Book Review: Killing Hapless Ally


Killing Hapless Ally, by Anna Vaught, is a fictional memoir exploring mental illness and how the protagonist, Alison, learns to cope with her life through the creation of an alter ego and a host of imaginary friends. It is brutally frank, painful in places, but also darkly funny. Despite the suicide attempts and self harm, Alison is trying to find a way to survive in a world that she believes perceives her as a nuisance and a misfit.

As a child Alison always felt rejected. Her mother, Maria, told her she had not been wanted, that she should have been left at the hospital in a bucket. If she had to have a daughter Maria wished her to be a graceful, slender and beautiful little girl. Alison was plump, clumsy and struggled to stay clean. Her middle class parents were well regarded by their local community. All treated Alison with contempt.

Hapless Ally was the personality Alison thought would be more acceptable to her family and peers, an alter ego created as a shield against the verbal and physical onslaughts she endured. As well as hiding behind Ally in public, Alison developed obsessive routines and a shocking vocabulary. Only in private could she be her true self, confiding in a series of invented friends drawn from music and books.

The story explores snapshots of Alison’s life from as far back as she can remember – visits to relatives; attempts at ballet, music lessons and brownies; school and then university; caravan holidays with her parents. All are seen through the eyes of a deeply unhappy girl desperate to find acceptance.

As an adult Alison comes to realise that she is living her life with the soundtrack of her mother’s scathing criticism always in her head. She seeks help, but fears that she will not be able to cope without the strategies she has relied on for decades. She marries and has children, but then suffers a severe mental breakdown. Hapless Ally is conspiring with her dead mother and an exorcism is required.

The writing is intense, sometimes rambling, always coherent. The disjointedness can make for challenging reading but is effective at conveying the fragmentation of memory, especially from childhood, the overlap of sensation with events. It is fascinating and somewhat disturbing to look at adult behaviour through young Alison’s eyes, to see what a child absorbs and the impact of circumstance.

The story has been drawn from the author’s own experience of mental health issues. The authenticity this brings makes it a somewhat disquieting read. Although not an easy subject to explore mental illness deserves wider discussion. This book does not attempt to offer easy answers, but it generates important questions.

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


Book Review: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt


The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, is the fictional memoir of an octogenarian musician who has lived through two world wars and across four continents. It is a stunning example of writing that touches the soul, beautiful and haunting in its resonance. The understated emotion which simmers beneath the surface is all the more powerful for being recounted in modulated, demure textures and tones.

Lena Gaunt is an only child, born to wealthy, Australian parents in 1910 Singapore. She is shipped off to board at a school near Perth when only four years old, a beloved uncle helping to make her time there more bearable, that and her love of music. At her school, where she remained until she was sixteen, she learned to play piano and then cello. She eschewed friendship for her art at which she excelled.

By the time her father recalled her to the family home this had been relocated to Malaya. Lena soon grew bored with the refined and proper life she was expected to live. When her father discovered how she secretly coped with her boredom he raged at the potential shame and banished her.

Lena moved to Sydney where she met other artists and their patrons, including a professor who had invented a new type of musical instrument, the theremin. Lena fell in love with this avant-garde device, playing it at private parties, small gatherings and then at larger venues as her skill and fame grew. Her early success was, however, short lived. She moved to New Zealand with her lover, and then back to Australia where she saw out the years of the Second World War.

In the fifties there was renewed interest in her theremin playing and she traveled between Europe and America, not returning to Australia until she was in her sixties. After a twenty year hiatus she was invited to perform at a festival close to her home. In the audience was a film maker who approached her with a view to making a documentary of her life. Despite her reservations Lena agreed and it is this process around which her memoir, this story, is written.

The prose mirrors the character of the protagonist; it is, after all, written in her voice. Lena is self contained, fluid and refined, but with a simmering passion and internal disregard for convention. She requires privacy and space in which to live beyond the petty constraints imposed by:

“the workaday world with its morals and strictures, its curtain twitching and mouth pursing”

Although her colourful exploits are recounted in this tale it is the feeling and effect rather than the detail that lingers. There are smooth cadences, soaring crescendos, necessary recovery, all wrapped up around a life lived:

“out of sight of conservative eyes and minds of grey people”

There is triumph and tragedy, her experiences described as sounds:

“the sounds around me, reflected, refracted. These sounds had depth behind them and raw salt rubbed through them”

The only jarring note in this symphony of a life was Trix who came across as brash beside Lena’s outward finesse. Perhaps it was Trix’s term of endearment for Lena, the condescending ‘doll’, which particularly grated on my contemporary ears. Lena’s potential seemed diminished while with Trix, although the former may have considered this a price worth paying.

Despite the chain smoking, heavy drinking and casual drug use, the stench of degeneracy is avoided. Lena relishes the plaudits her talent brings but shows little concern for the expectations of others when in private. She finds beauty in the shore and in the power of her chosen art. Her ability to accept hardship as part and parcel of a life lived makes this an uplifting read despite the pathos.

The writing is as close to a beautiful piece of music as I have encountered. I drank in the words, was moved to rapture and tears, and felt sated. I could listen in my heart again and again. Read this book and be filled.

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


Book Review: How to be Brave


How to be Brave, by Louise Beech, is a book that I nearly gave up on. I am glad that I did not. When I had read the first hundred pages, the length of time I give a book to grab me, all I could see was the kind of self-absorbed mother I know only too well. Her daughter was behaving like a brat yet she appeared unable to look beyond her precious little snowflake, wronged by a world too blind to recognise such unique wonderfulness and therefore ready to indulge misbehaviour. Is there any mother who cannot see qualities in her child to which the world appears unappreciative? Most will never have to deal with this child developing a life changing illness; who knows how any of us would react to such a shift?

The tale opens at Halloween. Natalie is living alone with her truculent, nine year old daughter, Rose; her husband is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Rose has been stroppy since he left, disturbing Natalie’s sleep to complain of thirst and copying her mother’s habit of copious swearing. As they prepare to go out Trick or Treating, Rose collapses onto the kitchen floor. She is rushed to hospital where she is diagnosed with diabetes.

As Natalie and Rose struggle to come to terms with a lifetime of regular blood tests and injections a shadowy figure enters their lives. The reader may decide if he is a ghost or a dream but Colin’s presence helps our protagonists through these difficult days. They settle into a routine punctured by numerous battles of will. Natalie persists in babying her daughter who fights through her mother’s preconceptions, desperate to be heard as an individual. What holds them together is a story they start to share woven from imagination, memories and family memorobilia found languishing in a shed where Rose flees for sanctuary.

The story is that of Colin, Natalie’s long dead Granddad. At the end of the Second World War, his ship was torpedoed and he was stranded in a lifeboat for fifty days. Natalie recreates his ordeal from his diary and newspaper cuttings. Her narrative is told in parallel with the present day tale.

Natalie’s personal story is the one that resonated. It was her neediness and self absorption that nearly turned me away, yet as she came to understand how she was behaving the harshness with which she judged herself struck a chord. Mothers are so used to society blaming them for their children’s faults while their children heap blame on them for all their woes. It is little wonder that mothers also berate themselves.

Natalie changes as the story progresses. She recognises that she must allow Rose to move on with her life and that, even though Rose is the centre of Natalie’s life, Natalie is not at the centre of Rose’s. Natalie stops using childish words in her stories, stops trying to protect Rose from every harsh reality of life. She still makes promises that she cannot guarantee to keep and says ‘We’ll see’ rather than ‘No’, but she is starting to find honesty, and to this Rose responds.

Natalie and Rose use Colin’s diary in the same way believers use a bible, dipping in for inspiration and finding text they can interpret as messages to help them through their days. Natalie rebuffs the kindness offered by a neighbour whose efforts are described as ‘bothering them’; she turns away offers of assistance from family and friends; perhaps she conjures up a supernatural presence as the only kind of help she can accept as it will never expect her to reciprocate.

I found it hard to like Natalie until well into the book when I realised that the author was portraying her in the harshest of lights. Allowances were made for Rose’s bad behaviour, and for Colin’s various acts of desperation, but no slack was offered for Natalie’s flaws. I empathised with her loneliness and a mother’s tendency to self-flagellate.

This is a story woven from the author’s personal experience and is one of hope despite devastating challenges. It matters little if Colin actually appeared to them; his story inspired and it is that which was needed at such a difficult time.

The initial build up set a scene necessary for understanding; when finished a powerful story lingers. The writing shifted my perception as the story progressed, reminding me how easy it is to jump to judgement rather than taking the time to learn why others behave as they do. Sometimes it is necessary to look through a different lens to enable us to deal with ourselves and with those who rely on us to accept and understand. One must be brave to grant loved ones their freedom.

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