Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: Book Reviews

The Bookshelf: Book Reviewing on Radio

I’ve done a bit of book reviewing in the past – in print – but it’s another thing to talk about books on the radio. Being a bit of an avoider of public speaking in the past – this adds another layer. But I do love talking about books.

the bookshelf jun 2019

So it was wonderful to be invited onto Radio National’s weekly fiction program The Bookshelf as one of the reviewers talking about novels with the two Bookshelf hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullough. Somehow they manage to put everyone at ease, whether they’re in the studio or calling in from elsewhere – while deftly and wittily dissecting the plot, setting, imagery, psychology of the characters, and the structure and politics at work in that week’s book selection.

The program will be broadcast at midday today and is also online. There is a fantastic interview with Scottish author Damien Barr, plus links to past programs and podcast extras. A great resource for readers and writers alike.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Commonwealth Writers magazine adda, Griffith Review, Spineless Wonders, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in 2020.


Review of Nicola Griffith’s ‘So Lucky’

The New York Times describes Nicola Griffith’s new novel So Lucky as a ‘compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community’. A genre-blurring, ground-shifting book, So Lucky centres on Mara Tagarelli, who’s just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Griffith, a British-American writer who has MS, is known for her acclaimed novel Hild and the Aud Torvingen crime series.

The opening lines throw us right in:

It came for me in November, that loveliest of months in Atlanta: blue sky stinging with lemon sun, the squirrels screaming at each other over the pecans because they weren’t fooled; they knew winter was coming.

As Mara waves goodbye to her 14-year relationship, she loses her footing on an autumn leaf. Later, when she reaches for a bottle of milk, her hand doesn’t work.

Trained as a martial artist, Mara has fought to become confident in her body and her world. After surviving a violent assault at the age of 22, she turned her rage into strength:

[and] … learned to fight, to smash wood with my hands, to stretch my body, to toughen it, make it harder, stronger. Learned not to be afraid: to break their narrative.

But how to deal with MS, this ‘it’, this ‘thief’, this ‘grinning thing’ that’s come to stay?

The most powerful passages spotlight the reactions of others, the casual and institutionalised able-ism. Suddenly the line between Us and Them has moved. ‘Sufferer. Victim. Was that who I was now?’

Mara’s day job involves running a budget-stretched non-government HIV/AIDS organisation. At first she doesn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis, but there’s the profound exhaustion, the limp, the walking cane, the overwhelming effects of summer heat. On top of that, she has to convince her colleagues their office needs a ramp:

… the pavement wavered in the heat and my cane seemed to sink into the blacktop. A man I passed at the door pretended not to see me struggle. The woman behind the reception desk smiled in a bright Southern way … before the cane she’d greeted me by name.

For anyone whose health has changed suddenly, Griffith deftly captures the disorientation of dealing with new practicalities, the confronting recalibration of identity, the denial, fear, anger, and the seemingly random wins and losses with the medical world. Mara eventually takes the advice to ‘find her people’ and attends an MS support group, which spins into the surreal.

She flies across the US to an annual conference, but this time she needs a wheelchair. While the airport attendants reluctantly organise one, they speak about her – not to her – as if she’s a piece of baggage. Things don’t improve at the conference. There’s none of the usual banter or flirting with the other delegates. Even here, she’s become invisible. The wheelchair has written her ‘out of the story’.

But Mara is having none of that. The next time she travels, she’s adapted her survival strategies:

This time I expected to be ignored, so it hurt less. And this time I saw all those people like me on the periphery: people in chairs, people with dogs, people with interpreters. But I was too tired to manage anything but the conference minimum …

Forced to take leave and subsist on her limited health insurance, she draws on her IT skills, contacts, and new knowledge to establish an online community and a much-needed support service. This is where the novel morphs into a harrowing psychological thriller. Mara’s enterprise is hijacked. People’s lives are put at risk as paranoia, vulnerability, and danger collide.

But So Lucky is also punctuated with flashes of subversive wit and fierce hope. Mara has a nifty way of dealing with able-bodied drivers who hog disabled-reserved car spaces, and there’s a blossoming bond with her shambolic dope-growing neighbour, Josh. As for the avalanche of slick MS drug pamphlets, she detects the familiar whiff of a promise and threat, heaven and hell, showcased in these slick, sanitised parallel realities:

Glossy sales brochures full of pictures of clean-cut, unstressed, middle-class people with white teeth posed with clean and shiny mobility aids, or standing on top of a mountain, or riding a bike … They reminded me of tampon adverts … buy this and magically be able to ride a white horse bareback through a field …

Griffith has said So Lucky is her ‘version of just writing a story I want to write … a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative … just give people a different story to replace the old story’. Apparently she didn’t plan to write this book. Suddenly it ‘came roaring out’.

Some readers may find So Lucky an unsettling book. For others its honesty, power, and capacity to destabilise certain assumptions are a welcome recognition and an urgent articulation of familiar realities.

Nicola Griffith: So Lucky published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018 PB 192pp $21.99

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Griffith Review, Spineless Wonders, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in 2020.

This review was first published on Sydney’s Newtown Review of Books.


Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.


‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.


For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.


Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Commonwealth Writers adda, Griffith Review, Spineless Wonders, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in 2020.


On gardens in literature: Six novels

blog ungardeners picGardens lie at the centre of many compelling novels as places of sanctuary, nourishment, control and ruthlessness. In others, only a tendril might snake its way in – with striking effect. Here are six of my favourite Australian novels about people and plants.

The Ungardeners by Ethel Turner
Ethel Turner (aka Jean Curlewis) is best known for her classic novel Seven Little Australians. Her less well-known work, The Ungardeners, was published in 1925. Part fable and part witty political satire, the original colour plates suggest it might stretch to a children’s book.
Australian poet and gardener Annie travels the globe with her English stockbroker husband, Peter Purcell. After he suffers a nervous breakdown, they settle in Australia for a gentler life. Eventually Annie lures Peter out of the sick bed and into her world: the quiet joy of the garden.
But times are tough and Annie is forced to sell off some of her land. When she returns from a brief trip away, she discovers “the bit of creek fringed by wattles” has become a housing estate clustering around the busy chimney of a jam factory. Soon her flowers begin to disappear. The neighbouring “slum” children are the culprits, and claim they need flowers for a relative’s funeral. Is it manipulation or ingenuity when Annie discovers the children are selling off her flowers at the local cemetery?
The Ungardeners is about many things, including Australia’s place in a fragmented and rapidly changing world, the universal tension between materialism and art, and the idea of development versus nature.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Gardens are usually seen as the triumph of order over chaos. In The Secret River, gardening brings chaos and dispossession.
When ex-convict William Thornhill takes up a piece of land on the Hawkesbury, he establishes a house and a garden. Armed with a bag of seeds, precious tools, and labouring help, he is determined to slough off his old life of austerity and petty crime. The aim is to move up in a society where the hierarchies of Britain don’t necessarily apply.
But Thornhill’s seemingly simple act of gardening can never be innocent or neutral in a colonial land. As soon as he plants his plot, something – or somebody – digs it up. His garden becomes a “message”, the equivalent of “hoisting a flag up a pole”, a claim that this “insignificant splinter” of the country is now his.
In The Secret River, Kate Grenville reminds us that Australian history is contested ground. One person’s feast is another person’s famine, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White
The Hanging Garden was published posthumously, accompanied by a level of controversy. This ‘unfinished’ novel centres on fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos who arrives in Sydney from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene’s father, a Greek “patriot”, has been tortured and killed in prison. Once Eirene has been delivered, her mother returns to war-weary Europe.
Eirene ends up creeping about a boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from the London Blitz and suspects his father was pleased to offload him.
Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating “snake”. He’s impressed by her casual snippets of Greek myth, her worldliness, and firsthand experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a “sinewy white monkey”, who swings between being her friend and a traitor.
In the no man’s land of Mrs Bulpit’s overgrown garden above the cliffs, Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship. But loyalties continue to shift as quickly as the fickle harbour light. Their place in the garden is a shared but precarious, fleeting sanctuary, poised between childhood and adulthood, the world and home.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. In the Water section, the line between people and plants blurs. Set in the 2020s, the Australian government is evacuating islands in Moreton Bay so Indigenous people can apply to live on a kind of “super” island. However, some of the islands’ mysterious original inhabitants, known as “the plantpeople”, are proving difficult to move.
The protagonist, Kaden, is a young Indigenous botanist. She comes into contact with the plantpeople when she scores a job distributing a scientific formula to them on behalf of the government. Larapinta is the first “specimen” she meets. Green-skinned and of fluid gender, Larapinta “has a face like me and you”. As their relationship develops, Kaden becomes more politicised and suspects her seemingly benevolent role at the company has another agenda.
Heat and Light has been described both as a novel and an anthology, and as a sci-fi/fantasy work. Like the character Larapinta, the book resists neat classification as it pushes back and forth through the porous borders between human and non-human; truth and myth; past, present and future; the other and self.

A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White
A Curious Intimacy is inspired by the nineteenth-century botanist and plant-hunter Georgina Molloy. The protagonist is Ingrid Markham, who rides her horse around Western Australia in pursuit of plants. Back in her hometown of Adelaide, Ingrid has been trained in the rigours of botany by her ageing but liberal-minded father. Unable to make fieldtrips himself, Ingrid sets off with a bruised heart, a passion for discovery, and the latest in collecting kits. With Victorian-era fervour, she is both woman and explorer, finding, cataloguing, and painting her discoveries.
During her expedition, Ingrid meets Ellyn Ives, whose husband has been away for months. The differences between the women are stark. Ingrid flourishes outdoors, and easily fixes a broken water pump. Ellyn rarely steps further than the water-deprived rose beds encircling the dilapidating homestead. Ingrid is enlivened by studying plants she hasn’t seen before. Ellyn is reluctant to leave the unhappy domestic atmosphere where an empty cradle haunts one room. To her the bush looks “all the same”, and is a place where she will become lost. As the two women form a tentative bond, the homestead garden serves as a rickety bridge between their worlds.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Watch Tower opens with Laura and Clare Vaizey being abandoned by their mother and cast out of their boarding school. Sydney is in the grip of war. The sisters are adrift until Felix Shaw, a small-time businessman with a purring car and grand ideas offers to take them under his wing.
Laura is persuaded to work at Felix’s box factory. As soon as she settles into the tedium, he abruptly changes his line of trade. Felix keeps both girls off balance, playing them against each other as he zigzags from one shady venture and extreme mental state to another. Any seemingly kind action is attached by a web of strings.
As Felix moves up in the world, he wants the flashy house and garden to match. Once the sisters are installed, Felix marries Laura and Claire begins to refer to her sister as “Hostage Number One”. Felix takes to working outdoors, lunging at the garden like a bayonet-wielding soldier charging across a battlefield.
The garden is only a fleck in the tight weave of this narrative, but it is a potent symbol of Felix’s obsession with appearances. As he tries to assert control over nature, and others, he attempts to maintain his dominance in his relentlessly vigilant corner of the world.

This article was first published in ‘northerly’ the NRWC’s magazine.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Commonwealth Writers adda, Griffith Review, Spineless Wonders, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in 2020.

The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder


The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey


The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

After Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ her many fans rushed to read her earlier works. Egan’s debut novel ‘The Invisible Circus’ was first published in 1995 and has now been rereleased. Read the rest of this entry »

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta’s very cool new novel ‘Stone Arabia’ zeroes in on the life of Nik Worth, a self-styled ‘secret rock star’. It all starts on Nik’s tenth birthday when his usually-absent father shocks everyone by appearing and giving him a guitar. By 1973, Nik has left behind his MAD comics and formed the band The Demonics. They soon score a regular warm up gig in a cruddy bar Read the rest of this entry »

Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Carrie Tiffany’s eagerly anticipated second novel ‘Mateship With Birds’ concerns the small Australian town of Cohuna huddling beneath a ‘condensed blue sky’. It is 1953. Magazines are seducing their readers with images of new shiny things for neat clean-cut families. But not everybody fits the mould. Read the rest of this entry »

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

‘Our life at home was a bit odd,’ writes Jeanette Winterson in her marvellously titled memoir, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ It is the growing awareness and later struggle with this ‘oddness’ which lies at the heart of this compelling book. Read the rest of this entry »