Though I greatly admire the poet Les Murray and the novelists Richard Flanagan and Thomas Keneally, I find it difficult to get Australian literature into focus. Some of the best Australian writers have chosen to live abroad – Germaine Greer, Clive James and Peter Conrad in Britain, and Peter Carey and Robert Hughes in New York – and my confusion is compounded by the fact that in Australia itself two of the best-known popular writers, Bryce Courtenay and Peter Temple, and the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee all come from South Africa. I’m not sure whether they count as Australian writers or not.
I was made keenly aware of this when I was recently awarded a Visiting Fellowship at St John’s College in the University of Sydney. I was bad on contemporary Australian letters and even worse on the past. Apart, I suppose, from Patrick White and Banjo Paterson, I didn’t know of any historic Australian writers; and the only book I could think of which one might term an Australian classic was Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. This simply wouldn’t do, so I asked my wife. Penny comes from Adelaide. She mused a while and then thrust into my hands a slim volume called Aunts up the Cross. This was, she assured me, an Australian icon.
Aunts up the Cross begins and ends with the death of the author’s great-aunt Juliet, aged 85 and frankly pretty eccentric if not down-right mad. She was run over by a bus which was travelling slowly in the right direction while the old lady was going pretty fast in the opposite, wrong direction. Her progress was made all the more haphazard by the dark glasses which she wore throughout the year. ‘Her untimely end might have been dramatic in a family more given over to quieter leave taking,’ wrote her great-niece, Robin Eakin. ‘But, in ours, it just seemed natural.’
Just so. In this sprightly, resolutely unglum, indeed death-defying memoir the family ricochets from one disaste
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