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Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
The movie Crocodile Dundee glamorized a certain side of Australian life to such an extent that suddenly everyone wanted to visit Australia and find a real man like Mick Dundee. What the movie didn’t capture is a less impressive pastime enjoyed by too many Aussie blokes: knocking back schooners of beer every night after work, and especially on Friday nights at the local pub. In Burning the Vines, Michelle Mazal brings us that side of Australian life, and the devastating effects it has on far too many families. Hers was one of those. Raised on a Perth horse farm, young Michelle, her mom and her siblings, all girls, worked hard and long helping their dad with the horses. And almost every night, their loving dad turned into an abusive, foul-mouthed brute who beat his wife and children before passing out. The children were forever trying to find a place to hide while hearing their mother’s cries. And yet, year in and year out, their mom refused to leave this brute of a man, who each morning could barely remember the night before and never really knew how dangerously close he came to killing her.
While the description of the book prepares the reader for what comes inside, it says very little about what won’t be forgotten: not so much the abuse as just how much abuse children can and do take from their parents, and still love them. Michelle loathed what her father did but she always loved him. This is one of the most touching aspects of Burning the Vines. But what will move readers even more perhaps is the love and solace Michelle took in her horses. Over the course of the story, she had three horses she cherished. They, along with one of her grandmothers, were her escape. But she lost all three horses to the insensitive brutality of her father. The author’s depiction of these scenes almost makes one weep.
Burning the Vines is one of the better memoirs I’ve had the pleasure to read and review. Why? For a change we have a writer who doesn’t just narrate ad nauseum. She lets the other characters reveal themselves through their own words and actions. This is the way to write a memoir, as if it were a novel. It’s a skill too few memoir writers seem to have. And what makes this aspect of Michelle Mazal’s writing even more impressive is her humble beginnings: she originally never even finished high school. But after marrying into a family where education was cherished and what you’ve achieved matters more than who you are, she became determined to better herself. She not only got her high school diploma but went on to acquire two university degrees. That’s impressive and probably accounts somewhat for how well this memoir is written.
When it comes to memoirs, especially those which are traumatic, as this was, readers are always hoping the protagonist will come out on top and there will be a happy ending. That’s what Michelle Mazal gives them in Burning the Vines. She also gives you a large slice of Australian colloquialisms and foods. So prepare yourself for those. As someone who has lived in Australia, it was fun for me to hear those and I knew what Michelle was talking about. North American readers might be a little puzzled but Aussies will love it. Highly recommended if you really want to know more about the other side of Australian life, at least what it was like back in the '60s to '70s. Thank heaven for that and thank you, Michelle, for a great read!