Category Archives: Book Club

November Verse 5 and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

November verse 5: Letter to my Mother

Dear Mum, I won't write you a novel.
Barely fourteen rhyming lines
I'll manage. No space to unravel
the half a century that twined
our lives. Perhaps I know you better
now than when your weekly letters
filled me in on family news.
I wish that you could know me too,
that you could look down from some heaven,
hear the words I wish I'd said,
see the tears I should have shed
back then, take thanks for all you've given.
The grave is deaf and blind and still.
What we didn't say, we never will.

This is prompted by a marvellous book, a very different letter to a very different mother:

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape 2019)

The protagonist narrator of this novel, known to his intimates as Little Dog, is a Vietnamese-American Gay man, and this is his portrait of the artist as a very young man. The text is cast as a letter addressed to his mother. He tells her the story of his childhood, including quite a bit of abuse he suffered at her hands and his understanding that that abuse was part of the aftermath of the US-Vietnam war. He tells of his relationship with his grandmother, her mother, and what he knows of her love story with a US serviceman. And he relates his teenage experiences of sex. Given the sometimes excruciating detail about young gay male sex (excruciating both physically and in its turbulent emotional ambivalence), clearly this is not a letter he really expects his mother to read.

Ocean Vuong has won big prizes for his poetry, and parts of this book read as prose poetry. I don’t mean that some parts of it defy any attempt to extract a simple prose meaning, though there are a couple of moments like that. I mean, among other things, some images, as of buffalo running over a cliff or monarch butterflies making their vast annual journeys or Tiger Woods putting in an appearance, do a lot of work. And there are rhapsodic sections that don’t bother with conventional sentence structures, but take the reader with them in not bothering. For example, there are six pages in which Little Dog, sings (that’s the only word for it) about Trevor, the first object of his troubled but reciprocated desire. Here’s a little of it:

Trevor going fifty through his daddy’s wheatfield. Who jams all his fries into a Whopper and chews with both feet on the gas. Your eyes closed, riding shotgun, the wheat a yellow confetti.

Three freckles on his nose.

Three periods to a boy-sentence.

Trevor Burger King over McDonald’s ’cause the smell of smoke on beef makes it real.

The Vietnam War, growing up Gay and Vietnamese in working-class Hartford, Connecticut, the ravages of the OxyContin epidemic, dementia: the book deals with difficult and sometimes tragic lives. But the writing is sharp and rich and, in the end, celebratory.

My favourite scene is the one where Little Dog comes out to his mother in a Dunkin’ Donuts: ‘I don’t like girls.’ The conversation that follows is not astonishingly original (‘Are you going to wear a dress now?’ ‘They’ll kill you, you know that.’ ‘When did all this start. I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy.’ But then:

When I thought it was over, that I’d done my unloading, you said, pushing your coffee aside, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’

My jaw clenched. This was not supposed to be an equal exchange, not a trade. I nodded as you spoke, feigning willingness.

‘You have an older brother.’ You swept your hair out of your eyes, unblinking. ‘But he’s dead.’

And a whole terrible part of his mother’s life is revealed to him. So I need to modify my description of the book as a portrait of the artist as a young man: it’s a portrait that includes an extraordinary openness to the generations that gave rise to the young man.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies

Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)

This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.

It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.

Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.

The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.

Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.

Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.

Robert Alter’s Psalms

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, a translation with commentary, (W. W. Norton & Company 2009)

I hadn’t read the Psalms, or any book from the Bible, since my seven years in a Catholic religious order in the 60s and early 70s. I used to love belting them out in the chapel several times a day, especially the complaining bits, the bloodthirsty bits and the bits that celebrate the natural world. They were choral spoken-word poetry of my late teenage years, a place where I could put words to feelings I hardly knew I had.

When this book turned up on offer at our Book-swapping Club, I liked the idea of revisiting that experience.

Alas, Robert Alter didn’t do his translating with me in mind. His version is concerned with precision of meaning, and not at all interested in rendering the poetry, the music of the language. These Psalms were barely recognisable.

A recent YouTube experience illustrates what I mean about Alter’s translation. Sister Nicole Trahan, talking on camera about racism in the US Catholic Church (link here), starts brilliantly with Psalm 55 verses 13–15:

If an enemy had reviled me,
    that I could bear.
If my foe had viewed me with contempt,
    from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
    my comrade and friend,
you whose company I enjoyed
    at whose side I walked in the house of God.

Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:

No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
            no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.
But you, a man to my measure,
            my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared good counsel
            in the house of our God in elation we walked.

They both are clearly translating the same text, yet the meaning of Sister Nicole’s version is clear, it has a musical flow and it packs an emotional punch, while Alter’s version is dry and needs a footnote to clarify its meaning:*

Were it a known enemy showing hostility, the speaker would have found a way to bear the insult, but it is his intimate friend who has turned against him.

I eventually realised that Alter is not even trying to render the Psalms into memorable (or prayable) English. This is a book for the scholars and exegetes, not for poetry readers or, I imagine, the devout. Neither a scholar nor an exegete, I gave up on it.

But my appetite for revisiting the Psalms had been whetted. I dug out my tattered, dusty copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1966), which employed a ‘team of collaborators in translation and literary revision’ that included J R R Tolkien, James McAuley and Robert Speight. From here on my quotes are from that version unless I say otherwise.

The first thing I want to say is that pundits who cherry-pick the Holy Qur’an for quotes advocating violence should read the Psalms and chill.

Again and again, especially in the early Psalms, the speaker calls on God to destroy his enemies, as if his God is not much more than a secret super-weapon. I guess that’s where a bit of historical imagination comes in handy: you can read this book as a record of the developing notion of what ‘God’ is. Early on, it’s as if every tribe has its own god or gods, and Yahweh is the one belonging to the Hebrews. Gradually, the emphasis changes from, ‘God, smite my enemies,’ to ‘God defend me,’ and ‘God, let my enemies come to see your greatness.’ Morality comes into it: “God, I will obey your law,’ ‘I beg your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.’ They never give up bathing a just person’s feet in the blood of the unjust (58:11), or celebrating the way God heaps up corpses (110:5) but there’s an increasingly clear assertion of an incllusive monotheism: other gods are just lumps of wood or metal, but Yahweh is the creator of the universe. There’s history, wisdom, complaint, repentance, celebration: it’s a rich collection.

The Psalms are full of quotations: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,’ ‘A mighty fortress is my God.’ So there’s a lot that’s reassuringly familiar in them. But reading all 150 from start to finish, whether in Alter’s dryness version, the Jerusalem Bible’s lyricism, or the King James sonority, confronted me not only with their violent us-and-them-ism, but also with the absence of any sense of God in my own mind.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people of faith, and when I participate in religious observances I usually find a pragmatic way of paying more than lip service. I can be grateful for my blessings, repent my failings, commit to the things that matter, wonder at the splendours of the universe, acknowledge precarity and interdependence, make acts of faith, hope and love. I can rejoice in the story of the escape from Egypt, love the story of heroic, imperfect, pious King David and lament the destruction of the temple. I can do all that without a need for a supreme being. I can take part in a Mass or a Seder or a sundown prayer without feeling any need to assert my non-belief. But reading the Psalms, I find it hard to get past my outsider status.

My custom with books of poetry is to talk about one poem in some detail. I’m picking number 137, because Boney M:

The song, which I can listen to on hard rotation, was written by T. Mcnaughton, George Reyam, Frank Farian and Brent Dowe, and draws on Psalm 137 verses 1–4 and Psalm 19 verse 14. It absolutely captures the power of the first four verses of this Psalm. Spoiler alert: the Psalm has 9 verses and takes some dark turns after verse 4.

PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles

Beside the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept 
at the memory of Zion,
leaving our harps
hanging on the poplars there.

For we had been asked
to sing to our captors,
to entertain those who had carried us off:
‘Sing,’ they said,
‘some hymns of Zion.’

How could we sing
one of Yahweh’s hymns
in a pagan country?

The heading, ‘Ballad of the exiles’ is a little gloss by the translators. In the first half of the 6th century BCE a large number of people were taken captive from Judaea and taken to Babylon, for an exile that lasted half a century. This was a key event in the history of the Jewish people, and played an important part in the development of Judaism. This Psalm is framed as a song from that time. Its pining for home has struck a chord in the hearts of exiled people for millennia. It makes one think of African-heritage people enslaved in the USA being expected to entertain their oppressors. Or, since I’ve recently read Grace Karsken’s The Colony, ceremony and payback conducted by Eora people in what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park being treated as entertainment by the early colonisers. And it’s open to rich metaphorical reading about commodification of culture: how can I make authentic art for a marketplace?

Jerusalem, if I forget you,
may my right hand wither!

May I never speak again,
if I forget you!
If I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys!

Moving beyond the verses used in the Rastafarian song, these lines are framed as a kind of self-curse, but behind the curse there’s a feeling that if the speaker were to lose all connection to their home, their spiritual and cultural base, they would lose their ability to function in some crucial way. This is something like what many First Nations people say about the importance of country: on country you can feel a wholeness, a peace, a strength that you can’t feel anywhere else. So far, this is a powerfully resonant song/poem about the pain of exile

Yahweh, remember
what the Sons of Edom did
on the day of Jerusalem,
how they said,
‘Down with her!
Raze her to the ground!’

Then, a sudden change of tone. The captors have asked for an entertaining bit of exotica. Here is the song of Zion that the singer can actually sing. As I write this it occurs to me that to imagine it being sung in response to the captors’ command, but in a language the captors don’t understand, so there’s an element of subversive joy in this as well as heartfelt cry to Yahweh. The singer recalls the harm that has been done to their people, and then ups the ante:

Destructive Daughter of Babel,
a blessing on the man who treats you
as you have treated us,
a blessing on him who takes and dashes
your babies against the rock!

This is directly addressed to the captors. This may once have been meant literally, and if so it’s just monstrous: other people’s violence is wicked, but baby-murder is fine if I or my allies do it. And when I started writing about this Psalm that’s how I read it. But you know, now I think it’s funny: ‘You want me to sing you one of my cute songs. OK, here’s one about the temple and a little baby.’ Then a cheerful tune is struck up. Maybe the Babylonians recognise the word for blessing that occurs twice towards the end. At the last line the performers and Hebrew listeners smile broadly, and their Babylonian listeners follow their cue and also smile broadly.

There’s no way the end of this poem can be read as a pious, morally improving text. Alter’s note says it’s morally unjustifiable, but we should take the terrible circumstances into account. Maybe, though, if you assume that the Psalmist had a sense of humour, the moral unjustifiability is the whole point: this is deliberately outrageous, wicked humour. In the unlikely, er, inconceivable, event that I had to give a sermon based on it, I’d talk about how when we say we want to hear the voices of oppressed people, we need to be prepared to hear things we really don’t like.

I’m not saying that all the psalms can be read as edgy comedy. Sadly, far from it. But I happen to have lit on one that makes me, and possibly you, remember that these songs/poems/hymn were written by people with complex minds – some for liturgical purposes, some to teach history and morality, some to allow the expression of emotion, some as theatre.


* Not to flog a dead horse, but here are a couple of other translations of those same verses from the Bibles on my bookshelves, each with its own clarity, grace and power. First the King James Version:
For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him:
But it was thou, a man mine equal, and mine acquaintance.
We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.


The Jerusalem Bible:
Were it an enemy who insulted me,
   I could put up with that;
had a rival got the better of me,
   I could hide from him.
But you, a man of my own rank,
   a colleague and a friend,
to whom sweet conversation bound me
   in the house of God!

** If you’re really interested in comparative translations, here are two other translations. First the King James Version:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.


Robert Alter:
By Babylon’s streams
   there we sat, oh we wept,
      when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there
   we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors had asked of us
   words of song,
and our plunderers – rejoicing:
   ‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’

How can we sing a song of the LORD
   on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
   if I do not recall you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my chief joy.

Recall, O LORD, the Edomites,
   on the day of Jerusalem, saying:
‘Raze it, raze it,
   to its foundation!’
Daughter of Babylon the Despoiler
   happy who pays you back in kind,
      for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashes

   your infants against the rock.

The Book Group and Cassandra Pybus’s Truganini

Cassandra Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the meeting: It was my turn to choose the book. I was tossing up between Truganini, about which I’d heard a terrific podcast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival (here’s a link to my blog post), and See what You Made Me Do, the Stella Prize winner. When I put it to the group there was an overwhelming preference for Truganini’s journey through the apocalypse over Jess Hill’s exploration of abusive men. If we thought this would be less gruelling we were probably wrong.

Truganini is known to non-Indigenous Australian popular history as ‘the last Tasmanian’. That’s rubbish of course. There are still many Indigenous Tasmanians alive and kicking. But Truganini’s life is better documented than any of the survivors of genocide in Tasmania, and she has become, as Cassandra Pybus says in her Preface, ‘an international icon for extinction’. The mythologising began almost as soon as she died, and she has been seen ‘through the prism of colonial imperative: a rueful backward glance at the last tragic victim of an inexorable historical process’. In this book, Pybus sets out ‘to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth’.

Pybus’s main historical source is the writings of George Augustus Robinson. To quote the Preface again, ‘Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described’. I’m grateful that Cassandra Pybus did the hard yakka of extracting a story line from such sources, reading them so we don’t have to.

In the 1820s, the Aboriginal clans of south-east Tasmania (Van Diemens Land as it then was) were all but wiped out by massacre and disease. Truganini belonged to the Nuenonne clan, whose country included Bruny Island. When George Augustus Robinson, fired by missionary fervour and ambition to be seen as a man of significance, set out to rescue the surviving First Nations people from the violence of the colony, Truganini, her father and some friends accepted his protection and became his guides and later his agents in persuading people from other clans to come under his protection.

For five years the band trudged through forests, over mountains, across streams. Truganini had terribly swollen legs, possibly as a result of syphilis she had contracted from sealers who had abducted her early in life, but she was an adept diver for seafood, and she and the other women in the group were the only ones who could swim, so were often called on to pull rafts across icy rivers. For the most part, Pybus tells the story straight without commenting, for instance, on the moral dilemmas involved in persuading resisting warriors to surrender to Robinson rather than face deadly violence elsewhere, as at the hands of John Batman, who emerges from these pages as a ruthless, brutal slaver.

The result of all these rounding-up missions is that, whatever promises Robinson might have made, people were sent to virtual island prisons, mainly on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where the death toll were horrifying. what started out as a ‘friendly mission’ became the coup de grâce of a genocidal program.

After being taken to Port Phillip on the mainland where Robinson hoped they might again play an intermediary role, Truganini and her companions were conclusively dumped by Robinson. He simply turned away from them and never mentioned them in his journals again.

Truganini and her companionos, including a husband and a close woman friend, were settled in Oyster Cover on the east coast of Tasmania, from where they would go on hunting excursions to Bruny Island and elsewhere. One by one, her companions died. With extraordinary restraint, Pybus simply tells us that their deaths were unrecorded. She doesn’t have to spell out the callous disregard of the colonial establishment. Truganini, the sole survivor, spent her last years in the care of John Dandridge and his wife (unnamed) in Hobart. Dandridge would take her across to Bruny Island, so that she could still walk in her own country. To the end, she cared for country, and slept on the floor rather than the coloniser’s bed.

For all the horrors that were inflicted on this extraordinary woman and her people, the one that comes across with most poignancy in this narrative comes right at the end. As people die, the scientific establishment waits like vultures for their skeletons. Graves are dug up, newly dead bodies are decapitated, collections of skulls are sent to England. Truganini herself expressed her terror at having this done to her own remains, and asked Dandridge to scatter her ashes in the channel between Bruny Island and the main island of Tasmania. But he died before her, and her body was buried, dug up and later exhibited in the Tasmanian Museum – until 1947! After a long legal battle by Tasmanian Aborigines, the Museum allowed the skeleton to be cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes on 30 April 1976, a few days short of the centenary of her death.

And then there are the illustrations. Truganini, her warrior husband Wooredy, the great leader Mannalargenna and others challenge our gaze in portraits painted by Thomas Bock in 1835. There are photographs too, perhaps taken with ethnographic intentions, but when Truganini looks at you from a photo taken by Charles Woolley in 1866 (here’s a link), she isn’t offering herself as an object. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jakelin Troy said, referring to the fact that Truganini walked about Bruny Island in old age:

I’m sure she was making the point that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.

It’s hard to look at Truganini in these portraits and not feel that she’s making a similar point: she is still herself, and even if the photographer, the curators, the scientists, the colonial historians don’t think deeply about the fact, she challenges us to acknowledge that she is a human being. As she tells us in a final chapter, Cassandra Pybus has reasons to take that challenge personally: her ancestor received a grant to part of Truganini’s country, and in her childhood she heard stories of the old Aboriginal woman who walked about the family’s property. This book is a powerful, humble and devastating response to the challenge.

After the meeting: We’re still meeting on zoom, probably not for the last time. This book generated a very interesting discussion among us white middle-aged and older men. Some were less enthusiastic about it than others. The negatives first.

One man had studied George Augustus Robinson on the 1980s, particularly the collection of his papers published in 1966, The Friendly Mission. He had approached this book with high hopes, but found that it didn’t add much by way of new perspectives or insights – despite its intention of focusing on Truganini, it largely stayed with Robinson.

Another, who read this just after Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (my blog post here), was disappointed that neither Truganini nor Robinson, or really any of the other characters, emerged as fully rounded characters. There was precious little exploration of motivations or emotional responses. Maybe, he said, you can’t expect that of history: this might be excellent history but it’s not much chop as literature.

Someone who agreed with that latter point said that the question for him was, if that is so, then how come the book held his attention the whole time, when he usually gave up on history books after 15 pages? Someone said that the subject commands our attention, as this is a story that cuts through to our souls as settler Australians. I think that’s true, but I also think the book is well written, and the failure to flesh out the characters is a strength: Pybus doesn’t speculate or invent, but largely leaves us to join the dots. As someone said, it’s fairly clear that for Truganini and her companions, Robinson’s offer of protection was their best bet for survival.

Challenging the notion that the writing was generally flat and factual, someone read a short passage about Truganini’s father, Manganerer who had encountered convict mutineers:

These men abducted his wife and sailed away with her to New Zealand, then on to Japan and China. Hastily constructing a sturdy ocean-going canoe, Manganerer had attempted to follow them but had been blown far out into the Southern Ocean. His son had died and he himself was half dead from dehydration when he was found by a whaling ship.

The tragedy was almost too much for this proud man to bear. He had endured the murder of his first wife and the abduction of his two older daughters by the intruders, and now they had taken his second wife. His only son was dead and his remaining daughter had abandoned him for the whaling station. His distress was compounded when he discovered that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the people visiting from Port Davey, who were under his protection.

There was a moment’s silence on the zoom space. With such a litany of horrors – and this is early in the book, the worst devastation comes towards the end – there’s not a lot of need for further authorial commentary.

One man took up the cudgels on Robinson’s behalf. He said he felt protective of him. Yes, he took on the role of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ out of a kind of opportunism, and yes, his ventures finished off the ‘extirpation’ that the notorious Black Line failed to achieve. But he had a huge inner struggle. At some level he recognised and respected the humanity and the cultural strength of the people in his care (there are scenes n the book where he eats and sings and dances with them). But he was blinded by his belief system and could only at rare moments acknowledge what he was actually doing. And – I think I’m quoting correctly – isn’t that blindness something that we all have?

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration that the book had us staring into the abyss of our nation’s foundation story. Today, someone is offering to send us all bumper stickers in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


Truganini is the 14th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Neel Mukherjee’s State of Freedom

Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (W W Norton & Co 2019)

Short stories don’t sell. At least, I believe that’s the prevailing wisdom among publishers. That’s probably why this excellent collection of short stories – or more accurately three short stories and two novellas – has been marketed as a novel. Still, if that’s what it takes to draw readers in, then why not?

All the stories happen in India, though they are five different Indias. An expat returns from the USA with his seven-year-old son, and takes him to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri; another expat, this one from England, visits his parents and gets to know their cook; a man from a poor village goes on the road with a dancing bear; a girl from another poor village is sent off to a life of domestic servitude in ever bigger and further away cities, while her best friend joins the Maoist guerrillas; a man suffering from asbestosis does dangerous construction work in a city far from his home village.

All the protagonists are dislocated. Some of them turn up as minor characters in another’s story: the bear man is the twin brother of the man with asbestosis, and both of them, having left home intending to send money back, have left their wives and children to fend for themselves. The cook in the second story has it in for another servant, who turns out to the the girl in the fourth story.

These are grim stories. The first starts out like a mini-travelogue, though one with a dark cloud over it, and ends with devastating heartbreak; in the second, what might have been a piece of food-tourism comes hard up against the desperation of the poor; and in the rest, the harsh inequalities of class destroy people’s lives. There’s a Reading Group Guide up the back of my copy, which I skimmed. These notes insist that this is a novel with a brilliant structure. Perhaps they’re referring to the way the stories are ordered as a descent into ever more desperate situations.

It’s a grim book, and a beautifully written one. There’s some romance, some intrigue, some terrible domestic violence and cruelty to animals, but also kindness and a glimmering promise that things might improve.

I’ve read it during the Great Covid–19 Lockdown, and am writing this with cold symptoms waiting in strict isolation for the results of a Covid test [test came back negative about six hours after I wrote that]. Without wanting to trivialise the situation of the character, here’s a passage that seems to speak to my current situation and may give you a feel for the writing, and also a sense of the irony in the book’s title. Milly, the protagonist, is working as a maid in Mumbai, and her employers have forbidden her to leave the apartment block:

It was not that she needed to go out – where would, could, she go, in this endless city, without knowing anyone? – but something so fundamental denied is that thing made disproportionately enormous, consuming, and she began to think of herself as a caged bird, defined by the fact of nothing except its imprisonment …

She experienced a new feeling, at night, of the kitchen walls inching forward slowly from all four sides to crush her, lying in the middle. Their hut in the village had been tiny and eight of them had to sleep together, huddled, but she had never thought of that as small. Besides, there was always the great open outside – fields, forests, groves, river bank. The idea of space of something small or big, something that could be reduced, had never occurred to her, not even on the train, in the general compartment so dense with people that the air had sometimes felt too thick to breathe. not even in that battery-cage had the thought ever crossed her mind that ‘this is too small’. Now, in a Mumbai flat bigger than any house she had ever known, she felt trapped and squeezed.

(Page 228)

Sound at all familiar?

My copy of A State of Freedom is a loan from my book-swapping club.

Philip Pullman's Secret Commonwealth

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth (David Fickling Books 2019)

This is the fifth book featuring Philip Pullman’s wonderful Lyra Silvertongue (or Belacqua, take your pick). There was the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I loved to pieces, and which gave rise to a play, a movie and now, I’ve just discovered, a television series (click here for the IMDB entry). Then there was a small book, Lyra’s Oxford, which I missed. And now a second trilogy, The Book of Dust, of which the first book, La Belle Sauvage, was a prequel to the first trilogy and featured Lyla as a baby. The Secret Commonwealth leaps forward a couple of decades, and features events that take place some years after the end of the first trilogy, when Lyra is a twenty-year-old university student.

I wasn’t swept away by La Belle Sauvage (my blog post here). At least in the second part, it felt like a lot of colour and movement and not much interesting by way of plot or character development. The Secret Commonwealth is back on track. At the beginning, Lyla, now a student at Oxford, is at odds with her daemon Pantaleimon. For those who came in late (which I really don’t recommend: start with Northern Lights aka The Golden Compass), in this world a daemon is an animal who is somehow part of a human being. Daemons have names, they change shape frequently when their human is young but settle into a permanent creature around puberty. A daemon generally represents some essential element of its human’s character. To be separated from your daemon is extremely distressing, and most people don’t believe it is possible. To be quarrelling with him or her, as Lyla is when this book begins, is deeply disturbing.

So we’re off to a complex start. Lyla’s difficulty with Panteleimon is central to her personal life, but there are huge issues to deal with in the rest of the world. A version of the Catholic Church wields tremendous power, and though we are more or less in the present day it’s as if the Inquisition is alive and well. Organised religion, militant atheism, postmodern truthysim, religiously inspired terrorism all feature, in a plot of almost Le-Carré-esque complexity as we follow the separate adventures of Lyla, Pantaleimon and Malcolm Polstead, who is in undeclared love with Lyla, all of them being pursued by a fantasy version of the surveillance state.

Where His Dark Materials was intended primarily for a pre-teen or young teenage readership, this is definitely for older readers. I didn’t feel like an intruder as a 73 year old, but that’s not exactly what I mean. There’s some fruity swearing, and there’s one powerful scene of sexually-motivated violence that take it right out of the children’s section into the YA.

I remember how agonising it was to wait for the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy – would Will really kill the Authority, and since the Authority seemed to be a name for the Judaeo-Christian God, what would that mean? The Secret Commonwealth, like all good second books in trilogies, also ends with a cliffhanger. Will the characters find each other, will they discover the secret behind the Men from the Mountains, fundamentalist terrorists, will Lyra escape the men who have tracked her down to the deserted village in southern Turkey, will the world be saved? But this time, without in any way implying that the book didn’t have me in its thrall the whole time, I can wait.

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father (2018, translated from French by Lorin Stein, New Directions 2019)

It was purely fortuitous that I read this book immediately after Susan Hill’s Black Sheep, but they make a beautiful pair. Arthur, one of the sons of the mining family in Black Sheep, disappears overnight, and only we and his youngest brother Ted know that he has escaped rather than met with disaster. Édouard Louis is a young Gay man who has escaped from the working-class conditions that have destroyed his father’s life. It’s as if it calls out to that book: ‘This is what it’s like inside your story!’

The opening sentences of Who Killed My Father – notice the absence of a question mark, also a feature of the French title Qui a tué mon père – says a lot:

When asked what the word racism means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.

The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class – to social and political oppression of all kinds.

This is not an agony memoir, a whining portrait of a father who made his Gay son’s life a misery. Along with a certain amount of intellectual heft (Ruth Gilmores is not the only scholar to illuminate the narrative),

In all but the first couple of pages, Édouard Louis speaks to his father, who is still alive at the time of writing, presenting him (and, of course, us) with a mosaic of memories from which emerges a picture of how the father’s ‘male privilege’ and ‘hatred of homosexuality’ affected the son, but also the constricting and distorting effect they have had on the father:

Masculinity – don’t act like a girl, don’t be a faggot – meant that you dropped out as fast as you could to show everyone you were strong, as soon as you could to show you were rebellious, and so, as far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.

(page 35)

It’s a passionate, painful, complex monologue, full of rage and frustration, reaching a kind of climax when the teenaged son deliberately provokes a near-murderous family row, and in the end it’s a love letter.

There’s a turn about 20 pages from the end. The father is critically injured in an industrial accident. Though he sufferers severe pain from the injury, policies brought in by the governments of Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron ensure that he doesn’t receive the help he needs but must continue in demeaning and damaging work. ‘Why do we never name these names?’ the words just about scream from the page.

The Wikipedia entry on Édouard Louis describes this book (on 9 October 2019) as a novel. I think that’s just plain wrong. I’d be astonished if the author’s father doesn’t read it and recognise every word as real – and find in it a difficult joy.

Susan Hill’s Black Sheep

Susan Hill, Black Sheep (Chatto & Windus 2013)

At the recent climate strike in Sydney, one of the student leaders was making the point that there needs to be a just transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. It needs to be acknowledged, she said, that mining isn’t just a job, it’s an identity, and people who worked in fossil fuel industries deserved to be thought about, not ruthlessly declared dispensable (as they were, she might have said, when Maggie Thatcher, whose grasp of climate science may have had some bearing on her shutting down the coal mines of Britain).

Black Sheep, which I borrowed at my Book Club (the book-swap one, not the discussion one), is a 135 page sketch of a family living tight inside that identity in pre-Thatcher Britain. Evie and John have five children, four sons and a daughter. John’s mother dies early in the novella, and his father moves into the already crowded cottage, bringing his black Bible with him. The boys are destined to join their father in the pit. The girl helps to service the men – cooking, cleaning, washing – and is expected to marry another pit-worker and repeat her mother’s life. Coal dust is everywhere.

It’s a grim life, and any thought of finding an alternative is seen as betrayal: ‘this is a pit family and you are one of it.’ Family coherence is strong, and when there is an explosion in the mine everyone in the community, including shepherds on the nearby hills, drops everything and runs toward the pit head, hoping to help. It’s powerful portrait of a family and a community caught in a destructive system, and keeping each other there.

It doesn’t end well, except possibly for the son, Arthur, who disappears overnight and is never heard from again. Two family members have hope: the daughter risks being ostracised by marrying a man who, though he works for the mining company, doesn’t go down the pit; and Ted, the youngest son, dreams of a different life and finds it working as a shepherd, though he too risks being ostracised. Both escape attempts fail. Both Ted and Rose are drawn back into the bosom of the family. It’s a fable about the deep injuries of class and the effects of ruthless capitalism, when even the virtues of working people contribute to their destruction.

Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living

Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018)


I’m a member of two book clubs. One of them is all men, and at each meeting we discuss one book that there’s a sporting chance a majority of us will have read. The other is all about swapping books, and there’s a rule (one of many: one club member is a high-flying lawyer) that no book may be discussed for more than 30 seconds. Generally each of us brings three books to the club, and takes a different three home. At our last meeting I borrowed Diane Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! (my blog post here) and The Cost of Living. I loved Alive, Alive Oh!

The Cost of Living is exactly the book that some writers of genre fiction, disgruntled at being dismissed as of a lesser breed, describe as LitFic. It’s a very short, introspective first-person account of the life of a woman writer after the end of her decades-long marriage, rich with threads of metaphor and learned allusions, studded with aphorisms and beautifully described scenes. It has at least two big subjects: the end of a marriage and the death of a mother. I was half way through it when I happened to read on the dustjacket flaps that it is the second instalment of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’, the first volume of which is a ‘memoir on writing, gender politics and philosophy’.

I didn’t hate it. I read all 187 pages. But it’s not my cup of tea. Someone who really loved the book might think that’s because I’m a white, heterosexual man of a certain age, eligible for the nickname ‘the Big Silver’ which the narrator/author bestows on one of the book’s many men who patronise, ignore, disregard or otherwise deny the humanity of women. But I didn’t dislike the gender politics as such. I just kept wondering why I should be interested in this book. I got a lot of clues: the author mentions several other books she has written, and a possible movie deal, and famous people she knows (we are carefully informed, for example, that Celia – no second name – the woman who lends her a garden shed to write in, is the widow of the poet Adrian Mitchell*). And of course, the first part of the memoir – Things I don’t Want to Know – may have set the reader up to be interested.

Look, here’s a short passage. It contains a few darlings that should have been killed, though to be fair there are possibly more per square inch than in most of the book. If you like it you’ll probably find the whole book something you can enjoy and benefit from more than I did. She is writing about the gardener who tends Celia’s garden:

Sometimes he’d pick a small bunch of herbs and winter flowers from the garden and bring them to me in the shed. I could not tell him that it was flowers that triggered some of the most painful flashbacks to my old life. How can a flower inflame a wound? It can and it does if it is a portal to the past. How can a flower reveal information about minor and major characters? It can and it does. How is it that a flower can resemble a criminal. For the writer and criminal Jean Genet, the striped uniform of convicts reminded him of flowers. Both flowers and flags are required to do so much of the talking for us, but I am not really sure I know what it is they are saying.

(page 107)

*She’s Celia Hewitt for whom Adrian Mitchell wrote his wonderful poem ‘Celia Celia’ (you can read it here)

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!: and other things that matter (Granta Publications 2016)

I’m one of the many readers who first met Diana Athill’s work near the end of her long career as editor and writer. The title of her 2008 essay collection, Somewhere Towards the End (link is to my blog post), accurately describes the feel of the book. They were lucid ruminations in the shadow of approaching death.

Eight years later when Alive, Alive Oh! was published, death was still imminent, and in fact Diane Athill died in February this year. If we can judge by this book, she was ready to go – not because life had become unbearable, far from it, but because she had achieved a marvellous sense of equanimity in the face of the inevitable.

You may have to be of a certain age and ethnicity to recognise that the book’s title is from the song ‘Molly Malone’. You can see a haunting version by Sinéad O’Connor / Shuhada’ Davitt on YouTube, but be advised that the eerie melancholy of that song doesn’t reflect the tone of Diana Athill’s twelve short memoir-essays. In her Introduction, she writes that somewhere in her seventies she stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being, and after a short period of shock found that very restful:

I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the ninety-seven years through which I have lived I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind.

(p 2)

What follows are some memories of that sort to be sure: the first essay is a loving description of her grandparents’ garden – really an estate, where she spent much of her childhood; the second rejects the common view that the post-war 40s and 50s were a dreary time, and tells of the joys of her life as a twenty-something in those years – the swinging 60s, in her experience, were just an extension of her privileged 50s; and third begins with a brilliant description of the beauties of the island of Tobago, and tells how as a young woman there she came to understand that the pleasurable existence of British tourists and expats was built on the many-faceted exploitation of locals. So the book may be full of beautiful places and things, but it also goes to dark places.

The title essay, ‘Alive, Alive Oh!’, comes fourth. I was expecting a celebration of life in one’s nineties (those essays come later). But no, it’s a vivid account of a pregnancy when she was in her 40s, unmarried but in a solid relationship with a married man. I won’t say more about this essay, other than that it’s a narrative full of suspense, and an outcome that is both expected and surprising.

After that, there are short essays on

  • the ‘peculiarly English middle-class technique for dealing with awkward facts … : if something is disagreeable let’s pretend it isn’t there’, and how it played out in her relationship with her mother
  • clothes and similar luxuries including, in her current life, a wheelchair
  • a wartime romance, which she frames by saying that two valuable lessons life has taught her are ‘avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’ – enough to say that the story she tells, while complex, is not an illustration these lessons
  • favourite books – the ones she lingers on are the letters of Boswell and Byron.

There’s a substantial account of her decision to move into a home for old people (a very posh one, it turns out). This is full of elegant reflections on ageing. For instance:

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. what happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. Iin my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts. A shared sense of humour is necessary, together with some degree of curiosity. Given those, we become for each other wonderfully interesting stories, which arouse genuine concern, admiration and affection.

(p 112)

And this, from the final essay ‘Dead Right’, on the prevailing attitudes to dying among her fellow residents:

Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible, practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. When a death occurs in the home it is dealt with with the utmost respect – and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us, the survivors.

(p 159)

When I blogged about Somewhere Towards the End, I said I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. Make that 97.