farley will later reflect: ‘Marriage can be a box or a doorway’. She will chart the disintegration of her family: Arthur’s hatred of Ambrose for having the youth that he had never known; Phoebe’s affair and flight abroad with an academic in the French department at the university; the death of Papa Kempsey, after which ‘nothing was the same’.

In the second part of White Heart, Farley also leaves Tasmania. She finds that ‘London was a lonely journey into adulthood’; searches in vain for her mother in France (lost parents, as well as lost children will be a motif of Rose’s fiction). With $50,000 inherited from her grandmother, Farley buys a bookshop in Melbourne; meets Angus, a British engineer. They are ‘two people hollow with loneliness’, who soon becomes ‘allies in parenting, but unpredictable neighbours in love’. It is at this time, and wholly by chance, that Farley learns about ‘some native American workshop. Up in the high country’. She is soon exposed to, but not deterred by the sententiousness that goes with it. Her mentor instructs Farley of a vision that she may have had: ‘If you see those ravens again, don’t run from them’. Instead she will prepare herself for adventure: ‘the sun dance … a ceremony that happens every year when the chokeberries turn black’.

The most problematic and challenging part of White Heart is the third, which deals primarily with Farley’s travails and enlightenment in American deserts during the sun dance ceremonies: ‘all piled into the sweat and song and prayed’. In North Dakota she has a surer vision than of the ravens in Melbourne: ‘At dusk on the second day I looked into the sky to see a buffalo skull drawn in white clouds’. For the first time, she lets herself be pierced with eagle feathers. There are discouraging voices (as there will be about Abramović in The Museum of Modern Love). Angus tells her ‘I hate what you’re doing to our little boy’. Of her father’s disapproval, Farley acknowledges that ‘until then I had never realised that to other people sun dancing might appear to be barbaric, heathen, crude’. Her needs overbear others’ perceptions of her selfishness. Nor do these affect her belief that ‘the explanation of sacred matters [those with which she is concerned] doesn’t belong in English’.

Many of Farley’s assertions risk readers’ mockery, for instance when ‘they danced together, with each other, and for each other, and for all the fathers and sons in the world’. Result: they make rain for a parched land. But that belief has been sufficient to release her to come to the sun dancing and then to stop, to return to her child, perhaps to begin a new relationship with the doctor Finn Rand, who practises north of Cairns, and to make one more crucial journey. In the fourth part of the novel, Farley decides that it is time for her to go ‘To Tasmania … to see my brother Ambrose’. In fact – in the shock that Rose now springs (although not without some subtle forewarnings) – we learn that the business of Ambrose’s tiger hunting has all been a story, lovingly and desperately imagined. He has been dead since the age of sixteen, drowned with his grandfather on a morning when, in the first of her visions, Farley ‘saw a white light shimmer all around his body’. She has both pursued a parallel quest of her own and taken ‘to imagining Ambrose still alive, living in our secret world’.

Less than 40 years separates the last verified sightings of the Tasmanian tiger and of John Bingham, Seventh Earl of Lucan. The latter was seen on 7 November 1974 at the Belgravia townhouse of his estranged wife Veronica on the evening when he was alleged to have murdered (perhaps by mistake), Sandra Rivett, the nanny of his three children. After that he disappeared, since to be reckoned dead or rumoured to be abroad. An old Etonian, member of the Coldstream Guards, inveterate gambler (the nickname ‘Lucky’ was ironic), Lucan was deemed debonair enough to be invited in 1966 by Cubby Broccoli to audition for the part of James Bond. In his absence Lucan became the first peer since 1760 to be found guilty of murder. Meanwhile he was supposed to be making overseas appearances from Africa to Australia. Theories, often at book length, abounded. Most recent was Laura Thornton’s A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014), in which she surmised that a hitman had been hired to kill Lucan’s wife, an attempt that was bungled. A death certificate was not issued until February 2016 when his son George became the Eighth Lord Lucan. What possessed Heather Rose to resurrect him in her second novel, The Butterfly Man?

In the novel’s Prologue, Rose, writing in her own voice, reveals that an audio-vision was the cause: ‘it was the winter when I was so ill that I first heard him. Sweet and terrible stories he told me as I lay sedated’. When well again, she saw Lucan’s photograph in a newspaper, twenty years after his disappearance. In consequence, ‘what he told me, you will read here’. Before that telling begins, through the voice of the person who for some time has been known as Henry Kennedy, Rose cautions that ‘what is true is that it is only a fortunate few of us who make peace with those we have loved, and those we have hurt, before we die’. The novel begins in September 1995 when Kennedy, recovering from a recent stroke, finds himself being tended by a young Asian woman called Suki. There is mention of another woman, Lili, of a child, Charlie, and of how Kennedy built this house on the side of Mount Wellington near Hobart. Old terrors beset him: ‘They’re still looking for me. They’ll never stop’.

‘One Year Earlier’, Kennedy has a specialist’s letter in his pocket with the death sentence of a brain tumour. His partner, Lili Birch, a Vietnamese refugee who now hosts The Sunday Show on SBS television, is about to disclose the existence of a drug-afflicted daughter and her son – Suki and Charlie. Other characters are introduced – Stan Campbell, wheelchair-bound architect, for whom Kennedy works as a programme manager in Hobart, and Jimmy Owens, jack of all trades, poet, neighbour on the mountain, an Aboriginal man who is striving to establish a cultural centre for his people at Oyster Cove. It is to Jimmy that Kennedy first confides news of his mortal illness, intimating more than his friend can know:

I had read other people with the precision of a man with a magnifying glass studying the face of a stamp, the wings of a butterfly, the tiny hairs on a beetle’s legs. I had been so busy watching everyone else I had forgotten to watch myself.

Now that pursuit from without and from the past is over.

That past intrudes on his thoughts: images of the body of Sandra Rivett, the Clermont Club where he played backgammon and chemin de fer till dawn, and of how he travelled from Belgravia in 1974 to Tasmania in a present time of which he ruefully asks: ‘Now that I am dying … what do I do with all this life I feel?’ Rose’s task is to follow many others in imagining what happened to Lucan, now Henry Kennedy. Some funds had been kept safe. His mother had alerted people in Africa to look out for him and he is saved by one of them, Collins, who bleakly tells him ‘you’ve never been alive enough to know you are already quite dead’. For the old Kennedy (as Collins has intuited), ‘to a peer the world he lived in was real and glorious’; ‘I ensconced myself firmly in a world that did not challenge me’. His wife is not spared either: Veronica ‘worshipped class and despised anything that wasn’t’. After a facelift in Rhodesia, he undergoes an arduous rehabilitation under the Australian Mkele, or Michael Kennedy, whose surname he adopts. In Africa he becomes a builder, learning skills that he brings to Tasmania when his old protector, Collins (whose mother’s father had been governor there) gifts him land and the chance at a deeper obscurity.

The Butterfly Man is based on a notorious society crime of last century and in 2006 it won Rose the Davitt Award for Crime Novel of the Year. She deals with the question of Henry’s culpability in ways that mirror his own confusion, wilful or otherwise, about the events of that night. At first we hear that ‘I have not only killed someone, but the wrong someone’. That story will change. Perhaps one of the criminals to whom he was in debt was sent to menace his family in Belgravia, but killed the wrong person? Rose interpolates an actual letter from Lucan to his friend Michael Stoop, written the next day: ‘I have had a traumatic night of unbelievable coincidence’, in which his emphatic wish is that ‘my children should be protected’. Kennedy declares that ‘I was not guilty, nor was I innocent’; asks ‘did I life the pipe [murder weapon]?’ and ‘what did I do to her?’ The verdict to which Rose is pointing may be ‘not proven’. Her more signal emphasis is on the long, hard and sometimes blessed reparations that Kennedy has made.

There is another mystery in the novel, a delayed surprise such as was found in White Heart. This concerns Lili, not Kennedy. Although she never learns his secret, she discloses her own in one of the most memorable vignettes of the Vietnam War that Australian literature has to show. After her family was killed by the Americans at Bai Gian in 1963, Lili was taken by an ‘aunt’ to Saigon at the age of nine and prostituted. Eventually she falls pregnant to a teacher named Birch with whom she returns to Australia, but not before she sets the fire that burns her procuress to death. There may always be another and worse tale to set beside one’s known, for instance that which Kennedy harbours. Having arranged a smoking ceremony for himself with Jimmy, Kennedy tells Lili’s grandson, Charlie, that he is dying and that ‘Butterflies only live for a few days’. The ending (as is the case with each of Rose’s novels) is quiet: ‘Thank you, I want to say, but the words are all gone now’. He is put to rest on the mountain where Rose, working in solitude in a hut, had written the novel, and where other Tasmanian writers such as Margaret Scott had been before her and Sean Rabin would set his novel, Wood Green (2016).

An unnamed Tasmania, but also a placeless fairy land, is the setting for Rose’s third novel, The River Wife. The woman, or creature of the title is the narrator: ‘As the sun crests the dark line of land, I wake and step from the river, and that in itself is called magic’. By night she is a fish who lives in the river; by day she is a woman. As a river wife (and perhaps the last of them, and bound to live forever), she has ‘brought the rivers to the ocean since the world was old’. That is about to change: ‘One day … love lay down by the river’. This is a man, Wilson James, a blocked author, 47 years old with two ex-wives and a dead son, in flight from the city and domestic life, as well as from the pressure to rekindle his career. Before the action that this disruptive arrival initiates can begin, the narrator tells us that ‘This is the story of a river and the making of stories and the nature of love’. And here is the technical problem that Rose has to surmount: how to find an idiom that is not platitudinous for this denizen of two worlds?

The prose works best when the focus is particular, as in this description of another river wife: ‘My mother was a fish. A long-bellied golden fish, dappled with scales as black as night who slept in the moonpool beneath the waterfall’. Long vowels give weight to a sentence whose cadence is incantatory, summoning a lost presence. Elsewhere there is a risk of parody. In this magical tale are embedded shorter ones, exchanged between the river wife and Wilson James, of ‘a woman who had two shoes and one of them she laid in the river’, of the white swan and the black swan who stand for Time and Life respectively and whose vacuous moral is ‘Life is what you do with the gifts Time brings’. The river wife’s father is also prone to oracular pronouncements of this sort, for instance informing his daughter that ‘it is in the mending … that the fabric of the heart is sewn’. Yet his metamorphosis into a tree is beautifully and simply imagined: ‘within a season he was no different to the forest. Moss and lichen grew on him. Golden toadstools sprung up in the earth around him and others grew fawn and pale in his bark’.

Before Wilson James ‘slipped through’ into this other than simply human world, the river wife has been married to the Winter King, who makes annual visits to the lake. She is bewitched by this shape-shifter who has come so far to find her: ‘He had walked as a bear, and he sometimes walked in the form of a man, and sometimes his form was falling snow’. She bears a child by him: ‘my daughter was born on the river and from the river I carried her’. It is the Winter King who first remarks that ‘the old cycles are changing’. The earth is warming, the ice is retreating and so must he. As the river wife reflects: ‘He heard it earlier than I. The music of the world had changed’. This is the ecological burden of Rose’s tale, gently urged, poignant rather than strident. The river wife will change as well, embarking on a quest to the Lake of Time, where she finds her mother and gives up eternal life in order to save the man she loves. The novel’s last image is of the now ageing because mortal river wife in a warming, drying world that she hopes may yet be changed:

Perhaps my daughter will return and summon the rain to wrap itself about the mountains and fill the lakes until the land is running with water once more.

It is now possible to see that apart from its own narrative qualities and quiet ambition, The River Wife was Rose’s breakout into the next stages of her career. The experiments with non-idiomatic language, with the imagining of a fairy world usually veiled from this one, pointed not only to the departure that Rose, together with Danielle Wood, would make into writing fiction for older children, but also to a crucial element in one of the kinds of artistic performance (the composition of a musical score for an animated fairy tale) in The Museum of Modern Love. In passing, Rose had nodded to mythology. The river wife has affinities with such creatures as the selkie, that lives as a seal in the sea but sheds its skin on land, and to another Tasmanian novel, Tom Gilling’s The Sooterkin (2000). In that costume comedy, a child more seal than human (called Arthur after the governor) is born in Van Diemen’s Land in 1821. Notwithstanding, the power of The River Wife lies in the boldness and conviction of its original vision.

The first ‘Tuesday McGillicuddy Adventure’ by Angelica Banks, Finding Serendipity, opens with the girl rejoicing in the end of the school year and the fact that her mother, the best-selling author known to the world as Serendipity Smith, has almost finished another instalment of her Vivienne Small series. Yet when she returns to ‘the tall brown house on Brown Street’, the window is wide open and her mother has vanished. As Tuesday uses her mother’s typewriter in search of a solution, silver words wrap themselves around her wrist. Her father is (irresponsibly) encouraging: ‘You’re off! A story has got hold of you … just follow the words’. Tuesday is transported to the place where all stories are written, where boats grow from glass bottles and her pet Baxterr reveals himself, fortuitously, to be a legendary Winged Dog. There are captures, escapes and – this being an adventure – homecomings that are bound to be temporary.

A Week Without Tuesday flows almost seamlessly from the first novel. Vivienne Small is under attack from creatures called Vercaka, equipped with talons and prone to destructive mind games. Fictional worlds are colliding and damaged authors are being cast out into incongruous and frightening places. This is a rowdier version of the slow process of upheaval that Rose had depicted in The River Wife. We might also think of the uprooting, for varied reasons, of Farley Willow and Henry Kennedy. The key word for this series is spelled out in capitals – IMAGINE. We are reassured of the existence of ‘the world of story that existed at the other end of a silvery thread … a magical place that was the collective secret of every writer who ever lived’. Within it, a key figure is the Gardener, who can reach up ‘with a boathook into the infinite galaxy of words’. Is this where Tuesday is destined to stay, to live for ever ‘in the midst of all these story worlds’? The three books in the series are blithe and boisterous calls to reading and writing, their lure ‘the scent of adventure’, that moment when ‘something new begins’.

The third Tuesday McGillicuddy adventure, Blueberry Pancakes Forever, appeared in the same year as Rose’s fourth adult novel, The Museum of Modern Love. The latter was written in part when Rose held the inaugural Writers in Residence place at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart in 2012-3. The novel is dedicated to the museum’s founder, David Walsh, to one of its recent attractions, Marina Abramović, and to ‘all people of art’. The ‘Author’s Note’ cautions that ‘this book is a strange hybrid of fact and fiction’, further that Abramović, whose ‘unrelenting courage’ is saluted, ‘gave me permission to include her as herself’. The book’s focus is on Abramović performance, ‘The Artist is Present’, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – 75 performances from March to May 2010. In those shows, 1554 people sat with Abramović; 850,000 watched. Within the novel, Abramović is described as ‘a rock in the centre of a town where everything moved and had been moving en masse for hundreds of years’.

The speaker in this case (one of several points of view deployed in the novel) is a tutelary spirit of artists. She opens proceedings by introducing one of her musicians, Arky Levin, and another, ‘busy in a gallery in New York City’, Abramović, that is. The voice is arch, amused, a spirit presence whom Rose has playfully but cunningly employed. Her intimation of an adjacent world to ours is far from the solemnity of fellow Tasmanian novelist Christopher Koch’s gnostic apprehension of an Otherworld. Arky is a noted film score composer, thrice Oscar nominated. Until recently, he had believed that ‘he was anaesthetised to commonplace suffering’. Now his wife, the famed architect Lydia Fiorentino, is dying and in order to protect him, she has ordered that he not visit her at the nursing home in the Hamptons where she waits, insensibly perhaps, for the end.

Levin’s agent, Hal, has encouraged him to take on a new film score but the notes are not coming. What is clear, though, is Rose’s appetite for risk. Ekphrasis is the representation in one artistic medium of work in another. Using her supple prose she takes on three other forms: performance art, musical composition and architecture. Thus we learn not only of what Abramović is doing, but of much that she has done before: mutilations by herself and by invitation to members of her audiences, using knives, whips, ice blocks, candles (‘the scars told her real stories’); the walk of thousands of kilometres along the Great Wall to break up with her long-term partner, Ulay, he coming east from the Gobi Desert, she west from the Yellow Sea. As the spirit remarks: ‘it is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration’. Lydia’s buildings are imagined as well, for instance her Rain Room in Cairo, as are the score in progress on which Arky works.

Blocked, he goes to MoMA to see the Abramowicz show. At this points, Rose ventilates dissentient voices – not from established art critics (although there will be one of those) but from the public: ‘Is this all that happens? Does she just sit?’, ‘Who wants to see a Bosnian (sic) meditate?’, ‘Is it a staring competition?’. From beyond the novel, another critical voice has recently been heard. Fiona McGregor’s ‘The Experience Machine’ decried ‘a grab-bag of Buddhism and shamanism’ in the recent work of ‘Jesus Abramović’. She was responding especially to the MONA show. This expressed the disenchantment of one who had been following that work for twenty years, ‘whose influence was profound on an artist exploring stillness and duress’. What jarred for McGregor was ‘the credo of humility and poverty’: ‘there was so much rhetoric, platitudinous and contradictory, it is hard to hold dialogue with the work’. McGregor wondered about the docility of the media: ‘What magic dust has Marina sprinkled?’ Rose deploys some ofAbramović’s words, but prefers to concentrate on the reactions of those who sit with her. Among them are the critic Healayas Breen who has a vision of her dead lover Tom Washington (killed skiing at Aspen; film director, collaborator with and then betrayer of Arky Levin) and the PhD student of Abramović’s work, Brittika van der Sar, who thinks that she sees and eats her own soul.

Gradually Levin finds his way into the score for a Japanese animated film called Kawa, to be directed by Seiji Isoda, in which ‘the Winter King met a young woman living in a forest’. This is the story (one that we have encountered already and somewhere else as The River Wife) of ‘a woman who was a fish by night and how she falls in love with a man who is also a bear and the King of Winter’. Rose has used another of her novels to find the composer for the score that might have been. There are plenty of other deft narrative touches. The reproving shade of Danica Abramović, Yugoslav partisan hero against the Germans, stalks her daughter. Among the corporeal observers, the liveliest is the art teacher and widow of a Georgia cotton famer, Jane Miller. A frequent observer of the Abramović performance, she draws others into conversation. The spirit thinks of her as one of the ‘facilitators’ of art. Henry James would have called Jane a ficelle, a string, that is, the character who becomes the confidante of those whom she encounters. In this novel, Rose ranges with a confidence in her technical skills equal to, if more varied, than she has shown before.

She leads us inside the mind and muteness of Lydia; has the spirit narrator playfully boast that she is ‘memoirist, intuit, animus, good spirit, genius, whim’ and lead us towards the ending, ‘the part that might break your heart’. What happens, when Arky ignores the interdiction and visits Lydia, is left open, as is Rose’s way. All her fiction presents challenges to the heart and to the inquiring mind. She has contrived that the novels should be hard to place – shifting genres, setting a good deal of their action in Tasmania, but despite the comparisons that have been made above and the Wood collaboration, with little sense of their belonging to a local (or indeed) national literary tradition. Her novels are thronged with isolates, at times disdained and disappointed, elated at others and as determined and eccentric, perhaps, as the author who has happily given them to us.


Angelica Banks [Heather Rose and Danielle Wood], Finding Serendipity, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013.
Angelica Banks, A Week Without Tuesday, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015.
Angelica Banks, Blueberry Pancakes Forever, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2016.
Fiona McGregor, ‘The Experience Machine’ in The Best Australian Essays 2016, ed Geordie Williamson. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2016.
Peter Pierce, ‘Literature’, The Companion to Tasmanian History, ed Alison Alexander. Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2005.
Heather Rose, The Butterfly Man, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2005.
Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2016.
Heather Rose, The River Wife, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009.
Heather Rose, White Heart, Sydney: Random House, 1999.

Sydney Review of Books Feb 17

‘audacious and beautiful’ – The Museum of Modern Love reviewed in The Australian

Some of you may have already discovered the works of Dominic Smith. His latest novel is the Last Painting of Sara De Vos and it’s a beautiful read. Dominic very generously took time to review another book about art in The Australian newspaper. The Museum of Modern Love reviewed in the Australian

Bel Canto by Anne Patchett

[vc_row fullwidth=”false” attached=”false” padding=”0″ visibility=”” animation=””][vc_column border_color=”” visibility=”” width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]From an occasional series of reviews in collaboration with the Islington Hotel to celebrate great writing and the discussion of literature.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I have come to this book late in the scheme of things. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize and the Pen/ Faulkner Award in 2002. But somehow I missed it. 2002 was a busy year. My children were 2,7 and 13. Not much time for reading. I was also writing The Butterfly Man, being something of an activist, and running an advertising agency. It was a busy year. But having waited all this time to discover it, I suspect I have enjoyed Bel Canto more.

The story appears to be so simple that I found myself thinking that Patchett could never sustain a novel on such a premise. A world-famous opera singer is invited to sing at the lavish birthday dinner of a high profile Japanese business man. The setting is an unnamed and (possibly) Central American country and the dinner is the idea of the President of that unnamed country. The guests are a multi-cultural lot drawn from the international business community and diplomatic services. The food is beautiful. The flowers exquisite. The opera singer splendid. But things quickly go wrong.

Just as the last note of the diva is heard, the grand residence is invaded by a group of armed terrorists. It’s easy to call such people terrorists, now, in the 21st century. It’s become a favourite label. Yet in truth these people are protestors of the current government. They have seen children shot down in the street, and friends and relatives incarcerated. They want the people they love who are in jail to be released. They think that by kidnapping the President they will acquire a powerful bargaining chip.

Unfortunately the President has cancelled his attendance at the dinner at the last minute. Uncertain how to proceed, the small band take the guests hostage, hoping their demands will still be met.

And so the story ensues. Where we might imagine violence and hysteria, Patchett brings a tone of strange calm. The same sort of calm before a tornado hits. There is an electricity in the air borne of emotion. And those emotions grow and distil. From this most unusual and traumatic experience of being held captive at gun-point, and of being a captor, unusual relationships form based on a love of music, chess, literacy and language.

A young Japanese interpreter, Gen, becomes a central character in helping this disparate group understand one another. The terrorists slowly becomes individuals, not the faceless gun-toting bandits of the first night. The guests find commonality.

There is a sense of metaphor about this novel that alludes to the entire human condition. Being thrown into a single world with disparate needs and agendas, cultures and histories. What brings us together? The things we discover that we share in common. Food. Time. Fear. Intellect. And love.

This is a most unusual love story. Not only between individuals, but for life itself. In the splendor of nature. The fragile experience of being human. We know it will end – and badly for some of us. But still it is an experience of days. And in this evocation, Bel Canto is luminous and unforgettable.

This is an occasional series of reviews in collaboration with the Islington Hotel to celebrate great writing and the discussion of literature.

PS. The Islington is Hobart’s (and one of Australia’s) most beautiful and elegant places to stay. Perfect for couples wanting the ultimate retreat. For more about the luxurious accommodation at The Islington visit:

And for the most beautiful place for groups to stay in Hobart (especially those who love to read) discover our own Library House –[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert


The Signature of All Things – by Elizabeth Gilbert – the second in an occasional series for the beautiful Islington Hotel, Hobart.

“From 19th century America to Tahiti and Europe, this is a novel of science and sensuality, intellect and exploration. It has all the grit and colour of Dickens, but the quiet control and social wisdom of George Eliot.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is famous for that bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love. But The Signature of All Things is a return to fiction for Gilbert – the first time in 12 years – and her ease with the form of the novel shows. This is an exquisite story so vivid and vibrant in its characters and plot that it does that wonderful thing very good novels do – it carried me away entirely.

The novel begins in Dickensian fashion with: “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.” Alma Whittaker grows up in the midst of extraordinary wealth created by her maverick father through the legal and illegal procurement of rare plants from across the world.

The opening chapters relate her father’s extraordinary life “while we wait for the young girl to grow up…”. These include one of the most wonderful evocations of Cook’s third voyage that it should be required reading for all Australians.

And so young Alma does grow up. On the extensive estate of White Acre, with its gardens and hothouses, Alma finds herself drawn to the infinite wonder of botany. This will lead to a lifetime of enquiry and pursuit – and what a lifetime it is!

Alma is neither beautiful nor petite (always something of a relief in literature) and so her love life is fraught with significant challenges. Her true exploration is both physical and intellectual. Through her fascination with mosses, she develops a pioneering theory on transmutation, paralleling that of Darwin and his younger colleague Alfred Russell Wallace.

From 19th century America to Tahiti and Europe, this is a novel of science and sensuality, intellect and exploration. It has all the grit and colour of Dickens, but the quiet control and social wisdom of George Eliot.

Gilbert researched the novel painstakingly – using 19th century letters to inform the voice and vocabulary of the novel (Walt Whitman’s letters and Captain Cook’s journals were of particular interest.) Every page is imbued with a reverence for nature, science and exploration. And yet this is a novel of pace and great humour. I so loved Alma, and believed in her so entirely, that at one point I googled her to ensure she really wasn’t a person I had missed in history. No, she wasn’t. She, and her marvellous adventures through a century of human evolution, are completely the product of Gilbert’s rich and exciting imagination.

The Signature of All Things is an epic and satisfying journey of some 500 pages.  It is a beautiful book to read, and equally to listen to. The audio book (via has the unsurpassed Juliet Stevenson as narrator. Enjoy!


PS. The Islington is Hobart’s (and one of Australia’s) most beautiful and elegant places to stay. Perfect for couples wanting the ultimate retreat.  For more about the luxurious accommodation at The Islington visit:

 And for the most beautiful place for groups to stay in Hobart (especially those who love to read) discover our own Library House –

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The exquisite Islington Hotel in Hobart asked me if I’d like to write about books. So here is the first in a new monthly review of a book I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. And stay tuned for more about books and writing at the Islington through winter …

The Burgess Boys – by Elizabeth Strout

My grandfather was a Burgess – the youngest of many brothers – so the title of this novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout – felt warmly familiar.

In the novel, the lives of the three Burgess children are shaped by a freak accident. Now grown-up, the Burgess boys have settled in New York – both are lawyers, one famous with a rich wife from Connecticut, the other divorced and working for Legal Aid. The brothers are called back home to Shirley Falls in Maine where their frosty sister, Susan, still lives. Their nephew has just committed a hate crime.

BURGESS BOYS 1This is a novel of its time – yet without a moment of preaching or misplaced passion. Strout has a crisp, vivid style and evokes a range of classes and political views in this extraordinary novel of connection and dislocation. Like J.K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, Strout is fearless in her evocation of character, and it’s the characters that will hold you until the beautifully woven end. (How rare to find a satisfying end to a novel these days – but The Burgess Boys is flawless.)

Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of connected short stories. One of these stories becomes a chapter in The Burgess Boys. I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge yet, but now it’s waiting on the To Read shelf.

Heather Rose

PS. The Islington is Hobart’s (and one of Australia’s) most beautiful and elegant places to stay. Perfect for couples wanting the ultimate retreat.  For more about the luxurious accommodation at The Islington visit:

 And for the most beautiful place for groups to stay in Hobart (especially those who love to read) discover our own Library House –