Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks

The internet and e-mail have really taken a toll on letter writing. Now that we have instant gratification, we are losing out on the simple joy of opening the mailbox to find an unexpected or conversely eagerly awaited missive from a far away friend. Now we mostly find bills instead of handwritten personal thoughts. The closest we often get anymore is the fake "handwriting" font on some junk mail envelopes. This is such a shame. Letter writing is careful and slow and often brings great delight to the recipient. I know, because I still write letters (although not nearly as often as I used to) and I had many, many penpals from all over the world as I was growing up. I even still keep in touch with several of them, having been writing to them for almost 30 years now. Hearing from them way back when opened a new world to me, one that I didn't encounter in the many suburban neighborhoods we lived in throughout my childhood.

Australian Geraldine Brooks grew up in a Sydney that she feared was provincial. Her lower middle class neighborhood was mocked as a representation of all that was boring and backwards about Australia. In order to broaden her horizons, taking after the example of her father, she started to write letters. Her first penpal, Sonny, was only just across town but could have lived a world away. After Sonny, Brooks chose penpals in countries that interested her. She wrote Joannie in America, intrigued by the country of her father's birth. She wrote Mishal in Israel because she was fascinated by Judaism. When she found out that Mishal was an Israeli Arab, she found another Israeli, this time a Jewish Israeli, Cohen, to add to her collection of penpals. And finally, enamoured of the student upheavals in France, she also wrote to Janine. Through all of these penpals, she learned more of the world. Twenty years later, during her father's final illness, she discovers the letters of these penpals and wonders where life has taken them. Like the journalist she is, she determines to discover their stories.

Brooks has drawn the Australia of her childhood precisely and lovingly. She chronicles her own political awakening and leanings and their genesis very well. And she has created a full and extensive portrait of her correspondence with Joannie and with the social consciousness that both girls developed as they wrote back and forth. Her letters from the others are either less illuminating or she wasn't given permission to use as much from them since the sections about these penpals are not as full and lack the sprightly, in-depth personality that the portion about Joannie has. Once Brooks goes on her search for her lost penpals, she has an amazingly easy time of it finding them. The fact that all of them ultimately welcomed her in to see their lives now (well, ten years ago when the book was written anyway) is wonderful.

I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir both for its portrayal of the disappeared Australia of Brooks' childhood and adolescence and for the tale of tracking down her former penpals to see where their lives had taken them. I had an Australian penpal as a child and young adult, a couple of decades after Brooks, and I'd love the chance to do as Brooks did and find her. Michelle Ennor, are you out there somewhere? In any case, Brooks's memoir captures the innocence of a younger Australia, uncovers the seeds of her own life choices, and shows how our early life shapes us as well as the ways in which we find ourselves yearning for a different future than we had ever envisioned.


  1. I love Brooks but didn't even know she had written this book. It sounds wonderful.

    And I think it's great that you've had penpals for so long. I had no patience with it as a teenager but think I would be open to the idea more now.

  2. I also had an Australian penpal growing up, and it was an amazing experience that really broadened the world for me! (We're in touch via Facebook, now). I can't imagine how having so many would open up new horizons for Brooks. I can't wait to read this.

  3. I still haven't read any of Brooks's fiction but read Nine Parts of Desire and really liked her writing. Thanks for highlighting this one - I will add it to the shelf.


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