This piece which I joyfully wrote on Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke (aka Danielle Wood) was published in ‘Review’ in The Australian in April 2019

If you don’t read your stars, maybe you should. There are all kinds of forces at work in the universe. According to Star-crossed, astral configurations are ‘mapped onto’ your soul at birth.

From the text of Star-crossed: ‘Aquarius. This month sees Venus transitioning from Leo to Virgo, bringing into focus themes of sex, intimacy and trust. Aquarians can expect to be discussing these issues with their romantic partners, but should also anticipate miscommunication in many of their important relationships.’

In the mythical Australian town of Edenvale, a baby boy (star sign Aquarius) and a baby girl (Sagittarius) are born, nine months apart. These are Nick and Justine. Where will destiny lead them? He grows up believing in Astrology; she does not believe. She loves to interfere in things, taking a corrective pen to the spelling mistakes on the greengrocer’s labels. Oh, where will it all end? As children, the two were good friends. Nick becomes an actor; Justine works for a local glossy magazine. Yes, the magazine is called ‘The Alexandria ParkStar’. Nick, intent on rekindling his love affair with ex-girlfriend Laura, will play Romeo (famously star-crossed) on stage; Justine, having by now fallen in love with Nick, devises a personal plan to engage him in romance. This involves Astrology in a most devious and ingenious way. Justine starts to influence Nick’s thoughts and actions by inserting key ideas into the Aquarius horoscopes in the magazine. She writes: ‘You discover a powerful surge of nostalgia for what once was, which also doubles as an intuition of what yet might be.’ She realises that ‘writing hog-shit is surprisingly good fun’. She is drastically tampering with the words of Leo, the weird reclusive official astrologer. Talk about mischief and risks. Oh, Justine, where willit all end?

There will be marvellous twists and turns before the grand finale. Every step along the way has the breathless reader hoping for the best, fearing the worst, swept up in the delicious complexities in the lives of not only Justine and Nick, but of a wealth of other vivid Edenvale characters. Everybody has a star sign, naturally, and the novel works its merry way through the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

It is no secret that the author of this glorious romantic comedy, Minnie Darke, is none other than Danielle Wood who has previously been known for more sober kinds of fiction, as well as for non-fiction. This is one dazzling, versatile writer, working with impeccable skill, sharp wit, frolicsome charm.

The narrative is, as well as being a great story, a swift, satirical, forensic exploration of contemporary society, and of human nature generally. It dances along, now light, now darkening, now light again. ‘Fern – Libra, florist, habitual wearer of a single gerbera behind one ear, stylish re-inventor of vintage dresses, surreptitious smoker of menthol cigarettes and drinker of gin slings, lover of Brat Pack movies and occasional karaoke diva – had taken the risky step of shutting down her mobile flower van and re-opening Hello Petal as a static concern in the Alexandria Park Markets, with all of the new and alarming overhead costs that this move entailed.’

The reader is offered startling direct access to the conversations Justine conducts with her own brain as she makes decisions about what she will and won’t do. Here she is chatting with Brain while searching through a mess of sticky notes for the password to a colleague’s computer. She has, by this time, lost a fair bit of moral rectitude, as she pursues Nick via her construction of his Aquarian horoscopes.

Brain: Your pulse is up.

Justine: Thanks for pointing that out.

Brain: I think you’re experiencing guilt and nervousness.

Justine: Shhhh…I bet it’s still here, somewhere.

Brain is, within the medley of characters whose stars cross and re-cross, one of the most fascinating. It is a bold and economical invention, a neat short-cut to tickle the reader’s fancy, as are the occasional little blocks of dot points that paint rapid pictures of the action. This Minnie Darke composes with a wonderful insouciance.

Sorrow and broken dreams lurk as possibilities, but unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which underpins the narrative, tragedy has no place in the world of Justine and Nick. Brain says: ‘It’s not as if the horoscopes are…real. They’re all just rubbish. What’s one random phrase compared to another? What harm could it do?’ Quite a bit, as it happens. But oh, the whole wild fabrication will put a smile on every reader’s face.

Mary Had Always Been Fond of Dogs

Writing Memoir

kuukaudenkuva.jpgI was preparing material for a workshop on memoir, in particular memoir inspired by the writers’ recollections of their pets past and present. There were my own memories to call on. The cat who went into mourning when our daughter left home to go to university. He sat on the gatepost staring out into space, waiting for her every afternoon for about a month. Then there was the dog who organized the sale of the house – see ‘Raf the Dog’

Throughout literature, there is no shortage of tales to tell about people and pets. The dedication of animals to humans is one of the great and beautiful mysteries of life on earth. Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years, is possibly the star.

However, a story that kept coming back to me was that of Mary Queen of Scots and herlittle Skye Terrier. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I will bring this one up at the workshop – it sort of depends on whether I think the students can handle it. How will I tell? I don’t really know yet. I never intended for the workshop to be grisly. I haven’t seen the latest movie about Mary – it probably includes the story I am about to write.

This dog story haunts me, and I need to write it down. You can find it also in Emma White’s History of Britain in a Hundred Dogs.

When Mary Stuart returned from France to Scotland after her young husband, Francis the Second of France had died (from an ear infection – interesting in itself, I think), she brought with her twenty-two little dogs. (Mary was always fond of dogs.) In 1587 Mary was executed for treason by a particularly incompetent executioner who had to chop away at her neck several times before severing her head. To her beheading Mary had brought a Syke Terrier hidden under her dress. After the execution, people could see something moving beneath her clothing. When the executioner was in the process of removing Mary’s garters (!) he discovered the dog who was guarding the body of his beloved mistress. The dog ran up to where the body was separated from the head, lay down there in a puddle of blood and refused to be moved. When it was finally removed, it pined and died, and no wonder.

I confess that I took the words for the title of this story from within an account I read in a history of Scotland. It seemed to me to be a poignant and almost misleading statement, and it kept ringing in my head – so I used it myself.

Yes, Mary had always been fond of dogs.


Image of Mary Queen of Scots ascending the scaffold. Where is the Skye Terrier?