Category Archives: Book Group

The Book Group and Lamorna Ash’s Dark, Salt, Clear

Lamorna Ash, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town (Bloomsbury 2020)

Before the Meeting: Lamorna Ash, a posh young Londoner fresh from university, decided to visit the part of Britain her mother came from, and from which she got her first name. She lived for two stints in the fishing village of Newlyn, just a couple of miles north of Lamorna in Cornwall, all her senses on the alert to see and understand everything about it, its people, and the life of fishermen (no fisherwomen during her time there) and their families. She went out on trawlers and smaller fishing boats. She drank with young and old. She formed solid friendships. She learned to gut fish and oscillated between horror and unholy glee as she graduated to stabbing rays in the heart – all part of a fisherman’s job. She talked and listened to everyone who would give her the time of day. And she wrote a lot of it down.

Meanwhile, she read or remembered writing by Elizabeth Bishop (whose poem ‘At the fishhouses‘ describes the sea as ‘Dark, salt, clear’), Barry Lopez, Walter Benjamin, Marianne Moore, Herman Melville, Antonia Barber (author of the picture book The Mousehole Cat, whose name doesn’t appear in the well-deserved praise of the book), W G Sebald, and other literary giants – and found ways they shed light on what she was discovering.

Then she made all that into this book. I enjoyed it. The author’s extreme youth gives rise to some embarrassing moments – as when she explains that ‘yarn’ is an old term meaning ‘story’, or when she reflects on how differently one sees the world when one is older, for values of older that are less than 25. The literary references sometimes feel forced. But by about page 100 these qualities had come to feel like part of the charm of the book. She’s capable of mocking herself, as when she writes of the walks she takes to stave off loneliness:

I often leave notes for myself on my phone when I go on these solitary walks, little inanities I wish I had someone else with me to whom I could say them out loud. This morning I wrote myself a particularly bold one. ‘For someone who gets lost a lot, coastal walks are a godsend. Only if the sound of the sea disappears from your left ear, can you have possibly gone wrong.’

Well yes, I guess it’s an inanity, but no more so than many of her observations, and this little moment of self-deprecation earned my forgiveness for a lot.

On the other hand, no forgiveness is required for her description of her week on board the trawler Filadelfia, which forms the book’s narrative backbone. Here’s her wonderful account of gutting a stingray:

I flip the ray over on to its back. Its stomach is a cadaverous grey and its almond-shaped mouth gapes open and shut like the puckering of a teenage kiss. The lips are so human I am momentarily dumbstruck. Open and shut, open and shut, its mouth sounds out a wordless plea.

I shake myself from my trance and hear Stevie prompting me to make an upside-down V incision along the translucent flap of skin that conceals its vital organs. Underneath is a mess of multi-coloured, pulsating guts – bright pinks, yellows and oranges. Over the roar of the engine, the men guide me to seize hold of a fistful of guts and pull them away from the ray’s body. But as I do so, the ray’s muscular wings start to close in upon my hand. In film footage of rays swimming, they use their wings, properly named pectoral fins, to propel themselves forward, gracefully rippling through the water like thin material animated by wind.

The ray’s last desperate bid to defend itself shocks me out of the automatic, mechanical state I usually induce in myself while gutting. In panic, I try to withdraw my arm, but its wings are still clutching me tightly. Beyond the boat, the waves have picked up and the boat slams down into the water. ‘You have to stab it!’ the men cry, goading me on as if we were outside the Swordy [hotel in Newlyn] preparing for a brawl. I let out a cry and stab the ray in the heart.

(page 256)

Her initial horror changes to murderous glee. The crew take to giving her all the rays to gut, and nickname her Raymundo.

After the meeting: For no particular reason we met in an Indian restaurant, the food was excellent, and the tragedy currently unfolding on the subcontinent had no obvious impact on the mood of our hosts, but there were nine of us at a long table. Conversation was animated and the book was discussed vigorously, but it was hard to manage a single shared for more than a very brief time. Next meeting’s host, who is responsible for summarising each meeting, put it well on WhatsApp: ‘

So yes, it was a excellent banquet last night where I got a week’s worth of meat, we agreed the book was somewhere between 2.5 & 4.5 stars, was either deeply revealing or a series of pleasant vignettes, … was in a place we should all visit and was generally an enjoyable read.

The 2.5 party hadn’t finished the book and didn’t intend to. He hadn’t read the fascinating historical account of how the town was saved from actual destruction in the 1930s at the hands of bureaucratic health and safety regulations, how a petition was taken to London on a small fishing vessel whose crew were astonished to see the banks of the Thames crowded with well wishers. He felt that the (to me fascinating) tidbits of Cornish language were mere padding.

The 4.5 party, just loved the book. He was completely charmed by the author’s voice. He described her quotes from other writers as smacking of undergraduate naivety and enthusiasm, but saw it as part of her youthful charm. (Given that our group is made up, all but one, of old farts gentlemen of a certain age, the youth of the writer was an issue for all of us one way or another.) He spoke eloquently of the way the narration would move from descriptions of social life in the pub to a deep dive into some aspect of the life of the town.

Whereas I, and others, found the description of life on fishing trips, of the way time at sea opens up spaces for communication and reflection, one man who has worked on boats said he found that fairly ordinary and wished there was a lot more about the women left ashore. Though the difficulties of the life were touched on, we were left feeling that a much darker story could have been told.

One chap had been to Cornwall a couple of years ago, and could show us photos of the town, including the very boat on which a pigeon dies in once of the book’s many atmospheric anecdotes. Actually he showed us these pics on WhatsApp before the meeting; he brought them to the dinner on a tablet, but couldn’t see a way to pass it around.

A couple of chaps drew comparisons between this book and James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life. Each of them is an account of a community, a place, a working life that has endured for centuries and is under threat in the modern capitalist world. One is a passionate insider’s story, the other that of an interested visitor. It’s not that Lamorna Ash was trying to do do a James Rebanks: she’s completely upfront about her outsider, ‘posh’ status, her lack of skin in the game, but the book is still a serious piece of non-fiction, combining advocacy, memoir, linguistic sidelights, character studies, and adventure on the high seas.

The Book Group and David Williamson’s Removalists

David Williamson, The Removalists (Currency Press 1972)

Last night the Book Group had an extracurricular outing to see David Williamson’s play The Removalists at the New Theatre (which is about as new as the Pont Neuf in Paris).

Written before the outing: I have a soft spot for this play. I saw the first Sydney production at the Nimrod Theatre in 1971, an astonishing 50 years ago, as part of the exhilarating resurgence of Australian theatre at the time. In early 1973, the first copies of the book arrived in the Currency Press office soon after I started working there in my first real job – it was a big seller for them, and as far as I can tell is still selling well. I visited the set of Tom Jeffreys’ film in 1974, and was in awe of the intense inner focus of actor John Hargreaves as he waited for the cameras to roll.

Before our theatre outing I revisited the book – a first edition, stiff and yellowing on a shelf near Alex Buzo’s Macquarie and Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. In a successful bid for the educational market, Currency’s founders, theatre critic Katharine Brisbane and her scholar husband Philip Parsons, prefaced the text of the play with two essays, ‘Reflections on Violence’ by historian Ian Turner, and ‘Authority and Punishment’ by eminent defence lawyer Frank Galbally (who is mentioned in the play) and Kerry Milte (who was soon to become the subject of interesting dramas of his own). John Bell, who directed the Nimrod production, has an afterword, and the front and back covers fold out to reveal cartoons by Bruce Petty. I haven’t seen the current edition of the book, but the image of the cover on Currency’s web site mentions Galbally and Turner, but not Petty.

This prefatory material is all about violence and authority. Ian Turner sums it up well:

The Removalists raises three questions: one sociological (is Australian society violent of its essence?); one political (do the forces of ‘law and order’ rest on violence?’); one psychological (do all of us have the kinds of aggressive instincts or behaviour patterns which Williamson depicts?).

The essays talk about the streak of male violence in Australian culture (what would today be called toxic masculinity), and they talk about historic violence against First Nations peoples and Asians, especially the Chinese on the goldfields. The domestic violence at the heart of the play is barely mentioned. John Bell does offer an early version of what has become a common observation abut Williamson’s writing: strong women actors are necessary to stop the female characters from ‘degenerating into stilted, unconvincing types’. The edition of the book currently on sale may have been updated. Certainly, in 2014 Currency published ‘The Unexpected Feminist’, a feminist reading of the play by Van Badham (online here).

In case you don’t know the plot: two women, sisters, turn up at a two-man (sic) police station asking for a document establishing that the younger woman has been assaulted, in order to legitimise their plan to move her and her baby out of the marital home while her husband is out at the pub; the older policeman, with sleazy motivation, offers to come and help the move; the younger policeman, fresh out of training, goes along unwillingly; at the home, the husband comes home unexpectedly, and the situation escalates into lethal violence.

Reading the text, I imagine that a successful staging in 2021 would have to take into account our much better understanding of domestic abuse and violence, and our (I hope) intolerance of having it minimised. Though the play doesn’t endorse the way the sergeant and the husband make light of the DV here, it isn’t much interested in it except as precipitating violence among the men. Some of the minimising language could have come from the pages of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do (my review here). John Bell’s comment about how much depends on the women actors has become much weightier with age.

The outing: Nine of us, including two ring-ins, had a cheerful Thai dinner across the street from the theatre. When we crossed over 15 minutes or so before lights down, fate decreed that the third row from the front, in my opinion the best seats in the house, was empty. There was a sizeable audience, almost all of whom I’d guess were high school students who have the play as a set text. It was kind of exhilarating to be in a big live audience full of youthful energy – for some of the Book Group it was the first time they’d sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre since the beginning of Covid days.

I had been wondering how the play would deal with #MeToo. It turned out that Johann Walraven, the director, was more interested in how it relates to #BlackLivesMatter. This was announced in the first moments. As the lights come up, while the two policeman are seen in the shadowy police station on stage right, an Aboriginal man watches a flickering TV screen in his living room on stage left. He turns off the television and walks out of the room, the lights come up on the police station, and the play as written, in which all the other characters are white, begins. The production doesn’t take any liberties with the script, but the power plays of the other characters in relation to Kenny, the husband (by Alfie Gledhill), are now seen through a racialised lens. In a climactic moment there’s a George Floyd reference that feels absolutely integral to the play, and is gutting.

The misogyny was still unsettling. It’s there from the opening scene in which the Sergeant gives voice to the myth of false rape claims, through Kenny’s minimising of his violence against Fiona (Eliza Nicholls), to a sleazy discussion of sex-workers towards the end. It’s meant to be unsettling: it’s the thing about the Sergeant that makes us realise he’s something much uglier than a harmless scallywag who plays the system. And Kenny’s talk of ‘love-taps’ is echoed by the Sergeant later in reference to his own ferocious assaults on Kenny – no minimising possible there, as we’re seeing it for ourselves. I imagine it would have to be written differently today, but the audience is left in no doubt that this is a scene that the two women are smart to be getting out of.

My abiding impression from the 1971 production at the Nimrod Street Theatre is of Max Phipps as Ross, the young constable. It was his transformation from gormless innocence to rage, violence and cunning that burned the play into my memory. Last night, the play belonged to Laurence Coy as the Sergeant. Lecherous, self-righteous, bullying, vicious, self-pitying, out of control, blustering, I’d thought of the character as little more than a crucible for Ross’s transformation, but in this production he’s a tortured human being, and Ross (Lloyd Allison-Young) is pretty much collateral damage. Possibly the most powerful moment last night wasn’t in the big, horrifying violence, but a small moment that almost didn’t happen. In the middle of a rant about self-control as the test of manhood, the Sergeant shouts that his wife had twenty-seven kidney fits after childbirth. Kate (Shannon Ryan), the obnoxious older sister, moves towards him, and says gently, ‘Twenty-seven kidney fits. That’s terrible.’ In a fleeting moment of humanity, the Sergeant says, ‘Yes, We gave her up at one stage.’ In classic David Williamson style, the moment is undercut with some rough humour, but the actors caught this tiny wisp of tenderness and vulnerability and made sure we saw it.


Full disclosure: Laurence Coy is a member of the Book Group – but he really is that good in this play.

The Book Group on David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (Sceptre 2020)

Before the meeting: This is the first book by David Mitchell that I’ve read. Once again, the Book Group has taken me off my customary reading track.

The book takes its title from Utopia Avenue, a fictional English rock band in the late 1960s: a socially awkward guitar player from a wealthy Dutch family who wrestles with his personal demons (word chosen carefully), a working-class bass player with long hair and a troubled relationship (an understatement) with his father, a rough Yorkshire lad on the drums, a middle-class woman folk-singer who is a wonder on the keyboards, and their Canadian manager, a decent man who gets them together and believes in their talent. Three of the four band members are song-writers, and the book’s chapters are named for their songs. Its longer sections are named for the band’s three albums.

The novel charts the band’s progress from their coming together, to their disastrous first gig, to a painful but comparatively rapid rise in the charts, to success at home and in the USA and (not a spoiler) their eventual break-up. Plus a brief reunion fifty-one years later.

Even though the book is unmistakably fiction, it has a powerful documentary quality. It feels animated by a love for that moment in pop history (roughly the time when David Mitchell was being born, I just found out). There’s careful attention to period details – how to make a phone call and why you might hesitate to call internationally, how to negotiate sexual politics when the world is on the cusp of second-wave feminism, how to manage the politics of the US war in Vietnam when you’re a ‘non-political’ band, the meaning of long hair. We are often told what song is playing in the background, and although I was living in a monastery in the years in question, this evokes the flavour of the times wonderfully. Historical figures make cameo appearances: Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen – and Jimmy Saville with the faintest whiff of the revelations to come much later. Francis Bacon presides over a whole chapter. Words of wisdom are quoted from Mama Cass and Mick Jagger. The band members sit and discuss the newly-released Sergeant Pepper’s track by track. I felt I was in safe hands: I believe that Jagger actually said the things attributed to him, that Mama Cass gave such sex-and-marijuana parties (in fact I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one just like it in a movie), that Leonard Cohen spoke with this flirtatious formality, that radio and television shows were tacky in something close to this way. The research doesn’t push itself to the front of the picture, but it provides a solid, fine-grained background.

Possibly someone who knows more about music than I do will complain that the descriptions of the band’s concerts are inauthentic (as one of the Book Group has been scathing about Tim Winton’s descriptions of surfing), but I loved them. For example, in Side One of the third album, where the band begins to play Jasper’s song ‘Sound Mind’, I wouldn’t know a chop-slap from a scale of triads, but I do get the excitement of the moment:

Jasper strums; asks the tech-guy for more volume on his guitar; shuts his eyes … and slams into an amp-blowing, bent-string howl; and fires off a scale of triads, starting from high E, all the way down. Jasper rewards his first cheer of the night with a new riff that isn’t ‘Sound Mind’: nobody will ever know it’s a rip-off of Cream’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. It gets the audience thunder-clapping in time. Griff, Dean and Elf join in on drums, bass and Hammond. Jasper steers the jam through three cycles before wrapping it up in a Wah-Wah’d B flat, the opening of ‘Sound mind’. Dean comes in with the bass riff; Elf comes in on the next bar; and Griff chop-slaps on the next. Jasper leans in for his psycho-whisper …

(Page 461)

What I’m saying is that this is a terrific historical novel. But then … astonishingly integrated with the rest, is a fantasy narrative strand. There are characters who are hundreds of years old, something akin to demonic possession and something akin to exorcism. For me as a newcomer to David Mitchell, when this strand comes to the fore, it does so as a brilliant plot twist. Seasoned Mitchell readers wouldn’t be so joyfully blindsided. For them, hints abound. For example, the lead guitarist is Jasper De Zoet, a name that suggests that he may be a descendant of the title character of Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. (Again, not a spoiler: he is revealed to be just that.) It turns out that any number of minor characters have wandered into these pages from earlier Mitchell novels, just as others have wandered in from the real-life 1960s, and the weird stuff harks back to the imagined realities of earlier books. It speaks wonders for Mitchell’s writing that I didn’t have a sense that I was coming in late: everything makes sense in terms of the present-time story, and everything is explained coherently. Only towards the end, when there are hints that the odd behaviour of a young child is is doing what in in a TV show would be laying the grounds for next season, I went DuckDuckGoing and found the notion that all Mitchell’s novels are connected into an über-novel – which I think means that each of his novels adds something to an ongoing story that stretches over centuries.

I’m left with at least one mystery. When Dean, the bass player, goes to an anti-Vietnam demonstration in London, he is attracted to a woman named Lara. She says something about the demonstrators being in a great revolutionary tradition, and this uncharacteristically stilted conversation follows (remember, this is in the middle of a demo where people are being attacked by police with batons):

‘What’s yer surname, Lara?’ asked Dean.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘One day yer going to be famous.’
Lara lit a Marlboro. ‘Lara Veroner Gubitosi.’
‘Wow. That’s … long.’
‘Most names on Earth are longer than “Dean Moss”.’
‘S’pose so. Are yer Italian, then?’
‘I’m from many places.’

Something is being hinted at here, and I don’t know what it is. As far as I can find out, Lara Veroner Gubitosi isn’t a historical personage. Nor, as far as I know, is she a character from another David Mitchell novel. I tried for an anagram, and came up with ‘revolutionaries brag’ or ‘love is but a roaring’. Neither feels conclusive. Maybe it too is a hint of things to come in future novels.

So I’m taking two questions to the Group. How do the musicians among us feel about the descriptions of music? and, Why is that minor character called Lara Veroner Gubitosi?

After the meeting: There was some WhatsApp discussion of what music should be playing at this dinner. It was a long list, and it looked like a real possibility that book talk would be secondary to fogeys reminiscing about the 60s, even though a couple of the chaps weren’t born then.

The playlist was there and a source of much pleasure. Likewise the reminiscing. One of us could boast that back in the mid 60s he was a founding member of one of the London clubs that feature in the book. Another was close friends with Joe Strummer. Yet another knew someone who auditioned to replace Pete Best when was turfed as drummer for the Beatles – and believed that Ringo was absolutely the right person for the job. Closer to the experience of the rest of us was the chap who said he still has the little tin he kept his dope in, and when he lifts the lid – every couple of years – he can still smell the 70s.

We did talk about the book, a lot. One or two found it too long. one said that the structure of our meeting – all in a single, focused conversation for some time, then splintering into two or three disparate chats, then back together again, repeat – was similar to the book’s structure. There was a difference of interpretation about Jacob’s story: some read it as a graphic and moving account of schizophrenia, whereas I’m convinced that while that’s clearly there as a metaphorical resonance, the weird events he experiences are real in the world of the book. When I mentioned as evidence that the same immortal creatures appear in other David Mitchell books, someone said that that was all very well, but just sticking to the book in front of us, the schizophrenic reading held up. The one person who had read other David Mitchell novels abstained from the debate, and of course the emotional force of the story was the same whichever way you read it.

It’s a book that conversation can thrive on. Judgements divided about the cameo appearances of real people, heavily leaning toward the view that they worked well. On my question about the descriptions of music, those who knew more about music than I do (which wouldn’t take much) enjoyed the descriptions at least as much as I did. On my question about Lara Veroner Gubitosi, the consensus seemed to be that I have too much time on my hands, though at least one person conceded that David Mitchell may well be playing little games with us. We talked about the book’s portrayal of the difference between British and US pop culture, of the situation of women in rock at that time, of the realism in the account of Dean being hit with a possibly opportunistic paternity claim.

In non-book conversation, we were generally dismayed at Scott Morrison’s statement that it was when his wife suggested that he imagine their daughters being sexually abused that he realised he needed to empathise with a young woman currently in the news; we barely mentioned the former US President; there was some back and forth, mainly back, about Elizabeth Farrelly’s new book, Killing Sydney; Covid got surprisingly little wavelength; there was some amusing reporting on how some women (met at parties? on dating apps? I don’t know) are fascinated at the concept of an all male Book Group, who not only meet, but once they’ve met actually talk about the book. We had what we have come to call a Gentlemen’s Picnic – that is, we brought food. There was too much, and it was excellent.

The Book Group and John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Bloomsbury 1989)

Before the meeting: This is an odd book. It tells the life story of Owen Meany, a young man who is tiny in stature and huge in voice like the hero of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen the movie). From an early age Owen has a profound belief that he is an instrument of God, and he has a vision of his own death, including the exact date and some of the circumstances. His story is told by his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, who doesn’t have a lot to distinguish him from any other child of an old New England family, except that his mother never revealed the identity of his father and she herself was killed in a bizarre Little League accident when he was eleven.

I loved the first hundred pages or so, which introduce us to the characters who inhabit the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend, and tell the story of Owen and Johnny’s childhood friendship, their shared quest to find the identity of Johnny’s father, their adolescent adventures. I was happily back to my enjoyment of The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), both of which I read when they were newly published. John Irving has an eye for the detail that brings a scene to life, and manages to keep his story slightly off-kilter without every completely descending into quirkiness. His characters are vividly realised in a few strokes, with an almost Dickensian oddness. My love waned in a very long sequence involving the staging of two theatrical pieces concurrently, a Christmas pageant and a production of A Christmas Carol. In both of them Owen is improbably compelling, at least in rehearsals, as the Christ Child and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Both predictably descend into chaos. These chapters rattle along, full of amusing and touching incidents and character development, but I was straining at the bit, wanting the story to move forward.

Then at almost exactly the midpoint of the novel, in the narrator’s present time, I was rapped over the knuckles in a moment that’s close to being explicitly meta. John (as he is now known) laments that his girl students don’t read Hardy’s novels with an eye to foreshadowing. ‘I hope you realise,’ John Irving was saying at barely one remove, ‘that all that stuff about Owen as Christ, Owen as a ghost predicting the future, Owen and a number of armless figures, Owen practising a special basketball move, all that was giving you very specific hints about where this narrative is going.’ Well, I took the hint, and from that point on I read everything as foreshadowing.

When all that carefully constructed foreshadowing came together in the final pages of the book, it was most satisfactory – or just a bit too neatly tied together, depending on your point of view. I was left uneasily cold by the religiosity of the story, which to be fair was signalled on the very first page when John-the-narrator tells us that Owen was the reason he believes in God. Owen becomes a Christ figure, but without arms, and John lives out his day as a vaguely religious, celibate man whose only purpose, apart from teaching English literature to teenage Canadian girls, is to bear witness to Owen’s story. Religion is his analgesic. ‘Don’t underestimate the church’ – he says at one point – ‘its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart.’ (Page 415) It’s a religious faith that depends on miracles for its existence (the kind of miracles that exist only in the pages of carefully contrived novels), and leads to a lack of engagement with the world, or with anything but the memory of his Christ-like friend. It leaves a sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

But, speaking of foreshadowing, John’s present time coincides with the Contra scandal under Reagan, and though he has been living in Canada for decades he is addicted to the US news. So much of John’s (and presumably Irving’s) commentary on Reagan’s US feels eerily prophetic of Trump and Trumpism. I recognise John’s newspaper addiction as an old-media version of my (our?) Twitter addiction. It’s not that things were the same back then, but by contrasting the Kennedy era of Johnny and Owen’s adolescence with the Reagan era of John’s middle age, the passions that burned over the US invasion of Vietnam with the apathy that greeted the Contra scandal, the novel captures a change in the US’s political culture, a change that has since deepened to an extent that would have looked wildly fantastical in the 1980s.

After the meeting: Last night was our last meeting for 2020 and our second since we all started to relax a little about Covid–19. All but two of us made it – one of the absentees had to attend a family do, and the other had been tested for the Covids with his young daughter and was staying home as a good citizen (he WhatsApped us this morning to say the result was, as expected, negative). We had what we’ve been calling a Gentlemen’s Picnic: everyone brought food. We ate well, including salmon with anchovy butter pats, barbecued sausages, charcoal chicken, several salads and three different desserts. Covid deprived us of meatballs slow cooked with figs. Our host had Gospel music playing as we arrived, which he said was the nearest he could come to the religiosity of the book, and at the end of the evening he treated us to a couple of short films he had made – potentially setting a dangerous precedent as I’m sure may of us have substantial slide shows we’d love to share.

It’s not that we didn’t talk about other things: family news, good TV and movies (a Michael Jordan film is apparently excellent, and I’m not the only one who loved Corpus Christi), a bit of reminiscence about the 18 years of book group and rumination on how it has changed this year (because of Covid and zoom? because of the level of trust that has enabled discussion to become more robust? because the person who noticed the change has been a more frequent attender this year?), Trump deprivation syndrome, and show-biz anecdotes all got an airing. But the book generated a lot of discussion.

I wasn’t an outlier, as it turned out. Someone described the book, memorably, as a shaggy dog story. A man who said he hadn’t finished it was having trouble following comments about how all the threads came together in the last scene: it turned out he’d read all but the last 10 pages or so, which just goes to show how skilfully John Irving postpones his revelations until the last possible moment. Someone said – articulating my sentiments exactly – that in the first couple of pages he breathed a sigh of relief: after reading a number of books for the group that, whatever their other virtues, were pretty rockily written, with this he knew he was in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Someone felt that this was a book written by someone who had a big back catalogue, who now could relax and just spin a yarn without being too serious about it, venting about current politics as the spirit moved him. Not everyone agreed. Some, me included, felt we were expected to take the religious theme seriously but found it pretty hard to do so. One said most of the religious stuff was largely incomprehensible to him. I asked if the recurring image of armlessness was purely decorative or had some thematic significance. One of our architects took offence, demanding, ‘What’s wrong with decoration?’ and describing the way those recurring images created a patterning that was pleasing in itself and helped the reader track the story. Our Book Chooser, who first read the book 30+ years ago, loved it then and loved it again this time, thought the armlessness represented Owen’s helplessness in the light of fate. This led someone to comment that though Johnny keeps his arms, he is ineffectual, spiritually armless. None of us could remember what we were told about the armless image drawn by the 17th century sagamore Watahantowet when he signed away the land to the invaders, but felt that might offer some help. I just looked it up:

Some said it was how it made the Sagamore feel to give up all that land – to have his arms cut off – and others pointed it out the earlier ‘marks’ made by Watahantowet revealed that the figure, although armless, held a feather in his mouth; this was said to indicate the sagamore’s frustration at being unable to write. But in several other versions of the totem ascribed to Watahantowet, the figure has a tomahawk in his mouth …

There’s more. The upshot is that the armlessness could signify many contradictory things. It’s a good example of how so much of the early pages of the book are full of foreshadowing, and of how hard it is to pin down the book’s actual position. Is John Wheelwright a dependable narrator? Does Johnny have a feather between his teeth, while Owen had a tomahawk? The questions aren’t resolved, and we don’t even know if they are meant to be taken seriously. We admired the first sentence of the book as an example of foreshadowing; evidently John Irving himself admired it too.

A number of chaps had done some supplementary reading. One of them had read that John Irving starts with a clear image of how a book is going to end and then makes sure everything leads to that point. This rings very true.

In order to give the appearance of completeness, I’ll finish with a quote from the one chap who hadn’t read the book at all, except for the author’s introduction in his copy. He said he concluded on the basis of that introduction that John Irving was a wanker. Not everyone agreed.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence

Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books 2020)

Before the Meeting: Generally, if I read a book about a marginalised group I try to read one by someone from that group soon after. Even though both Truganini (the Book Group’s last title) and The Colony (which I read just before Truganini) are committed to telling colonial history with First Nations perspectives to the fore, they are both written by white/settler women. So I was happy when this book by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, was chosen for the Book Group.

Julie Janson has described the novel as ‘a First Nations response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville’:

[The Secret River] is a wonderful book, but I was challenged by the ending where all the Burruberongal Darug people died in a massacre except for one old man. I asked myself the question: if all the Darug died, who were we?

I had researched my (Aboriginal) family history along the Hawkesbury River, and the Darug interpretation of those early days of colonial invasion is entirely different.

(Link to Booktopia interview here)

Benevolence (the title is deeply ironic) tells the story of Muraging, a Burruberongal woman whose parents give her up to a missionary-run school in 1816 when she is very young, in the hope that she will gain resources there to survive in the colonised world. Renamed Mary, she learns to read, write and play the violin, and resists attempts to make her give up on her culture, language and people. She runs away with a handsome young Aboriginal man, and what follows is a picaresque account of her travels, moving back and forth between the two cultures – now living with a group of women who have lost their men to the frontier wars, now a servant to a clergyman with whom she has a consensual sexual relationship that eventually goes very sour, now wandering with her small daughter, a servant again, a disregarded listener to callous conversations about massacre and rape, a speaker of truth to power. She finds occasional kindness and mostly avoids threats of violence and sexual assault. She spends time in prison, is often hungry, loses her daughter, has a second child after having sex with a French man in return for a bag of flour. She never gives up the search for her family and a place where she can live among her people.

It’s a story of navigating the harsh conditions of colonisation. The Aboriginal people and communities that Mary encounters are not pathetic victims, and aren’t romanticised as automatically safe and nurturing, but at the end of the novel, she finds a home in a community of survivors – precarious, under threat, but solid.

Each chapter has a year in its heading title, and most begin with a brief note on what is happening in the colony: in 1826 Darling becomes Governor of the colony; in 1832 Kings School opens in Parramatta; in 1835 Governor Bourke proclaims terra nullius; also in 1835 King William IV recognises the continued rights to land for Aboriginal people in South Australia. These landmarks serve to anchor the narrative in settler history, but most bear little direct relation to Mary’s struggles.

There are many painful scenes with settlers: the unashamedly white supremacist Reverend Masters, the weak Reverend Smythe (her first child’s father), Smythe’s insufferably prim and nasty wife Susan, a military man who forces her to guide him on a punitive expedition that culminates in massacre, and others. These characters are pretty much universally portrayed as weirdly irrational, inconsistent, bullying or pusillanimous, so that their scenes – dinner parties, domestic rows, meetings with Aboriginal warriors – read like hellish phantasmagoria. I haven’t seen any of Julie Janson’s plays, but many of the scenes involving settler characters read like scripts for rough-theatre, agitprop pieces.

To give you a taste, here’s part of the scene where Susan Smythe has caught her husband Henry having sex with Mary, after Susan has set fire to their cornfield and blamed Mary, after Mary has saved Susan’s life, after Henry has told Mary many times that she must leave. Mary is listening from behind a screen:

‘Get rid of her!’ Susan is speaking with a clear high voice. Henry twitches and ruffles his black hair with nervous fingers. He sits by his writing desk and taps his quill. He laughs like men do when confronted by a wronged woman.

‘Must we discuss this now? I am penning a sonnet and working on my native language book,’ says Henry. He dips the quill in ink and examines the tip.

“Sonnet? Are you insane? I shall call the doctor to bleed and purge these dark humours,’ rages Susan.

‘We must buy more quills – make a list … She is just a black servant. Don’t be silly, Susan dearest,’ says Henry.

‘You must choose between rich cream cake and soda bread,’ says Susan.

Mary leans forward to hear his answer. She holds her breath.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dearest. It was a mistake such as many better man than me have also on occasion made. You must forgive me. I command you to find forgiveness. I am only human,’ says Henry.

‘I have heard about such servants! The other colonial wives have spoken of these creatures!’ says Susan. ‘You are shaming me and have no respect for the sacred promise of our marriage. You are a colonial joke. Everyone is laughing at you – behind your back – at your lack of Christian fidelity or conscience as you preach your pious sermons on the Sabbath. Look at you now, damaged by a violent savage and yet you dare to defy me and you let her stay.’

(Pages 178–179)

Clearly both these people are unhinged. Yet they have life-and-death power over Mary and her daughter.

It’s exhilarating to have stories of early settlement told from a strong, unapologetic Aboriginal point of view that makes no attempt to humanise the invaders.

This is an unsettling book, not only because of its content. Very unsettling for me as a white, middle-class man who has worked for decades as a copy-editor, is a kind of knockabout quality to the text, something that I took at first to be poor proofreading but which is so pervasive that it has become a feature rather than a bug. In these sad times when publishing companies don’t generally have in-house copy-editors, it’s a rare book that has no typos, but this is at a whole other level.

There are moments, like this from page 110, that are impossible to visualise:

Mary sips the tea and smiles with her hands pressed between her thighs.

There are malapropisms – some Aboriginal people are to be punished for their ‘trepidations against settler families’. A tribe in the north-east of Sydney is called the ‘Awakabal’, twice, which is surely a misspelling of ‘Awabakal’. A character is described as Bungaree’s grand-daughter and on the same page as the sister of Bungaree’s son.

I don’t think these errors are deliberate, but whether they survive to the published text through lack of resource or failure of editorial attention they amount to a kind of nose-thumbing. I think of that Audre Lorde quote: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Benevolence uses the colonisers’ tool, the novel, to respond to a ‘wonderful book’ that has erased a people’s survival. There’s a kind of rough justice in that tool being treated with disrespect.


After the meeting: We met in person for the first time in months. At least seven of us were there in person – even making a little physical contact. An eighth had been about to leave his home when a friend and recent contact called to say she was feeling sick, so he did the ‘abundance of caution’ thing and joined us on a screen for as much as he could stand.

It was good to eat together. It was so good to be in a room with other bodies, where cross-currents of conversation were allowed to flow (though that was hard on the virtual participant). Somehow, I think, being physically together made it easier to talk about this book – about the roughness of much of the writing, and the shameful sense most of us shared of having light shone on our ignorance about the realities of colonisation.

Others were – of course – less disturbed than I had been by the typos etcetera. I had hoped someone might have seen Julie Janson’s plays at Belvoir Street, but no one had. Someone mentioned Kim Scott’s books, That Deadman Dance and Taboo (links to my blog posts) as covering similar territory, brilliantly. More than one of us had gone in search of historical information, and reminded us that Samuel Marsden, presumably the inspiration of the novel’s Reverend Masters, was on record as perpetrating some hideous atrocities. We generally acknowledged the heartbreaking difficulty of the task Julie Janson had taken on: to draw on scholarly historical works and stories passed down by generations of survivors, to imagine herself into the life of one person in those terrible times. The general sense was that, for all its flaws, we were glad to have read the book. The Chooser, who was absent because of a non-Covid infection, was thanked in his absence.

And of course, we shared our responses to whatever the President of the United States had done (it was last night and he’s said so much since then!), to the Premier of New South Wales’s self-inflicted damage, to some recondite celebrity gossip (did you know about Bug Beats, a children’s show on Netflix, that has permission to use a whole slew of Beatles songs), to the adventures of some of our offspring, etc. We took a moment to honour the achievement of Victorians in bringing the infection numbers down. The potatoes that our host had out in the oven some time before we all arrived were ready to eat soon after we all left. He sent us a photo on WhatsApp.


Benevolence is the 17th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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.

The Book Group and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Viking 2006)

When the Book Group met by zoom on 28 July, I had been away from home for a week or so, and my copy of the book had arrived after I left and was sitting in my mail box for five days, attracting the attention of snails. I had managed to read just five pages of a friend’s copy by the time we all logged in. I’m usually one of the swats who has read the whole book, so it was an interesting experience to come to the discussion in almost total ignorance.

At the meeting: We didn’t spend a lot of time catching up on one another’s lives, and spent no time at all eating and drinking. Once we’d managed to get ten of us on the screen (the sole absentee said he was too immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light to think about any other book), this book held our attention for pretty much the whole two hours.

Let’s see.

One chap said he found the book unreadable. He kept going back to his large-print library copy with good intentions and then falling asleep: he could tell that the young protagonist was enduring terrible things but just couldn’t feel anything for him or for any of the characters. When he said he gave up at about page 116, another chap said, ‘Ah well, I felt pretty much the same until page 108 and then it just took off.’ He then gave a spirited account of the book as a study in bad parenting: the protagonist, a young boy in Gaddafi’s Libya, feels a huge obligation to look after his mother, and for a child to feel that way his parents must have failed in their responsibilities. In this case, the mother was an alcoholic (in Muslim-dominant Libya!) and the father was some kind of half-baked revolutionary who went and got himself arrested and beaten up.

And we were off.

You can’t blame the parents when the society under Gaddafi was so dire. The book is a study in how an oppressive regime infiltrates and corrupts people’s minds and relationships, including those of parents and children. A good bit of the discussion was about how the boy exploits moments when he has the power to do harm, betraying in one example the only friend he has outside his family.

Someone who had read Hisham Matar’s The Return (which I also have – blog post at this link) spoke interestingly about the relationship between that memoir and this novel: the memoir deals with Matar’s permanent loss of his father by abduction when he was 19, and his attempt over years to find out what happened to him; the novel, written years earlier, returns the father, even though damaged, to a much younger son after just a few weeks, as if Matar wrote the novel to to explore what might have happened in his own life if things had gone differently.

After the meeting: I’d expected to sit in on the meeting, enjoy making contact, hear people’s news, laugh at their jokes, and then move on. I didn’t get much news, except that the window for commenting on the egregious plans for misspending billions of dollars on the Australian War Memorial was to close on 31 July, but the rest was as expected, except for the moving on: I decided that I had to read the book after all.

Life and other books got in the way but now at last I’ve read it, and even though the Group’s discussion had been full of spoilers, I was unprepared for the book’s the impact. It’s a tremendously powerful portrait of a woman’s experience of a virulent form of male domination, as seen through the eyes of her nine-year-old son Suleiman, who is in the process of being ‘trained’ to be such a man. True, she’s a terrible mother in many ways – but we discover that she was in effect trafficked by her family when she was fourteen years old, and got pregnant soon after as a result of marital rape, all socially condoned. Your heart breaks for the mother, the son and the father, all three.

Almost equally powerful is the account of what happened to dissidents under the Gaddafi regime, including Suleiman’s father and his friends. Confessions and executions are shown in television, and Hisham Matar doesn’t let us look away from the hideous emotional and physical detail. The nine year old sees and hears everything. He knows when he is being lied to, but understands very little of the politics. There’s a terrifying moment when he is about to give damning evidence of his father’s anti-Gaddafi activities to a manipulative member of the goon squad, oops, I mean the Revolutionary Committee, which creates a visceral sense of the deeply corrupting effects the regime has on even the most intimate relationships.

At a Sydney Writers Festival a couple of month’s after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hisham Matar was on a panel entitled ‘Resist!’ with three US women writers. Referring his childhood years living under the Gaddafi regime, he said it was important to honour complexity, otherwise those who resist allow themselves to be defined by that which they are resisting. That could sound like a counsel of moderation. Among other things, this novel demonstrates that you can honour complexity, hate injustice with a passion, and write beautiful prose, all in the same book.

My Brilliant Friend at the Book Group

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions 2012)
Elena Ferrante, L’amica geniale (e-book, Edizioni e/o 2011)

Before the Book Group meeting: This month’s Chooser nominated My Brilliant Friend in response to an interest in translation expressed at our last meeting (about Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, blog post here). Given the years of buzz about Elena Ferrante and her series The Neapolitan Novels, it’s amazing that none of us had read this until now. This was a chance to find out what the fuss was about.

As I imagine everyone knows, this is the story of the friendship between two girls in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, starting when they are both in the first year of primary school and ending at the marriage of one of them. Though there is a kind of resolution at the end, this is clearly the first instalment of a long story, and a brief prologue in which the sixty-something narrator speaks to the forty-year-old son of her friend offers tantalising hints about where the narrative will go.

The narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter. Her friend is Lila Cerullo, whose father is a shoe repairer. From the beginning, Lila is unpredictable, moody, a little dangerous, and, well, brilliant. Elena is more conventional, is in awe of Lila, and is also, in a more socially-approved way, brilliant. They both do well at school, until Lila drops out because she is needed at home, but then it turns out that Lila is keeping up with what Elena is learning by borrowing books from a library: she gives Elena hints about how to translate from Greek that help her excel in the classroom.

Elena is constantly in competition with Lila, now happy to know she is ahead of her (in schoolwork, in having her periods), now wretched when Lila excels (in her grasp of school subjects she is learning from books, in her attractiveness to men). It’s a striking rendition of a friendship that includes intense affection, resentment, irritation, envy and devotion.

The social environment of post-war Naples is graphically realised. Though the city is on the coast, the little girls have never seen the sea, and when they decide to go there the adventure comes to nothing. There’s a marvellous scene when a group of teenagers decide to visit a posh part of town, and it’s like being on another planet. In the coming of age process, Elena gradually learns about history – about Fascism, the war and war profiteering. At the very end of the novel, she’s sixteen years old and realises that if she starts to read newspapers and journals, beyond the novels that are all she has read until then, she will learn about how the world works.

I enjoyed the novel, but am successfully quelling any urge to get hold of the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name / Storia del nuovo cognome.

I bought a digital copy in the original Italian, so as to put at least some attention to the translation.

My high school Latin teacher once wrote ‘Good attempt’ on a translation of mine, and then was at pains to explain that this was high praise. All anyone can do is attempt to translate: it’s impossible to find an exact equivalent in one language for something written in another. ‘Traduttore traditore,’ he said, ‘Translator, traitor.’ I can’t comment on the accuracy of Ann Goldstein’s translation. I can see that her frequent run-on sentences are faithful to the original, for example, but I have no idea whether they are as irritating in Italian as they are in English.

One thing that snagged my attention is the title. In Italian it’s L’amica geniale, literally The brilliant friend. Why the change from the to my, I wondered, especially as the only time the phrase occurs in the book it’s used by Lila to describe the narrator. The Italian title leaves room for either of the friends to be the brilliant one. The English, sadly in my opinion, removes any ambiguity.

The other thing that struck me is a kind of clunkiness in the English –adverbs in an unusual order, and other places where the language doesn’t feel like that of a native English speaker. I was surprised to discover not only that Ann Goldstein is an English speaker, but that she learned Italian as an adult and works for The New Yorker, which is notoriously sticklerish for correct American English usage.

Look at this, the death of Don Achille, who was a kind of Godfather figure to the neighbourhood:

He was in the kitchen, and had just opened the window to let in the rain-freshened air. He had got up from bed to do so, interrupting his nap. He had on worn blue pajamas, and on his feet only socks of a yellowish color, blackened at the heels. As soon as he opened the window a gust of rain struck his face and someone plunged a knife into the right side of his neck, halfway between the jaw and the clavicle.

(Page 83)

Something about that last sentence felt awkward and anticlimactic on first reading. I read on, of course, but some corner of my mind marked the place. Just now, I looked up the Italian:

Era in cucina, aveva appena aperto la finestra per far entrare l’aria fresca della poggia. S’era alzato dal letto apposta, interrompendo la controra. Indossava un pigiama celeste molto usurato, ai piedi aveva solo calzini d’un colore gialliccio annerito ai calcagni. Appena aprì la finestra gli arrivò in faccia uno sbuffo di poggia e sul late destro del collo, proprio a mezza strada tra la mandibola e la clavicola, un colpo di coltello.

The first two sentences are straightforward (though ‘had on worn blue pyjamas’ is clumsy – why not ‘was wearing threadbare pyjamas’?). They establish a mundane domestic setting for the shock that is to come. But then the translation makes three choices in the final sentence that diminish that shock. First, why translate clavicola with the technical ‘clavicle’ rather than the everyday ‘collarbone’, especially when, thankfully, mandibola becomes ‘jaw’ rather than ‘mandible’? Second, the Italian language’s flexibility with word order allows the action to become apparent only in the last three words of the sentence (colpo di cotello = ‘knife-blow’), an effect lost in translation. Third, while the structure of the Italian sentence pairs the knife-blow with the gust of rain – so two things came at Don Achille through the window, one mundane and the other deadly – the English introduces ‘someone’ and ruins the parallel. Something like this would be truer to the original:

As soon as he opened the window, there came a gust of rain to his face, and to the right side of his neck, halfway between jaw and collarbone, a knife-blow.

My impression is that a lot of the translation is like that: sometimes keeping too close to the Italian rather than using a more natural English equivalent, sometimes departing too far from the Italian and losing rhetorical or dramatic effects.

I’m starting to sound like Brother Gerard, my Latin and French teacher from nearly 60 years ago. So, even though I cherish his memory, I guess that means it’s time to stop.

After the meeting: There was a brief online debate about whether we should meet in person or on screens, Screens won out, for now.

My NBN connection isn’t robust enough for zoom meeting in the evening, and I ended up joining the meeting on my phone. Next time I’ll do it on the computer using the phone’s hotspot to connect, but this time that didn’t want to work either, so I spent the two hours squinting at four faces at a time out of the eleven participants, and I expect my hand-held image wobbled annoyingly. But I won’t complain about zoom: it brought us the lovely moment when one chap said he had a son and a daughter, and a young face joined his on the screen, saying ‘I’m the daughter!’

Most of the chaps, many sporting scrappy Corona beards, loved the book. My complaints about clunkiness and quibbles about the translation were mostly received without sympathy. The simple solution to discontent with translation from Italian, I was told, was not to know Italian.

I was the second least enthusiastic. The least enthusiastic remained silent for a long time, and then, when prompted, said he had only kept reading out of love for the rest of us. He also said that as he listened to the discussion, he could see why he should have enjoyed the book, which is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed it, but I never got invested in it. Others got really involved: remembering the politics of their own childhood communities, reflecting on male violence, recalling their own visits to Naples, being swept along by the story and experiencing shocks of recognition, even – at least one chap said – falling in love with Lila.

More than one had started reading the second book, and next meeting’s Chooser said he’ll be nominating the fourth book. I’m hoping it was a joke-threat.

The Book Group zooming with Hwang Sok-yong At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong, At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe 2018)

Before the meeting: One of the many things I love about my Book Group is that a couple of chaps can be counted on, when it’s their turn to choose our book, to send us Somewhere Else. We’ve read challenging books from Indonesia, India, Japan, Poland, Russia .. the list could go on. This month, we’re in South Korea.

Like many novels these days, this one tells two separate stories in alternating chapters, and the links between the stories become apparent only towards the end. The reader is quietly tantalised by hints at the connection, and there are red herrings.

The protagonist of the first narrative strand, Park Minwoo, is a successful male architect nearing retirement age, who has been part of ruthless slum clearance projects and aesthetically hideous urban development. My reading was partly informed and enriched by knowing that I was in the virtual company of architects, a builder and a heritage consultant in the Group, but the ethical issues didn’t need that kind of help. Minwoo has our sympathy: the bulk of his story is taken up with his childhood in the slums, and his escape to a more affluent life through study and patronage; and with the way his childhood friends and, especially, sweetheart remained behind, mostly forgotten by him – until, in the opening paragraph of the book, a young woman hands him a slip of paper with a name and a phone number and the past comes back.

The other story, told in the first person, features Jung Woohee, a young woman who is scraping a living working the graveyard shift in a convenience store in order to pursue her ambition to become a playwright. She is befriended by a man slightly older than her, named Kim Minwoo. I was struggling with the Korean personal names and place names, and at about the time that we learned his name I went back to the start to draw up a list of characters and places: yes, there are two Minwoos, but the mother of Kim Winmoo laughs at the idea of any connection between the son of a poor single mother and a famous architect.

I know next to nothing about South Korean history and culture. Duck Duck Go was my friend, especially in Minwoo’s story, which includes passing references to a coup, martial law and a massacre – all background to his rising fortunes. And I recognised motifs from of Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite – I don’t think there’s any influence or borrowing in either direction, just that the movie and the book are about the same world: Woohee lives in a basement apartment like that of the poor family in that film; and like the daughter of the poor family, Minwoo earns some cash by tutoring the initially unresponsive son of a wealthy family.

The thematic relationship between the two narratives is powerful, particularly as embodied in the two Minwoos. One has become successful through projects that have destroyed communities but has been able to turn his back on the human suffering; the other has been led by poverty and need to be part of an eviction squad on just that kind of project. It’s an amazing achievement of the novel that we continue to see these characters as human and deserving our compassion, even while we see the horror of their actions. We take no joy from the fact that things don’t end well for either of them.

I think I’m missing something in the way the two narratives connect at the end. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that it felt like a twist that lacked any pay-off at all. Possibly something is being said about generational cultural shift, or the role of the artist (is Woohee a representative of the novelist?), and maybe there’s something about gender, but it sailed past me. I’m looking forward to talking about it to a lot of little faces on my computer screen.

A word about the translation: Sora Kim-Russell manages to give us a very readable text in natural, flowing English, while at the same time not pretending that this is anything but a Korean story. Take this little passage from Minwoo’s childhood visit to the home of his poorer friend Jaemyung:

Their mother ladled up bowls of sujebi that she’d cooked in a large pot, while Myosoon carried the bowls from the kitchen to the table. Once Myosoon and their mother were seated at the end of the table, dinner began. Instead of the usual firm dough torn by hand, their sujebi was made with a runny dough that was scraped with a pair of chopsticks into a pot of boiling water; as you ate it, the dough flakes turned soggy and loose until you were basically eating flour porridge. The flour must have been of poor quality to begin with, as it was yellowish in colour, and the broth wasn’t made from beef or anchovy stock but was just plain water with a little soy sauce and sliced squash. It barely qualified as sujebi.

(page 56-57)

There’s a lot of explanation embedded in that passage that – I’m guessing – wouldn’t be necessary for a Korean reader, but the ignorant reader (such as me) is neither patronised nor mystified. Sujebi isn’t translated for us, nor is it italicised to mark it as ‘foreign’; but we are told what the yellowish hue of the dough signifies about the flour. I just looked Sora Kim-Russell and see that she’s won awards. I concur with the judges.

After the meeting: I felt our last meeting, our first on zoom, was like an EngLit seminar, by which I think I meant less convivial as well as less chaotic than our Book Group meetings usually are. If Wednesday’s meeting was seminarish, it was only to the good, because we had a wonderfully rich, and enriching, conversation about the book. This may have been helped by the unobtrusive labour of one group member who earns his living largely as a facilitator. In the past he has been mocked for his pleas that we have one conversation at a time. This week, no one mocked, and I think we all silently appreciated the way he made sure everyone had a fair bite of the conversational apple. So, apart from the chap who was called away because his daughter cut her hand badly (she’s OK now), it was a smooth and unchaotic event.

My hope that the architects etc would shed extra light on the book was dashed. Pretty much with one voice they said that the architecture was there as a metaphor (or metonym, maybe: the subject was the modernisation of Korea, and architecture was a way of talking about that.

One chap had read the book twice, and a number of us thought that was a smart move. It’s a short book, but there are many layers: the portrait of Korea, the romance, the interplay of the two narrative strands, and so on. Someone had given the book to a friend to read because he wanted to discuss it before we met. The friend described it as unsentimentally elegiac, a phrase that struck a chord in the group: Author Hwang does tell of a lost past, without romanticising it.

There was an interesting discussion of the ending, which I won’t even attempt to summarise here, partly because that would be spoileristic.

And as well as that, the important business of the evening: hearing about how we are all faring in these Covid–19 times. Some are busier than ever with their jobs, some suddenly out of work, some missing contact with their family, some living in uncustomary closeness with theirs, one man needing advice on a barber for a much-needed haircut, and so on. Have I =said I love my book group? Then I’ll say it again. (Also, someone mentioned my blog, so I have to be nice about them in case they turn up to read it!)

The Book Group and Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Before the meeting: This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, most obviously because it happened online, with participants spread from Bondi to Balmain, and less obviously because it’s the first time a book has been chosen that I’ve already read.

So for my pre-meeting take on the book, I’ll just point you to this link, and limit myself to saying that I enjoyed the book, and risked a visit to the supermarket to buy a bottle of sarsaparilla to flourish at the zoom screen.

After the meeting: As you would expect, we spent time checking how we were all going in our separate households. One of us reported the death of a friend in England. One made only a brief appearance because he is a health worker and exhausted, as well as putting himself at risk as an essential worker. Another has been working very long hours as his business adjusts to having most people working from home and he spends many hours every day in online meetings, which, he says, may actually be more productive than in-person meetings, but are exhausting. Several of us, me included, reported intergenerational tensions as people variously worried that others weren’t taking enough care or were annoyed by other people’s worry. A number spoke of the odd sense of having a relaxing time to do gardening and sit about and read, while outside – where you’re not allowed to go – terrible things are happening. I got the impression that many of us are addicted to Covid-19 news. There were no jokes.

We did get to the book. Without food to share or the possibility of fragmenting into small incidental conversations the whole thing was a lot less fun than we’re used to. It felt almost like an Eng Lit seminar – not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. Most of us enjoyed the book. One chap said that generally if a book hasn’t grabbed him by page 72 he gives up on it; this book took until page 272, but then he decided to go with it and really had a good time. Some didn’t care much for the longish expository opening. (I think they were referring to the evocation of Brisbane suburbs, which I loved.) Another felt that the magic realism elements were the least successful, and I think we can look forward to an excellent film.