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Story of a life, the times, and the cultures

foreign1I came to this factual book by Geraldine Brooks hot on the heels of appreciation for her novel, People Of The Book. Brooks, now a Virginia resident novelist, was in a prior existence a globe-trotting, wanderlust-filled journalist originally from Concord, a suburb of Sydney, New South Wales.

Born in the mid-50s, Brooks recounts growing up in a deeply entrenched culture where nothing really happened, Australians felt second-class parochial citizens, looking to the ‘mother country’ with deep blue affiliations under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. The national anthem was even God Save The Queen. An underachieving, ‘don’t be a tall poppy’ syndrome was rife.

Brooks’ parents clearly had wider horizons in their souls, and she and her elder sister were clearly going to be taller poppies.


Desperate to know something of worlds beyond, Brooks began a series of correspondences with pen pals, from before her teens. Fed by initially a fascination with Star Wars, and then later with emerging socialist, internationalist and artistic interests, she had penfriends from firstly, a classier suburb of Sydney, from the States (where she always wanted to be) two pen-pals from Israel, a Christian Arab and a Jew, and a French girl from a tiny village.

Although she stopped writing to all of them bar her fellow Trekkie fan, the American girl, whilst still in her teens, a chance discovery of all the letters some 30 years later, led her to revisit her childhood, the zeitgeist of the times and the place, and trace the development not just of her own identity, life and viewpoints, but also look at how Australia emerged as a taller poppy.

She was also curious to discover what had happened to her several pen-pals, and set out to find them.

The several stories are moving, amusing, heart-breaking, and also surprisingly inspiring, not least for Brooks herself, who discovers that one life, which seemed on the surface to be the farthest away from the life she would want for herself, is one she comes full circle to most appreciate.

She is an excellent raconteur of the various stories and the changing voices from childhood to adult, ranging from Brooks, the budding young teenage scientist with a desire to solve the problem of world hunger through eating weeds – an experiment on mice which goes sadly wrong, to the much later discovery of a sad and long kept secret from her father’s life.

I can’t resist a little account from the exchanges between Brooks and her fellow Trekkie penpal, Joannie, about the mouse experiment :

I named one of the control mice Joannie, although since all were albinos I had difficulty in telling her apart from the others, Spock Rudolph and Margot (the latter two named for a balletomane phase I was passing through)……………..Unfortunately my Mr Spock met a grisly end, along with the noble attempt to alleviate world hunger…….The project fell apart when my mice – the control group, fed on the gourmet mouse mix – began eating each other. The day we gave away the sole – and very fat – survivor of my doomed experiment was a happy one for my mother. Joannie was consoling “Perhaps you just had paranoid mice.”

A lovely, absorbing read, which gave me some fascinating insights. And not just aboutGeraldine Brooks Correspondence cannibal mice.

Foreign Correspondence Amazon UK
Foreign Correspondence Amazon USA