Category Archives: Book Club

Alice Walker’s Chicken Chronicles

Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the angels who have returned with my memories – Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A memoir (The New Press 2011)

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The Chicken Chronicles consists of 37 short chapters, originally blog posts, about keeping chickens. Not just keeping them, but spending time observing them, enjoying them, being sat on and pecked and fed by them, communing with them, falling in love with them as individuals and as a species, and following the mind wherever they take it.

One of Alice Walker’s childhood chores was to wring the neck of  a chicken each week for the Sunday dinner. Chickens, or more specifically roosters, featured in her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy – as a nightmarish presence to do with the genital mutilation of little girls. It’s tempting to read The Chicken Chronicles as Walker’s joy-filled atonement for those sins and slanders of the past.

The first chapter describes an encounter with a mother hen who was ‘industrious and quick, focused and determined’. The memory of that encounter kept resurfacing, and Walker writes:

I realised I was concerned about chickens, as a Nation, and that I missed them. (Some of you will want to read no further.)

I took this as a warning and a challenge to anyone who finds that capitalised ‘Nation’ ridiculous or even offensive: if you read on, be prepared for some tendentious animal-liberation rhetoric, perhaps. I did read on, and I was glad to have been forewarned, especially when there is a change of register after half a dozen chapters, and from then on Walker addresses the chickens directly and refers to herself as Mommy (and the person who until then  had been her partner as Daddee), telling them about her travels and her admiration for figures such as Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, or delivering little sermons to them and the eavesdropping reader. Like this:

Mommy’s mind is dizzy and her heart sore from all the troubles in the human realm. She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them? How can they understand they are not to blame? What have they done but be themselves, flying about eating insects and grubs, while appearing marvellous to the human spirit, even whole doing so? She learns soldiers from her country have shot and killed two pregnant women in Afghanistan, one of them Mommy of ten. What is an Afghanistan? You will wonder. Is it edible? Mommy has never been there but she used to wear beautiful long dresses made of velvet and embroidered in many colours, which came from Afghanistan.

There’s something real happening here: in addressing the chickens, the mind can go to some basic questions. But any grumpy and humourless children of the Enlightenment should probably stay away from this book. I’m grumpy but not completely humourless, and had to work hard to appreciate passages like that one,  and I found a lot to enjoy elsewhere.

The chapter that picks up the notion of ‘sitting with the angels’ from the book’s title is an example. (I’ve just discovered that a version of this chapter is online in Alice Walker’s facebook timeline – you could do worse than read the whole piece.) As she spends time with the chickens, sitting in her ‘meditation chair’ in their enclosure, Walker finds that memories of her childhood come back to her:

For, spending time with you, not only did Mommy recall and visualise her own mother’s thumb with its deep, beloved scar, and from the thumb begin to see her mother’s face and actions, but she also began to see, in stark detail, the house near Ward’s chapel: the final and most wretched of all the grey shacks; the house that her mother attempted to hide, as she camouflaged all the others, behind a vibrant wall of flowers. And inside the house that shook when anyone walked from room to room, there was Mommy’s room papered with real wallpaper, though too thin and delicate to actually touch! While in her parents’ room her mother had done the Mommy thing that was so typical of her: she had papered her own bedroom with flattened cardboard boxes and brown butcher’s paper.

As she describes the way the chickens gave her back these memories, she also gives memories back to the reader – at least to this one. We had chooks in my childhood home, though I didn’t have to wring any necks and our chicken meals were a lot less frequent than the Walker family’s. This book is full of wonderful descriptions of chickens – their behaviour around roosting, their alarm at predators (river rats and hawks in my case, North American beasties in Walker’s), their joy at being fed and called to by humans’ crude impersonation of their cries. These felt like a generous gift of memory. Walker brings to her chickens with the kind of attention I remember from my childhood, and her descriptions of them capture beautifully the joy of being close up to other species.

Sarah Winman’s Tin Man

Sarah Winman, Tin Man (Tinder 2017)

tinman.jpgThis is a gentle love story. It starts out with a man who we gradually discover is grieving for the loss of his wife and best friend in a car accident. Over the novel’s short length we discover the rich complexity of the relationships among the three of them, the depth of their loves, their joys and their sorrows, maybe particularly their sorrows: not a ménage à trois, but what one of the characters calls a mélange.

It’s very English, tactful when erotic, and filled with the kindness of strangers and the healing of wounds.

 

Marija Peričić’s Lost Pages

Marija Peričić, The Lost Pages (Allen & Unwin 2017)

lostpages.jpgThis book begins with a lie.

The imprint page includes standard disclaimer, ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental,’ but what follows purports to be an account by Max Brod (a real person, you can look him up on Wikipedia) of his relationship with Franz Kafka (ditto). Brod famously disobeyed Kafka’s deathbed instruction to burn all his papers, and so gave the world The Trial and other works that established Kafka’s eminence in 20th century literature. So we’re set up from the beginning for a historical novel about a literary friendship.

Usually, historical novels thrive in the gaps in the historical record: the facts as we have them remain fixed points, and the novelist’s imagination goes to work with people, events and dialogue that have been undocumented. In The Lost Pages, things aren’t so cut and dried. Brod’s biography of Kafka is one of the main historical sources about him. This novel is presented as a manuscript found in Kafka’s papers as preserved by Brod and now owned by two Israeli sisters (which really do exist, unexamined by scholars): so what the fictional Brod writes here can claim to override the historical Brod’s version.

And it does.

It’s a tale full of obsession, anguish, betrayal, jealousy, paranoia (well, it is a story about Kafka), hallucinatory episodes (ditto), and enormous improbabilities which are resolved by even less likely revelations. I kept forgetting that it was written by a 30-something woman living in Melbourne – I was away in the world of Prague literary celebrity a century ago, having a great time. It would be wrong to say the book is silly, but I find it hard to think of a better word for its quality that most charmed me. It’s a romp, if a romp can include social exclusion (Brod in real life and in the novel had severe spinal curvature), abject humiliation, extreme mental anguish …

The Lost Pages is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride

Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)

freedomride.jpgThis is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers, lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie finds a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.

And that is what plays out. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park when his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.

At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RsL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.

A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom ride, and links it to the 1967 referendum, the land rights campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to  informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.

First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal  characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]

And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes agains Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and are terrible cooks. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefitting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.

Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group & Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape 2015)

2yrs.jpgSadly (or not – you be the judge), I missed the book group meeting on Wednesday night. Unusually, though, there was a lot of email discussion of the book in the lead-up to the date. Here are annotated excerpts from the emails, with names changed and identifying detail removed:

3 March 1:35 pm, Alphonse:
NEXT BOOK: 
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: ‘From one of the greatest writers of our time: the most spellbinding, entertaining, wildly imaginative novel of his great career, which blends history and myth with tremendous philosophical depth. A masterful, mesmerising modern tale about worlds dangerously colliding, the monsters that are unleashed when reason recedes, and a beautiful testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times.’
NEXT DATE: Wednesday 20 April / 7pm
NEXT VENUE: Bill … we voted last night that the next meeting would be at your place. Hope that’s OK with you and that you are able to join us.

That was all until:

15 Apr 2016 2:45 pm, me:
Hi all
I’m assuming our next meeting is confirmed for Wednesday 20th at Bill’s place, as in Alphonse’s last email.
Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m about three-quarters through the book, and mostly enjoying it. (I love the description of Obama on p 127.) I’ve read a number of children’s books dealing with similar subject matter and I’m not sure that this is any more engaging than the best of them. If you’re interested you could have a look for the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud.

Having now finished Rushdie’s book, I would name Sophie Masson’s Snow, Fire, Sword as a more relevant children’s book: Sophie has supernatural beings from Arabic lore wreak havoc in Indonesia, with an implied parallel to real-world Wahhabism – a scenario not a million miles from Rushdie’s book. Here’s the Obama description I mentioned:

… the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man, eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in word and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who thought of himself as a man of reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon) and colour-blind.

The prospective roll-call began:

15 Apr 4:02 pm, Chrysostom:
Apologies from me too. Am in the bush

15 Apr 5:18 pm, Dionysus:
I’ll be there

And then the opinions started:

15 Apr 10:37 pm, Errol wrote:
I’ll be there, but as a complete bludger I’m afraid. I couldn’t get traction with the book. I tried three times but then I put it down and just couldn’t pick it up again.
Looking forward to other opinions
PS. What’s the address?

17 Apr 8:52 am, Ferdinand:
Same.

17 Apr 10:49 am, Dionysus being a little more forthcoming:
Glad to hear I’m not alone.

That’s three people who couldn’t get past the first few pages. I’m guessing that’s because there’s a lot in those pages about 12th century philosophical debates between Ibn Rushd (known to the West until recently as Averroes, and surely not coincidentally sounding a bit like ‘Rushdie’) and Ghazali (said to be the most influential Islamic scholar since Mohammad), mixed in with a lot of lore about jinn, plus some unconvincing sex. For a book that’s going to feature fairies and magic and levitation and comic book monsters, this beginning is perhaps just a little anxious to establish that the author has a serious underlying theme. Surely Salman could hear his readers muttering, ‘Get on with it!’

Back to the correspondence.

17 Apr 4:52 pm, Graham:
Just back this morning from overseas. So far I am enjoying the book but not finished yet. Has Bill said it’s on for Wed?
I am keen to come but may need to cancel at the last minute.
Keen to hear what people thought of the book

Hmm, enjoying it, but not going to move heaven and earth to talk about it with the comrades. And still no word from Bill.

18 Apr 8:17 am, Harald:
I’m on, got half way so far, with a similar lack of interest. Too much jinnying, to too little purpose.

Was ever a book so unenthusiastically greeted?

For my part, the place where I nearly put the book aside was page 107, well before the halfway mark:

… in Times Square … for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as ‘a few seconds’ and ‘several minutes’, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets, and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground. A few seconds (and maybe minutes) later the clothes reappeared but the nakedness of the men’s revealed possessions, weaknesses and indiscretions unleashed a storm of contradictory emotions, including shame, anger and fear. women ran screaming while the men scrambled for their secrets, which could be put back into their revenant pockets but which, having been revealed, could no longer be concealed.

That’s clever, it’s funny in a number of ways, and nicely written, with a touch of surreal silliness (when did you last see a sexual insecurity lying on the footpath?). But I was overwhelmed with a sense that life is short and Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is long. Too much jinnying indeed, and if this is part of what the book calls the War of the Worlds, there’s a serious gap between what the book seems to be claiming to be and what it actually is. Oh Salman, Salman, the readers are still muttering. Still, I went in mildly to bat:

18 Apr 8:42 am, me:
I’ll be interested to know if people think his account of the ‘purpose’ towards the end makes up for all the jinnying.

And then things got all organisational.

18 Apr 09:12 am, Alphonse:
So we have:
*   4 apologies
*   3 yes (2 of whom haven’t got far with the book)
*   3 no reply
*   no confirmed venue
Do we reschedule to a new venue next week ?

18 Apr 1:16 pm, Errol (who, remember, hadn’t got past the first couple of pages):
The way I see it, it’s not our fault that Salman Rushdie is a stuffed shirt with funny ideas and a strange way of saying them.
What if we ignore him? How about those of us that are available just go out for a meal on Wednesday night and hang out?

Bill (who hadn’t read the book) finally surfaced from his heavy other commitments to say that his place wasn’t possible this week, and with a little back and forth it was decided to go ahead, in a restaurant, last night. Harald (of the ‘too much jinnying’ comment) said he’d try to finish the book in time, and Jamahl chimed in:

18 Apr 4:40 pm, Jamahl:
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.
See you at the restaurant.

By now, I was spoiling for a conversation:

19 Apr 11:22 am, me: 
I’m sorry I can’t be there. Apart from the always excellent company, I would have enjoyed advocating for the book. It’s not as if I enjoyed it hugely. I struggled with the start and was tempted to give up at about page 100 (where the jinnery was getting tedious). Also, the sense that Rushdie was doing stuff that many children’s books had been doing for decades made me kind of resentful by proxy
BUT
in the end I was drawn in by the way he expects us to treat Arabic scholars with the same respect as we would western mediaeval ones; and the way he seduces us into seeing the ‘fairy’ world of northern Africa as central, with various more familiar Indian and Greek gods as manifestations of them. There’s a tiny bit where two characters are married at the Auribondo ashram in Pondicherry, by ‘Mother herself’ – an Indian email friend of mine has told me about Mother, who was a huge influence in my friend’s life. I wondered how many other references there were that non-Westerners would pick up on that just float by me. And yet, the book is definitely a novel in the western tradition, even if closer to children’s books and graphic novels than to Bleak House.
That’s my two bits.

Which drew Jamahl out with a perfect counterbalance to my over-seriousness. The book is after all a lot of fun, with goth-girls hurling lightning from their fingers and elderly gardeners floating a couple of millimetres above the ground, and terrible things happening to people’s skin if they tell lies in the presence of a magical baby:

19 Apr 5:06 pm, Jamahl: 
What a fantastic BUT.
Despite the river of references flowing by unnoticed while I read I still enjoyed the book. While I read I would suspend disbelief and wallow in the plasticity of time. There are also moments of ‘couldn’t give a fuck to consequence’ that I wholeheartedly supported.
While as a retiree you may be familiar with these freedoms this book allowed me to drift and swim in them.

No report from the dinner yet.

Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press 2002)

0807066095My copy of this book doesn’t have the subtitle it evidently carries in other editions: On Objects and Intimacy. If the subtitle had been there I might have been better prepared for what the book is. What it’s not is a dissertation on the painting it is named after (whose title has been changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or online here).

The book starts with the painting, or at least with the writer’s having fallen in love with it, and it does discuss it and other still lifes from the period, but it roams far and wide, through memoir about objects and how they – or their memories and representations – can come to embody emotional truths, to lyrical reflections on love, mortality, bereavement and poetry. It ranges through cute childhood memories of bears and boiled lollies, a fortieth birthday in Amsterdam involving visits to the Rijksmuseum, a Gay bathhouse, and a fine Thai restaurant, and wonderful writing about the consolations of art.

I came away from the book liking Mark Doty a lot, and with a sense that my heart had been rendered that much more open to the world.

To give you a taste of the writing, here is a passage that crops up as a digression in a story about a chipped blue and white platter that Doty bought at a sale table when out walking his dog, at a time when his partner was gravely ill:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.
But there’s the paradox – they are depicted in a moment of being seen, contemplated between the experience of tasting, smelling, devouring; but this depiction places them outside of time, or almost outside of it, in a long, slow process of decay, which is the process of oxidation, of slow chemical transformation … Whatever time may have done to the original fruits, their depiction is now safe from the quick corrosions of local time and subject to the larger, slower, depredations of history.
And thus something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.

PS: In the little blog that appears over in the right hand column of this one, I expressed frivolous misgivings as I was starting this book:

It’s a slender volume, published by a Unitarian publishing house. Is it a mattress to catch a falling Protestant and so of little interest to those who had a Catholic childhood?

Will commented:

No, not at all. It’s a lovely book of reflections on the real world as we see it. Painting and memory, seeing and interpreting. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s worth mentioning that Will is a librarian, and so may have a slightly more precise meaning in mind for the word ‘real’ than most of us do (see realia). He was right.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Don’t Cry, Tai Lake

Qiu Xiaolong, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (Minotaur Books 2012)

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I’ve pretty much stopped reading detective novels. Inspector Chen, Chinese poet-detective tempted me back into the genre. There was a promise of insight into the workings of contemporary China, and Chinese poetry ancient and modern, all floating on a light whodunnit froth.

I should have known better. The whodunnit element is flimsy. The poetry feels inserted (though it’s a nice touch that Chen quotes Matthew Arnold as well as verse from ancient dynasties). And any issue of Asia Literary Review offers more insight.

I might still have enjoyed it but, perhaps because had just read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, my internal blue pencil was on the alert, and this book’s copy editor let far too much go by: not anything gross, but far too much tautology of the ‘There was something eerily familiar about the peddler, Chen noticed, thinking he might have seen him somewhere’ kind, and enough examples of words that don’t mean what they’re meant to mean, as in the book’s very last sentence, ‘He wondered if he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ A decent copy editor would surely have suggested ‘onset’ because who can wonder about naps in the middle of any kind of onslaught?

I reached for a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo

Richard Powers, Orfeo (Atlantic Books 2014)

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Margaret Atwood, no less, is quoted on the cover of this book as saying, ‘If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century he’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’ That’s probably taken out of context, and it’s a wee bit over the top, but, you know, only a wee bit. If Melville had been writing about the music scene rather than the whaling industry, he might have written this book. The digressions are just about as long as the ones in Moby-Dick, and for my money at least as interesting; the quest at the centre of the story is as doomed and self-destructive; the frame of reference as global.

Peter Els, a 70 year old composer who has had very little popular or critical success, calls 911 when his dog dies. The police who come to his door have their security-threat detectors set off when they see that he is a DIY biochemist, and soon he is on the run with the full might of Homeland Security behind him. The story of his flight, which becomes a kind of Thelma-and-Louise flavoured 12-steps amends-making pilgrimage, is told in counterpoint with his back story. Folded into one story is the world of Homeland Security vigilance about real and imagined terrorist threats, media panics and the surveillance state; and into the other the history of 20th century US cutting-edge music in its broader world political context.

It’s a gauge of how well Powers writes that just as Els’s flight is reaching a critical moment, he stops off to give a lecture in an old people’s residence, and everything stops while we are told the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it’s so interesting that 17 pages later, when we return to the main narrative (‘That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils … ) we do so as if waking up from a vivid, satisfying dream. There are other, shorter digressions, in which Els listens to a piece of music, and we are taken through it moment by moment: this is a book to be read, not just with Google on hand to chase up interesting references, but with access to a music library to listen along with Els to Mahler, George Rochberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, and on and on. And yet it has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

I scored (no pun) Orfeo at my book-swappng club. Since I’d had Powers’ Galatea 2.2 on my TBR pile for some years, I decided to read it first. If the creative and life crises depicted in the earlier book when author and character, both called Richard Powers and in their mid 30s, were based in reality, it seems that they passed. Six novels and 19 years later, I don’t know that Orfeo is any more cheerful than Galatea 2.2 but if Galatea 2.2 contemplated the abyss, then Orfeo is gloriously, operatically, romantically over the cliff.

Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes

Favel Parrett, When the Night Comes (Hachette Australia 2014)

wncFavel Parrett’s first novel, Past the Shallows, published in 2011, was a hard act to follow. In When the Night Comes, her second, she moves to a bigger world, out past Tasmanian waters to Antarctica and Scandinavia, and into a delicate, tender relationship between an adult man and a girl just entering her teens.

I’m tempted to say that it’s actually two novels.

First there’s the one described in the author’s endnote. This is a celebration of the Norwegian ship, Nella Dan, a real ship whose history is sketched in the note, along with affectionate quotes from a number of people who sailed in ‘the little red ship’. If such a celebration had been written by, say, Neal Stephenson, it might have included bravura passages dramatising the ship’s inner workings – the heat and noise of the engine room, the pinging wheelhouse, the compartmentalisation of the hull. But this is not that kind of celebration. Here the engine is background noise that helps the sailors sleep; we spend time in the ship’s kitchen, but no ink is spilled on describing the stoves; if the size of the crew may be mentioned I don’t remember it. In fact, apart from its bright red paint and its size – sometimes surprisingly small, sometimes surprisingly big – we don’t have much sense of the ship as a physical thing at all. What we do have is the way all the characters respond to it, to her, as a dependable almost-maternal, almost-comradely, presence. Almost those things, because Nella Dan never really emerges as a character in her own right.

The other novel is the one I read, and was moved by. In it, the Nella Dan is an interesting setting for part of human story. This story moves between two points of view. The first is that of Isla, 12 or 13 years old, who has recently moved to Hobart with her mother and her younger brother (never known as anything other than ‘my brother’) after their parents’ marriage break-up. A Danish sailor named Bo becomes a regular part of the family. As Isla is completely uninterested in the world of adult relationships, we pretty much have to deduce that Bo and Isla get to spend time together because Bo and Isla’s mother are having a fling, a romance, a domestic relationship of some sort.  Bo’s is the other point of view, and we travel with him on the Nella Dan into Antarctic waters.

Dramatic things do happen: each of the main characters has to deal with the violent accidental death of a close friend, for example, and the Nella Dan runs into the perils of the Southern Ocean. But the strength of the book lies in it depiction of the delicate connection between these two people that allows Isla to imagine herself in a much bigger world, and Bo to find sweet companionship. It feels easy, but when you consider we live in a climate where closeness between an adult male and a child not his own is often looked on with deep suspicion, I can only say I’m deeply impressed – and grateful – for what the book offers.

Sadly, my copy was on loan and has been reclaimed by its owner, so I can’t quote anything. Trust me. Favel Parrett writes lucid, supple prose. The book is full of pleasures.

aww-badge-2015This is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.