The primal force of the sun shapes the environment. With the wind and the sand it bakes and cleanses all signs of decay. There is no cleansing by water. The rivers flow beneath the earth, and rain falls too rarely.
A few weeks ago, I did a display at work about Australia. I got a lovely map, and found loads of really good facts (for example, did you know that there’s a crocodile exclusion zone around central Darwin?) and it was all extremely excellent. I put almost everything in our collection about Australia on it. This was one of those books. I’d never heard of it, but it was nice and bright (important on a display) and that was that. My friend noticed it on there, and asked if I’ve read it, told me I had to. She was right – to be fair, she hasn’t yet recommended me a book which I’ve then not liked, so it’s no surprise. She’s wise, and she knows me so well.
I started reading it on a hot Sunday morning, before going to a climbing lesson (I’ve started bouldering! It’s so great!), and was transfixed. I spent a month in Australia with my family in 2011 – we took a train from Sydney to Adelaide, and we drove from Uluru to Sydney via Mount Isa and Longreach – and it was incredible. We saw so much, but so little, of an extraordinary place, and I already wanted to go back, but this made me want to hurry up about it, even as Jill’s story hurtled from disaster to disaster. I cried on a train twice. The way Ker Conway was treated, both as as a child and as a woman, made me furious even as I was unsurprised. The realities of life in the bush, of being a woman in academia, of class issues, of the legacy of colonialism, were stark and unsweetened, and I really learnt a lot. Her insights on family, on duty, on the difficulties of balancing obligations and desires, are impressive.
Her relationship to the landscape is key, with descriptions that are so vivid it was hard to shake the images out of my head, and this affects how she responds to other landscapes. “I could teach myself through literature and painting to enjoy this landscape in England, but it would be the schooled response of the connoisseur, not the passionate response one has for the earth where one was born” reminded me of a part in Anna Pavord’s Landskipping, in which Pavord compares her reactions to cliffs and mountains with her reaction to the pretty beaches of Norfolk, which she finds lacking. It made me think about how I respond to landscape, whether this is true of those of us who grew up in urban places – I love cliffs and mountains and rolling hills, but also buildings, concrete, alleyways. It’s something I keep coming bacak to.
I’ve said before how much I like reading about family, and that’s definitely part of why I liked this. Ker Conway writes about how her interest in ordinary people and in individuals informed how she writes history, and this really shows in this memoir as she balances her family history with world events, as neither makes much sense without the other.
I’ve read some really terrific books this year, and this is one of the best.