Today’s blog is a transcript of the speech Professor Ann McGrath made when she launched my second novel, The Indigo Sky. Ann is Professor of History and Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University. Recently, together with Andrew Pike, she produced and directed the award-winning documentary film, Message from Mungo.
“It’s a wonderful privilege to be invited to speak at the launch and to officially launch The Indigo Sky.
What should I tell you about Alison Booth? Most of you know that she is an economist. I promise I won’t read out her webpage at ANU, though I will tell you something about them. Firstly, there is a very glamourous photo on the page which was surely not taken by the University photographer. Secondly, the ‘buttons’ on the left of this page include the usual: contact details, biography, research interests, cv, working papers and--- ‘fiction’. I tried to go onto the fiction site, you find that it’s been disabled ‘due to a breach of service conditions’. This is google talking. Google that I trust beyond reason. Mmm.
I wondered about this. As historians, we like to think of explanations. Cause and effect. Perhaps in this, we share something with economists, although unlike historians, they – or some of them at least - seek to predict the future. So to that button problem. The most likely explanation that I could come up with was that economists were not supposed to have a button on their web-pages with a category ‘fiction’. After all, perhaps it would disturb to the Finance Minister, the Treasurer, the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, to think they were consulting an economist with a button labelled ‘fiction’?
There is something excitingly illicit about an academic, dealer in research, dealer in evidence, straying into fiction. But it’s not unheard of. They do. But there are also tales of woe – the novels that never get published.
Few succeed, although there are exceptions. I think of Larissa Behrendt Law Professor and NSW Australian of the Year, and her family sagas; amongst historians, I think of Anna Haebich and her murder saga. I think of Ginny Schaarf and her sassy female detective in a big red Cadillac; the late Robin Winks and the persistent rumours that he wrote best-selling mystery novels under a pseudonym.
Some academics, clearly have multiple talents. But we get so bound up in our work, we can get worn down by it. How often do we give ourselves the opportunity to use them? I guess I have ventured into the illicit myself, at UNSW I did a mid- week art course that felt decidedly naughty – and yes, we did have nude models of both sexes – and more recently French, a language that invites you to celebrate the senses, eating and film-watching etc, very refreshing for the spirit. A colleague Jim Axtell wrote a book called The Pleasures of Academe – yes we have our many pleasures, although we often feel they are under siege.
I can imagine Alison enjoyed her novel-writing time as writing time as a ‘breakout’ from all this. For Alison puts much energy into her work as an economist and academic. I have greatly enjoyed working with her at ANU. She is a great operator on committees, has fresh and original ideas, takes risks, perseveres, knows how to negotiate, to have the right details at hand, to clinch a contract. She is a voice who is heard. She gets up people’s noses. But she gets her way or part-way. She’s clear in her goals. I admire her heaps.
Now, instead of conforming to type and doing the usual academic thing of thinking about a novel, spending vacation writing it and finding that nobody would publish it, Alison not only gets a book contract, but it’s with Random House in an imprint that they think will sell. AND, she gets a sequel!! Now how’s that?
Alison’s two novels [Stillwater Creek and its sequel The Indigo Sky] are are hard to put in a box. They are not set in the present but in 1957, in 1961. Several of the characters are likeable. Many make good decisions. They are just getting on with lives, adapting, interacting.
In Stillwater Creek, the cast seems innocuous enough: There’s a butcher, there’s a hotelier, a sheep station proprietor and his wife, schoolkids, rouseabouts, a cultured refugee from Europe - Ilona, a widow with a child who decides to offer piano lessons. Zidra her daughter has an aboriginal friend, Lorna. You gradually get to know them, though they change and even the children can observe the adults change.
It’s the world of innocence, beauty
Or so it seems
The sinister lies beneath people’s notice.
A great potential holocaust threatens to engulf all, but fortunately engulfs mainly the evil ones.
Now what about The Indigo Sky?
The principal characters remain Ilona the refugee, her daughter Dzidra, and Lorna her Indigenous friend. But the action also focuses on a new character, Philip Chapman. I recently went to see the film, The King’s Speech. Yet as I watched this wonderful movie, I thought of Philip Chapman, the character who comes so much to life in The Indigo Sky. Young Phillip cannnot express himself easily, as he has a dreadful stammer. His anger and sense of desertion by his well-off parents finally sees him lash out and attack his mother’s embarrassing gift of ‘fancy pants’ with scissors. He is terrified of returning to Stambroke College boarding school. After spending time with other children he dreads the return to Woodlands where he is the only child.
‘The’th..’ But he had been unable to complete this simple word. Not even that trick of thinking of a replacement had helped him, for what could substitute for thanks?
‘he was unable to forget what lay in store for him the following week. Soon he drifted into strange and complicated dreams in which twelve-tone scales transformed and transposed themselves in various ways that, even in his sleep, he knew to be impossible.’(162)
‘Luncheon, served as usual in the dining room, was a rather sad affair, with only his father for company. While trying hard to respond to his heartiness, Philip knew he was failing dismally. He was unable to do more than nod or shake his head. The power of speech had completely deserted him.’(166)
Being sent to boarding school is totally horrible for Philip and he becomes a victim of bullying. Indeed, at times of stress, his words would not form at all. He is frustrated with his silence. Yet, he becomes a key character in the book, and the reader soon fears for his future, making the experience of reading on quite heart-wrenching. So, Alison took on quite a challenge, and it works fluidly and perfectly, without any sense of contrivance. Yet this central character cannot create dialogue. It was his inability to speak that conveyed his choked emotions, his terror, his helplessness, his sense of worthlessness, with his remnant sense of worth being what drives him to the very edge of danger. To succeed in moving the plot along with wordlessness and with a bit of brilliant piano, is surely a masterful achievement for a novelist.
Then there’s the character Lorna, an Indigenous girl from Wallaga Lake; she is the force of life who appeared in Stillwater Creek as an agile child enjoying the outdoors, enjoying play and family life. But in Indigo Sky, we first meet her incarcerated in the airless, dingy ‘box room’, desperate to escape anyway she can. She manages to get out onto the tin roof. It could be her end, or her liberation. She is absent for most of the novel, but we feel her presence, and somehow we feel she has a better chance of survival than the materially well-off Phillip, whose mother is a selfish frock maniac in Sydney’s elite social whirl.
The different kinds of boarding experiences are not overtly compared, but both institutions stifle children’s spirits. One can crush and kill, and there is no justice for the bullies, the other can fire and unite - as well as trample. And clearly, it depends on the individual character of the child, and how they interpret the actions of their parents, as to how these children react, and how they will save themselves. The Aboriginal girl Lorna is not a ‘type’ nor is she a ‘victim’; she is an individual, and that’s what I love about her portrayal.
Ilona, the Latvian refugee, knows about cruelty and inhumanity to children so has no trouble wanting to help the parents unite with the child; Zidra, her daughter, simply knows how to love and be loyal to her good friend Lorna. The acute psychological sketches are stunning, because they are fresh, unpredictable, and to the reader, they seem real. As do the plotlines. Zidra only finds out about her father being a talented composer through Ilona’s sharing this with young Philip. We start to see the tragedy and horror context of concentration camps and its psychological aftermath that crushed her husband.
There are lovely coming of age sequences too – Zidra on the beach with Philip and Eric…Jim’s long letters from boarding school. Zidra using her friend networks. There’s nostalgic moments too. The arrival of letters. Their power. The mystery and satisfactions that can be found inside an envelope.
There is nothing hectoring about the tone of the novels. Nothing PC. But the issues are ones about vital aspects of human behaviour that are very appropriate to the moment of today. They allow empathy.
If you want to relax, if you want to enjoy, read the book. It’s not some challenge to read; disarmingly, it doesn’t feel like serious literature. The cover designs and Women’s Weekly recommendation on the blurb reinforce the point.
And amongst all these people, who change and grow, you don’t have to worry about encountering one of your academic colleagues. Alison is not a David Lodge. In Jingera, there are no economists. No academics full stop. A school principal in Sydney is the closest you’ll get to one.
The profound power of Indigo Sky is in the reader’s experience of feeling for the characters, experiencing their worlds, with strange echoes of our own ordinary happy world, yet places that can mask the sinister, the evil, places with undertones that can lead to epic tragedy or epic transcendence. Coming through against history, against adversity, is a powerful empowering belief in the human spirit and in the individual to do good. You won’t want the book to end.
Now, if you want to read what happens next, this book must sell a certain number of copies. So don’t just buy one for your own pleasure. Buy one for your relatives. For their birthdays, Christmas presents. They will thank you for it.
And I would like to thank Alison. First, for what she’s achieved on these pages; it is as if this second novel, like soft paperbark, has peeled effortlessly away from the strong trunk of Stillwater Creek. She’s an inspiration. Especially to women academics and to women generally. And hopefully to all economists! But above all, I’d like to thank her for what she’s given us to enjoy, ponder and be enriched by.
With this, I officially launch Alison Booth’s The Indigo Sky.”