The year of wonder

Published in The Good Weekend magazine – The Age/ Sydney morning Herald

10 stories by 10 big Authors

14 December 2018 — 12:19pm

At the beginning of the year, I wrote in gold pen “The Year of Wonder” on a white piece of card. I had been meditating and it was a feeling that bubbled up. The Year of Wonder. I had to write it down and put it somewhere obvious, so I stuck it on the fridge.

The definition of wonder, I discovered, is “something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar”. I wondered, as I looked at those words, what would happen if I claimed a whole year of it.

“I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set.”

On Wednesday, November 29, 2017, I was in New York, meeting
for the first time with Giuliano Argenziano, Marina Abramovic’s director.
Abramovic is the performance artist at the heart of my seventh novel, The
Museum of Modern Love. Giuliano has been the lovely voice in the emails I’ve been receiving since I first approached Abramovic to appear as a character in my novel. She agreed to that invitation via Giuliano. It was Giuliano who received my updates, the drafts of the novel, and finally, years later, the news of publication. He had been unfailingly generous, kind and supportive. When I met him at the Abramovic offices in Greenwich Street for the first time, I was armed with 24 yellow roses. He was vibrant, handsome, Italian and delighted with the flowers.

During the course of our meeting, we discussed the launch of the novel in New York. I was also in New York to meet my US publisher. That, in itself, is a story of wonder. Some months before, I was introduced to a German publisher in Sydney. I spoke to him for less than four minutes. I learnt later that he obtained a copy and read my novel on the plane back to Germany but was unable to convince his publishing firm to take the novel on. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, a month or so later, he saw a New York colleague. He took her by the arm, walked her to my book, put it in her hands and said, “This is for you.” It turned out he was right. My New York publisher, in another twist, lived in the same location as Arky, the lead character in The Museum of Modern Love. In all of Manhattan, the same location with the exact same view over Washington Square.

So there really was going to be a US launch. It wasn’t just a possibility that Giuliano and I had discussed from time to time as the years went by, and the book was rejected, then eventually bought in Australia, then in Greece, Israel, China, Thailand, Catalonia and the UK. The book was coming home to New York. So when Giuliano asked me my ideas for the launch, I said that my dream was to have it at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was the
home of Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective and seminal performance piece, The
Artist Is Present. That is the artwork that unfolds throughout the novel –
Abramovic’s 75-day ordeal sitting opposite strangers and meeting their gaze.
Abramovic is herself in the novel and there is a cast of fictional characters,
including a ghost. The book, as you may be gathering, is a strange blend of
fact and fiction.

At my words, Giuliano in his delightful Italian accent, with his hands gesticulating, said, “Darling, that is a very big dream.” Then he paused and smiled. “But you keep your dream, because we do not know what is possible.” He suggested I ask Abramovic to be part of the launch. “She loves the book,” he said. “We all love the book. Ask.” Then he shrugged. “And we will see.”

I write an email. I write an email to the very famous, very busy, on-the-road Marina Abramovic, asking her to be part of a book launch. She responds a few days later. She would like to be part of the launch. But she has a big international schedule. Her diary and the US publisher’s dates have to align. The publishers want November … We are waiting on an
international biennale to confirm Abramovic’s dates, too …

How are we going to get MoMA? For a book launch? It’s like asking to be on Richard Branson’s first flight into space. But I keep seeing the launch there, in the atrium. One night in June, I’m at dinner in Melbourne with a group of old and new friends. One of the new friends is a big fan of the book. She is very excited when she hears Abramovic may be launching the book. “I think it’s going to happen,” she says. She asks me about the venue. I say it’s not decided. I say I would really like it to be in the atrium at MoMA. It would be a homecoming for the book. “I’m going to help make that happen,” she says, explaining that she’s a friend of the director at MoMA. She sends him a copy of the novel.

I receive confirmation that the international biennale dates are not a clash. Abramovic will be available for November 28. And she will bein New York. She is a yes to the launch.

We learn that MoMA bookstores do not stock novels. They do not stock any fiction. Even if my book is set in the gallery? Even if it was launched at MoMA? No, no, no.

MoMA’s director writes and says he will look into the possibility of having the launch at the museum. July, August and September go by. August is my birthday. I have lunch with four girlfriends at a Japanese restaurant in Hobart. They make me write my wish list for the launch. I write who I want as the MC. I write that the launch happens in the atrium at MoMA. I take this piece of paper home and prop it on a shelf where I keep other things that are sacred to me. Photos of my children, an Aboriginal bark painting, a small ivory netsuke of a man reading.

No news from MoMA. The publishers are getting anxious. Do we
have a back-up plan if MoMA doesn’t come through? Am I sure Abramovic is confirmed? Famous people cancel, apparently, all the time. I assure them that if Abramovic has said yes, she is a yes. After 11 years of research, I feel it is something I can be certain about.

We have only met once, me and Marina Abramovic, and it was over in seconds. But I have written hundreds of thousands of words about her. I have more than 300 individual pieces of research about her work and her life in my files. This is over and above the collection of books I have, and all that I have read about her. I hadn’t wanted to meet her. To me she is a character in my book. Writing is a strange enough thing to do each day without your characters coming to life.

Time is running out. There is talk of alternative launch venues – the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library. Or simply McNally Jackson, the bookstore in SoHo. But Abramovic is confirmed and a book store doesn’t seem big enough for her presence. Since The Artist Is Present, her absence from the atrium has haunted me on every subsequent visit to MoMA.

I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set. Abramovic spent 75 days of her life in the atrium. I spent three weeks there researching the book, then five years or so imagining that performance almost every day while completing the novel. But the MoMA atrium is one of the most desired locations in New York. It’s a place for high-end fundraisers and black-tie charity events.

An email arrives. The director expresses his affection for Abramovic, for our mutual friend, for the book, and for making it happen at MoMA. He’s sure, however, that the atrium will be booked. (It’s booked months and years in advance.) But he will get back to us with an alternative location for the launch. Three days pass. Then an email arrives: “looks like the atrium will be free!!!” Those three exclamation points are the moment of truth.

My publishers seem genuinely shocked that an obscure writer from
Tasmania has pulled off a launch at MoMA, sponsored by MoMA, and in
conversation with the artist (and character) Marina Abramovic. I am a little
shocked, too. I tell friends and colleagues. I advise them that an official
invitation from the publishers will be forthcoming. Twenty-eight friends
confirm they will be flying from Australia for the launch of the novel. I would have been surprised if eight friends had wanted to come. But 28?

Abramovic agrees that we will do an in conversation. Via email we discuss the format. I need someone to make the opening remarks. I would like it to be someone Australian, with a connection to the book. Someone who can hold her own at MoMA with a world of international people amassed for a book launch with Marina Abramovic. I ask someone I deeply admire who has recently returned to New York. She says yes. When I pass that piece of paper from my August birthday lunch on the shelf, I see that I had written her name on the paper as preferred MC. I had completely forgotten.

My three children are flying to New York from their various homes in Australia and the US. My 84-year-old father is coming from Australia, chaperoned by my sister.

When I arrive in New York, Giuliano calls me from London. Abramovic
is very unwell. She was due to travel to New York on Tuesday for the launch but instead is to be transferred to a medical facility in Austria. Giuliano flies
to New York to be with me for the launch and Abramovic sends an audio message. She sounds exhausted.

“Good evening everybody. I’m so sorry I can’t be there but the doctor has forbidden me to fly to New York,” she says. She goes on to explain that she’s having high blood pressure caused by Lyme disease. I know her condition is erratic and dangerous.

“I’d like to tell you a little story about this book and me,” she says, recounting how she met me briefly some years ago. She knew I was writing a book, and then one day, the book arrived, dedicated to her. “It was so overwhelming. It lies on my office table and later next to my bed for a long time. I didn’t really have the courage to open it and see what I would find there. I also always believe that right time, right place, right situation is the best.

“So soon I am leaving for India and the only book I take with me is that one. And India was the right place, right situation, when I can read with ease and full concentration. I was so touched by this book. It’s not just that it was about me and The Artist Is Present … but much more important than all that, is the way it was written. It’s a really, really, great piece of literature. I hope you enjoy this evening and I’m so sorry I am not with you tonight.”

Image by Jim Rice for Fairfax Media

And so, on Wednesday, November 28, at a private event at MoMA, Marina Abramovic and I were not in conversation. Instead Anne Summers stepped in to conduct the interview. She is a fan of the book and a consummate interviewer. She had just returned home to New York after her Australian tour following the launch of her memoir, Unfettered and Alive.

She makes the evening look as if it was always meant to be this way. We discuss the book, and the writing of it, and the life of being a writer, while faces from The Artist Is Present appear huge on a screen behind us. Faces that include that of Abramovic, who is a very large, very still presence throughout the evening. Like the character within the pages of the novel, she remains silent, enigmatic and quietly powerful.

Perhaps it’s strange to say it, but I’m not disappointed. I was deeply saddened to hear of Abramovic’s health challenges. I understand well the challenges of illness. And like her, I am a great believer that there is a flow of right action in the world. Whatever unfolded, this too was as it should be. She has already made enormous contributions to both the book and my life. And she has done all that from a great distance. That is what artists do.

In 2010, I sat opposite Abramovic four times in the centre of the atrium during The Artist Is Present. I was just one of 850,000 people who attended that performance. Eight years later, I sat in the centre of the atrium and Abramovic’s image watched over the launch of a story drawn from that event. Perhaps one day Abramovic and I will get to have a conversation. Perhaps it will be far from an art gallery with wine, food and good health. For now, we remain creator and character, author and artist, author and muse.

A novel born of an idea first realised at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), written largely in Tasmania, and published in Australia, has arrived in the United States. A book that took 11 years to write, and was rejected many times over, has had its US launch at one of the most famous art galleries in the world. It is the first novel to be launched at MoMA and the first and only novel to be stocked in its bookstores.

It’s hard to explain how much wonder has happened since 2005, when I first saw a photograph in the NGV that made me consider Abramovic as a character for a book. This was before she was the world-famous artist she is now. Before she became a household name. In 2010 when I sat opposite Abramovic at MoMA in New York, she had already been sitting at that table for years in my mind. (That’s another story.) But it was at MoMA that I realised I couldn’t fictionalise her any longer. She was too magnetic, her story too real. That’s when I asked and received permission to include her as herself.

In 2015, the very same day I got the phone call telling me
the book had finally been accepted for publication here in Australia, Marina
Abramovic flew into Hobart for the launch of her retrospective
at The Museum of Old and New Art
. She hadn’t been to Hobart in 40
years. That was where we met, in that brief moment she referred to in her audio message.

When I looked for a venue for a post-book-launch gathering for 28 Australians in Manhattan, everything was prohibitively expensive or booked out. I tried numerous options and came up short. Then someone recommended a bar. I called and they were helpful, inexpensive, welcoming. Great food. It is in the street right behind MoMA. This is where we Australians and New Yorkers gathered after the launch to celebrate late into the Manhattan night. The pub was called Characters. Of course the pub was called Characters. That is what writing a novel is all about. It is about those elusive, ephemeral and powerful creatures who come to our writing minds as characters.

Writing is a long road and overnight success can take decades. I began my life as a paid writer at 17 for the Hobart Mercury. I’ve written millions of words learning my craft and I’m still learning every day. If I am lucky, I’ll be learning to be a better writer until the day I die.

My seventh novel is taking flight around the world. I don’t
know how readers will respond to The Museum of Modern Love in
America. I do know, however, that the book was launched at MoMA exactly one year to the day since I first expressed my dream to Giuliano. I also know that when we gathered for the event, with the image of Abramovic watching over us all, it was a dream come true. It was “something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar”. It was a wonder.

Heather Rose has published seven novels. The Museum of
Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, $20) won the 2017 Stella Prize.

To read more of Good Weekend’s 10 short stories by 10 big
authors, visit this page.



Me and William Faulkner

A lot of unexpected things have happened this year. It’s a beautiful, brilliant year in the face of some great personal hardship. It’s strange the way life does both, but it seems to be the way it is. I am immensely grateful for it all! I am delighted to find my work reaching a wider world of readers, and I am deeply touched by the acknowledgement for so many years of hard work.

Along the way, there have been quite a few interviews, reviews and articles. This article by Jane Sullivan, published in the Age and the SMH, utterly surprised me (and totally delighted my Dad who has patiently waited to see if my books would ever be ‘discovered’ by people further afield.)

The first William Faulkner novel I read was As I Lay Dying. I must have been about 21. From there I read every novel of Faulkner’s, settling at last on Light in August as my favourite – and one of my top five favourite novels of my lifetime. I think it comes as close as any novel to being a perfect novel in form, characterisation, in tone and in the spectacular craft of good writing. So to find my words compared to Faulkner’s made my father cry, and me reflect on the wonder of life.

We never know how our creativity will touch other lives. For me that is a mysterious gift and a privilege that may yet keep me writing all my days.

It’s not easy to let the recognition in. But given everything that has unfolded, I wanted to acknowledge this very special observation by Jane Sullivan.

Here is the link to the article – and the complete text is below should the link fade.

“What a winning acceptance speech Heather Rose gave for the 2017 Stella Prize. She charmed everyone in the room: she was humble, honest and a little bit steely. To survive as a writer you need steel.

She liked to think of her winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, as an overnight success. In fact it took 46 years from the moment her father told her a terrible thing when she was six years old.

She’d read him her poem about a rabbit, and he said, “You’re going to be a great writer.” For years she was devastated by the huge gulf that existed between her own writing and that of the great writers.

There was progress. Two failed novels; a first published novel (she remembers only the one unkind review); a second novel that once delivered her a royalty cheque for 57 cents in a 60-cent envelope; a third novel with ardent fans, but very few readers; a series of stories for children, written with Danielle Wood.

The Museum of Modern Love took 11 years to write, was rejected by Australian and US publishers, and finally found a home with Allen & Unwin.  Somewhere along the line Rose accepted she would never be a great writer. But she wants nothing more than to continue to write.

This is literary success in Australia. But what about in the world. Something prompted me to compare Rose’s words with the indisputably great writers’ award acceptance orations of the past, so i went to the Nobel Prize website and had a look. You know what? I preferred Rose’s speech. It seemed to resonate more.

The Nobel prizewinners whose speeches I found were all men. They usually began with a dutiful nod to humility, and some of them kept up that note. But others became Godlike. They made stirring calls to the writers of the future (who they assumed were men) and told them what they should be writing about. I began to think that if their dads had ever told them they’d be great writers, they’d just take that as their due.

Of course I found rhetoric and grand pronouncements about literature that are still frequently quoted.  Faulkner thought the writer must write about nothing but “the old verities and truths of the heart … love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”. Hemingway thought the writer must always try “for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed”. Steinbeck believed that “a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature”.

These writers were speaking on a world stage, at a time when the world seemed a dark place at risk of nuclear annihilation. It’s still dark, though perhaps a different kind of darkness. Rose was speaking on a small stage, to an Australian audience, mostly women, after winning a prize for women. Inevitably it’s a speech about smaller, personal things.

Or is it? “Being a successful woman is not an easy path,” Rose said – especially in Australia, and she cited the case of Julia Gillard. And then she, too, rose to the challenge of defining the task of the writer: “to tell our stories. To reflect the human experience. To find what is common and what is uncommon. To explore the past, be with the present, to imagine the future … And if we do not foster our creativity when we hear it calling – whether in our children or as adults – then the world is poorer for it.”

None of those great men mentioned children.”



Stella Shortlist 2017 & The Museum of Modern Love

The Stella Prize was established in 2011 when a group of bold, brave women took the step of acknowledging that Australian women writers were being under-represented in the books reviewed and the prizes that were awarded. For example, in 2011, 70% of books reviewed in the Weekend Australian newspaper were written by men. And the ultimate literary prize in Australia, the Miles Franklin – the legacy prize of one of Australia’s great writers (and a woman) – had only been won by a female author 10 times in the 54 years it had been awarded. So the Stella Prize was born.

It’s hard to express how meaningful it can be to have the books we write acknowledged by a wider circle of people. Publishing is not a world awash with funds to promote books. For literary writers, the most we can usually hope for is a good review in a major newspaper. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the support of enthusiastic distributors and bookshop staff can promote a book, or a lucky invitation to a writer’s festival. Sometimes there are rare moments that see our works transformed into films or plays or video games. Almost as rare is the sale of our work into foreign countries. Invitations to festivals are not easy to come by. I have attended one major festival. It was with my first novel – White Heart – at Sydney Writer’s Festival. That was in 1999. Festival budgets do not stretch to flights and accommodation for largely unknown authors from far flung regions of Australia. And there’s the catch. Without publicity we cannot achieve sales. Without sales we cannot forward our careers.

British publishers do not generally pick up novels already printed in Australia. US publishers are just as tough. And even when we are picked up, there are rarely any royalties that flow beyond the initial (and sometimes quite modest) advance. The average advance in Australia for a novel is $5000.

Prize money is a gift of time. Prize money is so rare! Any money for writing is rare! And every prize has different eligibility criteria. Because The Museum of Modern love is set in New York, with no reference to Australia at all, it is ineligible for the Miles Franklin which is only for books that ‘present Australian life in any of its phases.’

Writing is hard work. It requires enormous focus and stillness. It requires creating an almost meditative space where we can convey the story that is urgently trying to flow through us. That urgency can obliterate all other thoughts. It is devastated by interruption. It is dissuaded by a failure in the writer to just sit down and do the work.

Writing takes time. Because it is very rare for Australian writers to earn any substantial income from their work (currently the average income for Australian writers is $13,000 pa) we must then do our work around other work. Writing a novels usually takes years. That’s years where writers have to choose writing before the other demands of life. In my experience what gives is socialising, movie-going, tv watching, gardening, cooking, renovating, reading, sleep and any other number of ways we humans spend our time.

So it’s something of a miracle when, after many years of work, a book with it’s own special life beyond the clandestine world of the author’s mind and the author’s computer, finds its way onto a major prize shortlist. And the Stella shortlist is a huge boon. It will have a significant impact on the number of readers who discover a book. It gives the book a profile that opens up the possibility of sales into other countries and other mediums. For a little while we ride on a bubble of acknowledgement. And it’s precarious. Like a flower in bloom. We know there are other days ahead, other cycles to come. So it’s important to celebrate.

I think for most of us writers, it’s always a surprise to receive widespread acknowledgment for our creative efforts. This fragile idea that came to visit, that was gathered up and written down and worried over for months and years and became a novel or a work of non-fiction or a prose or poetry collection, is the result of a kind of fight against all the odds. If the book gets published that is the first miracle. If it attracts a shortlisting for a major prize that is another miracle. There are so many good writers and good books.

So thank you Stella judges for whittling down your longlist to a Stella shortlist 2017 that includes The Museum of Modern Love. I am enormously and profoundly grateful.

Stella shortlist 2017
Stella shortlist 2017

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

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I first picked up George Eliot’s Middlemarch when I was about 15. And put it down again after a page or two.

Now, many years later, I decided to try again. (What can I say, I’m stubborn. I have come late to a few of the classics only to find that Catcher in the Rye, or Farenheit 451, or Portrait of A Lady are brilliant and their characters are wonderful, so why did it take me so long…)

Middlemarch is a superb novel. In fact, it has gone on that list of novels I would not want to live without. I have to give it the sort of status I give Anna Karenina, Light in August and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. An almost perfect book complete with the flaws that endear us to its author.

(It’s almost impossible to get away from ourselves in writing- but on those few occasions Tolstoy or Eliot do show through, it’s worth it.)

This – for example from Middlemarch. Perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of writing humans have ever managed: “Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great effect on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not as ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


Bruny large 2

Sydney Writers Festival

A brief trip to Sydney for the Writer’s Festival was inspiring! Lawrence Krauss, particle physicist, reminded us that we are utterly insignificant in the trajectory of our flat universe. Strangely empowering. And the remarkable Kate Atkinson reminded me that you don’t have to be versed in the entire history of literature, history, politics and philosophy to be a writer. Maybe it’s just about loving characters, dialogue, ideas and imagination. In short, I was reassured in much the same way as when this photograph arrived from a dear writer friend. Writing books is long and solitary, but if you stick with it, maybe everything is going to be all right.everything is gping to be alright