Every so seldom I come upon a book to treasure. Every day I read. I inhabit a forest of books,
I sleep between towers of books, some read, some half-read, most unread. No day goes unbooked.
Some in my world of books inform or advise or enlighten. Others – not enough of them – delight or tickle me. Some inspire, some shock, others outrage and a few disgust me. Plenty bore me. But every so rarely comes a story that calls for that overused word, love. Robert Hillman’s ‘Bookshop of the Broken Hearted’ is a book to love.
What do I mean here by love? In two separate surveys carried out a decade or so ago, respondents were asked to name their most-beloved Australian novel. I saw listed many books I’d enjoyed, by authors I admire. Before reading the results I made my own nomination – Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’. I read the rankings, and there, topping both surveys, was Cloudstreet.’Just so: Winton’s characters, their stories, their rich and variegated humanness, are given to us in their fulness, given us to love. ‘Cloudstreet’ stays with the reader and is recalled with love. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is another such.
Ripe for adding to that list is Hillman’s ‘Bookshop’. It broke my heart and it healed it. I laughed (my guffaws this morning alarmed a tramful of screen-trapped commuters) and I ached for the child. And for the adults who saw this child and that child torn from them I felt a distress that has visited me only once outside of a book, when the (false) report arrived that my child had a fatal malignancy.
‘Bookshop’ left me hopeful but not complacent. I will cherish the simple farmer who is the protagonist and I will tremble for him so long as memory abides.
I invite you come to Readings Bookshop in Carlton, to hear Robert Hillman in conversation with this happy blogger at 6.30 pm next Monday, May 7th.
There’s a CD I listen to when I want to write about something serious or something true or sad. It is Disc Two of ‘Dirt Music’, the album compiled by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans to accompany Winton’s great and sad book of that name. Two tracks on the disc speak from the darkest room in the house of sorrow. (I refer to Sculthorpe’s ‘Dijille’ and to ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Part). The grief is absolute. It neither cries nor shouts nor tears its hair out. It simply quivers and ultimately exhausts itself and lapses into barely audible human breaths. And thus into harmony with life. The experience leaves me quiet, reconciled – I suppose – by sheer truth. And beauty.
What has that to do with Robert Hillman’s new book, “Joyful”? I read a passage in the later part of the novel where a character who has lost his only two children weeps silently in the utter darkness of a room in the mansion that gives the book its name. His quivering presence is sensed by his host, Leon Joyce, owner of “Joyful”. Joyce, who has been observing his own prolonged season of bottomless grief, stands, wordless and motionless. The weeping one comes to realise he is not alone. Each sorrows in silence, both men understand. No sign, no word. But something beyond words is known: the two men and the grateful reader make their way from that room in “Joyful” somehow reconciled to loss. And that is what Hillman’s book is about – its chief theme – how we humans risk all and lose all when we (inevitably) invest in passion.
Robert Hillman is not famous for misery, any more than Winton. The misery is there in the book as it is in life. But “Joyful” is also a story of the greatest vitality, the most audacious imagination, the most original characters, (from the carnal priest who absolves himself habitually, to Dally the Wordsworth-loving Iraqi Kurd, to the sexually hyperactive Tess, to the hapless Emily who cannot love any man who loves her, to the world-weary, gusset-guzzling, false-poet Daniel.) And the book is full of gems from the bowels of Hillman’s imagination that made me roar with unexpected belly laughing.
I defy the reader to get through “Joyful” without shedding tears of mirth and tears of joy. In short, I like it. I admire it. I respect it, I envy it, I treasure it. I’ll remember it.
“Joyful’s” characters are destined to live in memory alongside Winton’s Fish and Lamb families that emerged from “Cloudstreet” and took up lodging in a nation’s treasury.
Text published “joyful.” Howard Goldenberg will launch it at Readings in Carlton at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 7 May. Please come along.
A friend has published a memoir of his late father. When my own father passed away I wrote a memoir and published it.
The entire process was rewarding: I had honoured my father, I had told his story ‘that a later generation might know’. And I had managed my grief.
My friend Michael Komesaroff has achieved all those things with his memoir, “What the Eye Will See”. What stands out in the personality of Willie Komesaroff (the author’s father) is his jealous protection of his good name, his deep to the bone integrity.
In addition to this private story the author has brought to bear the meticulous research skills that he employs as a visiting professor, consultant and journalist in his professional field, which is Asian mineral investment. The result is a small book with a big story. It is a very Australian story – the story of the Komesaroffs, a Jewish clan from the Ukraine; of their immigration to Australia during the years of the Russian Revolution at a time when Australian government policy expressly excluded migrants from that area.
How government policy was waived and how the Komesaroffs responded in the host country are the stuff of unseen greatness. This country’s gentile politicians who overcame public prejudice and government policy; the Moses figure of the Komesaroff clan who plucked his family from peril and set them up here; the manner in which that clan buckled down, worked hard, prospered, multiplied and rewarded Australia; this is the story of Australian migration success, writ large – but written as it were – in invisible ink. Such is the characteristic modesty and self-effacement of the Komesaroffs (noisy scion Michael conspicuously excepted) that although the clan is Melbourne’s biggest Jewish family and its members are giants of professions, they stay away from limelight.
“What the Eye Will See” allows us all to see and appreciate elements of the greatness of this country and the hidden greatness of some of its quieter achievers.
Michael invites my readers to the launch of the book. It will be a good afternoon.
What the Eye Will See launch invitation