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The books

Perhaps one book lead to another, or perhaps I’ve just been in the mood to read about the lives of notorious women and get a new perspective on their stories, but these two books both take a woman traditionally polarised as villain or victim and seek to present her in a more ambiguous light. I understand they are both heavily researched and stick to the facts where the facts are available and use some intelligent guesswork to fill in the gaps. They are both wonderfully engrossing – the kind of books that just swallow you up so that nothing else exists while you read them.


I’m literally shaking with excitement as I write this. How often do you get the chance to walk into a book shop and pluck a copy of your friend’s book from a double face out on the new releases stand? (For the record, what happens is your heart stops beating for a bit, then starts again with so much force you can barely contain it. You take a copy of the book up to the counter with this stunned, goofy smile on your face and start blubbing to the sales girl about how great the book is – even though you haven’t read it yet –and how she needs to read it and then everyone else she knows needs to read it.)

Hannah and I went to uni together. Technically we’re still at uni together (she’s also completing a creative writing PhD). Reading other reviews of Burial Rites, you could be forgiven for thinking Hannah just popped up on the literary scene one day with this gem of a manuscript tucked neatly under her arm, but I don’t know anyone who works as hard or is as passionate about her work as Hannah.

So what’s between the covers? Burial Rites is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland. She was one of three accused of committing a double murder and was sent to await execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson. While on the farm Agnes is visited by Tóti, an assistant reverend who showed her a kindness many years before, and is charged to prepare her for her death.

While she negotiates uneasy relationships with members of Jónsson’s household and her priest, Agnes meditates on her life as an illegitimate daughter and workmaid in 19th century Iceland, her struggle to make a place for herself in a rigidly structured and cloistered community and how she came to be accused of a brutal crime.

Set against an unforgiving yet harrowingly beautiful landscape, Burial Rites gives a strong and complex voice to a woman who struggled to be heard in her lifetime and who is too often polarised as a fallen woman or a martyred saint.


Zelda Fitzgerald is another woman given many identities but who was largely denied the opportunity to speak for herself.

With Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby once again firing up the F. Scott Fitzgerald fame machine, its timely to take a look behind the curtain at what went on in the Fitzgerald household.

Scott and Zelda’s love was a star so bright and intense, it seems inevitable that it would implode in a spectacular show of self destruction. This particular retelling of their story begins in 1918, the year Zelda met Scott at a war time dance in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. It follows the golden couple to New York, then Europe, back to the Staes, Europe again and the States again in what begins as a jazz age fairytale before the romance wears off and they seek new distractions from themselves.

Being a fan of both the 1920s and a good ol’ fashioned tragic romance, i was completely hooked from beginning to end, delighting in the Fitzgeralds’ meetings with other literary heavyweights of the time and the decadent ambiance of a party gone on too long. So much of what we hear of Zelda comes from Scott, but here Fowler gives Zelda a strong voice of her own that is neither innocent or vindictive, merely overwhelmed and unprepared for the life she and Scott built for themselves.

Meanwhile in real life…

I’ve been studying for a decade. That’s how long it’s taken me to lean to write. Most of the time I feel I know less now than I did when I started. When i tell people I’m a writer and editor, I mutter it out as though it’s a lie. It’s not. I earn a full time salary writing for an editing a magazine. I feel like a fraud because when I say writer I think novelist, short story writer, essayist, and I’m not yet any of these things. I only want to be.

I also feel like a liar when I say I’m almost finished my PhD. This, too, is technically true. The words are all there and I’ve had final changes from my supervisors, but I’m struggling to bring myself to make them. Surely the novel needs one more draft? Perhaps the exegesis needs a complete overhaul? My argument feels like a castle made from popsicle sticks and sticky tape. My novel seems a stammering, clunking Frankenstein’s monster, black and rotten in its heart—a perversion that must be hidden away.

It is too easy to keep these things out of sight, to be happy in my job and content with fantasies about ‘one day’ when i’ll be a doctor and have my books on other people’s shelves. Until now there’s always been an excuse why that ‘one day’ can’t be today. I haven’t finished my degree; I haven’t finished my thesis; I’m moving to Dubai, back to Adelaide, on to Melbourne; we’re coming up on deadline at work. But i look at my friends and they’re publishing books and starting their own businesses and fast tracking their careers and all the other things that grown ups do and I’m realising that ‘one day’ fantasies are the luxuries of children and students. Our time is now.

I keep dithering on the edge of this realisation, held back by the overwhelming question: what if I’m not good enough? There’s a good chance that I’m not, and the difficult thing is, I won’t know until i try. it sounds like a cliche, but it feels incredibly real. The pressure to succeed has become so overwhelming that I’m paralysed by it. There are nights (tonight included) where I ended up huddled under the bathroom sink hyperventilating with my shirt over my head literally in hiding from my own expectations of myself. That might sound funny, but it’s not healthy. It gets to a point where you have to let that go. You have to look yourself in the mirror and give yourself permission to fail.

When i was fifteen i became a tad obsessed with Baz Luhrmann. My journal contained the hopeful scrawl of his motto: ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived’. With that in mind, I marched off to uni to do a creative writing degree while most of my friends did something sensible with secure job prospects. It was easy. I felt smug about it. I made a promise to myself that I’d make it. I wouldn’t chicken out and get a nine-to-five office job. But in this last year, I’ve broken that promise. I said yes to a full time job, when I should have stayed part-time, and we moved to a bigger house and now we have bigger bills and a longer list of things to buy and I don’t recognise myself.

So a few weeks ago I did something either stupid or brave, I’m not sure. I told work i wanted to go down to three days a week when our new manager starts (hopefully in July). I’m going to take two days back for myself and for my writing and I’m going to try and make a go of it. I’m going to submit my thesis and send my book out and write stories and blog posts and essays and poems and go to literary events and network and get a thousand rejection letters and perhaps, eventually, some acceptance letters too.

Most importantly, I’m going to write a book I plotted out in high school. A secret story I’ve been carrying in my breast pocket for twelve years, afraid I lacked the tools to write it and that nobody would want to read it. I’m going to write it because what I have learnt is that those feelings are never going to go away. That will always be the trade off, even if I write a dozen best sellers and win the Miles Franklin. The lesser trod path is not a grand adventure with frequent latte stops as I’d once imagines, but rather guarded by monsters and never straightforward.

Wish me luck.