Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Australian Review

Artful calibration of an observant child's fears

Kathy Hunt | June 06, 2009
Article from: The Australian

The Weight of Silence
By Catherine Therese
Hachette, 284pp, $29.99

AS this book demonstrates, becoming a writer in Australia does not begin with a declaration of intent. This may happen in the US and the old world but it is different here, historically so in a country that loves talk but suspects language. Pots and paintings can be held and hung but, prizes aside, an appreciation of the real weight and value of words is not endemic.

Perhaps this is why so many official ways have been found to legitimise and justify writing, from the humble community house and its creative writing class to the PhD pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow, where many hands make light work of what should always be an individual endeavour, as lonely as that is.

Publishers also play a role in shaping a nation's literature, as distinct from merely printing and selling books. Hostages to their simple but inflexible financial agendas, they are bookies in all but name, backing the safe and predictable over the dark, bolting horses of originality and talent. Occasionally, however, something unexpected happens in the neatly regulated world of international publishing, and this is it.

Born quietly in 1965 -- quietly because her mother never made a sound in the labour ward -- Catherine Therese wrote the first draft of this memoir when she was four. This would have been about the time her mother chased her on to the family's Blacktown veranda at the point of a purple feather duster, the colour remembered 40 years later by a girl born to write about it.

In a nod to the era, Therese summons up the Vietnam War, Vatican II and the slow erosion of the White Australia Policy. More importantly, it was also the time her father went from liking to needing a drink, just one of the secret burdens implied in the book's title.

Any writer will tell you that living in fear stamps experience on the creative mind. The Weight of Silence is fuelled by the author's childhood fears: fear of her father's alcoholic rages, fear for her mother, fear of being the odd sock in her family and outside it, fear, a writer's fear, of being a nobody, of disappearing in the mix, of never existing on the page.

Therese need not have worried. A force of nature, she explodes in print, leaving the PR girls scrambling after her in a messy, inarticulate attempt to package her themes: the child's experience; family life; the importance of remembering; losing yourself; finding yourself; growing up in an alcoholic household; and, the big one, teenage pregnancy.

"How did I end up a slut up the duff?" our heroine asks, Answer: the same way as everyone else, but with a little more sand in your pants.

Climaxing in possibly the longest, loudest labour ward scene in modern Australian writing, the newborn weight of silence comes in at a good old-fashioned nine pounds, four ounces. It's a boy, fathered by the revolting Arnold, a totally unsuitable and therefore irresistible swain. In one of her pithy observations Therese describes the doomed relationship: "The more we went together the less of him showed up." But "the lost puppy thing he did with those eyes" is addictive, even if his vocabulary is in single digits and rarely goes beyond "Yee-ha."

Being young, Catholic and pregnant is confusing for the girl who took Maria Goretti for her confirmation name. The patron saint of rape victims, the Italian martyr with the multiple stab wounds has it all over a schoolgirl of easy virtue who, for her sins, must climb the mountain of paperwork pertaining to premature pregnancy.

What, for example, does BFA mean? Big fat ankles? Bachelor of fine arts? She is shocked to learn that the initials stand for baby for adoption. Having dished up nearly two pages of full stops to indicate that words have failed her in communicating her stunned reaction to being pregnant, the writer also gives us 1 1/2 of BFAs to emphasise the seriousness of that predicament. It is bold, brave and visually stimulating, a style spike in a book that combines prose, performance poetry and a kind of rap.

Hatched mainly at the Varuna Writers House, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, a property donated by genteel author Eleanor Dark, such pyrotechnics may seem radical, but Dark herself was no stranger to experimentation or controversy, and if people imagine that Therese is less of a writer for being hip and lively let me disabuse them of the notion.

She may never write another book -- this is, after all, a memoir that has been incubating all her life and is now out of her system -- but what she has done and how she has done it is what good and great writing is all about. Yee-ha.

Kathy Hunt is a literary critic based in rural Victoria.

1 comment:

  1. Sensational review and thoroughly deserved. At last a major paper reviewer who has READ the book. Congrats and bravo to Vanessa and the bookies at team Hachette for backing CT !!


Reviews for The Weight of Silence

  • AUSTRALIAN BOOKSELLER & PUBLISHER MAGAZINE ..."This is a special memoir. It is written with great feeling, imagination, humour and originality, and shows a writer with a distinct view of the world within and around her."
  • AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLY ....Recommended read ... " A moving and funny childhood memoir ....timeless."
  • BETTER READ THAN DEAD --- Bookshop... " Catherine Therese puts her childhood memories on display in this raw, moving and at times hilarious account of her younger life. This book is well written and unique, and touches on issues that are easily identifiable with us all. The natural curiosity of a growing girl never makes for a dull story and if at times you need a breather from the back streets of Blacktown, just close the pages and stare at the front cover! What an image. I loved this biography."
  • BIG W ENTERTAINMENT... 5 STARS ..." Stunning, heartbreaking, book, that deserves multiple readings. I have never read such a revealing portrayal of childhood. Therese uses the language we think in not speak and as such this gem of a book is an utter revelation. It is beautifully , hauntingly written. As soon as I finished it I started again. Genius."
  • CANBERRA TIMES...Emily Maguire '...Its a hearfelt, funny and deeeply moving memoir about flawed families, unconditional love and growing up too fast but turning out okay anyway.'
  • CHRIS BURGESS ---- Leading Edge --- " The Weight of Silence is without doubt one of the most exciting and exceptional Australian debuts of recent years. Describing it as a ‘memoir’ hardly does justice to the imagination, verve and freedom expressed in this strikingly original work. At a surface level it is the story of Catherine Therese’s childhood and early teens growing up with her rather unusual family in the western suburbs of Sydney. At a deeper level it takes the reader deep within the experience of a difficult family life in a way that is challenging, funny, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring. This is ‘stream of consciousness’ writing without literary pretension. Raw, honest and incredibly imaginative, I loved it. "
  • DI MORRISSEY... Author..." This book is SO moving...just beautiful.
  • FRANKIE MAGAZINE..." Guys like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have given the term ‘memoir’ a swift kick up the arse and now we can add Catherine Therese to the list."
  • GOOD READING MAGAZINE...' 5 STARS Outstanding. Catherine Therese's first book is one of the most compelling childhood memoirs I have ever read . Often it seems as if she is just throwing down whatever thoughts are inside her head down on paper. This unique writing style using prose and poetic verse reminds me a little of Augesten Burroughs. It's an unforgettable book that will remind you of many childhood stories that have never been told.
  • MADISON MAGAZINE..." This memoir is a bouquet of dark humour laced with heartbreak and the kind of suburban detail to which we can all relate. Therese has crafted a coming of age reminiscence populated by wonderful characters and suffused with unblinking honesty... A highly worthwhile read from a sharp new Australian voice. "
  • MANLY DAILY ..." This is a brave memoir that successfully engages the voice of Therese as a child and teenage narrator.It is a beautifully written chameleon of a book dotted with pint sized poems that sometimes befuddle, sometimes dazzle.It will perform its way into your heart and mind, then quietly turn itself inside out and reveal its secrets before rushing headlong into the final pages that will leave you holding your breath. A courageous debut.
  • NICK TATE ---- Actor --- " Catherine Therese has written a stunning autobiography, an extraordinary book. She truly is a one off, a delightful, funny, quirky painfully honest young woman; this is one very brave, courageous, talented writer, one we are going to hear a great deal more from. I have no doubt that this book will take Australia by storm. "
  • PETER BISHOP --- Creative Director Varuna ---- " This is a book of deep, sacred dignity and the highest literary skill and imagination. The story comes to life through acute observation and detail and a unique voice and beautiful writing; an impressionistic style, a quivering, shimmering presence; a vitalitythat gives one a sense that there may be another way of living, of looking at the world. "
  • READINGS--- Melbourne --- " Catherine Therese’s family all describe her as ‘unusual’ (pronounced ‘un-you-sual’). In this unique memoir, she tells us of her pride in having an outie belly button, being greedy for choosing the names of two saints and seeing her first doodle courtesy of the naughty grandson next door. Despite being laugh-out-loud funny, the underlying theme is much more serious. The irony of her father’s alcoholism and verbal abuse, with her mother and sisters never daring to mention his appalling behaviour due to the fear of embarrassing him, is at turns painfully funny and incredibly sad. First kisses, shallow school friendships and a dodgy boyfriend occupy her teen years as the family silences grow and the deceptions increase. The birth of her son is relentlessly depicted via the madness of free verse, highlighting the horrors of contractions and impending parenthood. Therese generously allows us a glimpse into her tortured but uniquely creative soul and her eventual redemption."
  • SALVATION ARMY WARCRY MAGAZINE...." 4 1/2 STARS Excellent and highly amusing memoir of life in Oz in the ’60s and ’70s. A coming of age saga that will give you equal cause to laugh and cry. Creatively written.'
  • VOGUE MAGAZINE ..." A bittersweet remembrance of things past and dark suburban secrets."