“The Fall of the Jade Sword” (2017) and the History of Asian Australians

by Lisa-Marie Richter, Adesua Atamah, Ben Königsfeld, Kathleen Reiswich

We have recently read the short story “The Fall of the Jade Sword” by Stephanie Lai and two of its central topics have caught our attention. The hero addressed in the short story is named Jade Sword and we were interested in the Jade Sword as a physical object rather than just as a superhero’s name. Furthermore we were wondering how Asian immigration is represented in the story and why as it is addressed several times. In fact, the author Stephanie Lai is Chinese Australian, which makes the inclusion of Asian immigration to Australia in her story an even more intriguing subject for analysis.

The Jade Sword

In ancient China, jade was considered the most precious stone due to its symbolism of purity and moral integrity. This stone was famous for its persistence and magical properties, and was engraved and polished into several objects from jewelry to desk ornaments. Jade was first used around 6000 BCE, and green was the preferred color for a long time. However, in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, there was a fashion for white jade with a brown tinge, and again in the 1st century BCE, when a pure white jade became available from Central Asia as a result of the Han Dynasty’s expansion in 206 BCE – 220 CE.

We think that the name of the hero fits very well because the hero carries “children to safety, […] [stops] robbers in their tracks, [… ] [and rescues] the crew of an airship as it tangled on one of the new Skyscrapers in Melbourne” (“The Fall of the Jade Sword” 125) and those action fit the characteristics of a Jade Stone. The hero can be considered as persistent and pure and is always there when somebody is in need.

Asian Immigration

“We are in a different country,” she says,”and there are always new advances to make. What kind of warrior would you be if you were to stop here, where you are? There is no room for us here if we cannot adapt.“

(“The Fall of the Jade Sword” 133)

The characters in the story are constantly trying to adapt to the Australian culture and we can conclude that immigration is a main topic in Jade Sword. They think that if they cannot adapt properly, they are in the wrong place. Asian-born people currently make up roughly 12% of the population, however this varies greatly across the country. Queensland and Tasmania have the greatest shares of Australian-born people, whereas Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s most cosmopolitan cities.

Depending on the migratory stream via which they came, Asia-origin migrants fell into two types, each with a very distinct settling experience.

They have primarily arrived from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and India. Humanitarian and family reunion migrants have generally been low-skilled and non-English speaking with the exception of nations such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and some have endured high and continuing rates of unemployment and welfare reliance. They have primarily migrated from Vietnam, the Philippines, and, in recent years, Mainland China.

The whole story is built around characters with Chinese roots. Starting with the names such as “Mok-Seung” or “Can Sin-Man”. What we considered very interesting were the different versions of the news. In the story there were two types of news addressed. On the one hand the Australian news and on the other hand the Chinese Broadsheet and they depicted the same topic but from different viewpoints. They show how differently the (early) Chinese Australian community is perceived by different groups.

Wife to Mr. Lovecraft – Sonia’s postcards, a mirror of their relationship

Short stories are a diverse way of storytelling that can appear in numerous different forms. When taking a look at the story ‘Wife to Mr. Lovecraft’ the reader is immediately introduced to a unique way of storytelling and a form that is not only one-of-a-kind but also very significant when looking at the relationship of Sonia Greene and H.P. Lovecraft.


‘Wife to Mr. Lovecraft’ deals with Sonia writing postcards to her then ex-husband whom she calls How. Quite obviously, these characters in the story are based on writer H.P. Lovecraft and his ex-wife Sonia.

In these postcards Sonia writes to her ex-husband about the things she experiences with her new husband Ned, especially in Australia, and how certain events remind her of their time together. She especially focuses on the time they spent together writing stories and how different events remind her of specific stories. When on a ship, Sonia encounters a weird creature that she describes as monstrous and dark. This seems to scare her not only because the creature is unknown but more because it reminds her so much of a story her and Howard have written in the past, connecting her with a period in her life that she wants to leave behind, yet seemingly can’t. She openly mentions how she never wants to see a creature like that ever again, the creature representing their relationship or alternatively Howard himself. 

In the end she seems to get some kind of closure with their relationship after the encounter. She asks Lovecraft to let her go just like she is letting the creature go; permanently putting an end to their relationship.


With its epistolary form, the story pays tribute to writer H.P. Lovecraft and his wife Sonia Greene/ Lovecraft, who according to Sussex’s Twitter profile was ‘quite a personality’. There have been multiple postcards found by H.P. Lovecraft in which he corresponds with different people.

Based on that the story is divided into 11 postcards, all of them addressed to H.P. Lovecraft, although seemingly never sent. The postcards appear to be in chronological order but seem to jump in settings as the narrator/writer of the postcards (Sonia) seems to be changing location a lot with her new husband, leaving the United States for Australia.

All of the postcards have a heading that seems to describe either what Sonia writes about or what can be seen on the postcard (or both). Only the last postcard mentions the writer and has a proper ending.  

After looking more into the relationship between Lovecraft and Greene, what makes this story so interesting to me is how the form reflects on their relationship. Of course, the narrator openly mentions the relationship and the struggles Sonia and Lovecraft went through, talking about how they were ‘alien to each other’ (p.55).


 In the story Sonia writes that words, and especially the ones they wrote to each other, were the only thing her and Lovecraft had in common. It seems like their letters and postcards were the connection they had (cf. p.51). Now on the one hand, that refers to the stories that they wrote for and with each other, not only in the short story but also in real life. On the other hand, this is alluding to the beginning, growth and change of their relationship. 

Their relationship started after they met at a convention in Boston. From then on letters and postcards played an important part both leading up to and during their short-lived marriage.

Based on that the form of the short story ‘Wife of Mr. Lovecraft’ mirrors one of the most significant aspects of Sonia and Lovecraft’s relationship. Writing letters was what seemingly sparked the romance between these two and connected them. And now in ‘Wife to Mr. Lovecraft’ we get to read about a correspondence that seemingly marks the permanent end to their relationship and breaks their connection.


How Suspense is Created in Grace Chan’s “Of Hunger and Fury” (2020)

by Benedikt von Laufenberg

In this blog post, I want to discuss Grace Chan’s short story “Of Hunger and Fury“ (2020) by focussing on three different aspects. First, it should be illustrated how the village in which the mysterious incidents occur is set apart from the rest of the world. Second, I want to show how verisimilitude is created by mentioning various details and how this verisimilitude increases the mysteriousness of other elements in the story. Third, I want to investigate the relation between dreams and waking life and how this relation highlights the increasing tension of the story.

The story begins with a young couple visiting the wife’s family in Malaysia: “It’s late in the day when we drive east from Kuala Lumpur in our rented Proton. (…) I turn to the passengers window. The shopping malls and housing estates are far behind us now (p.78).“ They leave a metropolitan area behind to drive to a more rural area in which the wife’s family lives: “We drive down the main street of the village under a swollen bruise-purple sky. It’s not even five o’clock, but all the shops have drawn their rollers. Their doors are plastered with talismans: yellow strips of paper, thick with black writing (p.79).“ “Shopping malls and housing estates“ (p.78) become “talismans“ (ibid.), thereby indicating a shift of scene which changes the atmosphere and the tone. This passage is highlighted by an incident: while driving there, the husband hits something on the road but does not bother to stop (cf. p. 78).

Within the story, various details are mentioned that increase the verisimilitude: “She [the mother] smells like imitation Chanel, just as she always did (p. 80) or “Behind a fly screen, the door of my parent’s bedroom is ajar. The smell of unwashed clothes wafts out. A swaddled shape slumps in the rattan armchair, facing the curtained window. It could be my father, it could be a mountain of blankets. I think about pushing the door open, bringing a basin of water, washing his gnarled hands – hands that lashed a bamboo cane, too many times, and drew bloody welts on my little legs. I step back, ashamed (p.83).“ This abundance of details, with special focus on smells, helps to place the reader within the story. One is drawn into the narrative, which is important for every fictional narrative but might be of special importance to narratives which have mysterious elements in it. Once one is drawn into it, one is readier to accept the mysterious elements.

Dreams play an important role in the narrative. While the first dream section (cf. p. 82) is relatively short, compared with the other passages, the dream sections become longer and its contents also has an effect on the waking life, but more about that later. In the first dream section, the wife encounters the girl who has been presumably murdered. At this point it is still possible to read the dream section as what it first appears to be: a dream with no bearing on reality. The second dream section, however, has an effect on reality and is much longer. In it, the narrator has a “amber bracelet“ (p. 87) on her arm which she tries to wash away the next day. Thus, the reader no longer has the option of reading the section as literal dream passages unless the reader is willing to concede that the narrator might be unreliable. In any case, the tension of the narrative increases because the dreams with their mysterious content become more prevalent.

In this blog post, I have shown that the setting of the narrative in the village is set apart from more metropolitan areas. Moreover, I have demonstrated that the focus on details increases the verisimilitude and thus helps to ground the reader in the narrative. Lastly, it was illustrated how dreams contribute to increase the tension.

Works Cited

Chan, Grace. Of Hunger and Fury in „Black Cranes – Tales of Unquiet Women“. ed. Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn. Omnium Gatherum Los Angeles CA: 2020

Dichotomy in “The Fall of the Jade Sword” and the reflection of hybrid identity experiences

Introductory notes

Hybrid identities often live in worlds full of dualities, worlds full of contrasts and opposites. Stephanie Lai’s short story The Fall of the Jade Sword (2017) tells the story of young Mok- Seung who spent her childhood in China but who has moved to a colonial Melbourne with her family. Her aunt and mother teach her at home, but Mok-Seung wants to explore; in the night, she sneaks out onto the rooftops and roams about the city. Meanwhile the tabloids follow the adventures of a new local superhero who they call the Jade Sword and report of the progress of colonization and its side effects. One day, Mok-Seung receives a visit from a family friend who reveals herself as the real Jade Sword and asks Mok-Seung to become her apprentice.

Relevant aspects of dichotomy

One aspect that quickly comes to mind when thinking about dichotomy in the story are the newspaper headlines recited throughout it. The Chinese broadsheets hung all over the teahouses and readers’ homes follow the good deeds of the Jade Sword, proudly claim them as one of their own, and as a master of wushu (for example p.125), while also reporting of the general good and the bad happening in the community. The Times, however, portrays the Jade Sword as a Western magical hero, a tall white man that assists the ‘civilized’ people of Melbourne (p.125). It twists things to paint a bad picture of the Chinese and Indigenous and describes them as wild and dangerous (p.130, 131). Moreover, it actively neglects to report of fates like those of the Chinese settlers attempting to return their loved ones’ bodies to their homeland but are being denied permission for transport (p.130); instead, it focuses on white deaths and white tragedies.

The overall theme of migration in Lai’s story brings more contrasting aspects into play: Mok-Seung sometimes thinks of her memories from “back home” (p.127), already implying that Melbourne does not feel like home in comparison. She also admits that she hopes something good will come out of their stay, since she does not quite understand why they moved in the first place (p.130). At home, she is taught in classical and traditional arts connected to her culture, including cultural knowledge and etiquette (p.132), and her family friends and relatives who moved to Australia as well seem firmly rooted in the culture they left behind (“Can Sin-Man is austere and serious, uninterested in what Australia has to offer […]”, p.127). Melbourne is portrayed as a fast-paced progressive city with flourishing steampunk-esque innovations like augmented bicycles, carriages fueled by steam, and airships (p.125), but it also contradicts its progressive reputation with its regressive thinking: deep-seated racism and discrimination issues. Public establishments are free and normalized to ban who they please from entering (“[…] pokes her head in every restaurant, every sporting club, every place that doesn’t have a sign over the door banning her entry.”, p.130) and Chinese settlers and indigenous people are deliberately blamed for setbacks of the white colonizers (p.125, 126). Still, the young girl is fascinated by the new technologies and wants to utilize them to explore the unknown (p.127).

Connected to that, Australia itself is also described as a dichotomous continent, being a mix of the colonized modern cityscapes that Mok-Seung knows and the ‘wild’ desert that she reads about in the news and wants to see for herself (p.131). This also flows over in Mok-Seung possessing a hybrid identity: she combines two heavily different cultural influences in herself due to having moved in some of her most formative years. Can Sin-Man notices how she not only knows the ‘old styles’, she is also able to adapt to new ones more easily and therefore has an advantage (p.132) since a warrior ought to be adaptable (p.133), which makes Mok-Seung a more than suitable apprentice for the Jade Sword.


Mok-Seung as a young first-generation settler to Australia experiences two contrasting cultures at once and unlike her older relatives, represents a transitional generation, being connected to her heritage while also open to and influenced by her new surroundings. She is not only influenced by her traditional upbringing and childhood in China, but also by the new impressions from Australia. This is clearly reflected in her surroundings in The Fall of the Jade Sword, with Melbourne representing technological progress and regressive way of thinking at the same time, as well as colonial civilization in contrast to the ‘wilderness’ outside the cities. Mok-Seung’s two worlds are mirrored and literally represented in two competing newspapers that respectively focus on mostly their own communities, instead of one newspaper reporting neutrally about Melbourne’s citizens as a whole.

10 Questions with Gillian Polack on The Time of the Ghosts – and one bonus!

Before we move onto the second phase of our student blogging, let’s end our series of blog posts about Gillian Polack’s The Time of the Ghosts with an interview with Gillian herself!

1. Why is the novel entitled The Time of the Ghosts – which ghosts were you thinking of when you named it? And what makes now the time of the Ghosts?

I love making bad jokes. I ought to apologise for this, but I find my own tendency to bad jokes amusing, so I won’t. My working title for the novel was “One Cup of Tea at a Time” because that was pretty much how my heroes saved Canberra. This wasn’t catchy enough to sell the novel, nor did it make me chuckle inside.

The “Time of the Ghosts” is a time when Canberra is haunted, my characters are haunted … and I am haunted. (I was trying to see Canberra from ways that reflected my own culture and mainstream Aussie culture kept rudely haunting me.) I had to ask a friend to give me a ghost tour. This friend is bicultural (Indigenous Australian and European Australian) and was able to help a great deal. Since haunted Canberra gave me the solution to my own haunting, The Time of the Ghosts was perfect. (Not all my titles have this kind of history.)

2. We noticed that there was a lot of ‘mapping’ in the novel – the gardens were mapped, the magic was mapped. Any particular reason for mapping to play such a prominent role?

Well-spotted. I actually have an annotated street directory of Canberra. I can take pictures of it if you want to see it. I superimposed a Ptolemaic universe and all the important Canberra hauntings on the city and I used that as a base for the movement in the novel. Earth in that universe is around Commonwealth Bridge. Every single bit of ghost or haunting or creature that I added, fitted the Ptolemaic universe imposed on Canberra.

I did this because Canberra is a planned city and the people who did the planning were Theosophists. I also did this because I wanted a reason for Sebastian to be able to find Melusine. It gave me a sense of creating a tiny world that was coherent. Other alternate Canberras I’ve written about are not nearly this coherent.

3. In general, a lot of our students felt that the cover we had gave the wrong impression of the text. How do you feel about it? How much say did you have in it?

I had no say in the current cover. It was designed to fit sales paradigms for Amazon. I had some say on earlier covers by other publishers, but not as much as I’d like.

There was a reason for this. Some novels are really hard to do cover designs for, and my novels almost always feel into that category. When I get an exceptional cover that reflects the novel and is lovely in its own right (and I’ve had several of those) I want to throw a party.

I’m better off than some of my friends, having said that. Russian editions of Australian fantasy novels of 20 years ago have particularly bad covers. Three friends of mine who write fantasy trilogies used to show us their covers and, while we envied the translations, we did not envy the unicorns and the palm trees and the totally wrong characters.

4. In The Time of the Ghosts, you have a positive vision of a bushranger playing a big part in assisting our protagonists. We found this super interesting, since bushrangers are looked at more and more critically these days. Why did you make this choice?

There are many bushrangers linked to my region. In the 19th century, it was known as the Monaro, and there were turf wars by bushrangers at various times. Also, Jackey-Jackey’s treasure is actually supposed to be buried on Black Mountain. That’s where I began.

I’ve been interested in bushrangers since I was in primary school. When I was in Grade Six, I did a project on Ben Hall. “The Streets of Forbes” (a song) is still one of my favourites. I was never a fan of Ned Kelly and John Dunn was a mass murderer, so I didn’t depict Jackey-Jackey as a good bloke because of being in love with the notion of bushrangers.

I researched his life (which was fun) and realised that I couldn’t possibly depict the actual person. He was complex and fascinating and doesn’t easily fit in descriptions such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He was polite to people and didn’t cause as much damage as many and he actually stood up for human rights in some difficult circumstances. There was enough charm in the real person and conscience in the real person to make his character credible. He made a good ghost. The Clarke brothers, on the other hand, have only ever been loved by their family. That family lives around Araluen way (not too far from me, very close to Jackie French). They stopped chatting with me when the novel came out…

5. Lil, at one point, describes that she sees convincing non-Australian ‘myths’ etc. to leave Australia as part of her task – yet Melusine goes to Australia because she perceives it as empty at first. Can you tell us about this development in her character?

When Australia was settled by Europeans, a doctrine known as Terra Nullius was established. It was nasty. It assumed that there were no humans here ie that settlement was just fine. It became the way that Australia was depicted – even if people knew that there have been humans here for tens of thousands of years, they tended to assume that most of the land was empty or that the people were fading or in some way lesser. It’s a pretty horrible doctrine. It was, however, part of what made Melusine feel that Australia was empty at first, and why she discovered she was wrong.

The other part of it came straight from my childhood. I grew up with Holocaust survivors who were friends of my parents and grandparents and who dropped in for a cuppa. Melbourne is one of the places that many survivors came to. More, proportionately, than went to the US. When I was an adult, I finally plucked up the courage to ask them, “Why Melbourne?”

There was no doubt that they had to flee. So much of Jewish history contains other people forcing Jews to flee or die, that I’ve known about that element since I was about six. I didn’t understand why this very British and somewhat racist country was a desirable destination.

The answer was distance. We were as far from the Shoah as it was possible to get. Australia was not well-known to Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s only recently that Europe has started to see us as a country. That is where some of the emptiness lies: in Melusine’s perception of Australia as a continent. It was free of a lot of the things she knew from Europe and thus… it was empty.

6. One thing we noticed was that each of Melusine’s tales began with a traditional “storytelling” approach or phrase. In one case, Once upon a time… In another, you introduced the date-setting a la 1984. Did you intend for each tale to reflect on a different kind of storytelling, even from their outset?

I did. I wanted to play with the idea that all stories have cultural bias and that every single introduction sets up an expectation for the reader and that part of that expectation is bias. I set up the different atmosphere and mostly retain it, but I’m doing it in order to undermine what readers think they trust.
If you want to compare this to a novel which uses a more standard fairy-tale structure, The Art of Efffective Dreaming uses the Sleeping Beauty story. It’s still subversive, but in a different way.

7. As this interview is published on a blog… Why did you decide to present Kat’s blog posts without distinguishing them much from the rest of the text (unlike Melusine’s tales, for example)?

Let me shamefully admit that I was just messing with readers’ minds. Some readers complain they have to read every word I write and I’m afraid that is entirely intentional on my part and Kat’s blog is an example of how I force long-suffering readers into that terrible hard labour. Where I am most evil in this regard is in The Year of the Fruit Cake.

8. Of course, one aspect we focused on was the novel’s Jewish and Jewish-Australian elements. By making Melusine a (quasi-immortal) Jewish fairy, you create a space for discussing Jewish experiences throughout history. Can you tell us a bit more about this decision?

This historian side of me is faced every day with the erosion of Jewish history. Just yesterday I read a blog post about the history of pasta that claimed that the first mentions of pasta outside China and its region were Arab… but the examples and terms given were from the Talmud. Since I am (by training) an historian of Western European history, I know Western Europe best and it was the obvious place to look. There are a bunch of Medieval family-origin stories (the one about Melusine as a guivre is the Lusignan one) that I looked into and that gave me a path.
There are heaps of Jewish supernatural creatures I could have used, and some of them appear in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, but I thought that a Jewish fairy based on the family ancestor stories would be more fun for readers in the context of the story I wanted to tell in The Time of the Ghosts. I needed the length of life, and I needed that European connection. When Melusine flies in the story, she looks exactly like Melusine does in the illuminated manuscript of the Duc de Berry. That’s a moment when our world touches that of the novel.

9. One thing our students noticed was that Kat’s perception of the older women doesn’t always seem to line up with their behavior. In a way, this caused the characters to ‘blend’ together into a more cohesive unit for many of them. Did you play off of Kat’s reliability in this way mainly for this effect, or more so to represent her teenage voice?

I wanted Kat to be distinctive and showing what she thought of people as a contrast to what those people did was an easy way to do this without undermining the tale itself. It also meant I could show her growing in the way teenagers do, as a contrast to the way the other characters grew, so I guess her teenagerhood was an element.

10. Last but not least, are all the recipes that are described in the book ones that you use?

Yes and no. I’m an ethnohistorian and part of my historical research is often into food and foodways. I’m also a foodie. I can cook (and have cooked) most of the recipes in the book but they reflect the foodways of each character. You can tell a lot about a person by what they cook and how they serve it. Mabel cooks traditional Australian English-origin food, for example, and will make scones in just a few minutes if anyone drops in. She will serve them with cream and with her own jam. Her recipes mostly come from my own childhood, but there will be variants in any CWA (Country Women’s Association) cookbook until the late 1970s, when Australian foodways changed a bit.

I put just one scene in to act as a path in, for anyone who wants to explore this, and that’s the scene where Kat makes the three older women coffee.

And since one of our students wrote to Gillian on her website, we’ve also got her response to his question!

Dear Gillian Polack, my name is Ben Königsfeld and I study English at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. I take part in a course about Australian speculative fiction taught by Lucas Mattila and Tina Burger, who you might remember from the event two weeks ago called ”Jewish Australian Speculative Fiction Writers in Conversation”. We are currently writing blog posts about your book The Time Of The Ghosts and I am focusing on the stories of Melusine. I was wondering if you could tell me if anything particular inspired you to write these stories and how much, if at all, the Melusine of European folklore influenced them. Furthermore, I was wondering what your intention behind the stories were. I hope these questions aren’t an inconvenience. Sincerely, Ben Königsfeld

Dear Ben,

I was going to write you a separate reply, but most of my answer to you overlaps with the answers to the other questions. The important bit that doesn’t is that Melusine stories as I know them (the 15th century one by Jean d’Arras is the one I know best) are more ancestor tales than fairy stories. I dragged her into another genre and she is nothing like the French Melusine except in that she is magic and her non-human form is the same. It wasn’t that Jean D’Arras didn’t influence me. I took that influence and asked “What story would I have liked if I were Kat’s age? What would have grabbed her interest enough for her to read something she really shouldn’t?” The story I wanted was one of survival and of cultural survival. I wanted readers to see what certain aspects of Europe might have looked like through Jewish eyes, but needed to make those eyes privileged. I wanted to change the stories we often hear about our ancestors… that survival is enough. Survival is never enough. This is why I wrote Melusine the way I did.

I don’t know if I succeeded in my goal. I do know that I learned a lot in writing the novel. I’ll keep trying.


Follow Gillian on Twitter!

This interview was carried out via correspondence by Tina Burger and Lucas Mattila.

Judging a Book By its Covers: The Time of the Ghosts

by Theodora Charalambous

Everyone knows the age-old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and although most of us try to implement it in our daily lives, when it comes to the book buying experience things seem to be a bit different. If you’ve ever visited a library or a book store you know quite well how tedious the process of finding the “perfect” book can be when there’s an overwhelming amount of literature and more waiting for you on the shelves. You make your way to the aisle of your preferred genre and now what? What’s the deciding factor that makes one choose a book? Let’s be honest, it’s the cover! Whether it’s a beautifully illustrated cover, a hard cover with interesting engravings on it or a very minimalistic one, the one that manages to steal your attention, is the one getting picked up first.

On this blog post, I will be discussing how the three book covers made for the novel The Time of the Ghosts, written by Jewish Australian author Gillian Polack, reflect on its story and whether or not “Don’t judge book by its cover” is bad advice.

Let’s start with the original 2015 cover by Satalyte’s in-house designer, Marieke Ormsby. The design, as the writer described it, is more of a contemporary fiction cover. There is what resembles mist on top of a faded dark green background, with the main focus being four small
white figures of women, each floating on top of a white tea cup. This cover also includes the

Someone has to write this down.
Someone who has seen it all.
Seen the ghosts.
Eaten the food.
Even washed the dishes.

Polack‘s favorite cover edition is the second one, that was designed by Book View Cafe, more specifically by writer and cover designer Maya Bohnhoff. It consists of four photos; the very first, is one of an older woman in a white dress and a straw hat, hugging a bouquet of carrots under a tree. The other three are, a straw hat on top of a small garden table, a tea cup and lastly a picture of a road. The background is a grayish ripped cloth overlapping a deep purple one, which compliments the sepia toned photos perfectly. The cover has the writer’s personal touch, as the images of the teacup, the road and the background cloth are pictures taken by Polack herself.

Lastly the 2021 edition cover art is by NextChapter, and the one I personally own as well as the reason behind the idea of this blog post. The book cover is outlined with a small detailed design reminiscent of a golden picture frame. Two open doors reveal a rundown corridor and its rusty wooden floor, with a single window shining light to reveal the figure of a white woman wearing a wedding dress, or perhaps a gothic Victorian nightgown. Exclusively in the 2021 edition, the phrase “Enchanted Australia Book 1” hovers above the title.

When I first got my hands on this novel, looking at the recent cover, my expectations of what the story would be about definitely did not fit the actual plot. The novel follows the lives of three elderly women and the teenage girl runaway, who they’ve taken in, as well as their adventures chasing away ghosts and other supernatural creatures to protect Canberra. The Time of the Ghosts is so much more than your typical ghost story. It’s about friendship, bonding over tea, protecting the place you call home and overcoming your own inner ghosts. The first two cover art designs, undoubtedly encapsulate the essence of the novel perfectly, the women, the tea and the hidden mysteries of Canberra.

So, should we trust book covers or not? The answer is yes…but maybe not always. Covers are usually very carefully designed and picked to provide just enough information about the book to the potential reader. For example, the cover usually indicates the genre of the book, as certain trends tend to show up more across specific categories. Consequently, some covers can be misleading, as they are designed to reel in a particular demographic that would normally not be interested in the book. In the case of The Time of the Ghosts the 2021 cover art is quite deceiving, as it leads one to suspect that the novel’s genre is horror. Additionally it can create the misconception that the novel is a part of a trilogy called Enchanted Australia. However, the reason behind this design was to sell copies on Amazon, which is why it doesn’t represent the novel’s story as closely in comparison to the first two editions. Even so, my experience reading the book was a good one, making the cover’s deception a minuscule problem, if one at all.

Most of us judge books based on a list of certain criteria and not solely on one factor. Whether that list includes the title, the author, the description and so on, we cannot dismiss the importance of the cover design. Perhaps, next time you’re looking to bring a book home, try choosing it simply by its cover.

Images Used

Ormsby, M. J. (2015). The Time of the Ghosts cover art, 1st edition [Illustration]. The History Girls. https://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2016/02/discovering-what-characters-eat-gillian.html?m=1

Bohnhoff, M. (2018). The Time of The Ghosts cover art, 2nd edition [Book cover]. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Time-Ghosts-Gillian-Polack/dp/1611387205

NextChapter. (2021). The Time of the Ghosts cover art, 3rd edition [Illustration]. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Time-Ghosts-Enchanted-Australia-Book/dp/103456353X

Antisemitism in the Melusine stories

by Adesua Atamah, Ben Königsfeld, Kathleen Reiswich & Lisa-Marie Richter           

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and medievalist who was born in Melbourne. She has been nominated for numerous awards throughout her career as an author and won the Ditmar Award for Best Achievement and Best Novel respectively in 2010 and 2020. Polack has released nine novels and in this blog post we will talk about the topic of antisemitism in her sixth novel The Time of The Ghosts,which was published in 2017, focusing particularly on the Melusine tales.

The idea of Melusine first appeared in European folklore, where she is depicted as a woman with the characteristics of a fish from the waist down, resembling a mermaid. Although, the Melusine of The Time of the Ghosts does not share this attribute, it is hinted at throughout the novel as Ann, who is a friend of Melusine, gifts her the figurine of a mermaid, as it is believed that if you give a mermaid an image of herself, she becomes a fairy and is young again.

The Melusine tales are told in parts through the duration of the whole novel and do not only follow her personal life for several centuries, but also automatically include the history of Judaism and antisemitism, as Melusine herself is Jewish and experiences discrimination in a Christian dominated historical society.

Antisemitism in the Melusine tales

Antisemitism means hatred targeted against Jews. One of its origins lies in Egypt and the Greeks and Romans spread the hatred by retelling Egyptian stereotypes in short stories. Therefore, the Greek and Roman empire created the roots for European antisemitism. During the Middle Ages Jews were often the scapegoat when misery and disease plagued a society. People in the Middle Ages believed that Jews were bewitched by an unholy power due to making a pact with the devil and this superstitious belief caused many Jews to be wrongly persecuted and thus allowed antisemitism to spread worldwide.

In the first Melusine story, which takes place in Kiev in 1643, it becomes obvious that there is shame in appearing Jewish in public. Melusine emphasizes that some people comment on her appearance by pointing out that she does not look Jewish (cp. p.7). This further illustrates the idea that Jewish features are viewed as undesirable in this Christian society. Further, evidence for antisemitism can be found in the first Melusine tale when non-Jewish peasants “decided that Jews [are] vermin” (p.7). Throughout the tales Melusine feels like an outcast due to her Jewish heritage, but she still tries to fit in by partly giving up her parts of her Jewish identity (cp. P.45). Additionally, this phenomenon can also be found in chapter seven, when Melusine visits a village in Germany where she notices that a lot of Jewish people converted to Christianity. The hatred towards Jewish people reached its peak during the Second World War, when millions of Jews were gruesomely murdered by the Nazi Regime. This horrifying historic era is also mentioned in the Melusine tales, when the reader learns that every Jew in the village is murdered by the Nazis 20 years later (cp.122-143).

In conclusion, the novel does a great job in presenting the deep-rooted hatred Jewish people have faced throughout too many centuries. It illustrates the antisemitism Melusine encountered closely and demonstrates how even small comments, such as saying she does not look Jewish, are hurtful. Gillian Polack’s novels often deal with Judaism and her novel The Wizardry of Jewish Women does the same while also catching your interest with topics such as feminism and family.


  • Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.

The Gothic Origins of Kat’s Nightmare in “The Time of the Ghosts”

When you go to bed at night, you know that once you fall asleep anything can happen. There is a good chance that you are about to go on a great adventure. Indeed, dreams tend to be larger than life. They can make you escape the mundane and experience the exciting. Or they can make you re-live the everyday and put a neat spin on it. Those are the kinds of good dreams attending to our inner hopes and ambitions, yet there are also bad dreams fueled by our deeper fears and sorrow. Nightmares trap you in the most unpleasant situations that fill you with utter despair. Even after you wake up from them and you catch your breath, you are still haunted by them. They are so sinister in nature that they are hard to forget and even harder to overcome.

In The Time of the Ghosts, nightmares are one of the major recurring themes. Kat keeps having them over and over again. No matter what she does, they creep back into her mind and become all the more intense with each new iteration. Kat first confesses her nightmare to Ann:

It’s like I wake up, but I’m still asleep. And there’s something. It sits on my chest and I tell it to get off. It doesn’t. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. And it sits on me heavier and heavier and heavier and I’m suffocating and I can’t do anything. (28)

As she keeps returning to this place of misery, the picture starts to clear up and she realizes that it is “[a]n animal sitting on her chest, pressing the air out of her” (117). She also notices that the “heavier and heavier and heavier” pressure on her chest transforms into a force that “drained and drained and drained” all of her joy (28, 117). Moreover, she suddenly catches the sight of two eyes “piercing [her] soul” that even follow her into the real world (117–118, 190–191).

This disturbing image is by no means unfamiliar to us. Nightmares in which we are unable to move, scream, or breathe are quite common and the overall aesthetic of this vision portrays a rather prototypical example of Gothic terror. But even though this nightmare might not shock us anymore, it still intrigues us as if we had encountered it for the very first time. As modern readers, we pride ourselves on our ability to recognize any literary trope. We think that our intellectual capacity can expose any manipulative attempt to grab our attention. And yet, while reading about this nightmare, we still inch our way towards the edge of our seat. In this rare instance, our reason is outweighed by our imagination, as the Gothic spectacle stands supreme. There simply is something so curious about this nightmare that we cannot help but to give into it. We feel such a strong reaction to the prospect that Kat could die in her dreams, because she has been our character of identification. And this danger seems so real and imminent, because Kat has been portrayed as so innocent and unstable. The Gothic nightmare escalates the tension of this novel, significantly, and imbues it with a greater sense of gravity. After all, it was Edgar Allan Poe who openly proclaimed that “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (165).

However, this passage does not just evoke a literary significance, but also a visual one, because the vision seen by Kat is also eerily similar to one painted by Henry Fuseli:

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, Oil on Canvas, 102 x 127 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Nightmare was first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show of 1782, where it enthralled thousands of visitors. Initially, art critics were puzzled by this image, though, since it “did not make explicit reference to a particular literary or mythological source” (Frayling 11). Consequently, they tried to decipher what inspired this painting by comparing it to similar scenes in established texts like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Paradise Lost. This debate clouded the painting in “an aura of mystery” that drew an unusual amount of visitors who tried to make sense of it on their own (11–12). Chief among them was Horace Walpole, the writer of the first major work of Gothic fiction, who exclaimed that The Nightmare was a truly “shocking” sight to behold (10). As the exhibition came to a close, critics reconsidered the work and reaffirmed its impressive execution which justified it as a “well conceived” piece of art regardless of its source (12). Afterwards, an unprecedented amount of printings of The Nightmare were distributed all around the world, “until it became the way of visualising bad dreams [and] the design for depicting monsters of the night” (13). Therefore, it should be of no surprise that this exact picture has also made its way into the Australian mindset. Whether it is the author or the character who consciously or unconsciously evokes The Nightmare in their description, it is apparent that the impression of this painting has become part of their mental lexicon.

So, after looking at the literary and visual meaning of this nightmare, one might as well analyse it on a semantic level. Thus, it suddenly becomes interesting how Samuel Johnson actually first defined a nightmare:

n.s. [night, and according to Temple, mara, a spirit that, in the heathen mythology, was related to torment or suffocate sleepers.]

A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.

“Saint Withold footed thrice the would,
He met the nightmare, and her name he told;
Bid her alight, and her troth plight.
[And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!]”

(Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.119–123)

It is quite astonishing how almost everything discussed so far can be contained in this small definition from 1755. First, Johnson examines the etymology of the word and remarks that “mara” can be traced back to its origin as a tormenting spirit in Germanic Neopaganism. Afterwards, Johnson presents his actual definition of a nightmare: “[a] morbid oppression in the night.” This specific term is not unfamiliar to readers of The Time of the Ghosts, though, since Polack also described Kat’s nightmare as “[a]n oppression surrounding her” (117). Furthermore, Johnson explains that the dreamer experiences “[a] pressure of weight upon the breast,” which is also prominently featured in Fuseli’s and Polack’s work. Finally, Johnson references another work of art, King Lear, which was also the same text that critics consulted to make sense of The Nightmare. However, Fuseli, who “made his name as a ‘painter of Shakespeare’” (Frayling 10), has actually cut ties with this canonical piece of literature, since he does not depict a witch or sorceress as the source of evil. Instead, Fuseli refers back to the folkloric explanation of this phenomena. In The Nightmare, a “mara” — a demonic and apelike incubus — sits atop of its defenseless victim and stares relentlessly at the viewer of this scene. And in The Time of the Ghosts, this sensation is being vividly recalled:

I feel strange, she thought. Like those eyes were piercing my soul. Like a hurt lay inside. I don’t know if they made it worse or were investigating to see what it was that hurt. They were clinical, though. Those eyes didn’t care. They may have been human, once. They may have cared, once. But when they were looking at me they were cold and clinical. Yucky. Very, very yuck. (117–118)

We have come full circle. One Gothic nightmare was felt very strongly in a very similar way by two different people, at two different times. And if you have ever experienced a nightmare like this, you know exactly why they stand united in their interpretation of it. Nightmares are truly intense and uniquely distinct.

Works Cited

Frayling, Christopher. “Fuseli’s The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and the Ridiculous.” Gothic Nightmares. Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, edited by Martin Myrone, Tate Publishing, 2006, pp. 9–20.

“Nightmare.” A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755, johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/1755/nightmare_ns.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” Graham’s Magazine, vol. 28, no. 4, 1846, pp. 163–167. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/grahamsamerican04grisgoog/.

Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.

Strong Women in Gillian Polack’s The Time Of The Ghosts – Kat in Chapter Six [p.96-99]

Anyone that has read at least a few pages of the novel can tell that the four main protagonists; Lili, Ann, Mabel and Kat; could not be more different from one another, yet they complete each other perfectly. Three grandmas and a teenager is an odd combination to begin with but facing ghosts together makes for an even more special hobby.

As Kat has only joined them recently, she has never had any real experience with ghosts before. When Ann first meets her, Kat is without a family. Homeless and inexperienced. Ann shares her thoughts about Kat and her personality right in the beginning of the novel.

Ann had never met a teenager like Kat.
Compact and self-contained.
Passionate beyond belief.
Willing to do anything for other people.
Not a scrap of an idea of how to take care of herself.
Sharp as a razor. Emotionally whipped red raw.
Full of contradictions.

page 4

It is that passion and will to do anything for others that allows Kat to stick up for her grannies when they were confronted with a group of lubbers in chapter six. When Ann tries to chase them away by telling them to leave Canberra and Australia in general, the situation escalates and she is suddenly surrounded by a big crowd of “manlike creatures with big eyes and bigger mouths” (page 96). The creatures also notice Mabel when she takes two steps back; they start swarming around her pressing her back into a big letterbox.

Kat is shocked by what she is experiencing in that moment.

Kat stood there, stunned. Her grannies were being attacked by little manlike things.

It was indecent. It was wrong. It froze Kat to the spot. Silent. Hurting.

page 96

Kat awakes from her frozen state when she hears Lil crying behind her and loses her temper. Stepping forward, she pokes one of the lubbers. She tries to get them to leave by verbally assaulting and insulting them.

At the back of her mind she saw Mabel scared, she saw Ann trapped. “You hurt my grannies, I hurt you.”

page 97

What also stands out to me was that Kat takes one step forward while Mabel takes two steps back. Even though Kat is scared and also mentions that she “didn’t like what she saw.”, she still stands up for her grannies as the feeling of anger overpowers her fear.

Harnessing her rage, she expounds a speech on how thousands of teenagers will watch for the creatures and know what to do.

Just a bunch of teenagers, standing and looking, standing and looking, standing and looking.

Have you ever seen how a teenager can stand and loom? It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.

It shrinks you inside. It makes you tinier than tiny. […]

But that’s not even the worst thing that will happen to you.”

page 97

As Kat keeps threatening them, the lubbers start to back off. The grannies finally find their voices again and help Kat to chase the lubbers away. In the end Lil praises Kat more than once for her act.

“That was so well done of you” […] “We were lucky. […] We had Kat.”

page 99

As mentioned before, Kat’s act in this scene shows perfectly how passionate she is for others. She overcomes her fears because she can’t see the people who are really important to her suffer. This makes her a really strong female character in Gillian Polack’s novel. After she has not had a real family in so long, she grew closer to the grannies and claimed them as her own grandmothers.

Overall The Time Of The Ghosts has a lot of scenes that show that these four women have really strong personalities. This scene in particular stood out because it was the first time that Kat had to protect the grannies and not the other way around.

Reference: Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.

“The time of the ghosts”: a diverse ghost story? (Review)

What happens when three old ladies take in a 15-year-old runaway? And what happens when these three old ladies are not just your regular neighbourhood grandmas but hunt ghosts as a hobby? 

These questions and many more such as ‘How does one have a relationship with a ghost?’ or even ‘How to spend your retirement?’ are answered in Gillian Polack’s novel The Time of the Ghosts. 

The story revolves around three elderly (very old) ladies Ann, Mabel and Lil. When Ann meets the teenager Kat, who had run away from home, the three ladies decide to take her in. Over many years the grandmas have spent their time hunting ghosts in Canberra to send them back to where they came from. Once they take in Kat they decide to try and teach her their ways, especially now that some sort of evil spirit is threatening Canberra. 

Now judging by both the title and the cover of the book The Time of the Ghosts can easily be classified as a ghost story. And obviously ghosts are very important in the story since the three grandmas spend a huge part of their time hunting them. Furthermore, the novel definitely displays the dark and mysterious undertones of a ghost story. The ghosts presented are all very different in nature and character, ranging from friendly bushrangers to evil spirits. 

 However, Polack’s novel has much more to offer than that. When it comes to the mythical creatures that occur in the story the different types include ghosts, werewolves, and even fairies, which actually are a huge part of the story. 

As explained above, in addition to the unquestionably engaging theme of ghost hunting, The Time of The Ghosts touches on a variety of different subjects that are equally as interesting and important to the story. 

Apart from the ghost hunting, the story also follows the personal struggles of the characters that tackle tough issues like divorce, an abusive household or confronting your past as well as the idea of aging. Throughout the novel, these struggles continuously test the friendship between the grandmas especially since one of them seems to be keeping a secret. 

From themes like food and nature to the topic of Jewishness throughout different time periods and colonialism to such heavy topics such as abuse and even child loss, the story provides an insight into many troubles one might face in their life mixed with mythical elements, therefore making it very engaging to read. These themes are not only discussed in the main story but also in the Tales of Melusine, a many-century-old fairy, that are interjected in the outer story of the novel. These tales not only give the reader a view into different mythological creatures and stories throughout the centuries but also become relevant in the discussion of who these three, ghost-hunting old ladies really are. 

The switch between a third person narrative, the Melusine Tales, which at first seem to be disconnected from the outer storyline, and a first-person narrative in the form of blog posts that Kat is writing alongside the unfolding story adds a captivating depth to it. In the tales of Melusine, the story openly plays with the question of how reliable a narrator is, by mentioning that the narrator of the stories (Melusine herself) is a fairy that likes to play with the truth and is prone to lying. The blogposts, which are never labelled as such and can’t be pinned down to a specific time, give an intimate look into Kat’s thoughts and provide additional information about what she has been doing away from the three old ladies that she calls her ‘grandmas’. Even though these switches in perspective might seem confusing in the beginning, they are tied in together very nicely.

So all in all, The Time of the Ghosts is much more than just a ghost/ ghost-hunting story. It is a diverse story about friendship and family, Jewishness, aging and mystery.