Category Archives: reading


Rijksmuseum AK-RBK-16106-C

Japanese stone figure of a swallow with opened beak (c. 1925–48) by an anonymous artist. Held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

I went to a literary dinner with Danish author Sissel-Jo Gazan at Denmark House here in Melbourne a while back, and I’ve been reading a couple of her novels since — The Dinosaur Feather and The Arc of the Swallow. These two novels have some characters in common and they both mix crime with science and academia. I’m not keen on the author’s writing style but the storylines have kept me reading.

The ‘swallow’ of the second novel is a little wooden sculpture Marie, one of the main characters, receives as a gift because, when they first met, she had reminded the giver of a baby swallow he had rescued as a child. But he had also quickly learnt that swallows are tough birds, trekking the distance from Africa to Europe and back again every year.

I had only just started reading the book when I stumbled upon another punctuation metaphor

Søren scooped Lily up, placed her on the sofa next to Anna and left to hang up his jacket in the hallway. In the doorway he turned and said, ‘By the way, we don’t need to organise someone to look after Lily until she’s better. You can go to the faculty whenever you like. I’ll take care of her.’ Anna looked like a question mark, but when Søren added, ‘I’ve just quit my job,’ her expression turned into an exclamation point.


With an uncharacteristically violent motion, she threw the painting in the wake of the ship. It dipped and rode the air as it fell. Then it smacked into the sea, tearing on impact. It quickly drifted away, face down. When she turned, Sir John was standing behind her, black streaks across his forehead as the wind blew his long greased hairs into writhing question marks.

Another punctuation metaphor — this time in a quote from Wanting, also by Richard Flanagan. The she in the quote above is Lady Jane Franklin, on her way back to England after six years in Tasmania with her husband, Sir John Franklin, who had served as lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1837 to 1843.

painting of young Aboriginal girl in a long red dress

Mathinna (1842) by Thomas Bock. Painting held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, Australia. Public domain.

Mathinna was the daughter of Towtrer, the chief of the Port Davey tribe, and his wife Wongerneep. The Franklins adopted her sometime after they visited Flinders Island, where the remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal people had been resettled by George Augustus Robinson. Mathinna’s naked feet were a source of considerable exasperation to Lady Franklin, who insisted on her wearing shoes. The striking portrait by Thomas Bock that inspired Flanagan shows Mathinna with bare feet, but her feet were only to be hidden again, behind a wooden frame.

When the Franklins returned to England in 1843, they left Mathinna behind. Unfortunately, not much is known about her life. After the Franklins left, she spent some time in an orphanage in Hobart, was then sent back to the Flinders Island settlement, from where she was moved to the Oyster Cove settlement on the mainland of Tasmania with the other remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Unsurprisingly, her story doesn’t end well.

Listen to Richard Flanagan talk about Mathinna.

a lost apostrophe

It’s not often that an author uses a punctuation mark as a metaphor, let alone the humble and often misunderstood apostrophe.

Hunched over […], a lost apostrophe in search of a word to which he might belong, he radiated little beyond the superior air of his self-appointed task that he claimed to be sacred.

I wrote down this quote while I read Richard Flanagan’s novel Gould’s Book of Fish some years ago. The book is a fictionalised and fantastic account of the years convict William Buelow Gould spent on Sarah Island and in Port Arthur, two penal settlements in Van Diemen’s Land (aka Tasmania). While he was on Sarah Island, Gould painted watercolours of fish found in Macquarie Harbour, now known as the Sketchbook of Fishes.

pencil drawing of George Augustus Robinson

George Augustus Robinson (1838?) by Thomas Bock (?). Drawing held in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Public domain.

The quote above describes another historic personage, George Augustus Robinson. He was on a ‘friendly’ mission to broker a conciliation with the last 160 Aboriginal people of Tasmania. In 1833 he visited the penal station on Sarah Island and commissioned Gould to paint some portraits of Aboriginal people who were travelling with him as well as some views of the settlement on Sarah Island.

water colour showing the penal colony on Sarah Island in 1833

Sarah Island (1833) by William Buelow Gould. Watercolour held in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Public domain.