Book Review: blue hour

Blue Hour, by Sarah Schmidt, is a searing story of three generations of females unable to escape the fallout from mistakes made by their mothers. It opens in 1973 with Eleanor, an abused wife, mother to baby Amy, leaving her home in small-town Wintonvale to try to reach the Blue Mountains. She has happy memories of this place from multiple visits with her father. Many of her memories are not so positive.

The timeline jumps back to 1940. Eleanor’s mother, Kitty, is a young nurse at Wintonvale Repatriation Hospital. Three years previously she had moved away from her parents’ home in Melbourne to take this job. They did not approve of her desire for independence. Growing up it had been drummed into her that keeping up appearances mattered, and that she must never do anything that could embarrass her family.

Kitty meets George, a farm-boy, just a few weeks before he leaves to fight in the war. By the time he returns he has been altered by the experience – physically and mentally. Despite misgivings, Kitty agrees to marry him.

“How can you be sure love is enough? It had been easy to love him before. I could make this work.”

From here the timeline of the story moves back and forth, revealing episodes from Kitty’s marriage and Eleanor’s childhood. Kitty is trying to be a good wife and mother but struggles with the challenges her life throws at her. George suffers horrific nightmares, is in and out of hospital. Kitty longs for the man he was before the war.

Eleanor is desperate for her mother to love her but carries with her all the cruel words spoken. When Amy is born and she finds herself struggling, her biggest fear is that she will act as Kitty did towards her. Eleanor’s husband, Leon, is away fighting in Vietnam. She fears not that he will die there but will return.

There is also Badger, Eleanor’s brother, who Kitty loved to show off to her neighbours when he was little. Kitty’s legacy from her parents is that she must always be seen to be the perfect housewife and mother. She garners sympathy for having a husband who struggles. What goes on behind closed doors matters little unless it becomes known.

Eleanor tried hard to break the cycle of behaviour, going away to university and applying to study further, abroad. When Leon arrives in her life it is Kitty who encourages their union. He wants a child – and feels entitled to anything he wants.

There is a great deal of foreshadowing throughout the book but the various reveals are still viscerally shocking. By the time it was reached I had guessed an element of the ending, but the detail proved a gut punch.

I could have done without the graphically described sexual activities, but understand why some were included. Kitty in particular is a complex character. Leon is a charismatic brute but all too realistic.

As with Schmidt’s previous novel, See What I Have Done, the writing is taut and evocative. The shifting points of view enable the reader to empathise with key characters, to understand why they act as they do even when behaving badly.  It is somewhat disheartening to consider how well meaning parents can still damage their offspring and that this then progresses down generations. The multiple layers of grief and familial love are skilfully portrayed.

A story of disappointed expectation – of the difficulty of being true to one’s self when this clashes with other’s needs. A dark but compelling story I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: The Cruelty of Lambs


The Cruelty of Lambs, by Angelena Boden, is a challenging contemporary thriller, dealing as it does with the insidious effects of domestic abuse. The protagonist is a middle aged musician who has been forced to step down from his teaching job at a school following allegations, subsequently withdrawn, of sexual misconduct with pupils. His wife blames him for the difficulties her business is now facing citing the stress and financial cost of supporting him while he fought to clear his name.

Una Carrington is a controlling woman, damaged from her own upbringing but unable to shoulder responsibility for any failures on her part. She has built a successful business that enables her to fly around the world. She has little interest in her two children and keeps them at a distance. She takes out her frustrations on her husband, Iain Millar, a quiet soul who is happiest when playing his beloved cello.

Iain is spiralling into depression. The emptiness and minimalist decor of his sterile home are at odds with the warmth and clutter in which he was raised. He misses his children. The eldest, a son from his first marriage which fell apart when he was unfaithful, is working abroad. The younger two are away at boarding school thanks to a trust fund set up by his father. With his wife constantly haranguing him for being out of work he suffers debilitating stress along with the physical abuse she inflicts when he will not do as she demands. He starts to hear voices in his head telling him to harm her.

Una turns to men she meets on business trips and in bars to try to shore up her diminishing reserves of confidence. She blames Iain with his peace loving compliance, which she regards as weakness, for forcing her to behave in this way. Iain has the support of his good friend, Fergus, a rough diamond out of his depth when it comes to other’s marital issues. Fergus can see what is going on in Iain’s life but feels powerless when his friend will not admit to the extent of the issues he is trying to deal with.

The story plays out over a six month period. It is told in snapshots of key incidents taking the reader inside the minds of both the unstable Una and the increasingly agitated Iain. These are uncomfortable places to be. The details of what exactly is happening remains murky. Iain’s valuable, heritage cello becomes a fixation for Una’s neurotic behaviour. She resents the comfort he finds in music, and that it enables him to shut her out. Friends and family circle the unhappy couple, feeling helpless as they each descend physically and psychologically.

Whilst in places this is a bleak, disturbing tale, the known prevalence of domestic abuse makes it an important issue for all to consider. Marriage is a complex institution, especially when children are involved. Despite Una’s cruelty, the author allows for a degree of sympathy. Having been drawn into Iain’s dilemma I was apprehensive about how his story would end. This is a page turner, but not one for the trepidatious.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.


Women and Domestic Abuse

The prevalence of domestic abuse will never be fully known because most incidents are not reported. What tends to be officially recorded are the most serious cases: the deaths, or assaults that lead to hospitalisation. Even these are rarely deemed newsworthy. They happen, people shrug and try not to get involved. There is discomfort in asking about what goes on in the privacy of a family home. The most common response seems to be, if the situation is so bad then why does the victim not leave? The causes are rarely addressed.

It is the causes that interest me. The everyday sexism project has highlighted how so many in society view women. I doubt that any woman has been shocked by the contributions as most have lived with these attitudes for their entire lives. The benefit for me has been to see that I am not alone and to recognise that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable. I have sons. I do not wish them to grow up treating women as objects that exist for their delectation.

Another common responses when abuse of women is raised is, it also happens to men. When this is pointed out the implication is that what happens to men matters.

Statistics show that more men get murdered and beaten each year than women and the majority of these incidents are also not deemed newsworthy. However, it is my understanding that the majority of these assaults involve men attacking men. This is worth discussing but is not the issue that I am trying to explore.

Domestic abuse happens in the home, a place that should offer sanctuary. The perpetrators are family members who should be trusted to provide support. There is a spectrum of abuse, from constant verbal put downs to occasional assaults to significant violence and murder. It can happen to men but most victims of the domestic abuse cases reported are women.

In some countries and cultures this is seen as acceptable. In law, the husband is the head of the household and the women must do as they are told. Wife beating is seen as a method of control, frowned upon perhaps but rarely punished. In this country we are supposed to have moved on from such an attitude yet still too many men expect women to fulfil an approved role and will seek to punish them in some way if they do not conform.

I want to talk about women. I want to talk about how society treats women, what they are expected to put up with and how they are blamed if they become victims.

“She used to be a real looker, let herself go since the kids were born.”

“She should be grateful he provides so well for her and the kids.”

“Her house is a mess, what does she do all day?”

“I don’t blame him, she has a go at him every time he stops off for a few beers with the lads.”

“She was giving that one the eye, no wonder he flipped.”

Women are not possessions, not servants, not inferior. It is never acceptable to beat women into submission either verbally or physically when they do not conform to a societal ideal.

I have always been drawn to the intelligent which has resulted in me spending my life struggling to keep up with their wit and wisdom. There are times when I open a discussion but am incapable of doing justice to a topic that deserves a sound hearing, incapable of succinctly stating a case that would swing the debate. My inability to impress with clear and well reasoned discourse does not invalidate the point I am trying to make yet men dismiss it as female fuss and foolishness. I wonder would they treat a male friend with such obvious disdain?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Domestic abuse will continue until something is done to stop it. The recent killing of Reeva Steenkamp is a case in point. It is not a shame that a talented sportsman has risked his career, it is a shame that a women has been killed at home by her boyfriend. It is shameful that the world seems more interested in one celebrity’s rehabilitation than in considering why he and many others like him feel free to act in this way.

Yes, men have a right to expect the laws of the land to offer them protection from violent attack. So do women.


(Note: I reworked the original version of this opinion piece and submitted it to ReadWave where it made the front page. This is the reworked version)