Tag Archives: Novel

The Book Group at Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (Vintage 2011)

bohane.jpgBefore the Book Group’s meeting: At its last meeting, which I didn’t get to, the Book Group discussed a book about the parlous state of the human species. I imagine this one was chosen as our next title, if not as light relief, then as a source of stylistic delight. It’s a dystopian world, the world of Bohane, a ruthless world of gang warfare on the west coast of Ireland, possibly in some post-catastrophic future – not terribly unlike the world of A Clockwork OrangeThe Threepenny Opera or maybe The Sopranos, for the violence and sexual exploitation, and also for the creative energy in the writing.

Here’s a paragraph picked pretty much at random before I had to return my copy to the library:

Tipping seventy, Ol’ Boy dresses much younger. He wore low-rider strides, high-top boots with the heels clicker’d, a velveteen waistcoat and an old-style yard hat set at a frisky, pimpish angle. Ol’ Boy had connections all over the city – he was the Bohane go-between. He was as comfortable sitting for a powwow in the drawing room of a Beauvista manse as he was making a rendezvous at a Rises flatblock. Divil a bit stirred at the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge. He was on jivey, fist-bumping terms with the suits of the business district – those blithe and lardy boys who worked Endeavour Avenue down in the Bohane New Town – and he could chew the fat equably with the most ignorant of Big Nothin’ spud-aters. The Mannion voicebox was an instrument of wonder. It mimicked precisely the tones and cadence of whoever he was speaking to, while retaining always a warm and reassuring note.

I was enthralled by the language and by the twisting intrigue until the very last movement. Oddly, the last 40 pages fell flat. Maybe Kevin Barry could feel the end approaching and simply didn’t have to stomach to make it happen with the same gusto as everything that had come before.

After the meeting: Well, there was an attempt to drum up some controversy, but in fact we all love loved the linguistic play of this, except for one who just found it hard going, and of course the two out of nine who hadn’t read the book. Some complained that it was just good fun (of a bloodthirsty sort) and didn’t give any hint of how the world had come to such a state, but others (me included) didn’t see why it needed to do that.

We wondered about the geography. Is there any western Ireland city that matches the description of Bohane? One of the better travelled among us said that the Portuguese city of Porto fitted exactly, and others agreed. An interesting possibility, since at least one of the characters (Macu, short for Immaculata) comes from Portugal. In general we liked the regular moments when the narrative stops for a description of what a character is wearing.

After a brief engagement with the book, conversation ranged wide: travellers’ tales, a Rodney Rude joke, one man’s prostate cancer saga (mostly a good luck story), paternal boasting, one empty-nest-after-30+-years announcement, the excellence of The Necks, an impersonation of Bundaberg farmers deciding whether to burn the cane, reports from the Sydney Film Festival (Young MarxAbacus: Small Enough to Jail and Citizen Jane good; Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves to be avoided). And we ate roast chicken and salads – the latecomer missed out on the chickpeas.

Paul Beatty’s Sellout

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (©2015, Oneworld 2016)

sellout.jpegThis won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and people from Sarah Silverman to a Penthouse reviewer, four pages of them at the start of the OneWorld edition, have heaped praise on it, so it was a welcome gift at Christmas.

In the prologue the narrator, an African-American man, appears in a US court charged with undoing the gains of the Civil rights movement by reintroducing slavery.

It’s an intriguingly provocative set-up, but alas I didn’t manage to read more than about about a third of the book.

It’s a story of a boy whose psychologist father home-schooled him, beat him savagely, and replicated famous child-experiments with him as the suffering subject, who grows up to become oddly contrarian, fiercely anti-racist but perhaps even more fiercely anti the pieties of Black culture, with a farm in the middle of ghettoised Los Angeles as a key locale. To me it felt contrived and arbitrary, but not sufficiently weird or tumultuous to compel. Of course my failure to persevere may have to do with my mood of the moment, or parochial irritation at the frequent opaque Los Angeles references. So  don’t let me put you off.

Here’s a bit from just before I laid it aside. The African-American character speaking is a mediocre academic who has made and lost fame and fortune as a Black voice in the media, largely by stealing other people’s ideas.

‘One night, not long ago,’ Foy said, ‘I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the book is fraught with the “n-word”. And although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready eight- and ten-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend Huckleberry Finn on its own merits. That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant “n-word” occurs, I replaced it with “warrior ” and the word “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer”.’
—–‘That’s right!’ shouted the crowd.
—–‘I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book The Pejorative Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.’
—–Foy touched his fingertips together in front of his chest, the universal sign that the smartest person in the room is about to say something. He spoke loudly and quickly, his speech picking up in speed and intensity with every word. ‘I propose that we move to demand the inclusion of my politically respectful edition of Huckleberry Finn into every middle-school reading curriculum,’ he said. ‘Because it is a crime that generations of black folk come of age never having experienced this’ – Foy snuck a peek at the original book’s back cover – ‘this hilariously picturesque American classic.’

That isn’t terrible. Quite apart from the frequent use of the ‘n-word’ by the narrator of this book, I get what’s being mocked, and agree that it needs mocking. When I worked in children’s literature there were authorities who wanted to restrict access to Margaret Mahy’s superb The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate so as not to trigger children who had been attacked by real pirates. But, like many of the narrator’s satiric riffs, this mockery is too easy. Which is pretty  much how I found the narrative as a whole: I think it wants to be a rollicking, take-no-prisoners ride knocking down sacred cows in all directions, but it just doesn’t rollick and instead of sacred cows it burns straw men.

Your mileage may vary.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press 2015)

sympathizer.jpgIn the early pages of The Sympathizer the narrator is working for a Vietnamese general in the last days of the US–Vietnam war. A CIA man gives him a book:

I took care to peruse the book’s cover, crowded with blurbs so breathless they might have been lifted from the transcript of a teenage girls’ fan club, except that the excited giggling came from a pair of secretaries of defense, a senator who had visited our country for two weeks to find facts, and a renowned television anchor who modelled his enunciation on Moses, as played by Charlton Heston.

This little bit of mockery of US publishing practices is given an ironic bite by the blurb overkill of the book in which it appears: front and back covers are so crowded with flattery that an extra false front has been added to take the overflow, then inside the book there are six pages of praise before the title page, and then 15 pages up the back of commentary from the author in the form of an essay and an interview.

Count me among the hardy souls who decided to read the novel anyhow.

The sympathiser of the title, who is the protagonist–narrator, is a Vietnamese double agent, a US-trained member of the South Vietnamese secret police and a spy for the Vietcong. He takes part in some key post-war events: the last-minute escape from Saigon by members of the South Vietnamese armed forces; the making of a brilliant film that, for all the pretensions of its director, portrays the Vietnamese people as subhuman (and in an author’s note, in case we missed it, is identified as a fictionalised analogue to Apocalypse Now); a re-education camp under the Communist regime; covert assassinations by rightwing refugees in the US; a pathetic attempt to invade Vietnam years after the war is over; and eventually the humiliation of being classified as boat people. While he remains in two minds (a notion that the narrative plays with in a number of ways), his closest friends are an anti-communist zealot and a staunch upholder of the Communist regime.

It’s a historical novel, with an instructional agenda which it fills well. It also spins a gripping, episodic yarn, and offers a sharply satirical perspective on the Vietnam War and US politics in general. For example, a Republican Congressman speaks at a Vietnamese refugee wedding feast, in rhetoric that uncannily foreshadows the vision of the current President (page 119):

… your soldiers fought well and bravely, and would have prevailed if only Congress had remained as steadfast in their support of you as the president promised. This was a promise shared by many, many Americans. But not all. You know who I mean. The Democrats. The media. The antiwar movement. The hippies. The college students. The radicals. America was weakened by its own internal divisions, by the defeatists and communists and traitors infesting our universities, our newsrooms, and our Congress.

There are some neat epigrams:

After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence. (page 218)


Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity. (page 254)

That kind of wit is hard to pull off without sounding just a bit smug and/or glib, and Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t always succeed.

On the whole I found the book a bit of a slog, not without its rewards, but also with some longueurs.

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.


Tom Keneally’s Crimes of the Father

Tom Keneally, Crimes of the Father (Vintage 2016)

crimes.jpgPerhaps a novel is just what’s needed after the news cycle has rolled on, to keep our minds and hearts alive to painful issues such as child sexual abuse in religious institutions. That, it seems to me, is the need The Crimes of the Father aims to fill.

It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story. Father Frank Docherty was stripped of his priestly role by the Sydney Cardinal in the early 1970s because his politics were contrary to the prelate’s conservatism. As a member of a religious Order, he found a new life in Canada as a priest and academic psychologist, and came to specialise in cases of clerical child abuse. In 1996 he returns to Sydney to address a conference, and finds himself embroiled as adviser and advocate with not one but two people who were abused as children by a Monsignor of the diocese who also happens to be the brother of a woman he has loved, chastely, for more than 20 years.

There are lectures, legal arguments, and excursions into the history of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of Vatican Two. Tom Keneally has clearly done conscientious research, and in that sense is trustworthy. But at about the midpoint I was muttering, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and three quarters of the way through, ‘Write what you know!’ I just didn’t believe in Frank Docherty’s inner life, or that of the accused abuser or the abuse survivors. The dialogue rarely sounds like conversation. The narrative feels like a survey of the literature, a tableau where you might reasonably expect a drama.

Though Keneally’s skill as a story teller is powerful enough that I kept reading, it’s the brief preface, in which he writes about his own relationship to the Catholic Church, that delivers the strongest emotional punch. The rest is too schematic, the characters too much at arm’s length, the action too often described rather than enacted. And as our hero flies off into the sunrise, the necessary final twist is a convenient deus ex machina.

Perhaps because I had just read Kim Mahood’s brilliant Position Doubtful, this unengaged quality struck me with particular force in the section where Sarah, a survivor of sexual abuse who has temporarily become Sister Constance, spends time on a remote Aboriginal community. She visits the outstation of a man called Douglas (‘that was his European name, anyhow’), with some of his relatives. Here are the first paragraphs of her visit:

Douglas was reserved but welcoming. His habitation, an elegantly constructed lean-to, lay at the foot of a ridge in which the entire range of umber and yellow rocks were exhibited. His wife was profoundly black and limpid-eyed, and there was just her and him there – the kids were learning white-fella stuff in Cairns, he told them. He had a kerosene refrigerator and a telephone that hung on a pole and ran off solar panels. He was a man of past, present and future.
—-The relatives sat about on a rug in front of the lean-to and spoke in their language – part guttural, with some sounds like bird calls – her ignorance about which  Constance had never felt more acutely than at this moment. The host, his wife and his relatives drank tea from enamel mugs. A stranger at the feast, she did too.

And that’s as vividly as we ever get to see Douglas and his unnamed wife and relatives. Of course, they’re incidental characters (and I should mention that ‘their language’ has been previously identified as Guugu Timithirr), but the writing is not completely untypical. It might work as a film script, because the actors would flesh it out, but there’s not much flesh in the written form.

Compare this from the Author’s Note:

At an immature age I chose to study for the priesthood. and I would like to put on record my thanks for the more generous and open-handed aspects of that training. It was not, however, an education designed to encourage a callow young man to achieve full maturity as a sentient and generous male adult. I was too innocent to understand that the education to make me a celibate strayed easily into stereotyping half of my species – women – as a perilous massed threat to priestly purity; or that the attendant emotional dwarfing could create, encourage or license the young men whose abusive tendencies are mourned in this novel.

I so wanted to read the novel that this seems to promise. But I was disappointed: those young men make no appearance except as manipulators lifted straight from Keneally’s evidently punctilious research. No light is shed on their motivations as individual, breathing human beings. And the same is only slightly less true of the survivors.

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)

ip.jpgMy Book Group read Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites – set in Iceland in 1830 – in November. A number of friends said I should read Independent People by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, a book beside which Burial Rites looked shallow. It took a while for IP to become available from the library, and it’s a long book, but at last  I’ve read it.

Let me deal with the Hannah Kent comparison first: to say that a novel isn’t as good as Independent People is like saying a play isn’t as good as King Lear, or a science fiction movie pales beside Bladerunner. The book is monumental. Everything I have ever heard or read about Iceland is in its pages: the landscape, the banking system, the poetry, the weather and the sheep – mainly terrible weather and diseased or starving sheep. Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderful movie Rams could have been a postscript. The current dominance of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party suggests that the book’s satirical probing of the notion of independence is as relevant now as it ever was.

The protagonist, Bjartur, having worked for a relatively rich farmer for eighteen years, has managed to get possession of a small, unpromising and possibly cursed piece of land. He moves in with his bride, and lives a life of unremitting labour and deprivation, refusing all help in the name of independence. It’s not giving too much away to say that things go badly for him in every conceivable way, and he – inspired by the heroes of the sagas – struggles on, defiant and misanthropic. Humans and animals die hearbreakingly, some of the latter at his hand, and some of the former as a direct result of his obduracy or as a result of their resistance to it. Whenever a glimmer of hope shines through the blizzard of Bjartur’s life, the reader braces for the moment when he will sabotage it. And when prosperity comes to Iceland thanks to the First World War, it’s only a matter of time before all is once again grim.

The book was published about the same time as Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, the once much loved collection of stories about families struggling on small farms in Australia. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the way Rudd’s Dad and Dave face adversity together, with naive, cheerful resilience.

For all its grimness, the book is a delight. Bjartur is an unforgettable character. So are the young woman unlucky enough to be married off to him, and their daughter, and his youngest son, Nonni, who I read as representing the author’s point of view (not to give too much away, he escapes and we glean that his new life in America is relatively OK). There are wonderful minor characters, of whom my favourite is the Bailiff’s wife, described as pope-like, presumably with plump Pope Leo X in mind, who ceaselessly spouts romantic nonsense about the joys of rural poverty. I also love the chorus of small farmers who meet regularly and amidst their main talk of sheep disease and weather, pronounce on economics, politics and metaphysics.

The writing is wonderful. As a child of the town with the highest annual rainfall in Australia, I loved this passage (not least for the way it makes us understand that a woman wouldn’t have to be neurotic, as she is described in the last sentence, to be miserable in that place):

Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling – rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.

There’s a lot that’s quotable, though not much that would find its way onto inspirational wall hangings. Some typical aphorisms:

Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs. Of these at least no one can deprive him.

The life of man is so short that ordinary people simply cannot afford to be born.

What does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, if you can really call it a life, is so short?

The most unpleasant feature of midwinter is not its darkness. More unpleasant still, perhaps, is that it should never grow dark enough for one to forget the endlessness of which it is a symbol.

I could go on.

I just want to say a little bit about the translation. Evidently it took J A Thompson eight years to write the English version, and he did it in consultation with Haldór Laxness. The translation has a strong voice of its own, an assurance that means the tone is always absolutely clear – as in that ‘neurotic’ in the passage above. It’s a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. I was happy to find a 2014 English-language MA dissertation for the University of Iceland, The Creative Translator: Creativity and Originality in J.A. Thompson’s Translation of Halldór Laxness’ Sjálfstætt fólk by Abigail Charlotte Cooper (PDF here), that discusses some of the issues.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites at the Book Group & November Verse 14

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

burial-rites.jpg Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.

Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).

At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.

The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.

All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again,  trusted to use a scythe:

I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.

The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.

The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.

There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.

Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.

The verse, my last for this November: 

November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next
Ben stands and says he must be going:
‘Shall we decide the next book now?’
‘No time for all the to and fro-ing
before you leave,’ says Ian. That’s how
just seven of us made the vital
choice of our next book group title.
Not Watson’s Bush, that’s far too long,
not more Houellebecq, that’s just wrong.
No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton.
Steve says, ‘How about Don Juan?
I mean Quixote. That’s a yarn
I’d like to read.’ That one caught on.
And after complex back and forth
we lit on Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth.

AWW2016Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life

Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life (©2104, Oneworld 2015)

1780747772.jpgThere’s a lot that’s very good in this tragedy-romance of marginalised people living in New York City. Rather than reviewing it, I want to make some observations about how context can affect the experience of reading.

Everyone knows that a book you read as a child can be very different when you read it again as an adult. But the effects of timing can be much more fine-grained than that: in my reading of Preparation for the Next Life, reading while walking and reading in the wake of particular television revelations each made a huge difference.

First the walking. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that two chapters towards the end are given over to a character’s night-long, punishing walk through New York City’s neglected outer reaches. It’s a bravura piece of writing, showing us the changing state of the buildings, people and activities in each neighbourhood traversed, all filtered through the character’s terrified and exhaustion-addled mind. I’m convinced that the author did that walk himself, possibly even in a single night.

By serendipity, I read most of those two chapters while walking in an unfamiliar place, and even though I was in Sydney’s quiet harbourside suburb of Putney, the effect was magical, the rhythm of my leisurely walk providing a perfect accompaniment to the sentences playing in my mind. If you want to do likewise, it’s chapters 52 and 53.

The other piece of serendipity came with a single sentence early in the book. In this case it wasn’t the context that changed my experience of the text. The text changed my understanding of the context.

One woman is explaining to another the kinds of treatment she might expect from a warder if she ends up in prison:

If you fought him, he was authorised to rush you like a man, tackle you, pound your head on the floor, Taser your backside while you crawled, drag you out by the leg while you screamed under the cameras recording all this in black and white, strap you in The Chair, put the spit bag on your head and leave you there for up to twelve hours while you begged for water.

Like much in the early chapters, this is colourful, gritty background that adds to our sense of the character’s jeopardy, and a month ago I would have skimmed over it.

But read in the wake of the Four Corners report on the Don Dale juvenile detention centre it gains extraordinary power. The phrase ‘rush you like a man’ could have been written to describe the overwhelming speed of the real-life warder we saw enter a young Aboriginal man’s cell, grab him by the throat and throw him to a mattress on the floor. We saw real-life young men crying out while being dragged, under cameras recording it all in black and white. We saw a young man being shackled to a chair by a group of burly, uniformed men, his head hidden in a spit hood (a bag by any other name), and the men leave him saying they would come back in a couple of hours.

It emerged that the treatment of the young detainees had been the subject of a number of official reports, but not until the footage was shown on national television were the media and politicians galvanised into action. Though the substance of their action remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the Four Corners report will lead to some improvement.

But there were disturbing dissonances in the Four Corners report. For example, the image of young Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair was compared to the infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib, a comparison that has been taken up since by a number of commentators. The footage itself undermined that comparison: those men aren’t caught off guard, but speak solicitously to the young man (‘How’s that, is that all right?’ ‘You keep chilling out, yeah?’). They’re not deliberately humiliating their prisoner for sport. At least in that footage they give every appearance of men who are acting according to established protocols – it could almost be an instructional video. The similarity to Abu Ghraib is mainly visual, and the comparison serves to generate outrage rather than getting at the truth of the situation.

Outrage has its limitations. To quote a 2013 piece by Mark Fisher about the British tabloid Daily Mail:

Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat. That’s because, firstly, outrage is part of the very currency of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism, which depends not on content but on the sheer circulation of messages… Secondly, since there is an infinite supply of things to be outraged about, the tendency towards outrage indefinitely locks us up in a series of reactive battles, fought on the enemy’s territory and on its terms.

In this case, doing away with the chair and the hood, and even punishing the guards who used tear gas on young men in their cells, might satisfy the outraged need for action, but wouldn’t do much to address the underlying system that leads to the abuse.

Atticus Lish’s sentence brings these considerations to the fore. It characterises a number of the things we saw on Four Corners as only to be expected from the ‘justice’ system. No explanation of The Chair or the spit bag is even needed – so they’re not aberrations of the Northern Territory but vile practices that are widespread and officially sanctioned. If one of the things that intimidates a woman is to be ‘rushed like a man’, there’s a subliminal suggestion that for a man to be rushed like that is close to being acceptable. There’s a gender issue here that the media have hardly touched on.

A friend and I were recently lamenting that novels can no longer transform our understanding of the world as Simone de Beauvoir’s A Woman Destroyed did for her and The Brothers Karamazov for me. We agreed that the fault lies not in the novels but in ourselves – our minds get set in their ways. And reading Preparation for the Next Life has notbeen a transformative experience for me. But it has restored my sense that fiction can illuminate things, bring them alive in the mind. And I’m grateful


The Book Group and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday 2015)

gott.jpgBefore the meeting:
After A Little Life, the book group decided to take on something light, and someone had heard that The Girl on the Train was an interesting thriller.

I’m not a member of this book’s target audience. I’ve been mildly gripped by psychological thriller movies (Gone Girl say, or any number of Hitchcock movies, or Gaslight, though I haven’t seen that movie, just the play performed by the Innisfail Repertory Society in about 1960) or on TV (I think of The Fall). Men are strong, sympathetic and protective, or are they dangerous and manipulative? Women sense they are in danger, or are they just neurotic messes? A loving husband is caught in a lie about talking to his ex-wife. Should we be disturbed by what happens next:

He smiles at me, shaking his head as he steps towards me, his hands still raised in supplication. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She wanted to chat in person and I thought it might be best. I’m sorry, OK? We just talked. We met in a crappy coffee shop in Ashbury and talked for twenty minutes – half an hour, tops. OK?’
___He puts his arms around me and pulls me towards his chest. I try to resist him, but he’s stronger than me and anyway he smells great and I don’t want a fight. I want us to be on the same side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbles again, into my hair.
___‘It’s all right,’ I say.

Even on screen these imagined relationships as full of manipulation and lurking threat aren’t my cup of tea. In book form, if this one is any indication, it’s a game a good bit less interesting than Scrabble. I did read the whole book, I suppose it was well done, and I stayed guessing, or at least unsure, until the final revelation, but I didn’t really care, and the main impression I’m left with is of time wasted. Your mileage may vary. The movie is coming out in a month or two – I’ll probably give it a miss.

At the meeting: There were eight of us and everyone had read the whole book, one or two saying that they couldn’t put it down. And while people generally appreciated its tight plotting, and the way information was gradually released to the reader, no one particularly liked it. Those who are more widely read in the genre said it wasn’t a particularly good example. We compared notes on how soon we guessed the ending.

And over chicken and rice and then ice cream we had a terrific conversation about fathers and sons, how boys and young men could do with someone thinking about them in more constructive ways than generally seems to happen these days, about Eton and Queen Victoria’s correspondence, about whether A Little Life is a bildungsroman, about cumquat marmalade, renovations, and the joys of growing old.

Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

We keep deciding we’re not going to pick big books for the Book Group, and then we keep picking them. A Little Life runs to 720 pages.

Before the meeting: I’d been warned this was a gruelling read, and I’ll add my own warning: do not read this book if you’re set off by accounts of cruelty, sexual abuse or self-harm.

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of Jude St Francis. His story, which emerges piecemeal throughout the novel, involves systematic sex abuse and physical violence from a very young age until his mid teens. His life turns around, and he finds deep companionship and love, professional success as a lawyer, a family such as he wouldn’t have dreamed  of. But the horrors of the past have left him with serious physical difficulties and a deep sense of his own worthlessness, even grotesquerie. He believes he must hide ‘what he is’ from the people he loves. In his 30s he has his first sexual encounter since the abuse of his childhood, and it leads to unbelievable brutality. From then on, there is a struggle between the demons of the past and the angels of the present, between his belief that somehow he deserves terrible things and the evidence all around him that he is cherished by his friends and adoptive family.

Some readers have seen the book as a kind of suffering porn, particularly in the graphic accounts of self-harm. (The harm inflicted by other people, including sexual harm deliberate and otherwise, is mostly told at a level of abstraction, with an almost fairytale quality.) I know what they mean, but I see it differently. Phrases like ‘mental health’, ‘sex abuse’ and even ‘child sex abuse’ are used a lot these days, and overuse can drain them of some of their meaning. For instance, when discussing the Australian government’s policy on people seeking asylum, leaders of both major parties can discount evidence that the policy results in ‘mental health problems’ and ‘sexual abuse’ for children. The words become political catch-cries, and their human meaning fades. The great strength of A Little Life is that it remorselessly, repetitively, unflinchingly but not (for my money) preachily pounds home the deep damage done to the human spirit by sustained abuse.

I don’t find the stories of abuse completely plausible, and I find the love story/stories saccharine at times. The financial and creative success of all the major characters and their upper-class New York lifestyles may irritate. But it’s a very powerful book. It would be hard to read it thoughtfully and ever again tell someone who had been severely abused to ‘get over it’, or think that there was some easy chemical or behavioural solution. There are moments in the narrative when there seems to be a breakthrough, but again and again we have been misled by hope. I don’t think the book preaches despair [though Hanya Yanigahara sometimes sounds as if that’s what she intends – as in the podcast linked to below], but it does urge us to remember that suffering is a long way from over when its cause is removed, that in some ways the worst that happens to a person isn’t the worst – the worst is not finding a way to recover from it.

A minor point: I’ll sometimes turn to the last page of a book looking for reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. I don’t know if Hanya Yanagihara had people like me in mind, but I can tell you, I hope without giving anything away, that the last paragraph of this book is completely misleading.

When the meeting was postponed because it clashed with the second State of Origin match: One of the chaps flagged that for him the book raises questions of ‘what and why we read’. I listened to the podcast of Hanya Yanigahara’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s a brilliant exegesis of her intentions in this novel, but I found myself retrospectively turning against the novel when she said things like:

For anyone who has turned away from a book because it is unbearable I would argue that there is a danger in forsaking a piece of art only because it is unpleasant, because it is destructive. The impulse to do so is human of course, and understandable, but the best that one human can do for another sometimes, the ultimate human act, is to witness, to open our eyes wider and look at what we would rather not, to regard what we think we cannot endure. When we give up seeing, we give up something greater. Once we start limiting what we can tolerate in literature, in art, we also start limiting our ability to see our fellow humans.

This reminded me reactively of the old comedian’s line, delivered in tones of high moral outrage: ‘I don’t want to see violence, incest, torture in films. I get enough of that sort of thing at home.’ That is to say, being a witness for another human being is a very different thing to being a witness for a made-up person.

Then, in another podcast from the festival, Charlotte Wood commented about her novel The Natural Way of Things (currently on my TBR pile):

You couldn’t live in this book as a reader for longer than it is. It’s a short book … It’s important not to leave people in that world for too long. I know there are some big books around at the moment that are very harrowing … and I think, ‘I don’t want to go there as a reader, I don’t want to put people through that.’

The reference to A Little Life was only half-serious, and the audience laughed, but she had a point.

At the meeting: Eventually we met, and it was one of the group’s more intense discussions.

Not everyone had finished the book. There’s nothing unusual about that, but this time the non-finishers all had reasons other than lack of time: one gave up after a mere hundred pages because none of the characters had enough individuality to claim his interest; two gave up close to the two-thirds mark because they realised that they didn’t have to stay trapped in the horrible imaginings of Hanya Yanagihara, and they reported that their lives improved when they closed the book.

Most of us acknowledged the power of the writing, though one said that he remained unmoved (except to anger at being manipulated) even by the graphic descriptions of self harm. Most of us felt that if the book was attempting a portrayal of male friendships, it failed. Shockingly, we realised that we never saw why the other men – friends and adoptive father – were drawn to withholding, self-effacing Jude: surely there was more to it than his beauty?

The most articulate disliker described his sense of being given no room for his own responses: at every turn he was being told how to feel about what he was being shown, and he was being shown only those parts of the characters’ lives that fitted the author’s agenda. Where were the jokes, the casual intimacies, the teasing? And as for sex, in this book it’s about men sticking a sex organ into someone else’s orifice, something you either do or don’t do with (to?) someone, with nothing between those two options, and no place for mutuality or negotiation. Sigh! (We noticed in passing the almost complete absence of women, unless one reads the main characters as really women with a communication disability.)

In short, the book had no passionate defender, but it made a deep impression on most of us.