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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Gerard Windsor; John Marsden; Tony Hendra

It has been a long wait for Gerard Windsor's second novel. His first, That Fierce Virgin, a tale of sexual oddity in Ireland, came out in 1988. Now, sixteen years later, we get I Have Kissed Your Lips (University of Queensland Press, $24.95). It too is a strange tale; but to try give its storyline would penalise it and perhaps make it sound like a soap opera. In any case, the "story line" is a secondary matter, as in Virginia Woolf's novels, revealed in asides and half sentence along the way. Stay alert or you may miss a significant piece of information. You will not miss, however, the ruminative sense of loss that pervades this book. There are no high achievers here but rather people who endure the human condition and survive. Even their sexual experiences seem joyless. Those who know Windsor's writing will expect to encounter here prose of the utmost delicacy, cool, precise and surgical. His sex scenes, essential elements of the story, are clinical so that, powerful writing though they be, they do not at all titillate. No titillation, then. Instead, you are drawn into a primal human experience to explore its layers of sensibility. These sentences are so measured, so poised, that you find yourself slowing down your reading of them in order to taste and savour their delicacies and to absorb their meanings. This is not a book for speed reading. Once again, Gerard Windsor has proved himself to be one of Australia's most accomplished writers. I say this even though I find some of his characters here a puzzle. Especially puzzling to me is the boy priest whom a mature female parishioner seduces. What motivates him? For the life of me, I cannot say. I can say, however, that in more than 70 years as a Catholic I have never heard a Sunday sermon like the one he preaches in this novel.

Father Joe is a very different chap. I came across the book (Hamish Hamilton, $29.95) by chance. Waiting at the information desk in Abbey's bookshop for some details to come up on the screen, I noticed this title upside down. Hmm, I said, as I turned it round for a closer look, what's this? Oh, that's a marvellous books, said the assistant, although I'm not religious. Abbey's staff are critically trustworthy; but that title, Father Joe, seemed to pi for my liking and when I read a jacket blurb by Frank McCourt I was further repelled. But I noticed the assistant sharing my disdain for McCourt, so I accepted her critical credentials; and bought the book. Good move. At the time I was reading John Marsden's I am what I am (Penguin, $35.00), a testament to his courage in facing down the heavy guns of TV Channel 7, who had defamed him as a predatory homosexual, as well as an open acknowledgment of his Catholic belief. It's a good story that will hold your interest but in construction it's somewhat wobbly, as if he had jotted it down bit by bit on the screen whenever time allowed, without thinking much about its overall shape. By contrast, Father Joe is a well constructed book. Its author, Tony Hendra, was a considerable player in the satire genre years ago and he knows how to construct. The story begins when, a schoolboy, he is seduced by a neglected wife whose husband, a strict Catholic with an adamantine Augustinian view of marital sex, takes the lad off to Quarr Abbey for counselling. So Dom Joseph Warrilow enters Tony Hendra's life, to remain there as a permanent conscience and, I suppose one might say, spiritual director. Year after year, whatever his ups and downs, Hendra goes back to see Father Joe, who resets his compass for him. He thinks he might have a monastic vocation but Quarr Abbey and Father Joe are not so sure. In any case, the vocation does not survive Cambridge, although it resurrects later and Hendra now prays the monastic hours each day. His pages on Cambridge interested me, especially his pen portrait of Monsignor Alfred Newman Gilbey, the gin heir who used to glide round in piped soutane, silver buckled shoes and shovel hat for 34 years as Catholic chaplain before he retired to London clubland just as the waves of Vatican II were breaking. But this well made book belongs, from front door to back, to the man it's named for, Father Joe.

Mention of Abbey's bookshop reminds me that Sydney has lost one of its legendary booksellers, Norma Chapman, who died three weeks ago, aged 95. Trained in Melbourne at Margareta Webber's shop, where she sold Allen Lane's very first Penguins, Miss Chapman came to Sydney and opened Clay's Bookshop in Kings Cross. In those days, overseas books had to be ordered sight unseen, and Clay's was the only Sydney shop carrying some titles. Her careful reading of review pages, as well as her own good taste, told her what to order. People trusted Miss Chapman; going to an overseas post, they would leave money with her to keep them supplied with good books. Clays's was a small shop, its shelves could not carry all the books so she piled them up on the floor. She knew where everything was: ask her for a particular title and she would burrow into a pile and produce it within seconds. It was an honour to be displayed in her window. At the funeral, her assistant, Judith Menzies, said that even Patrick White would stroll past and glance, oh very casually, at the shop window to make sure his latest book was on display. Not only Patrick White, believe me. Miss Chapman did not encourage the use of her Christian name, she was short with anyone who brought an ice-cream or other food into the shop and she informed anyone who outstayed their welcome, "This is not a library". For over 35 years her shop was a conduit of civilisation, until macular degeneration forced her to sell, in 1990. There were 18 people at her funeral.

The Books:

  • I Have Kissed Your Lips
  • Father Joe
  • I am what I am

    Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
  • Issue 3 Books Etc
  • Issue 5 Books Etc
  • Issue 7 Books Etc
  • Issue 9 Books Etc
  • Issue 11 Books Etc
  • Issue 13 Books Etc
  • Issue 15 Books Etc
  • Issue 17 Books Etc
  • Issue 19 Books Etc

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