Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beggars of Carlton

Spring in Melbourne. At dusk the restaurant tables on the pavements are crowded with joyful customers tucking into the famous dishes of Lygon Street, Carlton. The air is warm with the aroma of coffee and Italian cooking. The bookshops are doing a steady trade. Cabs cruise and swoop. Professional beggars are drifting out of the shadows, quietly targeting their prey.

I have spent the past two hours enjoying the festivities of a book launch among the crammed shelves of Readings Bookshop where I have been launching Helen Heritage’s novel. Dotted among the fans and family are the free-loaders who are there for the drinks and nibbles. One of them cruises among about with his skate-board under his arm, snaffling the canapés, doing a circuit, coming back for more. There is a small irony in the title of the novel I am launching: Borrowed Landscape. But among the chatter and goodwill there seems to be space for the man with the skate-board and his ilk.

When I emerge from the bookshop, the street is buzzing and twinkling and clattering with a kind of anticipation of good things to come in the night. Somebody is playing a harmonica, but softly, underneath the jostling music of the crowd. I look up and down the street, searching for a likely place to hail a cab. It would be nice to have a cup of coffee outside Tiamo, but no, I must hurry home.

So there I am at the traffic lights on the corner, scanning four ways for a cab, my right arm in the air, when somebody steps in front of me, and says softly but firmly: ‘Carmel’. Quickly I take in the shape and detail of the man – he is not young, is unshaven, he is dressed in greasy tatters, a broken backpack over his left shoulder. I have never seen him before. He’s one of the beggars, and has emerged from the shadows to ask for ‘six dollars to get a room for the night’.

Just then a cab pulls up for me and I grab the door. As we sweep off down the street, the image of the beggar stays with me and I realise he must have picked my name from the book launch. As I said, professional beggars.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CD-ROM of 1998 novel Red Shoes

In 1998 Random House published my novel Red Shoes, and the book was accompanied by an interactive CD-ROM. I am now engaged in a search for original copies of the CD-ROM. If you have one and would like to sell it to me, please get in touch:

Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Review of Bereft by Chris Womersly

Carmel Bird's review of Bereft a novel by Chris Womersly published by Scribe

Review published in Australian Book Review, September 2010

The 1914-18 war is lodged in the minds of Australians with the power of myth. Chris Womersley, in startling, powerful, plain yet tender and lyrical prose, has constructed a heart-breaking narrative that opens up the wounds of war, laying bare like sinews the events that track back before the conflict and reach forward into the collective memory. I was reminded of A.S. Byatt’s recent novel The Children’s Book which also foregrounds in poetic language the so-called Great War, and similarly etches forever the stark horror of broken bodies and minds on the consciousness of its readers.

In Bereft, Mary Walker, in her quarantined bedroom in the small NSW country town of Flint, in 1919, is dying, a victim of the influenza epidemic (often referred to here as ‘the plague’) that followed the Great War. Her only daughter, Sarah, was raped and murdered at the age of twelve, in 1909. After the child’s death, Sarah’s older brother Quinn ran off and was not seen again. He was presumed to have committed the crime. A telegram from the Army told his mother he fought in the war and was killed. In her fevered isolation Mary is ‘comforted by visions of her lost children’. It is she who gave those children their passionate love of stories, saying that a good story is ‘like medicine’, but also she who speculates that maybe stories are a way of ‘hiding from the world’. It is Mary who realises there is no word to define a mother who has lost a child, Mary who grasps the word ‘bereft’ to describe herself, Mary therefore who gives the novel its title.

The ‘story’ you will read in this novel tells how Quinn perhaps survived the war and returned home after all, like a fugitive living ghost when his mother was dying, and how he took revenge for his sister’s murder, and for the ruin of his own existence. His elusive presence in Flint in 1919 takes on, for the people remaining in the little town, the ‘shimmer of truth’. Such a shimmer plays and tantalises across the novel, drawing the reader into the broken heart of the world as it emerges from the meaningless carnage and infection of war into the chimeric rubble of peace. The war, with its mythic qualities, takes on the face of a hideous dreamscape, and the fact that hallucination is never far from the novel’s landscape adds to the breathless nightmare nature of the story. Sometimes I felt a kind of faint echo of Under Milk Wood flickering through the fabric of the scenes, although in Bereft there is nothing whimsical. This is an account of terrible, terrible cruelty, of profound and wrenching sorrow. War is the big drama of human horror, but in what passes for peacetime are enacted also the basest moments of exquisite cruelty. That Womersley can marry these two extremes, and construct a narrative in which the reader is left with a burning sense of regret, tenderness and love, is a mark of his skill and of his fictional reach.

On his secret return home in 1919 Quinn inhabits the wild places in the hills behind Flint, leading a fugitive existence, with stealthy visits to his dying mother. One time he takes her a bunch of lavender, a herb known for its power to induce drowsiness, and later she is unsure whether she spoke to her son, or imagined she did. The reader is frequently placed in a similar position of doubt, but this effect is used in the narrative to increase a desire to believe, to in fact strengthen the credibility of the supernatural element of the text. Quinn has visited a London medium, and come away with a written message from the spirit of his beloved sister Sarah: ‘Don’t forget me. Come back and save me. Please.’ This note is his treasure and his talisman. Truth is a sombre and fragile matter.

Into Quinn’s life in the wild comes a strange elphin companion, a twelve year-old orphan sprite-girl named Sadie Fox who is looking for her brother, ‘a pilot in the war’. Quinn and Sadie have, in Quinn’s own words, ‘conjured each other’. They are each of the earth, having the ability to listen to the deep sounds of the natural world. Quinn constantly compares the busy lives of insects with the lives of human beings, and he can detect the ‘grinding of the earth’ as it revolves in space. It is a world forsaken by God, where in a moment of Blakean symbolism Sadie kills a sacrificial lamb.

Quinn’s quest for revenge moves relentlessly on with the tension of a thriller, pacing Sadie’s dream-desire to go with him to Kensington Gardens where there is a ‘fairy queen and she grants wishes’. Quinn himself concedes that this would be a fresh green place filled with mist. And so a link to Byatt’s The Children’s Book is firmly clarified. In both novels the ghastly stench and blood and mud and bone of war are played against the sad narrative of Peter Pan and the fairies, both articulating the inability of human beings to imagine anything more useful than fairyland. Quinn and Sadie and a grey horse walk away on an ‘ordinary Sunday morning’, closing the story to the accompaniment of hymns floating from the church. The reader can only weep for them, and for the suffering of the foolish world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Home Truth

Go to for interview on Home Truth anthology

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Melbourne Writers' Festival

At the Melbourne Writers' Festival 2010 I will be speaking about my novel
Child of the Twilight
at a session called Writing Women.
Some of the key content of my novel is concerned with the existence of miraculous black statues of the Virgin Mary in Europe.
On my own dressing table I have a tiny statue of the black madonna from Guadalupe in Spain. She is dressed in a robe of atmosphere-sensitive chips that change colour with the weather. When it is hot she is bright turquoise, when it is cold she moves through pale yucky pink to icy-blue white. Her little black face remains forever pitch black.

I was in Guadalupe doing research for my Child of the Twilight, some of which is set in Spain, and much of which is concerned with the theft of a religious statue. In my Festival session on Women Writing I will discuss the question of the black images of the Virgin Mary - as well as other things.
In my other session on storytelling at Toff of the Town I will be telling a story.
It won't be a story about black madonnas, so just so you know, the story of the lady of Guadalupe goes like this:

In 1326 a cowherd, in response to seeing a vision of the Virgin, dug up a casket which contained a black statue of Mary. The statue had been buried six centuries earlier by knights fleeing from the Saracens. It became an object of veneration, and is believed to have been responsible for many miracles. When Columbus set out to discover the New World, he began his journey from the steps of the cathedral at Guadalupe, and placed his ships under the patronage of the Black Virgin of Guadalupe.

A great story I think.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Enid Blyton

The Enid Blyton Question

When I was at university in the 1950s I wrote, as part of a thesis on writing for children, a piece on the work of Enid Blyton. The idea was hardly revolutionary, simply being that although the writing was not so great, the appeal to children was phenomenal. At that time the works were often the subject of discussions among librarians mainly because of the inbuilt racism, but they were a fairly new topic for academic treatment. Since then I have not paid very much attention to them.

But among my collection of old videos is a copy of The Magic Faraway Tree, and of all the old videos the one my grandson fixed on was this one. He asked for the book of the film. So his father started reading it to him at bedtime, and now the child has become enchanted by, and a bit obsessed with, Enid Blyton. He has a favourite CD of Kate Winslet reading The Magic Faraway Tree. And I know a grandmother whose grand-daughter of a similar age has also fallen for all this. Admittedly I am dealing with an anecdotal sample of two.

The copies the children are hearing are from the old texts, although the Winslet recording makes changes such as in the names – I am not sure what else. The child notices and discusses the differences, but these do not seem to bother him. The vocabulary and ideas of the originals he treats as he treats any story – it is good narrative and it engages him and he learns new words and ways of being.

I bought him a new version of one of the books, and he accepted that this was the same but different, and so what.

The old Enid still writes terrible sentences, but she still has the power to enchant and enslave readers with her narrative drug. Changing her stuff seems to be a waste of time – unless it is just a ploy to boost sales, which I suppose is all it is.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

HOME TRUTH - published July 2010 Fourth Estate - Essays by ten Australian writers on the idea of 'home'


‘He was alone, three million light-years from home.’ So concludes

the first chapter of the novel of the film E.T. Packed between

‘alone’ and ‘home’, those three million light-years express the vast

and tender emotions carried by the concept of home, the place of

origin, the place of belonging, of comfort, of relationship, the

haven. Home is the place each human being (and each extraterrestrial)

seeks with the heart. In 1982 Steven Spielberg gave the

world the imperative ‘E.T. phone home.’ This unlikely little clump

of words went straight to the core of the matter. Connection with

home is the genesis of hope.

In this collection of essays ten writers have taken ten personal

approaches to the meaning of ‘home’. They sometimes locate their

home in the country of origin, in the town, in the house, but almost

all move into some examination of relationships with others, and

also into the nature of the self. ‘Home’ it seems is bound up with

identity. Exploration of identity frequently takes the writers into

recollections of their early selves, and ‘home’ sometimes lies very

close to the places and relationships of childhood. Contemplation

of home leads back to the mother and forward to the grave, such a


trajectory bringing writers inevitably again to an examination of

the self.

All the essayists are established Australian writers, writers

who have had a great deal of time and experience on which to

reflect. The details are different for each one, but then each in

some way or other ultimately comes up against the sense of the

self. Australia is a continent to which Europeans came in the

eighteenth century partly for the purpose of establishing European

culture, in an attempt to convert a land they experienced as foreign

and hostile into a land they could ultimately consider to be home.

The terrible violence and tragedy of this exercise whereby

powerful invaders overtook the homeland of the indigenous

peoples will forever mark this country. And the invaders carried

with them their own tragic underclass, people who were forced

into exile from their homelands. The idea of home is horribly

scored and burned into the story of this country.

In 1997 a government report on the lives of thousands of

indigenous Australians who had been taken from their families was

published. It was called Bringing Them Home. This is a most

striking example of the powerful use of the word ‘home’, a word

which is used so frequently in speech and writing without

necessarily very much reflection. All the emotion of the stories

contained in the report is packed into the word. Home. The report


contained personal accounts by indigenous people of their

childhood experience of being removed from their families and

homes and relocated. I edited and published a collection of these

stories in 1998 in The Stolen Children – Their Stories.

That is all a long time ago now, and it may seem odd to say so,

but as a result of seeing the word ‘home’ in the title of the report, I

have been contemplating the word ever since, wondering what it

means to people, how writers might explore it and describe it. This

present collection is the result of my contemplation. The writers

here are all people of principally European heritage, all originating

from migrations at various times up to the middle of last century.

A collection of ten essays implies a small selection, and I have

confined this selection particularly to writers who work with

images. I believe it is images that can give the writers the power to

carry their understanding of the word ‘home’ into the hearts and

minds of readers. For the word itself is an abstraction, and requires

the solidity of the image in order to come to life.

In February 2009 bushfires in rural Victoria killed 173 people.

Pictures of burnt-out houses are the graphic symbols of those lost

lives. These houses were homes, they were repositories of

possessions, hopes and dreams. They were the fragile havens, the

places of supposed safety and nurture, the locations where the


people placed their identities. The word ‘homeless’ has a terrible,

terrible ring. When you are homeless, where is your identity?

Since 1788 Australia has been a place of migrations, from the

people who came here in search of a new home in the nineteenth

and twentieth centuries, to those who still today make their way

here in the hope of a better life, a hope that is sometimes frustrated

and dashed. Home, they are all looking for their home. The place

they once called home has in many cases become a place of danger

and fear, rendering it no longer truly ‘home’.

The essays in this collection address in various ways the

question of what ‘home’ might mean. It is my hope and

expectation that readers will take the essays as inspiration for

further contemplation on the meaning of the term.

I am sometimes visited by the memory of a dusty pink rose

that bloomed in my garden some years ago. In the hollow centre of

the rose lived a bright green praying mantis that seemed very much

at home. In the end, the rose lost its petals and died. I always

wonder where the insect went. And a most moving and potent uses

of the word ‘home’ can be seen on the First World War memorial

in the Sydney Botanical Gardens. The reference is to the horses

that were, at the conclusion of the war, shot by the soldiers who

loved them. Rather than see these faithful animals fall into the


unloving hands of local traders, the men destroyed them. On the

memorial is the statement: ‘They did not come home.’

Saturday, May 29, 2010


TITLE: The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe AUTHOR: Andrew O’Hagan PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber

REVIEWER: Carmel Bird

This novel declares itself in its title. It is written by Marilyn’s Maltese. The world is probably divided into two kinds of people, those who like books by dogs and those who don’t. I do. I loved the idea of this book when I first heard of it, and I was utterly captivated by the reading, thrilled by the wit, energy and rhythm of the writing. The reflections of Maf are superb insights into America in the early sixties, as well as into big subjects such as literature, art, psychology, history and politics. This is philosophy at its most engaging. There is an ancient tradition in literature where animals speak to and for humans. Maf identifies a book by Cervantes ‘The Conversation of the Dogs’ as marking the birth of the genre in the development of the modern novel, and goes on to cite examples by Woolf, Chekov, Orwell and many more. Kafka he quotes: ‘All knowledge – the totality of all questions and answers – is contained in the dog.’ The view Maf gives of Marilyn is unlike any other, and is ultimately a most lucid and moving one. He can read her mind, and there is a point at which she can read his. He is so wise and wistful, she so fragile and doomed. On the one hand this book is a revelation about all the dogs in literature and art, and on the other it is a novel of profound and highly entertaining insight into the human heart.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Group Notes - for - Child of the Twilight

Twilight is the dangerous time when nothing is quite as it seems. In what sense is Sydney a ′child of the twilight′?

How significant are our biological origins in shaping our identities?

In Rosita′s imagination the ′wellbeing of mankind was being held together with prayer′. Does the novel portray tragedy and disaster as a result of a stitch being dropped in the embroidery of the Divine Heart prayers?

In her own art, Cora refers to Jan Van Eyck′s Marriage of the Arnolfini but in quite startling ways. What does this say about her and her attitudes to marriage and fertility?

Do you think that the school staff - in particular the headmistress, Dr Silver reacted appropriately to Cora Mean′s accident in the art room?

What roles do Furta Sacra (holy theft) and miracles play in the Child of the Twilight? How do these ideas affect the way the characters see our world?

′Fiction is the perfect place to put the facts,′ says Sydney. What are the advantages for her telling her story as fiction rather than fact?

The novel uses a number of symbols of fertility - in particular the Black Madonna. What does the Black Madonna represent to Sydney? To Diana?

What do you think Sydney believes was most influential in creating her life - science or her mother′s prayers?

How reliable is Sydney as narrator?

The theft of the statue represents a serious interference to the order of things. Throughout the novel the idea of ′interference′ looms large: Sydney′s conception, Diana′s manipulations, Barnaby′s work as a surgeon, to name a few instances. These are worldly interferences. However there is also a more mystical side to interference in the form of prayers offered and prayers answered. When is interference a good thing?

Rufus′ father is involved in the MOSE project in Venice. What is the symbolic significance of this project in the lives of Cora and Rufus?

The characters are described by their attributes - Corazon the Fertile, Diana the Manipulator, Cosimo the Trickster. This gives the narrative a quality of fable or mystery play. How effective is this technique in a novel of today?

Assisted Reproductive Technology, with its acronym ART provides the impetus or the germ of the novel, and there is a great deal of ′art′ in the usual sense also. How do these to two interpretations of ′art′ function together?

How do you think Roland′s life was shaped by the violent death of his twin sister?

The old painting of the indigenous Madonna in the church in Tasmania has previously escaped Diana′s notice. What is the significance of her realisation of its existence?

Both Sydney and Cosimo can never know their genetic origins. In what ways does this fact affect their lives and their outlook?

What is your opinion of Sydney′s morality with regard to reading Edith′s diary and extracting its secrets?

Eleena was killed during a cricket match. What are the roles of games and accident and destiny in the novel?

Why do you think Sydney′s imaginary friends are native Americans?

The narrative criss-crosses the globe. Even Rosita the Spinster finally makes it from Australia to Europe, and it seems that there have been English Vinnicombes in rural Tasmania. What is the significance of these migrations?

What is the significance of Barnaby′s work as an eye surgeon?

What is the significance of Avila′s business ′Marriages Performed at Sea′?

A miracle is something that can not be explained except by divine intervention. What is your response to ′miracles"?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Origins of Ideas for Fiction

Readers often ask writers about where the ideas for novels and stories come from. The answer to this question is really never simple. I will be talking about my new novel – Child of the Twilight. And where it fits into my thinking. Once a novel is published, the writer has the luxury of being able to mentally going back over its origins, of seeing how each element somehow developed from events, thoughts, ideas etc.

This kind of thing is deeply personal and is perhaps not often discussed. Readers and reviewers and critics come to the novel from the outside, as it were, but it is the writer who holds the real keys. It is the writer’s business to give the readers enough guidance to take them through the narrative. And it is the reader’s responsibility to take notice along the way. To follow the clues. That makes it sound as if every story is a mystery – and in a way I think that is true.

One of my short stories called The Quince Tree is published in a collection in Norway. It is a tiny little old story and I never think about it much. But recently I had an email from a Norwegian reader who wanted to know about the use of colours in the story. Did they mean what the reader thought they meant? And how had I arrived at the scheme she found operating with the colours in the story. Now when I get a question like this I take it very seriously, and I have to stop and consider my response. Because when I write – and when many fiction writers write – the elements that make up the narrative and that texture the prose arrive freighted with the writer’s own understandings and memories and points of view and prejudices – and so forth. From the writer’s side of things, everything is going forward at once – the nature of the character, the events, the setting, the tone, the language – everything depends on everything else. But readers – such as the reader in Norway – come to things bit by bit, and may be attracted to the flash of the colour yellow, and start to wonder why yellow. Now in the case of the quince story, the colour is the colour of the fruit, and so is unavoidable – so the question that arises is really – why quince? There is truly no simple answer to that question. The subject matter of a story comes from deep within the experience and dare I say the heart of the writer. The writer is in a sense saying to the reader ‘I have a message for you,’ should you want to hear it.

I propose to tell you the story of the writing of my novel Child of the Twilight. Of telling you where I believe it comes from, telling you what possessed me to write this book. Before I do this, let me just outline the plot for you, and tell you a little about the characters.

A miracle working statue of Baby Jesus is stolen from a church in Rome. This fact is the central matter in the novel, and also holds the central image in the novel of the importance of babies and the making of babies, including modern methods such as IVF.

A young Australian priest is there in Rome at the time of the theft. His mother in Melbourne has a keen devotion to the lost statue. The statue is not recovered. The priest – his name is Roland – returns to Australia where he works in Melbourne, part of his duties being as chaplain to a girls’ boarding school. One of the girls at the school gets pregnant to a boy from the brother school, but she loses the baby very early in the pregnancy. She was not actually aware that she was pregnant.
As part of her recovery her aunt takes her overseas for a holiday. They visit the church where the statue went missing, as well as other Catholic shrines. One of the aunt’s great interests is in black statues of the Virgin Mary. These statues are – or used to be – key figures for women’s focus on conception and childbirth. They are associated with the earth itself, with darkness, mystery and miracles.

When in Rome Cora and her aunt meet an old priest at the church from which the statue of the baby disappeared. They discuss the lost statue with him, and talk about the Australian priest Roland who is known to all of them. One of the key ideas in the book is the ease with which international connections are discovered and established – the six degrees of separation idea. There is a sense in which a vast human family is united by the holy family – located here in the lost statue of the baby, and the figure of the black madonna. Cora’s boyfriend (the father of her lost child) follows her to Italy, and a few years later he and Cora marry. The lost statue is never found, however the mystery of its disappearance is revealed at the end of the book.
Reduced to that more or less factual outline, the book could sound rather solemn. However the tone is not at all solemn, owing to the fact that the story is narrated by a nineteen year old girl who is completely unsentimental. So she tells the story, and at some points she enters the story.

I have stopped talking about the plot and am now talking about how the story is told. This girl is called Sydney. Why? People have often been named after places in the world – but in recent years this has become particularly fashionable. Dakota, Paris, India, Cheyenne, Montana, Odessa. I noticed that Australian place names are not popular – so I decided to use one. Sydney. Her surname is also a place name – Kent – and her mother is named after a Spanish town, her father after an English village. The girl Sydney was an IVF baby, and she is very hung up on the fact that all her genetic material came from unknown sources – both of her parents being infertile. Another key fact is that the origins of her egg and sperm are unknown, and there are no records. So – in the context of a world of six degrees of separation, Sydney imagines she could be related to anybody and everybody. She has a very detached and matter of fact way of talking about things. So the chances of becoming sentimental about the religious aspects of the story are avoided.

So that is how the book is. But I said I would talk about where it came from. Telling you what possessed me.
A long time ago when I was studying French in year twelve at high school, we read a story by Prosper Merimee about a black statue of the goddess Venus. These pagan statues were christianised in the middle ages, and so have become the black madonnas in shrines throughout Europe. In fact the statue of Venus in the story fascinated me, and led me to realize the presence of the black madonnas, and also their significance. They are so unlike the pretty statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima – these two being nineteenth century images, whereas the black ones are much more ancient. The black ones are part of the world of medieval knights and troubadours, and interest in all this led me to the secret language of the troubadours – called the Green Language or the Language of the Birds. This is a rhyming, punning way of speaking, and by using it the troubadours could communicate secrets and messages without seeming to do so.

There is a character in my book – Cosimo, the older priest in the Roman church where the statue was – who sometimes speaks like that.

For many years I studied the phenomenon of the black madonna, and I visited a number of shrines, mainly in Spain and France. But the novel that references these images and ideas did not really get going until I saw a news item – a very tiny news item – in the paper in 1994. It was a report on the theft of a miraculous statue – the Bambinello – from the Franciscan church in Rome. For some reason – and these things do remain unclear – this sparked the book. But I still wrote a number of other books before this one was completed.

One thing that kept puzzling me was how I was going to get the tone I wanted – the unsentimental plain narrative that was almost cold. Then I the idea of the character of Sydney Kent came to me, and the rest fell into place. Sydney is an international child, wandering the world with her wealthy professional parents. She tells the story.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Home Truth Review

Publication Date: July 2010
From Bookseller and Publisher
Review by Candice Cappe
In the introduction to Home Truth, Carmel Bird talks
of Steven Spielberg’s character E.T., and his plight to
reconnect with that place he called home, a place where
he would find safety and solace from the alien world in
which he found himself. This sets an appropriate scene
for the ten essays that follow in this fascinating collection
of reflections on home and belonging. The sense of home
can be interpreted in so many ways: it is the place of
our childhood, as explored by Gabrielle Lord and Peter
Goldsworthy; a place of history and origin, as discussed
in Matthew Condon’s essay; the womb from which we
evolve and grow before becoming independent and
reaching out into the world, as in Ian Britain’s piece; and
a place of memory and lost meaning when the person we
share it with is no longer there, as expressed in Andrea
Goldsmith’s moving recollection. With contributions
from some of Australia’s best known contemporary
writers, readers are treated to an eclectic and diverse range
of pieces demonstrating that home is as much about the
people who share it with us as it is about time and place.
This is a thought-provoking collection, taking us on a
journey into personal spaces we all know and recognise as
dimensions of those places we call home.

Candice Cappe is the bookshop manager at the
National Library of Australia in Canberra”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

'Child of the Twilight'
Back in the nineties I published a non-fiction book about the indigenous children of the stolen generations. This new novel also has ‘child’ in the title, and these books both reflect my lifelong interest in the subject of the child. Children are the focus of a lot of my fiction. I think that children signify hope, all that is good and beautiful. It is easy to become sentimental about children and childhood, and I probably often do.

'Child of the Twilight' begins by considering the centrality of the child in the Christian religion – a miraculous wooden statue of Baby Jesus is stolen from a church in Rome. It goes on to explore how children are conceived – in the ordinary old fashioned way, and by modern methods of IVF. Early in the book there is a little scene between one of the main characters and his twin sister when they were small. What the little girl says to her brother sums up the simplicity and truthfulness of a child’s view of the world.

‘They had been taken to visit an ancient uncle. In his garden there was a cherry tree and a grape vine. Roland and Eleena were sitting together on a low stone wall in the sun, each with a glass of red fizzy drink. Eleena turned to Roland and she said: This is nice, Rolly, this is nice. And he felt she meant everything – not just the drink, everything – the sun, the stone wall, the cherry tree, the grapevine, the sky – everything. Life, she said to him, was nice. This is nice, Rolly. Life is nice.’

I will read two short pieces from the novel. The first bit is set in Rome in 1994 and is about the theft of the statue. The second is in Melbourne in 2001 and is about a pregnant schoolgirl. The two pieces are linked by the presence in both of the young Franciscan priest who is the Roland I just read about. Actually in the second piece I don’t think the priest gets a mention, but he is there – believe me.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reading By Moonlight

My Short Review Of
Reading by Moonlight: how books saved a life
A memoir by Brenda Walker, published by Hamish Hamilton
When a woman goes into hospital for cancer surgery, she packs necessities, and usually something that is dear to her. Brenda Walker has spent a lifetime reading, and her treasured object was a book. Throughout the five stages of the treatment – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstruction and survival – she is never without reading matter. In her case the books are mostly classics such as the works of Dickens, Dante, Tolstoy, Patrick White. They speak to her, sustain and console her, bring light in the terrible darkness, and give shape and meaning to the experiences she must undergo.
The books occupy a vital space in her life alongside the spaces necessarily occupied by professionals, family members and dear kind friends. The writer says that if she had to nominate ‘the single person” she was staying alive for it would be her son. And she also expresses her profound love for and gratitude towards her mother who at least five times made the journey from New South Wales to Western Australia to look after her.
This memoir is very moving and also instructive, frankly guiding readers through the terrors of disease and treatment, and fear of dying, while exploring with them the joys of immersion in the gift of great literature.
This book, while facing dark truths and examining deep loneliness, is luminous with a quiet joy. It tells how stories hold the promise of more stories to come, and of another dawn. It stands beside Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and also Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” as one of those books you will take to your heart, and will not easily forget.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Footpath Library

Published in The Age - 13 March 2010

On a hot February evening we drove into a narrow street behind the Town Hall in Fitzroy. High above us along the ridge on the slate roof of a ancient bluestone church were strung, at regular intervals, like pearls on a necklace, seventeen seagulls, facing east, their backs to the setting sun. They were waiting for pickings. Down below, a crowd was gathering around two white Vinnies vans, one van giving away sandwiches the other dispensing free soup, coffee and cordial. I was with the people in the red car behind the vans, the car with a boot full of books. We would stop here for half an hour, offering free books to homeless and disadvantaged people.
While people surged forward to the vans, we put down a rug on the pavement and placed on it rows of books and magazines. A Chinese grandfather brought over his folding chair and gathered up some of the Chinese books for himself, smiling broadly, sipping coffee from a polystyrene cup. One man, disappointed that there was no dictionary on the rug, ordered one for next week. The books are free to take away, like the food. This is the Footpath Library, an initiative of the Lauriston Girls’ School Community Service Program.
Every Sunday night two members of the school staff follow the Vinnies vans which make six stops at key locations around inner Melbourne. Books are collected from members of the school community, and are stored in the school library – nine shelves where the books, in excellent condition, are stacked three deep. My journey began at the school library. As a book-lover I was dazed by the sight of the tightly packed spines on the shelves – Minette Walters, Gabrielle Lord, Ruth Rendell, Dean Koontz, Sydney Sheldon. There’s also a huge collection of biography and non-fiction, which is the most popular category with clients of the Footpath Library. And several shelves of books in Chinese. A regular contributor to the supply is Bayside Library Services; one large donation of books came from the State Library of Victoria. We put eight shopping bags of already selected books into the boot of the car in preparation for the night’s work.
The Footpath Library began when a Sydney woman, Sarah Garnett, was working as a volunteer, serving meals to homeless and disadvantaged people, and started bringing along books for distribution. This small gesture has developed in other cities to become part of the services on which homeless and disadvantaged people rely for sustenance and comfort. Joan Hammonds, the librarian at Lauriston, is the force behind the Melbourne Footpath Library, which has been operating for two years.
My journey continued in North Melbourne where the two Vinnies vans were stocking up. The six regular volunteers, led by long-timers, Norm and Manfred, wore fluorescent orange vests with the blue logo on the back. The 1,500 sandwiches are made from donated bread, with fillings such as tuna, ham, cheese, vegemite. Our first stop was on the edge of a North Melbourne park, and as we drew up a dozen or so clients drifted into view, some with their dogs, making first for the food and coffee, then over to the striped rug where we had placed the books from one of the shopping bags in the boot. This is not a grand operation – the rug is small and displays maybe fifteen books. Joan is quite familiar with the clientele at each stop, and so each bag is filled with things designed to interest them. Magazines such as New Scientist and National Geographic were popular here. There was some discussion over the merits of a book on war by Winston Churchill.
The books lie on the rug, face up, shiny coloured invitations to other worlds. The light is beginning to fade, the empty polystyrene cups are beginning to blow and bowl along the road. A few books have gone. Pack up the vans, the car, drive off. The clients linger by the wire fence to the park, but when I look back, they have dissolved into the pink dusk.
The drive to the Fitzroy Town Hall takes us past the Zoo, the dry parklands where birds are twittering loudly, round College Crescent. The towers of the university halls of residence speak not only of learning and books but also of warmth and community and home. We concentrate on being simply practical, not sentimental, with our car full of books, but there is a temptation to philosophize as we sail along past the have-a-lots on our way to the have-no-muches.
After the Fitzroy Town Hall we head for Hanover House in Southbank. The lights in St Patrick’s glow amber in the twilight as we zip past on our way to a street behind Crown Casino. Again it is easy to wonder about the distinctions, this time between the pulse and glitter of Crown and the quiet dignified gathering of people, two of them in wheelchairs, standing in the pool of light outside the crisis accommodation of Hanover House. We spread out our wares on the red and grey rug. A woman pounces with delight on Boris Starling’s thriller Vodka, provoking mirth among the company. She takes a couple of other things, and I talk her into taking Kay Cottee’s First Lady. Again the New Scientist and National Geographic are winners.
Next stop is a narrow lane where we park behind buildings, and a few people appear out of the shadows to get their meal and talk among themselves. This lot is not interested in books. But then we get to Flinders Street Station, and like children waiting for the circus, the people are sitting in a long line on the ledge of the stone foundations. One of the regulars is a woman “Annette” who says she has so many books in her room that her landlady has warned her not to bring back any more. Nothing daunted, she picks up a Ruth Rendell, but puts it back saying she already has it. She is thrilled with the autobiography of Barrie Humphries. I think she took about six books to add to her overflowing collection. Two novels by Iain Banks – severe black and white covers – attract the attention of two young men, but then they put them back. This is a busy gathering with a considerable feeling of camaraderie. It feels less isolated, more part of its surroundings, than the other stops. Annette spies a history of the Boy Scouts and gleefully carries it off.
Last stop a street by the Victoria Market where there are just a few people in need of soup and sandwiches, a magazine, a thriller and some conversation. All over until next Sunday.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

REVIEW from Boomerang Books

For those who enjoy reading to indulge in the pleasure of beautiful writing then Carmel Bird’s latest novel might be just what you are after. Child of the Twilight is a deceptively complex work with great depth of both characterisation and theme. On one level the story is of love and loss, yet woven through this are the weighty themes of belief, fate and deception. Central to the story’s narrative is the theft of the religious icon named the Bambinello, stolen from a Rome monastery.
Throughout the novel the concepts of birth and origin play an important part in the lives of the characters as they contend with their individual loss, search for identity or quest to unravel the mystery of the missing statue. As the story unfolds, readers are challenged by the notion of faith and led to question the ideas we live by as the story delves into the labyrinth of real and imagined beliefs. The writing is contemporary and engaging, yet manages to sustain medieval overtones drawing close connections to myth and folklore, while exploring the deeper issues of loss and the unknown. This is a carefully constructed work with a compelling storyline that keeps you guessing right until the final pages.

Creativity and the Bambinello

A key idea that informs my fiction is that of creativity, creativity in the forms of writing, painting, and biology. This idea has led me to contemplate images of the Madonna and child, focusing sometimes on the black virgin. The black virgin has a strong presence in my 2010 novel Child of the Twilight, as has the image of the baby Jesus.
In the 1987 story “The Woodpecker Toy Fact” there is a toymaker named Jack Frost. The narrator of the story recalls her childhood perception of him and his work. “At Christmas he used to make wooden peepshows of the crib. You closed one eye and looked through the hole in the box. Inside, in an unearthly light, were first the shepherds, then the animals, and further back the baby like a sugar mouse in his mother’s arms. The angels were in the far distance, wings sharp like the wings of swallows.” The narrator makes up a lie, telling people Jack Frost told her he made the original of the statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague, but nobody takes any notice of her.
At the end of Child of the Twilight a wedding takes place in the church at Woodpecker Point where there is a statue of the Infant of Prague, and there is also a fresco of a black virgin that is a portrait of an indigenous Tasmanian woman. This novel examines the issue of human fertility, presenting to the reader some babies who are the result of accidental couplings, some who are the result of IVF or ART, where science meets biology, and some who are the result of miracles outside science and beyond biology (notably the birth of Jesus).
The images of the black virgin that are venerated in churches, principally in Mediterranean countries, are signifiers of the fertility of Mary, and are frequently found where ancient fertility cults flourished in pagan times. The statues themselves are often the self-same statues that once were venerated as the black goddess. This dark aspect of Mary is deeply attractive to women in particular, and is acknowledged at a visceral as well as a spiritual level.
The statues themselves frequently come with stories of miraculous appearances in streams or caves, and are associated with water, the giver of life. The black virgin presides over birth and motherhood, and church hierarchy and patriarchy have over the centuries attempted to suppress devotion to her, fearful and suspicious of her pagan origins, and probably her dark female arts. You will find her steadily going about her business in such places as Montserrat and Saragossa as well as hundreds of less famous centres. She is good for tourism too.
In Child of the Twilight two are characters who collect facsimiles of the many statues of the black virgin, and one of these characters becomes involved in the search for a miraculous statue of the baby Jesus that has gone missing from a church in Rome. He was fashioned in the fifteenth century by a Franciscan, in the manner of Pinocchio, from a piece of olive wood grown in the garden of Gethsemane and was called the Bambinello. He was painted by angels, lost at sea, and ended up in a glass case in the church of Santa Maria in Araceoli, until he was stolen in 1994.
The role this image plays in the fertility of the characters in the novel brings together the miraculous, the scientific, and the biological, as well as locating the interest in the world of art, not to mention crime as well.
I have written at length on the subject of creativity in connection with the written word (Writing the Story of Your Life; Dear Writer; Not Now Jack) In my fiction I can also trace this preoccupation, specifically via the imagery of the mother and child, in Christian iconography, as well as in the frequent emphasis on the mother, and the child, in my the stories.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q&A With Candice Capp - National Library Bookshop

Carmel Bird explores faith, loss and the theft of an icon in her new work Child of the Twilight (February, Fourth Estate). Here she answers questions from National Library of Australia bookshop manager Candice Cappe.

Q The issue of art theft is important in Child of the Twilight, in particular the theft of a religious icon which resembles the infant Jesus—based on a real incident. How much of your work is inspired by real-life events?

A When I heard about the disappearance of the statue from the Roman church I knew I had to write about it. I knew in my heart that this was something I wished to explore in a novel. There is a thread that runs through my work—an interest in, focus on, the centrality of the child, which is of course also central to the Christian faith. This focus in my fiction sometimes leads to disappearing children (as in novel The Bluebird Café), and the fact that this was a stolen miracle-working statue of the infant Christ seemed fascinating to me. I perceived a metaphorical dimension to the disappearance. It came at a time when women appear to be having trouble conceiving, and are able to take advantage of medical procedures such as IVF, and I wished to explore some of the implications of such interventions. There were two real-life matters inspiring me—the statue and IVF. Bringing the two together was absorbing work. The statue is wooden, like the statue of Pinocchio, and stories of the making of children from substances other than human material (flowers, snow) appealed to my imagination.

Q The themes of faith and loss are central throughout the book, almost asking readers to question the beliefs that we live by. Did you set out to pose the questions about myth and belief in this book and do you think faith becomes more important once we have experienced loss?

A It sounds rather routine to say this, but the process is more or less: 1) the inspiration 2) the situation 3) the characters 4) the development of the plot. All these come together at the one time, in the writing, and develop alongside each other. As the work is constructed, the images and ideas work their way along as well. The whole exercise seems to bloom, all its elements opening out simultaneously in the process of the work. I can see, as I read the finished novel, that questions of belief of various kinds are being posed. However I did not set out to pose them. The range of responses people have to tragedy and loss is fascinating and important, and I have explored some of these responses.

A With regard to faith and loss—it does seem (in life) that people frequently seek a religious support in the face of loss, even when there has been little apparent faith beforehand. Religious faith can appear to bring comfort when comfort proves elusive. This novel does not aim to provide clear answers to the great questions of suffering and faith, however it cannot but pose them.

Q The book is narrated in the first person through the eyes of a young woman, Sydney Kent, and the tone is contemporary in style and voice, yet some of the themes and characters have an almost medieval appearance. How important is the idea of mystical legend and folklore in your work?

A Sydney is an American girl who is the product of an IVF procedure whereby all her genetic material originated outside her family. All details and records have been destroyed so that Sydney will never know who she really is. She is in fact a modern mystery, and has developed an interest in ancient fertility mysteries. The wisdom embedded in legend and myth and folklore seems to me to be apposite to the mysteries that will perhaps (or perhaps not) forever surround creation. The medieval flavour of parts of the text foregrounds for the modern reader some of the ancient poetic solutions to modern scientific problems (such as infertility).

Q Your writing appears imaginatively woven together with beautiful descriptive language, which makes me wonder if writing is as much a visual process as an intellectual one for you?

A My work is visual and musical—I work with the images that will bring forward the ideas, and with the rhythms of the language. Within this novel there are many key references to works of art, both genuine and false—these references are an important part of the visual canvas of the text.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


The novel was launched by Ian Britain
in February 2010

Ian: "These days I give a new novel I may pick up about twenty minutes to get me hooked. I give it up after that if I’m not confident of two things: that it’s going to be about everything, and that I’m going to find myself coming into it. ‘My idea of a writer,’ says Susan Sontag, is ‘someone interested in everything.’

Carmel Bird’s new novel is not just about everything but is set in everyone’s favourite places and written in every manner and mode. There’s birth, death, sex, religion, art, food, fashion, war, family, schooldays, technology, magic, innocence, crime, love, pain and the whole damned thing. There’s Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Rome, Venice, Paris, Barcelona, Portugal, Mexico, Gethsemane and Woodpecker Point. And it’s all wrapped up in a style that, with brilliant, knowing playfulness, makes Gothic and Grand Guignol seem colloquial, normal, everyday, while lending a sublimity to cliché, a transcendence to bathos.

My favourite character, lethally portrayed, is a headmistress, Dr Silver, who’s a Mrs Malaprop of platitudes. ‘Medieval legend or soap?’ the narrator asks at one point. We get the best of both worlds here, as Dr Silver might answer. But it’s true. Where in this fantastic confection could I possibly find myself? As it turns out, in several strands of the plot, and in various aspects of nearly all the characters, even minor ones. The action centres around the hunt for a missing religious statue, and celebrates the ‘thrill of getting control of an object that should be out of your reach’.

Only a few weeks before I came to read this book I was involved in a hunt, not for a sacred object, but a very profane one – the missing diaries of a notorious artist whose biography I’m writing. These had been missing for nearly 65 years. Through extraordinary luck I turned them up in the most unlikely place.

Carmel Bird’s novel not only captures the thrill of the chase, the fanatical urge, the mad hope that I came to feel so keenly but also the inordinate sense of miracle when the grail is actually located. But this is only one of multitudinous connections I found with my own life, career, sensibility. ‘I am drawn to secret autobiography expressed in code,’ says the narrator at another point. Any other reader, I’m convinced, will find his or her own autobiography here too.

It’s spooky, but this book knows you better than you’ll ever know this book. That’s part of its enduring mystery, both in the sense of a deeply spiritual drama and the curliest crime fiction. Thus does it combine in one the two genres of which Carmel has long been a recognised master. Rush out to buy it and be spooked."

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Notes for Panel Discussion on Reading at Abbotsford Convent February 13, 2010
Every book I read, and just about every book I have ever read, is marked on the margins with either pencil dots or pencil crosses. The blank pages at the back are then annotated according to page numbers, corresponding to the pencil marks. Sometimes I paste an envelope onto the inside back cover and insert into it white index cards onto which I have kept my annotations. So much for my little reading habits.
I think that reading is a kind of weird magic, actually. In his autobiography Robert Hughes writes of ‘the transformative value of word-magic’. He is discussing the poems he read in adolescence. But the phrase can be applied to the very art and act of reading which is a skill that is more or less taken for granted, but I think it’s truly fantastic. There’s a lovely book by John Sutherland called Magic Moments – it’s a memoir located in the books – and also films – he has loved. It caught my attention because of the word ‘magic’ in the title. He doesn’t really talk about what I am calling the magic of the art of reading, but he looks at the role of treasured narratives in the shaping of his life. To get the magic moment from reading you have to master the magical art of reading.
Everyone here has done that – and you are here to listen to what writers might say about reading. Stephanie has been reading Rilke, and writing about Rilke; Sue has been deep in the war diaries of Weary Dunlop, and has written his life. The inspiration for my new book began with a story I read years and years ago when I was in my final year of high school. It was a story by Prosper Merimee about a wedding in the French Pyrenees. A strange silvery black statue of Venus had been dug up, and was standing near the family home. The bridegroom was playing a game of pelota before the wedding, and put the wedding ring – supposedly for safe-keeping on the ring finger of the statue. When he came to retrieve the ring, the statue’s hand was clenched, and the ring was stuck. So he had to use a trashy little ring he had bought to give to a lady of the night. Well the party after the wedding ceremony was long and drunken, and the bride retired early. She lay in the dark waiting for the bridegroom. She was under the impression that he had fallen heavily into bed beside her, and had fallen into a drunken slumber. However – before long another person entered the bedroom. This really was the bridegroom, and he fell drunkenly into the bed beside the other figure. This figure turned out to be the statue of Venus who considered herself to be married to the bridegroom. She proceeded to squeeze him to death before lumbering out of the room back to her place beside the pelota court.
As a teenager I became fascinated by the dark statues of ancient goddesses that sometimes emerge from the earth in Europe. I discovered that many of these are venerated as being figures of the Virgin Mary – known as the Black Madonna. These figures became objects of great fascination to me.
The Black Madonna is a key figure in my new book – Child of the Twilight. It has been a long time, and a long process, but I have told you the story of my inspiration because it originated in my reading.
The word ‘reading’ implies a ‘reader’ and these days a ‘reader’ might be less of a person and more of a kindle or an ipod. And in the publishing contracts of today there is a newish term which is a kind of definition of a reader – this term is ‘end-user’. When you sign up with your publisher for them to produce your work as an e-book, the contract is concerned with your rights, the rights of the publisher and those of the end-user. The end-user sounds to me like someone who picks up cigarette butts in the gutter. Or someone who gathers scraps of soap and fashions them into a useful little block.
By the way I enjoy reading books on an ipod. And I have recently explored the world of the VOOK. That’s with a V. You can buy, for example, the children’s picture book The Velveteen Rabbit as a Vook – and experience a whole new kind of reading. You read the text on a screen, move in and out of it to images and videos, and discuss it as you go with other readers on Twitter. There are also whole novels you can get as Vooks. It is a different reading experience, but part of it still depends on being able to decode the marks on paper or screen. To some extent.
So leaving aside for now the literary gadgetry, I have some anecdotes to relate in response to the topic ‘reading’.
The first concerns the three elements of magic involving the writing of fiction – there’s the writer and there’s the writing and there’s the reader. The writing, or the book, is the link between the two, and without the reader the circle is incomplete. The writer and the reader come together in the book. And usually the text is the only meeting place for them. However at writers’ festivals the writer and the reader can come face to face. And they can sometimes discover that the book the writer wrote is not the same thing as the book the reader read. This is I think an important part of the whole process. It can be quite shocking and confronting to talk with one’s readers and to discover the things people have discovered. Or to listen to one’s reviewers and to learn of the things they have NOT discovered. Words and ideas are so rich and slippery. The connection between writer and reader is not as simple as it looks. Readers often even misremember even the title of the book – once I wrote a book called Not Now Jack I’m Writing a Novel – and I was introduced at a festival as the author of Not Now Harry I’m Writing a Book. Possibly an improvement.
Recently I was reminded of the many ways books and readers come together.
I had been invited to speak to a group of readers in a very tiny rural Victorian town. To get to the town I drove through forest and farmland, up hill and down dale, with almost no traffic and with scary rotten bridges across dry creek beds. Finally I arrived at a community hall – I can’t resist naming the hall because I am beguiled by the name – the Agnes Mudford Hall.
I was to have afternoon tea and a chat with my readers. But not in the hall itself, as I had imagined. No, we were to assemble in a lovely little white marquee that had been put up on the grass beside the hall rather like a wedding tent. And under the marquee was a mobile tea and coffee kiosk with a jovial man dispensing coffee and biscuits. Next to the marquee was a huge bus full of books – the local bookmobile, also manned by a cheerful attendant who said he didn’t really read books – that you can easily teach a bus driver to be a librarian, but you can’t so easily get a librarian to drive a bus. This is probably not true – but I didn’t argue.
I was in a lovely oasis of reading – in the middle of central Victoria, the heart of the old goldfields country.
Most of the readers had come to my books by orthodox means – but there was one woman who told a nice little story which I will recount.
She had never read anything of mine. Had never heard of me. She was listening to the radio and heard the advertisement for the literary afternoon tea at the Agnes Mudford centre. She did not really intend to go to the afternoon tea, but she had registered my name. Later that day she opened a bag of books left for her by a friend. One of the books was a collection of short fiction in which she found one of my stories. She read the story, remembered the afternoon tea, and decided to go. The magic circle between the writer and the reader had been closed by the story. This anecdote goes to show not only that it pays to advertise on the radio, but also that books get around, and writers simply never know where they will turn up. You never know who is reading, and that is a wonderful thing about writing.
The life and journey of the words a writer writes are strange and beautiful. I realize I could move off here into a discussion of the internet and its role in reading, of the kindle and e-book and the vook and so on and on, but I prefer to confine myself for the time being to the notion of the conventional book and conventional publishing of books. I enjoy reading on the kindle and on the computer screen, by the way. I am not arguing against such things.
The second anecdote concerns the child who is learning to read.
My small grandson knows a little bit about reading, although he recognises mostly single words, not many whole sequences. He knows there is a code he has to crack, a magic art he needs to master. When I see the word ‘reading’ these days I think of him, and the way every day delivers a little bit of progress in his mastery of the art. He has an expectation about narrative. He understands character, plot and suspense, and he knows that there are really only two endings – happy resolution or total destruction. He told me a story recently about two of his toys – they happened to be a lion and a rabbit – but the species don’t signify. He said they meet and kiss and then they fall down dead. He follows narrative in a range of media from film to the internet and so forth. He and I were recently alone in an old church. We had a good look at everything and lit a lot of candles. And he was interested in the outlandish size of the bible that was open on the lectern. He said:
‘This is a very long story.’
So he has absorbed the idea that between the covers of a book the pages of writing contain a narrative, and that narrative is magic and that the words are the key.
We went to see Fantastic Mr Fox together. It turns out that much of the film depends on the audience reading words on the screen. ‘What does that say?’ the child would ask me. It became impossible to keep going, since the narrative was incomprehensible without the words, and by the time I had whispered them to him the action had moved on. After half an hour or so he said: ‘I just don’t get it.’ It seemed a bit cruel to persist. So we left.
He will learn to read. But some people don’t. I am reminded of something that happened two years ago.
Now the third anecdote in the series.
I had just moved from the city to the country and my new bed was being delivered from the city. The man who drove the delivery truck very kindly moved the old bed into the guest bedroom, and then he assembled the new one in my bedroom. The house was full of books. As he was putting the new bed together the man commented on the books and said he supposed I must read a lot. Then he said in a sad, sincere and wistful way: ‘I wish I could read.’
He said he had missed out on reading in school, and had made several very serious attempts as an adult to learn to read. He had been assessed and been included in special programs and classes. These attempts had all somehow failed and he still could not read. I then made an effort to discover avenues he had not explored. All this came to nought. What he needed I suppose was daily individual instruction. I felt really sad and powerless. An irony was that perhaps I could have helped him personally, but we had only met because I had moved away from the city and I could no longer hope to be in contact with him on a regular basis.
The final story is a key one in my own life as a writer and reader. Once a long time ago when I was suffering from a broken romance I lost the ability to read. Reading had always been a fundamental part of my life, so this loss of ability was devastating. I could still recognize words, but I was unable to hold sequences in my head long enough for them to make any sense. I could still write a shopping list, could still read a telephone book. But writing or reading a story was out of the question.
In the middle of this nightmare I happened to stay with an aunt for a few days. I slept in a room which was lined with books. The books nearest to the bed were the works of Agatha Christie. I had never read any. I opened one and focused my frustrated gaze on the first sentence. I am sorry I can’t remember what it said. But whatever it was – I discovered that the words yielded up the meaning just as they used to do, and before I knew what had happened I was reading again. Perhaps the mechanism was the one that people describe when they say that children get turned on to reading by Harry Potter. Is it the simplicity of the prose in conjunction with the writer’s utter commitment to the plot and the characters? Well there are of course many elements to the magic at work here, and there are many opinions and even grand theories you can consider along the way. But when I think of reading I always come back to the notion that there is a magic at work. A kind of magic that had deserted me for a time. Reading is concerned with spells cooked up by writers, involving readers, and not forgetting all the end-users.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Upcoming Events

February 13
Writers at the Convent
**6pm Panel on Reading - with Stephanie Dowrick and Sue Ebury
February 14
Writers at the Convent
**10am In Conversation
**10.45am Ian Britain Launches of Child of the Twilight

Friday, February 5, 2010

Review of "Child of the Twilight"

In her ninth novel, the dark but exuberant fantasy, Child of the Twilight, Carmel Bird leads us on a historical and geographical traverse of Catholic Europe. It is thronged with priests, nuns and believers, with churches full of statuary, places where the miraculous is made concrete in such figures as the Black Madonna and the Bambinello, the Infant Jesus in the Franciscan Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome. The statue’s supposed healing powers attract supplicants from around the world.
The plot turns on the disappearance of the Bambinello on a rainy night in 1994, and the attempts to recover him by Diana Mean (collector of Black Virgins who is dedicated to completing her late husband’s history of them) and painter and art teacher Rosita Vienna, for whom the statue has become her “own baby, her lost child, her stolen darling”.
These details are a reminder of the familiar fictional territory to which Bird returns in this novel. She has written often of the Means with their flower farm in the fastness of north-western Tasmania. The central figure in this instalment is young Corazon Mean, who accompanies Diana and Rosita to Europe. When the narrator of Child of the Twilight, 19 year-old Sydney Peony Kent, turns up in Tasmania for Corazon’s wedding she exclaims (having grown up in California) “this was totally yesteryear”. Further, the house where Corazon grew up is buried deep, yes like a house in a fairy tale, in a small forest of old European trees.” One of the inquiries of the novel is into how emphatically the old world has planted itself in Australia, in brick and in belief, and how tenaciously it resists the encroachments of the new.
Another inquiry takes us back to the heart of Bird’s imagining, and to a key business of Australian fiction. This is her fascination with the fate of lost children. Her is a memory of Lovelygod Mean, “a child in Tasmania swallowed by the forest (whose story Bird told in The Bluebird Café), here the story of Fatima and Lourdes, the aunts whom Sydney never knew, as they died in childhood. Diana has lost an infant son. Another child is killed in a car accident, while Viola Vinnicombe may be the victim of a tweedy Cambridge paedophile.
Bird seems to regard preying on helpless children as a mordant and unchangeable fact of the modern world. If Sydney Kent’s mother, Avila (her business Marriages Performed at Sea), has “a vast catalogue of tales of babies and children lost and gone, in one way or another”, so does Bird. Yet much as the lost and the dead throng her novel, so do children who have survived the circumstances of their birth, and sometimes orphaning or abandonment.
There is much playfulness in Child of the Twilight too, generated and controlled by the artful narrator, who explains to us how easy it is to smuggle fact into fiction, the better to disguise it. That is how we learn what is perhaps the truth of the multiple disappearances of the Bambinello. Sydney is also pleased to reveal to us “Sex in Venice” where Rufus Gigli and Cora are lovers: “This might almost be a mediaeval legend of love and loss and quest and love again. Either that or…a soap.”
Bird has followed an eccentric and determined path in her writing. Her imagination has a cohesiveness, often self-referential, that puts one in mind of hardly anyone else in Australian literature. Perhaps Barbara Hanrahan or Elizabeth Jolley, but the comparisons do not neatly fit. Bird entertains magic, discovers how vital are the apparently most flimsy connections between people, never mocks the most extreme behaviour, whether credulous or cunning. Child of the Twilight has a fuller and richer cast than has been introduced here. Its members dwell in the superstitious world that Bird has conjured, one compounded of dread, and faith.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Child of the Twilight - Inspiration


When I was studying French in my final year at high school, I read a story by Prosper Merimee that really captivated me.
It was the story of a wedding in the Pyrenees. The bridegroom is a bit of a peasant, and the bride is more socially elevated. A few days before the wedding an archaeological dig brings up an ancient statue of Venus. It is a huge statue, black with silvery sinister eyes. While the community decides what to do with her, she stands beside the local pelota court.
(On the morning of the wedding the bridegroom and his yob friends play pelota. As a joke the bridegroom deposits the wedding ring that he will later put on his bride’s finger onto the ring finger of the statue of Venus while he plays pelota. At the end of the game, when he goes to recover the ring, he discovers that the hand appears to have contracted so that it is impossible to get the ring off. So at the wedding he uses a cheap little ring he got at a brothel.
The wedding is riotous and the bridegroom and his friends get very drunk. The bride goes upstairs to bed alone. As she lies in the marriage bed by herself, she hears the heavy footsteps. It must be her husband. He heaves himself into the bed and lies there as if in a stupor. The modest bride is afraid and lies very still. Then soon there is a second set of heavy footsteps and another figure lurches into the bed.
The first one was in fact the statue; the second is the husband. The statue believes she is married to the husband, and she claims him, holding him in such a fast embrace that she crushes him to death. She then steps out of the bed and returns to her place beside the pelota court.)
I was deeply affected by many aspects of the story, in particular by the idea of the ancient black statue of the goddess of love and of her profound malice and sense of justice.
At the same time I was studying the history of western art, and I came across many representations of Venus, some seen in her ancient black manifestation, some seen as a pure white beauty.
At some point I made the connection – perhaps first unconsciously – between Venus and the construction of the ideal goddess-woman, the Virgin Mary. The images of Mary that were most familiar to me were the sweet pink and blue and white images of Lourdes and Fatima, that is nineteenth century versions. I was also familiar with the pretty Mary in western painting.
But then I began to discover the manifestations of Mary in places such as Montserrat (Barcelona), and the ancient black image connected with the figure in the Merimee story. (Montserrat is not really far geographically from the Pyrenees.) I set off on a quest for the Black Madonna, discovering statues such as the one at Montserrat. This ‘quest’ was conducted by reading, but also by visiting places in Spain, France and Italy where there are Black Virgins. I learned that the blackness of the statues is often overlooked and even suppressed in a general desire to gloss over what are seen as the hidden and negative aspects of the ‘mother’ (and therefore of the ideal mother, Mary). I found many of the black statues to be amazingly beautiful and attractive. And there is a vast cult following of them, with powerful connections and superstitions. The one at Montserrat is one of the most well-known in the world. It is located on top of an almost inaccessible and very dangerous mountain ridge. Spanish couples make the journey up to her to have their union blessed. She is visited by couples who wish for a child (this sounds like a fairytale). Montserrat is generally a place of pilgrimage and miracle.
The black statues were important in the history of the troubadours, and there are songs and prayers that attest to this link. I became interested in the language of the troubadours, a secret, punning, rhyming language known as the green language or the language of the birds. It is not written down anywhere, but remains elusive yet real.
Since I am not interested in writing ‘historical’ fiction, the inspiration that was gathering from these several strands needed to find its expression in a contemporary story with some links to ancient matters.
In 1994 I read a short newspaper article in The Age reporting the theft of an old statue of baby Jesus from a church in Rome. I had seen the statue in the sixties, but had not paid a lot of attention to it really. It is believed to be responsible for miracles, particularly those concerned with birth (and also with wealth). Suddenly all the strands began to come together. The statue was in a Franciscan church in the heart of Rome, and there is a connection between St Francis and the green language, which he probably spoke.
One of the strongest human bonds is the bond between the mother and the child. This fascinates me (I am not alone here). There is a thread running through my writing that foregrounds and examines this bond. Mary with Jesus is a key image of the bond, in western Christian society. My interest in everyday mothers and babies intersected with my interest in Black Madonnas. (I think the first appearance of a Black Virgin in my fiction is in an old story called ‘Kay Petman’s Coloured Pencils – collected in The Essential Bird – HarperCollins).

Modern attitudes to conception and birth are different in some respects from what they were when I was in my early twenties. With the development of medical technologies and of legal technicalities, it is possible for women to conceive or not conceive, to conceive with their own eggs or with the eggs of others. Artificial insemination is quite ordinary. Assisted reproductive technologies are constantly evolving and are being used by huge numbers of people. The miracle of birth intersects with the miracle of technology. It occurred to me to put these methods up against the technology of the virgin birth of Christ, inspired by the miraculous wooden statue that had been stolen in Rome in 1994. (So far it has never been found. For the sake of the novel, it would be cool if it could be discovered in February 2010 – we shall see. )
The question arose as to what kind of character would be across all this. As I was considering the question, I was working as a teacher with a number of teenage girls who were the product of IVF and who were only too happy to discuss this matter openly with each other or anyone else who happened to be around. No big deal.
And so developed the narrator who is nineteen at the time of the telling, and who is an American IVF baby. Her character developed from there – she is the only child of a busy high profile international couple based in LA who provide her with every material thing including a nanny-companion and pets, but who apparently treat her more as one of their worldly achievements than as a little girl. She develops a cold and unsentimental attitude to most things, and spends much of her time reading the classics and writing novels. She is named, as many children now are, after a place, in this case Sydney, Australia. It is in fact where she was conceived, but I can’t remember whether this fact is still in the book or not. The family (on the mother’s side at least) comes from an old fashioned Catholic tradition, hence an interest in things religious, and a number of highly religious connections and relatives. Sydney doesn’t think she is unrelated to the ‘parents’. Everyone else seems to be either related internationally or else acquainted internationally. She is conscious that she has, in a sense, no discoverable identity. Her maternal ‘grandfather’ is a wrier of science fiction, and he loves Sydney very much, and thinks she is incredibly special and different. He calls her his ‘child of the twilight of time’.
So the plot is an intersection between the issues of modern fertility and conception and the ancient matters of faith and miracles located in such objects as the baby Jesus statue in Rome and the black statues of Mary.
One of the characters, Diana, is an Australian woman living in Barcelona, dedicated to completing a vast book by her late husband on the subject of the Black Virgin. Diana originated in Tasmania, and the novel ends (2007) in the place of her birth in the early 1950s. It is there that she discovers a painting of a Black Virgin in the little old rural church. Although she had seen this picture frequently in her early life, she had never made the connection between it and her late husband’s project. This is just an example of the ubiquity of the Black Virgin, under the nose as it were, but unrecognised. Diana and one of her friends have made an effort to trace the stolen statue of the baby Jesus. They still have hopes, but so far have had no real success.
Some of the characters are devout believers in prayer and miracles. Sydney is a narrator who tries to remain impartial and practical, reporting the facts and leaving the interpretation up to the other characters and the reader.
Sydney takes upon herself the role of that narrator of the lives of Diana and her niece Corazon who is young and fertile. One train of thought concerns the lost statue; the other concerns the romantic life of Corazon.
I can sum it all up by saying the story concerns the theft of a miraculous statue from a church in Rome, and follows the connections between the people who want to conceal its
whereabouts, and those who want to find it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Child of the Twilight - Book Group Questions

• Twilight is the dangerous time when nothing is quite as it seems. In what sense is Sydney a ‘child of the twilight’?

• The theft of the statue represents a serious interference to the order of things. Throughout the novel the idea of ‘interference’ looms large: Sydney’s conception, Diana’s manipulations, Barnaby’s work as a surgeon, to name a few instances. These are worldly interferences. However there is also a more mystical side to interference in the form of prayers offered and prayers answered. When is interference a good thing?

• How significant are our biological origins in shaping our identities?

• In Rosita’s imagination the ‘wellbeing of mankind was being held together with prayer’. Does the novel portray tragedy and disaster as a result of a stitch being dropped in the embroidery of the Divine Heart prayers?

• In her own art, Cora refers to Jan Van Eyck’s Marriage of the Arnolfini but in quite startling ways. What does this say about her and her attitudes to marriage and fertility?

• Do you think that the school staff – in particular the headmistress, Dr Silver reacted appropriately to Cora Mean’s accident in the art room?

• What roles do Furta Sacra (holy theft) and miracles play in the Child of the Twilight? How do these ideas affect the way the characters see our world?

• ‘Fiction is the perfect place to put the facts,’ says Sydney. What are the advantages for her telling her story as fiction rather than fact?

• The novel uses a number of symbols of fertility – in particular the Black Madonna. What does the Black Madonna represent to Sydney? To Diana?

• What do you think Sydney believes was most influential in creating her life – science or her mother’s prayers?

• How reliable is Sydney as narrator?

• Rufus’ father is involved in the MOSE project in Venice. What is the symbolic significance of this project in the lives of Cora and Rufus?

• The characters are described by their attributes – Corazon the Fertile, Diana the Manipulator, Cosimo the Trickster. This gives the narrative a quality of fable or mystery play. How effective is this technique in a novel of today?

• Assisted Reproductive Technology, with its acronym ART provides the impetus or the germ of the novel, and there is a great deal of ‘art’ in the usual sense also. How do these to two interpretations of ‘art’ function together?

• How do you think Roland’s life was shaped by the violent death of his twin sister?

• The old painting of the indigenous Madonna in the church in Tasmania has previously escaped Diana’s notice. What is the significance of her realisation of its existence?
• Both Sydney and Cosimo can never know their genetic origins. In what ways does this fact affect their lives and their outlook?

• Sydney has a cold, practical and unromantic attitude to reproduction, describing herself as being simply genetic material. Do you find this sad?

• What is your opinion of Sydney’s morality with regard to reading Edith’s diary and extracting its secrets?

• Eleena was killed during a cricket match. What are the roles of games and accident and destiny in the novel?

• Why do you think Sydney’s imaginary friends are native Americans?

• The narrative criss-crosses the globe. Even Rosita the Spinster finally makes it from Australia to Europe, and it seems that there have been English Vinnecombes in rural Tasmania. What is the significance of these migrations?

• What is the significance of Barnaby’s work as an eye surgeon?

• What is the significance of Avila’s business ‘Marriages Performed at Sea’?

• A miracle is something that can not be explained except by divine intervention. What is your response to ‘miracles”?
• How important is it to know where your genetic material comes from?