Friday, 20 December 2013

My personal 'Book of the Year'

It wouldn’t be an end-of-year blog without selecting my ‘book of the year’.
Books do different things for us at different moments in our lives. Sometimes, they are a life buoy to cling to – like The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion which I read concurrently with my daughter while she was in hospital. It was the perfect book at the time – full of humour, irony and hope – the perfect antidote to grief and worry. I also had the pleasure of attending one of Graeme’s workshops at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. With more than 15 takeaway tips, it was well worth the time and money.
Then there was Educating Alice by Alice Greenup. This one took me back to my own rural roots, and while we followed divergent paths and while Alice’s story of city girl turned award-winning beef producer amazed me, it made me realise that I had, in fact, chosen the right path for me. I met and interviewed Alice at an event I emceed this year, and she truly is a generous and warm-hearted dynamo.
I picked up Lightning by Felicity Volk at the airport this year and found it to be a well-written, thoughtful and multi-layered book for this debut novelist – one which I would highly recommend to book clubs.
I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Carey’s Chemistry of Tears. I found this book to be more accessible than some of his others and I had the pleasure of meeting my idol at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival.
I re-read Life of Pi by Yann Martel for book club earlier this year (as a movie tie-in) and found our two-hour book club meeting could hardly do this superb novel justice with its hidden meanings, symbols and religious allusions – a book definitely worth revisiting.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan failed to excite me the way Atonement, Saturday and On Chesil Beach did. I found the Cold War intrigue and unlikely love story to be a bit dry, and I suspect McEwan will always be known as the guy who wrote Atonement which, when you think about it, isn’t so bad. By the way, everyone must read Atonement.
Khaled Hosseini’s latest And the Mountains Echoed showed The Kite Runner author is no one-hit wonder. And the Mountains Echoed was a wonderful read with an interesting style. I found it to be almost a collection of stories, some of which connected while others did not, but beware of the ending – it was incredibly sad, beautiful and wistful.
At my daughter’s recommendation, I set Chris Cleave’s 2005 debut novel Incendiary for book club in August.  He wrote The Other Hand (released in the US and Canada as Little Bee). Incendiary was written in a female first-person epistolary style and Cleave never strayed once from the voice of … (we never learn her name) and her class. Well done, experimental, but incredibly effective for Cleave’s first effort.
Questions of Travel by Michele de Kretser  - I’m sorry I couldn’t enjoy her Miles Franklin award-winning accomplishment. Too many metaphors really do spoil the broth and why write in a too-clever way when simplicity is enough? A question of personal taste, I think.
Ruth Ozeki, Canadian Zen Buddhist priest, was another author I met in my role as an artist liaison volunteer at the Writers Festival this year. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize,  A Tale for the Time Being will have wide appeal, that is, to the mature reader and youngsters alike – literature lovers, science geeks (Shrodinger’s cat is explained in full), and for those who just want an easy read.
As I always find, there are just too many books and so little time. Coal Creek by one of my favourite Australian authors Alex Miller and the master Tim Winton’s Eyrie I am yet to read. I have just managed to sneak in The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and it truly is a masterpiece by an author who is as witty as he is deeply serious – as a person and as an author, this Tasmanian epitomises what Australia is today, that is ebullient, intelligent (yes, I believe we are), confident and conscientious about environmental issues he cares deeply about.

But, this year’s standout for me would have to be Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It is about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. Okay, so we know what happens, but the way young (27-year-old) Kent brings Agnes to life is the real triumph here. I love the familiarity of books in how they highlight the human condition in a way that we all feel but have seldom been able to articulate. But I also love books that take me to another place and time – that teach me something, that subtly challenge me to look at the world in a different way – books that change and shape who I am. Burial Rites and The Narrow Road to the Deep North did that for me this year. So I guess, in the end, it’s a tie.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Above all, I wish you the peace and quiet to lose yourself in a good book this festive season. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Don't you love the smell of petrichor in the morning?

The problem with telling the world you've been shortlisted for a literary award, is telling the world that you didn't win. But that's the chance you take in this era of self-promotion. Actually, I'd rather call it 'news sharing'.
Last night, I returned home from a trip to Melbourne where I took the chance to do some more historical fiction research at the State Library of Victoria and the Immigration Museum. But the driving reason for heading down to chilly Victoria was to attend the Elyne Mitchell Writing Awards in the Upper Murray town of Corryong.
I was thrilled to be shortlisted out of a record number of entries but, alas, I did not win. That honour deservedly went to Isabella McNickle from Bungendore, near Canberra, with 'The Funeral' - a very well-written and moving story of 11-year-old Josie who attends her beloved uncle's funeral in 1958. Isabella expertly captured the feeling of the times as well as the thoughts of the young protagonist in a truly polished piece of writing.
I met some engaging locals, the late Elyne Mitchell's daughter Honor Auchinleck and son-in-law Mark, listened to an hilarious talk by author Sandy McKinnon, chatted with lovely agent Tim Curnow, and got to know some fellow writers, namely Alana Brekelmans from Brisbane (of all places) and architect and memoirist Charlotte Austin from Mansfield, Victoria.
As serendipity would have it, Sandy asked a young lady in the audience what her favourite word was. She said 'petrichor' - the scent of rain on dry earth. I admit I hadn't watched enough Doctor Who to know that one. But it gets really spooky when I also discover it's my new friend Alana's favourite word and blog name.
Now each time I catch a whiff of petrichor, I will look back on my time in Corryong with extra fond memories.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Fingers crossed ...

I'm about to fly down to Melbourne for a much-anticipated long weekend. I have baked a lasagne for the family, filled the car with petrol, stocked up the fridge and pantry and even dusted the living room (!).
The main reason for my jaunt is to attend the Elyne Mitchell Writing Award in country Corryong on Saturday night where my short story, 'Chubby Struthers' Transformation' has been shortlisted from a cast of about 150 entries from across Australia and New Zealand. Even if I don't 'win', I will get to rub shoulders with other writers and meet literary agent Tim Curnow, HarperCollins associate publisher Katie Stackhouse, author Sandy MacKinnon, and prolific writer and former winner Kate Rotherham. Kate's recent winning entry, 'Companion Gardening' is a treat to read and available in Award Winning Australian Writing 2012. (Excuse my blatant self-promotion, but you will also see my Henry Lawson Award winning story 'Why Don't Elephants Smoke?' contained therein.)
The Elyne Mitchell Award is named in honour of the author of the Silver Brumby series, pictured here.

I'm also heading into the State Library of Victoria where the good people in the manuscripts room have pulled some diaries and sketchbooks of early Melbourne which will help immensely with my historic fiction project.
So, if nothing else, I will come home on Sunday night having met some terrific people, examined some old historic treasures and gazed upon some inspiring rural countryside - which will no doubt plant the seeds for further short stories.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A Turning Point for Australian Film - excuse the pun.

If you have a spare three hours and $25, I would urge you to get along to see Tim Winton's 'The Turning' on the big screen before it's too late.

Seventeen Australian directors give each of Winton's short stories from the book of the same name, their own treatment, which could be confusing if not for the glossy explanatory program included in the ticket price which helps viewers keep track of the main characters - each played by different actors, and a timeline of the Lang Family as well as brothers Frank and Max. I'm not convinced this is entirely necessary, although I'm sure it helps that I had read the collection beforehand. My advice would be to enjoy each short story for what it is. Personally, I think trying to link the stories to each other could do your head in. And there is an intermission to regroup but this comes, I think, one or two 'stories' too late. Interestingly, there is an encouraging representation of indigenous actors (bring it on, I say!). But the change in skin tone is seamless which shows just how far we've come, not only in Australian cinema, but as a viewing audience. Bravo to that.

As a writer and reader of short stories, I eagerly awaited this 'unique cinema experience' with recurring themes of coming of age and understanding people's actions and motivations for doing the things they do. I think the film worked well, with expert direction, exquisite cinematography, and brilliant acting - you have never seen Rose Byrne look like this (the teeth!). I hope the success of 'The Turning' encourages the Australian film world to take a further look at short story collections. I'm sure they know how to contact Cate Kennedy and Peter Goldsworthy - who have given us terrific short story collections to ponder.
Tim Winton's 'The Turning' is still showing at boutique cinemas around the country and in my home town of Brisbane - namely at the Centro in James Street, New Farm with the Regal Twin in Graceville also picking it up recently.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Magic Happens: Serendipity and Synchronicity in a Modern, Mixed-up World

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an Avid Reader salon in West End. The idea of a 'salon' has long fascinated me - I see lively, thoughtful and sometimes controversial conversations in a chintzy parlour of over-stuffed armchairs, potted plants and strong alcohol served in stemless, crystal glassware. No ice.
There was certainly plenty of wine last night, with ebullient host, Krissy Kneen, issuing several invitations to grab a top-up. Great value at $7.50 a ticket and evidence that Avid is sincere in helping emerging writers.
First up, were QUT student Grace Finlayson, Richard Newsome author of The Billionaire's Curse series, and Jordan Lawrence sharing a haunting, rhythmic story in memory of his brother - which won him last year's Griffith University creative writing prize.
Then, former St Peters Lutheran College student, diplomat, award-winning short story writer and now Canberra-based Felicity Volk took her turn, reading from her debut novel Lightning.
Lightning is a road-trip through the rural fringes to the heart of Australia. Persia, all alone and nursing debilitating grief, begins her journey in Canberra after lightning sparks a bush-fire altering the course of her life. Along the way, she teams up with asylum-seeker Ahmed who spins imaginative tales along the way out of the towns they pass through - putting the reader instantly in mind of One Thousand and One Nights - except it is Ahmed telling the stories - perhaps to prolong his stay in a country that doesn't want him - while Persia pretends to be mute so she doesn't have to talk to him.
Volk raises a number of questions in this book. First, what do we do with the people who pass through our lives? Do we hold onto them, or do we let them go? Regardless, they all leave their mark. Then, the big one. Who are we? Persia knows she is a combination of German missionary, Italian migrant, and Afghan cameleer. This inevitably raises some rather topical questions: Who comes? Who stays? Why, and for how long? Would that be until they are not useful anymore? How ironic that Ahmed is about to be deported, but let us not forget the Afghan cameleers who were brought here to open up the centre of Australia. We needed their help; their expertise in working in such harsh, arid conditions. Ahmed asks: 'Who's Australian?' I believe we answer that question with the choices we make every day. We can choose to be kind, like Persia's truck-driver, or we can choose to be cold-hearted and turn our backs on those who need our help.
Lightning is a work of literary fiction. To me, it evoked the magic realism style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the sheer silliness of Alice in Wonderland - with Persia's grief her own personal Jabberwocky. Volk says she was concerned the magic realism tag might put readers off. She says Lightning is 'a book of paradox invoking the magic and mystery of our living days' and 'the serendipity and synchronicity of our lives'.
Book clubs will also want to discuss the book's religious themes, the characters', and our own, sense of connection across time and place, as well as the classical elements - especially fire which brings destruction as well as healing and redemption, and water which soothes.
Lightning is full of beautiful, resonant passages. One of my favourites is when Ahmed feeds, and thereby sustains, Persia.
He put the last part of Persia's sandwich in her mouth. 'Servitude - freely offered servitude - is a study in elegance and grace,' he said. 'There is nothing more beautiful than devotion.'
Volk says Lightning was six years in the making and that she wants to write the types of words she likes to read. Let's hope she continues down that path because I suspect there's more terrific work to come from this talented, generous and delightful writer.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Personal highlights from the Brisbane Writers Festival 2013

As many of my readers, friends and family know, the highlight of my year is the Brisbane Writers Festival. I volunteered again this year and met some wonderful writers, took two masterclasses, and attended some really stimulating events.
Having volunteered previously, I was entrusted with the task of driving three people I admire to the University of Queensland to deliver lectures - Canadian-American author, film-maker and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki, investigative journalist and national treasure Chris Masters and science guru Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (pictured below with his new book 50 Shades of Grey Matter).
A couple of other personal highlights included hearing great Australian author Alex Miller speak about his new book Coal Creek, due for release in October (of course, I picked up an advance copy), meeting linguist Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex OAM, and taking a terrific masterclass with author of The Rosie Project Graeme Simsion. I can't wait to put his many tips on short story writing to good use. I just need to get out my notes from Elizabeth Wein's workshop on scheduling, and, well, schedule more time at my desk. 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

On Meeting Alice

Last week, I was asked to MC a joint forum for the Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women's Network and the National Council of Women of Queensland in a small hall in a small town outside Kingaroy. I love the South Burnett because - although I grew up in Bundaberg - that's where I consider my "mob" to be from, with fond memories of school holidays with cousins and favourite uncles and aunties. So, of course, I jumped at the chance.
The guest speaker was Alice Greenup (pictured left) author of Educating Alice. It was great to meet the dynamo behind the memoir - a Melbourne girl who overheard a conversation about a governess position on a remote cattle property in western Queensland. It was there where Alice caught the eye of a young jackaroo, got married and lived happily ever after, but not before Alice had to master the art of driving and learn the difference between a steer and a heifer.
'... in my world all of these brown-eyed, four-legged creatures were just called "cows".'
 It was on this property where Alice also came to learn where girlfriends stood.
'A girlfriend should know her place, Alice. First comes the mates, then the ute, then his hat, dogs, horses and last of all the girlfriend. Get that right and you might stick around. Jump the queue and you're history.'
Fortunately, it wasn't the handsome jackaroo who famously said this, but one of his mates - a little scorned, I think, by Alice's attentions elsewhere.
Educating Alice is a great book, full of action, drama and humour. But it is, above all, a most sincere memoir of hardships and triumphs on the land. And it's for this reason, that I was most keen to meet Alice - the Melbourne girl who, through sheer hard work and determination, became 2003 Australian Young Beef Achiever and won the Meat and Livestock Australia and Australian Women's Weekly Search for Australia's Most Inspiring Rural Women in 2006. Not bad, hey?
Alice enjoyed meeting students from Murgon State High School (pictured below) and Nanango State High, lovely young people, who Alice said were "the future".
The forum was designed to get rural women talking about issues that affect them, coming up with ideas and solutions and then hopefully get those ideas to the ears of policy-makers. For example, how rural women stand to benefit from the coalition's paid maternity-leave scheme, how to support one another in times of crisis (the South Burnett region is still recovering from two devastating floods in January 2011 and 2013), environmental and other issues.We also got to hear from Nanango author Liz Caffery who shared incredible photos and the story behind her magnificent coffee-table book Reflections: The Story of the 2011 South Burnett Floods and Recovery.
I got to meet some wonderful women, and the two men who were there, and took home a bounty of local produce and not one, but two, raffle prizes. I'd say it was well worth the drive.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

For Pete's Sake .. Really?!

Yesterday, I realised a long-held dream and listened to Peter Carey at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. I joked on facebook, before I drove down, that I felt like I did before I went to my first-ever Kiss concert - all judgments about my music tastes aside - I was that excited. (Photo courtesy of The Age.)
Peter, dressed in Johnny-Cash black, used a slide presentation to talk about the 'Madness in the Method' -in particular the madness and mess he created when he came up with his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda and his latest The Chemistry of Tears.
I've been a fan of the twice-Booker Prize winner since discovering Bliss in Senior English. But anyway, back to what the great Peter Carey said last night. He said a river is a good image. That is, a writer must dredge up the 'mental mud' (which can be messy and chaotic on the page) to come up with the 'necessary madness' in order to write a good story. Oscar and Lucinda came about when Carey lived in Bellingen and a church, which no longer paid its way, was under threat of demolition. He started with an idea and from it, created characters - asking himself questions until he thought about Pascal's Wager and eventually held the premise of the novel - that is that 'a bet is a good explanation of something silly' - that is, as 'silly' as transporting a glass church 400 kilometres from Sydney to Bellingen over land and up the Never Never River during the Victorian era.
In his talk, Carey kept harking back to his formative years in Bacchus Marsh where his father, and his grandfather before him, were car dealers and the damage the internal combustion engine has done to the planet over the years. (His brother and sister were involved in the family business, but alas, Carey was told there was no room for him - just as well for us, hey?) And as difficult as it is to escape our past, this beginning - and the sparkling view of an energy-dependent Los Angeles at night - planted the seed for The Chemistry of Tears.
This one is set over two time periods but connects the protagonists, Henry and Catherine, through Henry's notebooks on how to make an eating, pooping mechanical duck. The intimacy that comes with Catherine reading Henry's notes and the fact that both (in their own time) are in 'heightened emotional states' and the connection that surpasses the years is what makes this book really, truly beautiful.
I got to ask a question about how Carey came up with the title: The Chemistry of Tears - he said he googled it because he wanted to know what tears do (after all, he failed first year science at Monash University - once again, just as well for us) and thought it would make a neat title. But when writing Oscar and Lucinda, Carey said he had a whole page of different titles, and when he was in a difficult patch, he thought, wrongly, that coming up with the 'right title' would make the book better. He needn't have worried. (This was particularly instructive as I struggle with my own title for my historical fiction. Something that sounds good in my head, sounds really stupid when I say it out loud.)
Some of the other questions asked of Carey, weren't so helpful in my opinion. For example: 'What do you think of D.H. Lawrence?' and 'Did you ever stop to think that a 13-year office romance could remain undetected?' which was coupled with a follow-up question! And then, when there were valuable (once again in my opinion) questions left unasked, someone asked and proceeded to want to chat about: 'Who do you think will win the federal election?'. I mean, for Pete's sake, this wasn't a dinner party!
Clearly, I was affronted and sad that the session was coming to an end and anxious to race out the front to get my hard-cover (I'm that much of a fan) copy of The Chemistry of Tears signed before tumbling out of the Byron Bay Community Centre into the freezing winter air and start the two-hour drive back home to Brisbane. Clearly, Peter Carey - 'I kiss your toes'.

Friday, 19 July 2013

New Khaled Hosseini book no echo of novels past

My book club has just had the pleasure of reading and discussing Khaled Hosseini's new book And the Mountains Echoed. Hosseini says the title was drawn from the William Blake poem 'The Nurse's Song' in which he ends a verse with the line: 'And all the hills echoed'. Hosseini says echoes have a ripple effect, expanding outward, touching lives further and further away.
First up, I think the key to appreciating And the Mountains Echoed is to realise that it is structurally very different from The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Rather, it is a collection of not-so disparate stories. They are stories about the choices we make and the consequences of those choices - whether they be right or wrong. Hosseini writes of the many different types of love beginning with a fable of ogres and child kidnapping. This fairy-tale sets the reader up with valuable clues - after all, the next day, the father who told the tale sells his daughter to a wealthy, childless couple. Readers can only wonder at the extreme poverty and desperation that would drive a parent to do such a thing. We feel the remaining sibling's sadness and the hopelessness of their reunion which comes, sadly, too late. Hosseini then tells the stories of unconventional love, in this case an employer’s love for his driver, revealed in a posthumous letter; and the driver who is then obliged (happily) to care for his disabled boss when the employer's wife deserts him. What follows are more 'love stories' which are invariably accompanied by guilt, duty, abandonment, forgiveness and absolution. Even the character who we think makes the 'right' decision to abandon her own dreams to care for her ailing and increasingly-difficult father says:
“It was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.”

My enjoyment of the book was marred by my haste in trying to stitch the stories together - too soon. Admittedly, the first few stories were linked, before new protagonists were introduced - their whole lives lived and laid bare - which confused me somewhat.The only indication of different stories was the title of each - a year and a season. Sometimes, Hosseini moved on to a new 'story' complete with a new protagonist without heralding a change in time and place, which only added to my confusion. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hosseini says the toughest part of writing the book was writing from the many different perspectives of each character. 
"There were a lot of plates spinning in this one, due to the multi-perspective structure of the novel. That was both the toughest - and, of course, the most thrilling - part of writing this book." 
I'm not sure he achieved greatness here, however, as I don't feel he really captured the different ages, genders and social backgrounds in each character's voice. This is my only criticism of the book. 
Look out for Hosseini's trademark whimsical sadness - in this case - of opportunities missed. The tea box of feathers, when it is uncovered years later, is perhaps one of the saddest things I have ever read, made more powerful by Hosseini's lack of emotion. The reader knows the significance of the feathers but, alas, the characters do not and the result is incredibly sad. This technique is something aspiring writers should think about and emulate if they want their work to really shine.

Khaled Hosseini fans looking for the ends to tie up as they did in his previous two novels, won’t be completely disappointed, but my advice on reading And the Mountains Echoed is this – don’t go looking for them too early – just enjoy the read because I think this latest novel is his best yet.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

On a roll with new writers' group

Who said writing was a lonely occupation? Okay, so that would probably be me.. It needn't be though as I have just become part of a new historical fiction writers' group. It's small - there are just four of us - and we are all incredibly supportive, extremely knowledgeable and, of course, brutally honest with each other. Already, we have thrashed out the little things, ie, commas and hyphens to the big - structure, voice and the benefits of manuscript assessments.
Denise, Julie, John and I are all at different stages in the writing process, but I'm thrilled to report being part of this new group has given me the momentum to pick up my historical fiction writing again, as well as make some much-needed changes - changes that were necessary for me to drive forward.
I haven't forgotten my other writers' group, though. We just need different people at different times in our lives.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Grammar Saves Lives

I've always thought grammar saves lives and that good grammar makes lives even better. Consider this sentence ...

Let's eat Grandma!

One little comma in the right place can make all the difference to Grandma's well-being ...

Let's eat, Grandma!

This one appeared in the Australian Writers' Centre's latest e-newsletter, Get Published. Serves him right, I hear you say?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Becoming part of a bigger community

Writing can be a lonesome profession. One of the ways we can counteract that, is to become part of a writing community - whether it be through writers groups, courses or online activities. I think I've mentioned before, I never feel lonely when I receive my daily email from The Write Practice. It's run by Joe Bunting in the United States and every day literary gems and idea seeds come sailing into my inbox - so there's never any excuse for writers' block. Joe is also running an online course to help writers get published and make some money out of their work. You can find it on

In the meantime, I have been busy at the "lathe" - polishing up some short stories I will be sending away to competitions by the end of next week. I have also been part of that writing community - reading a manuscript  of historical fiction called The Wykehamist by John Besley. It's set in "frontier Queensland" and a well-researched, well-written page-turner so far. I'm sure he'll find a publisher for his work very soon. And who knows, maybe John can do the same for me one day when I finally finish my own historical fiction, Daughters of the Water.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Saying "no" to nothing

I remember when the late great Australian actor Bud Tingwell died, Aussie director Tom Gleisner said: "He never said no to anything." This gracious attitude made him a mentor to many and kept him in steady work for most of his life, in an industry that can be fickle and difficult.
Not that I'm comparing myself to the wonderful Bud, but I think it's good advice. Now, I'm not advocating you should sign up for the P & C or tuckshop duty. Rather, this year, one of my "resolutions", that is, a way that I can help myself become a better person and writer, is to say "yes" more often and see where it takes me.
Well, it seems the universe is listening.
Last week, I agreed to read a colleague's historical fiction manuscript and provide feedback, last night I said I'd be pleased to tutor a Year 12 student in English, and today, I said "yes" to being MC for the annual Australian Yoga Conference held here in Brisbane in April. All great opportunities to further my craft, help others, and help me grow as a person.
Of course, I'm writing this while completing my own historical fiction, while keeping an eye on up-and-coming short story competitions, so needless to say, this new mindset will make me a very busy person. "Family First" vies for position on our fridge alongside "Always do your best" as part of our family values. So I will be doing all of those things, all the while supporting my husband and children, while remembering to breathe, and say: "Om".

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Doll Child

Writers get inspiration for all sorts of places. I took to my notebook when my Mum sent me an email with slides of weirdly life-like dolls and I came up with a short story 'The Doll Child'.

The Doll Child

The wealthiest family in the town once had a beautiful, precious daughter whose dimpled smile could melt the hardest hearts. For a while, it seemed as if they had everything, until little Hanna grew quiet, then pale, then deathly ill. They quickly conceived another daughter, but it was soon apparent their good fortune had deserted them. Lisette was not the bone marrow match they had hoped for and their hearts were left empty.
            In their grief, the family even considered cloning. But their local Lutheran pastor told them it was morally out of the question – even for the very rich. But still, they didn't give up.
            As their second daughter grew, her hungry cries were lost in the dusty corners of the empty, quiet house. And by the time Lisette turned two, the couple were still so absent in their misery, they searched their daughter’s face for anything that could remind them of their dear departed Hanna but the fact that Hanna’s clothes sat so well on her sister while Lisette seemed determined to be different in every possible way only seemed to compound their grief. The only similarity was the colour of Lisette’s hair – and even though it was dead straight, it gave them the seed of an idea. They knew their money could be used to ease their sorrow and in the end, it was simple. They waited another two years then flew to Norway to visit the best doll maker in the world.
            “It’s like going to see Santa Claus,” the wife said.
            “Yes,” said her husband. He squeezed his wife’s hand and looked at the snow on the ground, lying cold and in patches on the dead grass beside the runway. “It won’t be long now.”
            “How tall do you think she will be?” asked the wife.
            “Ssh. She will be perfect,” the husband said. “The doll maker is the very best. This is my promise, woman.”
            “Can I play with her?” their daughter asked.
            The husband and wife exchanged glances.
            “Perhaps,” said the wife. “But you must be very careful. She will be breakable …”
            “Ssh. Ssh now, my dear,” he said to his wife.
            “What’s wrong, Mamma?” But the child knew she wouldn't get an answer. The wife just stroked Lisette’s long, straight hair, washed clean as instructed.
            “It might still be possible …” the wife started to say.
            “Ssh, my dear. We shall see what the doll maker says,” said the husband. “He might need all of it. There is the curling, remember?”
The child didn't remember much of the trip to the doll maker. She remembers looking for God in the clouds. Then the boredom of waiting, her parents’ hushed anguish and how she screamed and struggled when they cut her hair.
            “Oh, stop it now, Lisette,” her father said. “It will grow for God’s sake.”
            “Soon, little one,” said the doll maker. “Tomorrow, or possibly the day after, you will meet your beautiful sister.”

So Lisette grew up in her sister’s shadow, enduring the silent stares, the constant, dimpled smile revealing perfect baby teeth, rosy cheeks and a slick of saliva on her tongue. She went off to school at seven, while her sister stayed behind and watched her leave from the bay window. Lisette even turned to give her a wave; Hanna smiled, but did not wave back.
            After school, Lisette took her sister outside to play while Nanny was asleep. Hanna was too light to play on the seesaw, so Lisette put a rucksack on her sister and filled it with rocks.
            I could throw her in the pond, she thought. And she would sink to the bottom and Mamma and Papa would be sad again.
            “Seesaw, Margery Daw…”
            When Hanna fell off and broke her head, large eyes wide open, Lisette ran into her room and pretended to play with her other dolls.
            But she remembers the slap across the face, her mother’s face ashen with revisited grief, which is the worst kind of all.
            She remembers how the woman scooped the sister up, cradled her and stroked her broken head, gently lifted the backpack off and dropped it to the ground.
            She remembers how the woman’s tears fell on the sister’s face, and how they both expected this to revive her. But, of course, it didn't because, after all, there are some things money cannot buy.
            And she remembers how their precious Hanna, with slightly over-sized eyes, puckered lips and real human hair sat at the bay window for years watching children play in the park across the street. In fact, the town’s children grew so accustomed to her presence at the window that they no longer saw her there, the smiling figure that watched her little sister grow up, so full of life, to accept a bouquet from a nervous boy before the school prom, then walk out the door for the last time wearing a white lace gown into a life which the doll would never have because money can buy most things. It can replace a lost child, and it can make time stand still, if only for a short time before life marches on to the soundless drum of our own mortal heartbeat.
copyright Kerri Harris 2013