An Imaginary Life

I loved this book at Uni and this review reminded me why.

The case for David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life

By Dallas J Baker

… further from the far, safe place where I began, the green lands of my father’s farm, further from the last inhabited outpost of the known world, further from speech even, into the sighing grasslands that are silence … (David Malouf, An Imaginary Life).

David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life is not set in Australia and has no Australian characters. It is set at the edge of the Roman Empire, in the first century AD. Australia as “Australia” would not exist for almost 2,000 years. This lack of identifiably Australian components is probably why An Imaginary Life is rarely mentioned as a great Australian book that deserves more attention.

An Imaginary Life is exceptionally well written, rich in poetry and evocative detail. It is a work reminiscent of the writings of a mountain hermit or nature mystic – but that’s not why I selected it as the one Australian book that deserves more attention. I selected it because its central themes resonate with ongoing debates about what it means to be Australian.

David Malouf, An Imaginary Life.
Random House

What kind of Australian literature is this?

At first glance, Malouf’s second novel does not look like an Australian story at all.

It doesn’t strongly feature the Australian landscape or sense of place, nor does it offer us characters of the type we have come to expect of typically Australian writing. There are no larrikins, no diggers, no Aussie battlers, and no tough yet world-wise women with hearts of gold.

To me, though, it reflects a significant aspect of the Australian story – a sense of exile.

An Imaginary Life tells the story of Ovid, the most famous and most irreverent poet of imperial Rome. Ovid’s irreverence leads to his banishment to an isolated village on the shores of the Black Sea in current day Romania, a place occupying the literal edge of the Roman Empire.

Exiled to the limit of the known world, Ovid is cut off from his own culture, even from his language. Slowly, the poet learns to depend on and respect those around him, those he once saw as unsophisticated barbarians because of their inability to speak Latin, their poverty, and their closeness to nature. Ovid sees nature as something somehow frightening, wild, unless it is cultivated, transformed and made productive by human hands.

An encounter with a wild boy

His worldview is challenged when he encounters an untamed boy who has lived out in the wilderness with wild creatures. Ovid captures and tries to “civilise” the boy – but this backfires on the poet in unexpected ways. By observing the wild boy, and then following him into the wilderness, Ovid realises Rome is not the whole world, and not even the centre of it.

Ovid’s predicament should be familiar to many Australians. Like the poet, many of us are acquainted with the feeling of being at the edge of things, on the wild borders of regions and empires to which we do not quite belong, or do not belong any more.

For the first century or so after colonisation, Australia was on the periphery of the British Empire. Then, from the second world war to the 1990s, we understood ourselves to be on the outer limits of the USA’s sphere of influence. Now we see ourselves as on the edge of the Asian region, but not really part of it. We seem to always be a part of something and yet apart from it.

When non-Indigenous Australians think about the history of their belonging to this place, they inevitably come to a moment of arrival; either recent or generations back, either as free migrants, refugees or exiled convicts. They also come to a moment of departure from somewhere else, the places where their ancestors, or they themselves, once belonged.

Indigenous Australians also know exile. European colonisation dispossessed them of their country. Over the decades that followed, many of them were forcibly moved to missions in places as foreign to them as the Old World. There is in Indigenous communities a deep yearning and mourning for lost places; places locked behind gates and fences, places buried beneath cities and suburbs, roads and farms.

Somewhere else

The somewhere else in our personal histories – those places we lost or left – plays a big part in how we think about ourselves. It produces a sense of national belonging that is never quite secure.

A common response to that insecurity is a kind of aloofness, a standing apart from the rest of the world. We like to single ourselves out, to brandish our physical and cultural distance from other places, our un-belonging as it were, as a mark of uniqueness, and of national identity that distinguishes us from others.

This is also Ovid’s initial response to his exile, to cling firmly to that which makes him different, to refuse to truly belong either to his community of exile or to Rome, which has cast him out.

Another common response to this insecurity, that sense of un-belonging, is to turn to nature, to the environment.

That may be why so much Australian writing has a strong sense of place, and why when we think of important Australian novels they are often ones that feature landscape as a character in its own right. Indigenous Australians have shown other Australians the way in this regard. It is their profound understanding and love of this place that has, over time, transformed the non-Indigenous view of it from something to be feared and tamed, to something to love and protect.

Unfortunately, the landscape is still a contested space: the site of ongoing Indigenous dispossession, the site of mass species extinctions and environmental degradation. When we turn for a sense of belonging to the land, to the country, we are inevitably reminded of our un-belonging, or of our dispossession.

Even so, nature, perhaps because it is undeniably a healing thing, continues to anchor us here, to ground us as “Australians”. For many, contested though it is, the beauty of the land eases that sense of exile, of not quite belonging, whether their families have been here for just a few years or a few thousand years.

For Ovid, it is the same. Slowly he comes to see the wild world as something to embrace, to cling to even, rather than something to fear. Ovid’s great epiphany is that the untamed world is not a hostile place, but a new home where he can be free of the rigid structures of Imperial Rome. By venturing into an even further place, a greater exile, he becomes free.

The poet in the world

An Imaginary Life is, in part, about an individual journey from a state of being cut off and apart from the environment – of wishing to tame and exploit nature, of being totally entangled in language and culture – to a state of being in intimate contact with the untrained, wild things of the world. It is also about a poet, in thrall of civilisation, realising that there are other ways to live and experience; ways that are beautiful and fulfilling.

Ovid comes to this realisation by following the example of the wild boy, someone for whom the environment is not something outside of himself but an expression of his own nature.

Those themes – of belonging and exile, of how to relate to the environment and to those who are different to us – are core to the debate about what it means to be Australian today. An Imaginary Life does not provide a workable template for how to navigate the complexity of belonging and un-belonging, nor should it. It’s a novel not a policy document.

It does, however, show us it is possible to imagine ways to do things differently, ways to live differently with each other and with nature. And once imagined, those other ways of living seem all the more possible.

Read more articles in The Case For series.

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The Conversation

Dallas J Baker does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


The Crane Wife- Patrick Ness

This beautiful fable has cemented Patrick Ness on my list of favourite authors. I was lucky enough to find a signed copy in Readings in Carlton and it has sat on my shelf waiting for me to have time to give it.
It is the story of an ordinary, kind but mild-mannered man, George Duncan, and his meeting with an extraordinary woman Kumiko. She is definitely not what she seems and the reader gives George many wise nods as he falls in love with her. It is not just a love story though. It is a story of time and legend, of caring for oneself and others and of forgiveness.
George’s daughter Amanda is a prickly and difficult character who is unable to fit in even when she really tries. She also is fascinated by Kumiko and learns from her. Amanda arguably gains the most from her relationship with Kumiko as she learns to be more accepting and forgiving of herself.
Kumiko is unknowable but George still loves her, even to the point of dealing with her idiosyncratic inscrutability and secrecy. He is the gentle soul that she really needs as she tries to rest from her long trial.
The fable centers on an old tale, twisted slightly to fit the novel form, and a song by The Decembrists. Who the author recommends to his readers, pitying those who had not heard them. It is a tale of a vengeful and passionate lover who pursues a beautiful woman who will not kill him. Their elemental forces exist outside of time and the earth. Ultimately it will end badly for some, I won’t give away the ending, but read it for yourself. It is beautifully worth it.



I wish I was a Murakami leading character. They are often beautiful, intelligent, strong and supernaturally intuitive. In fact, they are almost superheroes. This is not a criticism, he manages to make them just human enough for us to identify with them but special enough for us to want to read about them. It doesn’t help that the novels of his that I have read, and it is no small number, are translated so beautifully that his prose is almost poetic. When I stop to think about it his dialogue in IQ84 is unreal, and that’s not the only thing about this novel that is unreal, but he manages to keep it flowing well enough that it doesn’t jar. That’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from him. He defies convention.
IQ84 begins in 1984 and slowly edges its protagonists to a unity that the reader would have thought impossible until at least half way through. The plot centers on Aomame (Green Pea) and Tengo. Tengo is a writer who has a distant, yet strangely intimate relationship with his agent who calls at odd times and dispenses with preamble knowing without ever speaking of it, that Tengo knows it is him on the line. He offers Tengo a morally dubious job that quite literally changes the world. This is just one of the strange relationships in the novel.
Interwoven with Tengo’s narrative is Aomame’s. She is a sort of mercenary who ends the lives of men who have mistreated women at the behest of her friend and benefactor, the Dowager. Aomame also makes a decision that changes the world. The plot gradually draws the two closer filling in background details as we go along. Tengo’s relationship with the supernaturally beautiful Fuka-Eri, the writer of the story he ends up rewriting, is explored and the mysterious young woman brings two worlds together. A shadowy religious organization, the Dowager’s wonderful bodyguard and a gnome like private eye character round out the narrative. The plot twists and turns and we gradually realize that the novel is changing shape. Murakami keeps readers interested because he is never predictable and because as I have already said, he does defy convention. He does not disappoint here.
At 1000 pages this may test the dedication of some readers but it was enthralling and too hard to put down.



LibraryThing and updating the library

News Feed | LibraryThing.

I love using Library Thing as a way to catalogue my books and connect with other readers. I use Goodreads as well but Library Thing, I feel, has more features. I like the way that Library Thing lets me view my books in multiple ways and connect to other readers with similar books. They also send out free books to those willing to review them, although a lot of these are US only. I am a  bit sporadic about organising my books though and the library has grown somewhat over Christmas, therefore, it was time to do some organising. Some of my favourite new books were ones that I ordered after seeing them in Waterstones on my last visit home. They had really nice displays and as a traveller, not a regular, I appreciated the organisation of their stores, plus the fact that they had coffee in many shops! A spot to grab a book and rest weary feet was appreciated.

But back to Library Thing, the main reason that I stick with it is that it has been around for a long time and half my library is already there. To move to another cataloguing site at this point would be painful. I joined in 2006 and have catalogued 751 books. I find that I add a few at a time, have a look at what others are reading, check in with the groups and read the news and then revisit in a few months. The only thing that could improve the site for me would be an iPad app. This would be amazing as I could then update more regularly. I tend to use my iPad more than any other device for convenience’s sake.  The quicker sites like this make the job of organising books, the more time we have for reading.


via News Feed | LibraryThing.

Guardian’s 50 best first lines


We are often told how important it is to make a good first impression. Books model this for us beautifully. I often pick up books and if I don’t get that voice first off I often do not want to read on. Those first lines are one of the quickest ways to judge books and if they get it wrong you are not always likely to give a second chance. It is such a personal and intimate thing reading a book and it takes time. If I am going to share that sort of intimacy and spend so much time on something I need to believe that I am going to be entertained, enthralled, maybe even appalled at times, but most certainly I want that initial sentence to grab me and tell me that this will be worth my while.

The Guardian Newspaper in the UK has just posted a lovely little article on the 10 best lines in fiction. Even though I would have preferred 50, this will do 🙂

The List of My Desires

This book was recommended by the new salesgirl in Mary Martin in Southbank, Melbourne. It is definitely not my usual read but my interest was piqued and I wanted to try something different and the staff there all sold it so well that I thought I’d give it a go. Jocelyne has a very ordinary life full of small disappointments and small triumphs and she has a pragmatic view on life. When she wins the lottery her life is changed irrevocably. It is full of the ‘what ifs’ that such a life changing event would bring and as she reassesses her life she (and the reader) learns to accept the ordinary. The end will surprise and yet, it is what I would describe as a typically French ending that does not sentimentalise things. In many ways her story is a sad one but the writing is spare enough to pull back from over dramatising that and the emphasis is on her strength. There are enough shocks to keep the reader enthralled and the descriptions of her family are among the most interesting parts. There were one or two plot points that I felt were a bit too pat, but otherwise it was not predictable.

The compact use of language conveys the emotion in a way that more passionate language could not and I felt that it allowed me to see her more clearly than more overblown writing. It is a book that you will want to share with other women, yet it was written by a man. Gregoire Delacourt has done an excellent job of creating the voice of a middle aged woman and her friendships with other women.Its simplicity in style and lack of sentiment is an antidote to many of the other books in this genre. I read it in an hour and will definitely be passing it on. Jocelyne’s story is one to think of well after the book is finished.

Tallullah Rising. Glen Duncan

Finally the holidays have kicked in enough for me to want to read something non-work related and completely indulgent. Which is, after all, what reading should be about. I chose to renew my acquaintance with the werewolves and vampires in Glen Duncan's follow up to the wonderful 'Last Werewolf'. The story begins with Tallulah in one hell of a predicament, Jake is dead and she is due to have her baby any day now. She has taken herself off, with her familiar, Cloquet, to the Alaskan wilds. The full moon is on its way just to complicate things and then, it all happens. She gives birth to two babies/werewolves but the vampires have arrived to take the child they believe she is carrying ( the whole twin thing was as new to Tallulah as to them, thank goodness). They steal away with her boy and then she gives birth to a girl. There are several moments of chase, capture, escape and capture again but they do not become too predictable despite the pattern in retrospect. Duncan does not give the twi-hard vampire fans anything to see here. This is an adult novel that is as comfortable with its philosophical musings on life, death and otherness as it is dropping gouts of viscera and sex on its readers. That said, it certainly takes you on an adventure filled ride around the globe and there are enough plot twists to keep you not only interested, but highly involved.

It is not labelled horror/literature by reviewers without good reason. The writing is tight and controlled with many a literary reference and an intelligent backstory. It moves easily from modern London and America to a sort of James Bond with supernaturals but resists being trite for all that.

I will await the next one, it has been left with enough of a cliffhanger to be certain that one is forthcoming.

Fans of Justin Cronin's work would do well to read Duncan's writing too.


Spies by Michael Frayn

Spies by Michael Frayn.

This is a nice review of a text that has been on the VCE English list here is Australia for a year now. I have spoken to teachers who have taught it for the Context (Area of Study Two- Creating and Presenting) ‘Whose Reality?’ and it seems to be doing well. Students may find it a bit out of their experience at first, and I guess that is the point of teaching a novel like this, but it fits the Context extremely well and certainly gives them lots of opportunities to use it as a springboard for their writing. I liked the way that the boys’ views of events in the close changed as their perceptions of the motivations of those around them changed too. The language was very carefully drawn and opened up a new type of dialogue for students.
All in all, it is a good choice for study.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold has been letting life quietly slip by. The bitterness of his marriage to Maureen has dulled into a standoff of silences and acerbic comments from her and resignation from him. In retirement, David, Harold’s son is absent and has been an uncaring son at best. We later delve into their relationship through flashbacks while Harold is walking the length of England, but I am getting ahead of myself.
One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie who worked with him over 20 years ago. He owes her a debt of gratitude which we do not fully understand until we meet her in Berwick Upon Tweed dying of cancer in a particularly undignified and painful way. The letter leads Harold to look back over his life and assess it more honestly than he has ever done. He, uncharacteristically, takes a walk to deliver a reply and on a whim, keeps on walking, eventually deciding to walk from his home in Devon to Berwick Upon Tweed.
As most journeys are in literature, this one becomes an internal journey as much as a physical one. His, at times physically painful reflections lead to an eventual truce with himself and with his marriage and both he and Maureen gain a new perspective on their lives and relationship.His relationship with Queenie is explored and while at first it seems an unlikely one, they are both outsiders who recognise an essential loneliness in each other. The friendship is not what it seems and the jealousy and guilt surrounding it is explained by Maureen towards the end of the journey. Her newfound respect for her husband and her enlightenment is painfully and tenderly explored.
Harold’s walk sparks the imagination of a nation and he becomes a minor celebrity further testing his new-found confidence and respect for his fellows. Harold’s journey had me captivated from the start and while the book was unashamedly didactic in its message of tolerance and acceptance it was delivered in such an English way that it worked for me. The gentle approach and the deft drawing of the characters Harold met along the way was enthralling and the aspects of the way that his inner journey linked to his physical circumstances was realistic. I found myself really loving Harold and understanding him and wanting him to come through with a good ending to his journey. That the novelist handled the ending so carefully showed respect for her readers.
A charming, heartwarming tale that you will not want to finish. I know I will read this again.

Past The Shallows

Miles and Harry live with their father, an abalone fisherman, in a small settlement in Tasmania. Their lives are rudimentary and Miles lives for getting out on his surfboard. Harry has found a new friend, an old man scarred by fire who lives with his puppy Jake. Harry and Miles’ father is a tormented and brutal man who is also scarred, this time, by love. Their lives take a sharp turn as the swell of the sea is not listened to.
This novel is beautifully written. I read it in two hours flat because I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking and sadly beautiful too. It tells the tale of two sensitive boys in a bleak environment living lives that are controlled by the past and old wounds.
The characters are carefully sketched and the reader slowly inhabits their world.
Highly recommended.