Monthly Archives: November 2012

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt: Book Review

Perhaps because of my love of short fiction, I sometimes feel that first-time novelists can’t resist the urge to tell too much; to be too earnest in their quest to have a reader understand, to be unable to trust some of the background to reader imagination.  Lynne Leonhardt has resisted admirably and Finding Jasper shows none of the insecurities of many debut novels.

                The story opens in 1957.  Gin (Virginia) is an aspiring pianist growing up in rural Western Australia without a father.  Gin’s father is the Jasper of the title; a man who has been missing since the war, a man that Gin never knew and so didn’t realise how much she missed.

                In a sublime passage early in the book, Leonhardt hints at the mystery that is Jasper:-

 Jasper. Attie [Jasper’s twin] always seemed to say it softly and swiftly, half under her breath, like it was some kind of secret.  Jasper.  Jasper? Perhaps it was her accent but the way she said it sounded more like whisper. (24)

                This mini-expose on Jasper’s name was almost hypnotic so that every time I read his name from thereon in, I read it in a whisper. Jasper is like a part of the story you can’t see; like the weather or the milieu, he just is.  He is a whisper in the background.

                The timeline shifts back a year to 1956, before leaping back further to 1945 and gradually forward to 1963, then 1965. I enjoyed this time-shifting, space-shifting style.

                Leonhardt’s imagery is swift and subtle:  rickety steps that have been “hollowed with time and wear” (17); wild grass that “tongued its way between the rusty heights of the bulrushes, reaching up to feed off the sun” (25); a wooden dinghy rocking in the shallows “as if trying to slough off the remainder of its flaking blue paintwork” (25). 

              Here’s Gin’s stepfather shaving: “bum out, chin jutting forward and mouth drawn in a downward U” (186).  Just stop and savour that description for a moment.  Perfect.

             And now listen to Gin’s mother as she held her by the shoulders “while her mouth said ‘mmmmw’ to her cheek” (208).

                The farmyard chooks serve as motif, acting as barometers throughout the novel to punctuate the minutiae of daily life.  When the pudgy hands of Gin’s piano teacher peck at the keys, they remind her of her aunt’s “fat white hens” pecking at seed (17).  There’s the familiarity with the hens that comes about through the daily egg collection. “Funny creatures, chooks.  So fastidious the way they picked up their scaly feet from in amongst the dust and the food scraps” (53).  And the social life in the barnyard, not unlike a human gathering, “They had almost stopped their racket, hoarse no doubt from their constant gasping and all that bock-bock-bocking” (54). The chooks are part of the landscape, emphasising daily routine through the generations:-

Through the kitchen window she could see Audrey’s silhouette winding through the redgums, the curve of her widow’s hump and her plump arm swaying in balance as she carried the scrap bucket over to the chooks. (85)

It is no secret that I am biased toward Australian authors with authentic Australian voices telling Australian stories that resonate with my Australian mentality.  By the same token, I am dismayed when such Australianness becomes contrived, when phrases and sentences are pushed forward awkwardly to give a sort of forced Ockerishness to a tale. Thankfully, there’s no sign of that here.

             In Finding Jasper Leonhardt paints Australia well, giving us – casually, almost nonchalantly – the half kerosene tin mailbox, cotton-wool stuffed Bex bottles, kikuyu, lamb cutlets in butcher’s paper tied with string, swooping wattle-birds feasting on kangaroo paws and bottlebrush blossoms, the “creedle-crawdle song” of the magpie.

            Other countries find their way into this Aussie narrative: Leonhardt draws out the colourful vistas of Ceylon with a tender touch, and writes of wartime London with the respect deserving of the ‘Mother Country’.  But Australia – in its various forms, the good and bad – forms the backdrop for most of the book.  I enjoyed this passage, showing the bush that I know well from the perspective of a newcomer:-

 There was something depressing about the Australian light, so bright and strong that it showed up every stain and flaw.  It wasn’t just the napkins, which had been boiled thoroughly in the copper under her sweating brow.  Everything about Grasswood looked dirty and tattered, especially this time of day. (95)

 Finding Jasper represents a double debut; it is Lynne Leonhardt’s first novel and it is the first full-length work of fiction published by Margaret River Press.  Congratulations to author and publisher. 

I’m grateful to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers for hosting this post on her site.  It gives the publishers and the author a well-deserved wider audience.

Leonhardt, Lynne. Finding Jasper, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe, WA, Australia, 2012.
Available direct from Margaret River Press  


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The Swarm by Andy Kissane: Book Review


My reaction to the first story in Andy Kissane’s collection?
           Kissane, ya killin’ me here!
           Killing me softly with a rare Montagnana cello and a little girl named Katherine.  ‘In my Arms’ is a story of grief told with exquisite rawness.  The narrator is selling his cello with its “scroll curling down to kiss itself” (11) and we cannot understand why. 
          At first, I think it is the narrator’s fear of failure that’s urged him to put a ‘for sale’ ad in the paper.  Or does he have too many other commitments?  Later, I wonder if fatherhood saps his creativity.  Does his wife not give him the encouragement he needs?  Has his room of one’s own been set aside for some other purpose?  I want to shake the narrator: ‘But this is your life!’ I cry.  ‘This is what you’ve worked for all these years’.  Why, why why?
          There are spots of humour providing relief from the sadness: a lost condom, a sexual tension to rival Elizabeth Bennet’s or Diver Dan’s (the narrator’s benchmarks), the embarrassment of an important conversation via mobile phone on a train with one arm around a cello, the crazy purchase of fuel when there’s a baby urging to be born.
           But ‘In My Arms’ will leave you breathless, hollowed out and exhausted despite its final note of hope.

I have previously read two of the eleven shorts featured in the Swarm: ‘The Fibbing Bird’ (The Sleepers Almanac, No 7. Sleepers Publishing, 2011) and ‘The Elusive Tenant’ (Escape: an anthology of short stories. Spineless Wonders, 2011) and there are others acknowledged as having appeared in different versions in other publications. 

Kissane captures a multitude of voices in this collection.
           There’s a doting bogan of a brother with a souped up Monaro and a reckless abandon in ‘Vanilla Malted’. 
           In ‘When the Television Died’, Justin is a bored husband waiting for his wife to come home (later and later) from work. “Eight thirty. Nine. Nine forty-two. Ten thirteen” (37).
           In other stories, we hear the voices of – variously – a father, a friend, an actor, a cheating husband.   Each central character unfolds through a subtle yet insightful pinpointing of voice.         

Art imitates life in stories like ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Going Underground’.  In the former, three actors from NIDA meet up after a hiatus, and an awkward moment is “like a pause in a Becket play” (65).  In the latter, a daughter, feeling smothered by her parents, ditches her commerce studies to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.

I aspire to be Frida Kahlo: to make Kandinsky weep, to paint faces that Picasso might have marvelled at.  These artists are dead, but in my studio they offer advice, they talk back to me. (109)

           The runaway artist is immersed in creating a series of paintings of Rosa Luxemburg.  The penultimate canvas features Rosa in bed with her lover Kostja:

 I paint Kostja so he looks elated, but the scene feels too glib, too simple.  It’s only when I introduce Rosa’s cat, Mimi, that the paining acquires some spunk, and I become excited and a little infatuated with my creation. (112)

           The art/life juxtaposition features again in ‘A Mirror to the World’ and, despite not being overly fond of writers writing fictionally about writers (which usually come across as being self-indulgent and a bit too twee), the plot and subtext were so cleverly entwined, that I warmed to it.

Kissane’s stories play to my synaesthetic core.  He colours his worlds with a wonderful stimulation of the senses, bringing art and music together with the written word so that I can touch the music, hear the painting, feel the words in my heartbeat.  It’s a rare gift in a writer.  I read that he is the current Coriole National Wine Poet and his poems feature on their latest Cabernet Shiraz.  Sounds like a poster-boy for synesthesia to me.

I was delighted when a favourite character from one story recurred – or at least got a mention in passing – in another, giving The Swarm a coherence, and a sense of reality, of authenticity.  In particular, I loved the circularity of reading about Michael and his cello named Jacqueline from an entirely different perspective in the last story, thus leaving me with the poignancy of that first story (which of course I just had to read again).

Kissane, Andy. The Swarm, Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe, Australia, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-921450-55-6
Distributed by Inbooks, it is available in both print and e-book formats.

This review is cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers.

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