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A Brief Affair

By Alex Miller

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The protagonist of this novel is Fran Egan, head of the School of Management at a newly opened university in Melbourne. At a point in her life when she is feeling overworked, underappreciated and disillusioned with her pursuit of professorship and career in academia, she has an affair with someone she meets at an overseas conference. As passion is reintroduced into her life, she begins to question the value of her professional pursuits. When she returns home, Fran is withdrawn and distant towards her family, and struggles to go through the motions of everyday life.

After a chance encounter with the groundskeeper at the university, who has been the caretaker of the site since its inception as a mental hospital, Fran comes into the possession of a journal kept by a patient who was an earlier inhabitant of her office. Valerie, the journal’s owner, was the daughter of the Chief Justice, and was institutionalised in 1957 after being discovered with her lesbian lover. Writing was a form of therapy for Valerie, and her journal is filled with impassioned recounts of her tragic life, and beautiful poetry espousing her love for her partner.

Fran feels a sense of kinship with Valerie, and finds that, through Valerie’s words, she is able to retain the reinvigorating sense of passion and purpose that she briefly felt after her affair.

Then she discovers that Valerie, now an octogenarian, is still alive. In pursuing Valerie’s story, Fran navigates the listlessness and staleness of her own life and finds the courage to make changes that reintroduce a sense of joy and purpose into her own life and that of her family.

Miller’s well-crafted storytelling shows us the healing power of writing, and the connections that can be forged through reading and literature.

Under Her Skin: The life and work of Professor Fiona Wood AM, National Living Treasure

By Sue Williams

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Dr Fiona Wood is heralded as one of Australia’s national living treasures, and Under Her Skin delves into the journey that took her from life as a coal miner’s daughter in a village in the north of England to being one of the most celebrated women in Australia.

Wood is known today for her reputation as a formidable advocate for her patients, a relentless researcher who pushes the boundaries of medical science and ‘bulldozes’ her way through bureaucratic red tape to get things done.

In this biography, Williams pinpoints the influential people and experiences that have shaped Wood into the remarkable person she is today.

Her parents, a coal miner and a homemaker, were the initial force driving her success. They saw tremendous potential in their daughter and created opportunities to pave the way for her success. While it is known that she graduated from the prestigious Ackworth School, Wood reveals in this book that her attendance at the school was possible only because of her mother’s decisive action to enable her daughter to receive the best possible education. On discovering that employees of the prestigious private school received a substantial discount on tuition fees, Wood’s mother gained employment at the school as a physical education teacher.

Guided through her childhood by parents who instilled in her the belief that she should not place limitations on her goals, and that she could achieve those goals with hard work and determination, Wood was well placed to manages the obstacles in her career. Under Her Skin details her approach to facing the discrimination and prejudice against female surgeons in the medical profession in the UK and Australia during the 80s and 90s.

The second half of the book is an emotional and deeply inspiring account of Dr Wood’s work with burn patients, especially those the victims of the 2002 Bali Bombings. While there is no doubt that working with these patients enabled Dr Wood to advance her development of spray on skin, it is the emotional fortitude and resilience of these patients, and the humanity that Wood showed them, that leave a resounding impression.

The Lovers 

By Yumna Kassab

Publisher: Ultimo Press

Amir, a man from the village where her parents grew up, was the type of person Jamila swore she would never end up with. But a chance encounter at a wedding in her parent’s village leads to a tumultuous love affair that causes Amir and Jamila to re-examine the choices that have led them to each other, and their values and beliefs about love, loss and equality.

As their love story unfolds over the course of a year, the lovers become increasingly intertwined with one another, living within the bubble of the village. But the cracks soon show as the looming prospect of Jamila’s return to her reality and to the country where she grew up causes the lovers to question their devotion to each other.

Kassab’s prose is dreamy and poetic and The Lovers reads like a cautionary fable – one that could be passed down in a village, much like the one where this novel takes place, warning young people about the virtues and pitfalls of love. The novel oscillates between the internal dialogues of the two lovers. While they outwardly profess their unyielding devotion to each other, the reader is given an insight into the internal criticisms and doubts that lovers in the early stage of their relationship often leave unsaid.

The fragility of this relationship, built as it is upon lofty ideas of love, is ultimately its downfall and Kassab explores this idea through the ruminative and often neurotic thoughts of two flawed and lost people who, instead of facing their problems, seek solace in the comfort of each other.