Tag Archives: Novel

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China Miéville’s Scar

China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002)

scar.jpgThis was another gift from the Street Library gods. A couple of pages into it, I realised that it was set in the same world as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which I read many years ago. It’s not a sequel. As far as I recall (which I admit isn’t far) no characters have made the transition from the earlier book, but it packs a similar narrative punch and is populated by a similar range of fantastical creatures who engage in the same blend of steampunk science and magic (thaumaturgy) in the same teemingly complex universe (which I hope never gets made into a CGI-based movie).

The story involves an immense sea monster that is tamed and/or drugged into towing on huge chains a pirate city made up of hundreds of lashed-together vessels small and large. It features sentient beings known as the anophelii, whose chronically famished females attack any creature with blood in its veins and suck it dry in seconds, and whose males, whose mouths resemble anal sphincters, live lives of weirdly passive abstraction. It includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.

I read somewhere that a secret of good fantasy writing is to give the reader cool stuff now, and then cooler stuff later – that is, not to have a terrific climax preceded by a hundred pages of so-so build-up. The Scar is profligate with cool stuff.

I could go on, but I’ll finish off with a taste of Miéville’s prose (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the characters are descending in a tiny deep-sea vehicle):

After uncountable minutes, the darkness outside was momentarily broken, and the crew gasped as time returned to them like an electryc [sic] shock. Some living lamp was passing them by, some tentacular thing that inverted its body with a peristaltic wave, enveloping itself in its luminescent innards and shooting away, its austere glimmer snuffed out.
Chion ignited the lamp at the bathyscaphos’s front. It stuttered on, its phosphorous glow casting a cone of light. They could see its edges as clearly as if they were marble. There was nothing visible in the lamp’s field except a soup of minute detritus, particles that seemed to eddy upward as the Ctenophore plunged. There was nothing to see: no ocean floor, no life, nothing.That crushing emptiness they had illuminated depressed them more profoundly than the darkness. They descended unlit.

The book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it full of delights.

Rose Tremain’s Restoration

Rose Tremain, Restoration (©1989, Sceptre 1990)

Irestoration.jpg read this book – another gift from strangers by way of our little Street Library – while in London with the Moving Hearts Project, which regular readers will know involves shaping hearts from clay. It was a lovely bit of serendipity that in the first couple of pages the narrator, an anatomy student in the mid 17th century, is ‘forced to contemplate an astounding phenomenon’:

I am encircling a human heart, a living human heart with my hand. I am now, in fact, squeezing it with controlled but not negligible force.

I had been doing the same with a heart of clay just minutes before I read that.

Robert Merivel, the narrator–hero, quits medicine for the pleasures and intrigues of the court of Charles II, where he sees himself as a kind of beloved fool. His fortunes rise, and fall dramatically. He finds himself working with an austere group of Quakers in an insane asylum, and again falls from grace. Merivel is his own worst enemy: his heart is in the right place but another part of his anatomy is too often in the wrong one. The book is often very funny, with moments of tenderness and heartbreak.

I haven’t read Pepys’ journals, but I’m guessing that the book owes quite a lot of its tone and ambience to them. I’m pretty sure that Pepys himself makes a brief unnamed appearance.

I enjoyed the book hugely. It was an extra pleasure to read it in London. I regularly walked around Lambeth and Vauxhall, where Merivel rides his horse through the woods (no woods there now), or beside the Thames as Merivel does. The echoes intensified my enjoyment of both the real and the imagined London. Though it doesn’t snow in the novel as it did in my time there, and there was no plague that I knew of in 2018 London, I was particularly struck by this little moment, which also gives some idea of Merivel’s voice:

I stood still and took my first breath of the city. The scent of the air dod not seem to have been altered by the presence of the plague. What I did notice at once, however, was a strange quietness in the street and beyond it, which was like the quietness of snow. It was as if the city had fallen into a trance, or else become a place that I was not really standing it, but only saw and heard from a long way off.

I gather Merivel is the hero of a second book by Rose Tremain. If it turns up in our Street Library it will be hard to resist.

Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Head of Zeus 2017)

pachinko.jpegThis novel tells the story of four generations of a Korean family, mainly in Japan, from 1934 to 1989. It’s a painless, pleasurable history lesson. Painless for the reader, that is. The writing is beautifully accessible, the characters eminently ‘relatable’ (even the seducer of the young virgin who sets things going is good at heart), the plot – though predictable in its general shape as family sagas tend to be – furnished with enough interesting twists.

What I’ve taken away from the book is a fleshed-out sense of what it means to be Korean in Japan. You don’t become a Japanese citizen just by being born in Japan. Even if you come from several generations born in Japan, if your parents, grandparents, or further back, came from Korea, you must register as Korean (and choose whether North or South) on your fourteenth birthday. You can be naturalised, but very few manage it. And anti-Korean myths and stereotypes abound. Min Jin Lee explains in a note that the book was thirty years in the making, that she started out with a sense of the Koreans in Japan as ‘historical victims’, but when she had a chance to live in Tokyo for a time (she herself is US born),  she found that the reality was much deeper and more complex. The depth and complexity of the identities and experiences of Korean–Japanese are beautifully and instructively rendered in the novel.

Philip Pullman’s Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (2017)

dust1.jpegThis is the first book in a promised trilogy, which is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy. If you haven’t read the earlier work I wouldn’t start with this one, there is something incomparably delicious in the way the world is revealed in Northern Lights (1995), and I remember how agonising the wait was for the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) after the cosmic cliffhanger ending of the second (The Subtle Knife).

La Belle Sauvage a big thick book, but a surprisingly quick read. Lyra, the main character of earlier/later trilogy, is a baby in grave danger. There are kind nuns and mean nuns, dangerous daemons and sweet daemons (Pullman’s daemons are one of the great inventions of twentieth century children’s literature), a deeply scary villain, a massive natural upheaval, a magical boat (the eponymous Belle Sauvage), and wonderfully engaging lead characters.

The second half of the book lost some of its charm for me as it turned into a kind of Odyssey-lite. But it might be more accurate to say that in the episodic second half, I became aware that I’m not part of the imagined audience. Given the amount of fruity language, and a sex scene that Malcolm, the young protagonist, sees but doesn’t understand, I’m thinking the book is meant primarily for people in their mid teens.

I was reluctant to embark on this trilogy because my To Be Read Pile is towering. But I’m very glad I did because I was in danger of forgetting what pleasure there could be in a good story. It’s a lot of pleasure.


PS on a tiny thing gave me perverse delight
On page 133 Malcolm is talking to his school friend Eric about spies, and suggests that the music reacher, ‘the shortest-tempered person Malcolm had ever known’, might be one:

Eric thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But she stands out too much. A real spy’d be less conspicuous. Blend in more.’

On the next page, still in the same conversation, Malcolm suggests that Eric pump his father for information about something.

‘Dunno. I could ask him. But I got to be suitable about it. Can’t just come out with a question.’
‘What do you mean, suitable?’
‘You know. Not obvious.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Malcolm. ‘Subtle’ was the word Eric wanted, probably. And he’d probably meant ‘conspicuous’ earlier.

Well, yes, he probably mean ‘conspicuous’ because that’s what he said. Clearly there’s been an unusual proofreading error. Malcolm’s unvoiced comment only makes sense if Eric used a malaprop earlier (‘A real spy’d be less contiguous,’ perhaps). Someone – I’m guessing a proofreader late in the process – corrected the wrong word and then had a moment’s inattention on the next page. Editorial workers all over the world think, ‘There but for the grace of god …’

Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats

Felicity Castagna, No More Boats (Giramondo 2017)

boats.jpgIt’s 2001. The Tampa is all over Australian television with its burden of asylum seekers saved from drowning, alternating with John Howard’s uttering his infamous cry, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ And one working-class migrant family in Parramatta is coming apart at the seams.

Antonio Martone came to Australia after World War Two and married Rose, an Anglo woman he met in the migrant hostel. In 2001 he is injured in a terrible accident on a building site trying to save his best friend’s dignity, and after decades of skilled labour is forced to retire. Francis, their son who still lives at home, works by day on the same projects as his father, though without the pride of a first-generation migrant, and he knocks around by night with a small group of partying friends. Their daughter, Clare, has lit out for the inner city where she works in a bookshop and aspires to be a writer (though as far as the family is concerned she is still a high-school teacher): ‘She was born to these city streets, even though she wasn’t really born in the city; she was made to be born here and when she walked these streets she told herself that she was.’ And Rose tries to keep it all together as Antonio becomes increasingly bitter and erratic.

The novel’s title may lead you to expect it to be about Australian immigration policy. Well, maybe it is, but the domestic story, the story of Antonio’s deterioration and other people’s responses to it, is at the book’s heart. Here’s Antonio just after discovering that Clare has been lying about keeping her teaching job:

He felt the weight of something pressing against his chest. A memory interrupted his exit from the school: Clare with her pigtails in plaits, standing with a piece of chalk at the blackboard he’d given her for her twelfth birthday, writing down words for a five-year-old Francis to copy onto a sheet of paper.

He wondered who his children were now. This was the hardest thing about being a parent, the thing that no one tells you about. The fact that you grieve for your children from the moment they are born. Not so much because you’ve lost them but because they are always changing and you can’t get back all those different versions of what they once were.

Antonio grapples with many kinds of loss – of the pre-migration life, of youth, of employment, of physical wellbeing, of dignity, and of friends. Flailing around for a way to deal with his wretchedness, he seizes on the issue of immigration: he’s offended by the poor workmanship of the underpaid recent migrants on the worksite, and becomes obsessed with the objects of John Howard’s televised indignation. At a crucial moment he smokes some marijuana from Francis’s secret supply, and creates a spectacular piece anti-boat-people graffiti. The family is suddenly in the headlines, the dramas being played out on the television are much closer to home, and there’s a strong undercurrent suggesting that Antonio’s deterioration may be a metaphor for a similar process in Australian ciivil society.

There are other characters: a Vietnamese former student who surprises Clare by becoming a love interest; a Lesbian next door neighbour who provides respite for Rose; Francis’s mates Jesús and Charbel; a right-wing opportunist who exploits Antonio’s confusion; the ghost of Antonio’s friend who was killed in the accident – and more. It’s a story told at a pace that keeps the pages turning, with compassion for all players (John W Howard – ‘the dull man’ – and right-wing opportunists excepted), and a strong sense of place: the Martone home with its concreted front yard and gap in the fence to the house next door, the streets of Western Sydney and the inner city, the banks of the Parramatta River, this is a book in which you always know where you are.

aww2017.jpgNo More Boats is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Books.

Ali Alizadeh’s Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc

Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

jeanne.jpgI have a number of St Joans in my head.

Joan of Arc was one of the array of saints who populated my Catholic childhood. She did stand out from the crowd, but I don’t remember being much impressed that she was a cross-dressing, gender-bending, sword-wielding, authority-defying young woman – her armour was no odder than the flowing robes of many male saints, her defiance of authority was mild compared to Jesus’, and even her death was no more terrible than, say, St Laurence roasted on a spit or St Maria Goretti stabbed 14 times when she rejected a young man’s sexual advances.

joan.jpg

I loved George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (first performed in 1923) which I read as an 11 year old in the Collected Plays I sneaked from the top shelf of the china cabinet. (I also loved Man and Superman, despite its disappointing lack of superheroes.) I was thrilled that a Big Name Writer was acknowledging someone from Our Team – Team Catholic. I probably read it again or saw a performance as a young adult, but I don’t remember any change to my sense of the play. Rereading it just now, I realise that Shaw was actually trying to poach Joan for Team Protestant (or at least Team Proto-Protestant).

In a Sydney University Film Group screening in about 1970 of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Maria Falconetti’s silent tears as the flames rose  left an indelible imprint. The first (and only?) night of Dorothy Hewett’s musical Joan in Canberra in 1978 was a fabulous feminist event, complete with bonfire:

Mother, I’m rooted
spurred and booted,
fucked, and far from home.

Jeannd'arc.jpgWhen we visited Rouen in 2002 I insisted on being photographed at the Eglise Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc. I’m the tiny black-clad figure to the left of centre.

So, I’ve got lots of Joans. And I’m not the only one. An essay on the Overland site by Ramon Glazov, ‘The Maid of Orleans, sacred and profane‘, has a wide-ranging survey of Joans, including Shakespeare’s calumny in Henry VI Part I (news to me) and some bizarre French science fiction/fantasy.

When I heard that Ali Alizadeh, raised in a majority Muslim country and a formidable presence in Australia’s poetry scene, had written a Joan novel, my ears pricked up.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc gives us a Joan for the early 21st century.

For a start it acknowledges that it occupies a territory somewhere between known fact and informed invention. It insists on Joan’s historical reality, and her status as a great military leader who changed the history of Europe. A lively sixteen pages recount highlights of hostilities between England and France from 1329 to 1429, when the young peasant girl Jeannette Darc first visited the court of Charles VI and offered to drive the English out of France. At a number of points elsewhere, the narrator reminds us explicitly that historians have been arguing for a long time about aspects of Joan’s story.

Issues that were of little interest to Bernard Shaw – which might be summarised as sex and violence – loom large in our culture now, and Alizadeh’s novel attends to them. It engages with the tactics of war, and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of medieval European warfare: Jeanne has to face the hideous slaughter her idealistic mission unleashes. Her English prison guards are as predatory as the elite footballers who these days regularly make headlines. The book faces the now obvious question of Jeanne’s sexuality, and where lesser hands might have made something tacky or bandwagonish of this, Alizadeh makes something deeply affecting: at the heart of his story is Jeanne’s deep, troubled yearning for intimacy with another woman – sinful in the eyes of the Church, though less unambiguously so according to Jeanne’s Voices. The love story is complex, joyous, devastating, harshly cool-eyed and – in a brilliant final twist that takes us forward in time to the church in the photograph above – supported by evidence.

Another thing that makes the book very much of our time is the language. Here’s a typical passage from the early chapters outlining the back-story:

1413
In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their new ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty that his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France. Raises an army of ten thousand men and a fleet of 150 ships for the journey across the channel.

It would be hard to find a paragraph in the early part of the book that doesn’t disregard schoolroom rules of syntax in this way. The early pages that deal with Jeanne in her prison cell are similarly syntactically non-conforming (‘Two men enter. Agitated, brusque. Steel helmets and steel kneecaps.’). The effect is unsettling: who knows where the next full stop will fall, or whether there will be a verb in the next sentence? You just can’t skim these pages.

Later, during the love story, there’s a daring device where point of view changes frequently and without warning. There are at least two narrators in these chapters: Joan in her cell telling own story to Piéronne, her absent confidante; and an omniscient narrator who describes events in the present tense, as if creating them in his imagination as he writes. Here’s a taste, from a scene where Jeanne has just had an awkward encounter with a fanatical friar:

I knelt, ate, crossed myself and rose to my feet. She feels tipsy, giddy and a little disoriented. She nearly trips over a pew and falls against the chapel’s arched entrance. She pushes disorderly locks of hair off her face. My hair was getting too long. It almost reaches her shoulders. I wondered if you would cut it for me.

The voices alternate, sometimes just one short sentence each at a time. I found myself experiencing something like vertigo. There’s probably a better technical term for this, but Brechtian is the best I can do. (Perhaps it won’t be so disorientating in the audio book, where I expect there will be at least two readers.) Paradoxically, the effect is to underscore that Jeanne’s story is real, including and perhaps especially the parts that are explicitly invented.

There’s a new Jeanne in my head. None of the others have been damaged, but this one – at least for now – is more recognisable than any of the others as fully human.

Giramondo sent me a review copy of The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, and when I lost the bag it was in I spent my own money on a replacement.

Jennifer Maiden’s George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies

Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives Four: George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies (Quemar Press 2017)

pwk4The first page of this short novel –– just over 157 pages – drops the reader in medias res, that is to say into the middle of a long-running story. Arguably that’s what any decent novel does, but in this case you could go back and read a lot of what has gone before. See my post on Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker for one synopsis.

In the first few pages, George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, once Probation Office and convicted child murderer (that is, convicted when nine years old of murdering her three younger siblings), now lovers thirty odd years later, are languishing in a heatwave in Mt Druitt in Sydney’s western suburbs. In a break from working on a report for their NGO employer about Indigenous children in custody in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, they chat about a draconian policy at the Cobham Juvenile Detention Centre (a real place, real policy), and then Clare looks up an extract from William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris on Project Gutenberg and reads out a passage, which makes them both cry – and which they then discuss in erudite terms, before indulging in some erotic play.

pantherThe book continues as it has begun: whatever else may be happening, George and Clare are always good for a bit of literary chat, some sharing of random information (George refers to his ‘op-shop mind’), commentary on international politics (the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 is particularly upsetting), plenty of erotic carry-on (the word ‘foreplay’ features frequently), and lots of mutual introspection. Quotes from poetry and references to visual art abound: in this book, prints from Rosaleen Norton, the ‘Witch of King’s Cross’, play a significant role (there’s an example on the right, and you can click on the image for more). Not everyone would agree with Clare’s description of Roie’s work as mostly sweet and pretty.

The story unfolds in chapters that mostly alternate between prose narrated by George, and third person narration in verse. The baby great granddaughter of their Aboriginal friend Ruth has gone missing, and the quest to find her, alive or dead, involves, among others, a bikie gang (the Warriors of Hell), a super-criminal named Schmidt and his three diverse lovers, a number of George’s former Probation clients, an inmate of the juvenile detention centre (up on the roof, echoing recent real-world headlines), Idris the Grey Hat Hacker from the previous book now in Moscow, and George’s contact in the CIA in Langley. There’s a boxing match between two men who are old enough to know better (in which Jennifer Maiden, through George, reminds us of the second line to Muhammad Ali’s ‘Floats like a butterfly stings like a bee’), a witchcraft ceremony, a fabulously tense shoot-out in the Jenolan Caves, a number of deaths and a birth.

It’s good fun, it sticks to the tropes of the thriller genre, and could make an excellent movie. Some difficulties are solved a little too easily, and some of the connections between events aren’t clear, but I can’t say I mind. It’s full of surprise twists, not in the plot so much as in the telling: you never know where George and Clare’s minds will go next. For just one example, here’s George in the middle of the climactic cave scene, where people are dead and dying and things could hardly be more urgent:

… in front of me was a formation of such irresistible fineness that it stopped everything else in me for a second. The plain clear light was floating on a white inclining bank of intricately furrowed but luminously smooth limestone, with a cluster of long tasseled objects like sea plants embedded in the top. These showed delicate tints from iron, but in the sweet colours of skin, not its usual salty rust.

I remembered Proust writing that one can’t appreciate beauty when in severe sadness, but I wanted to add something about that point in which one is wracked with anxiety, and beauty is the only thing one can experience, perhaps just as those in grief always obsess on details. I wanted to tell that to Clare, and the need to do so reincarnated me – or maybe disincarnated me enough for me to continue.

Through it all, George and Clare’s relationship develops and though it may be a bit prim of me, I’m not going to say how. I will say that the last two short chapters, while completely within the conventions of the genre in having the world back to normal now that the threat has been dealt with, are deeply satisfying in terms of Clare’s long story arc: she can never forget that she killed her younger siblings when she was nine, has never asked forgiveness, but she does seem at last to have found a possible way to move on.

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George and Clare, the Baby and the Bikies is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

Jennifer Maiden’s George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker

Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker (Quemar Press 2016)

pwk3This is the third novel in the Play with Knives series, and like the earlier volumes it’s not a straightforward thriller as the title might seem to imply.

As well as the earlier novels, it is preceded by more than a decade of poetry featuring its two main characters. You probably don’t need to have read any of the previous novels or poems to enjoy it – a teasing curiosity about the back-story would be part of the enjoyment, and anyway parts of the history referred to in the text exist only in those references. But just for the record, here’s a chronology (I’ve listed the 25 poems in order of publication at the bottom of this post).

Chronology:

1990: George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first appear as the leads in Jennifer Maiden’s novel Play with Knives. He’s  a probation officer and she’s his client, a young woman who murdered her three younger siblings when she was nine years old. There’s a serial killer on the loose in Western Sydney, George gets involved with Clare in an ethically dubious way, and they begin an apparently endless conversation.

1991: A sequel, Complicity, is written but only excerpts are published in literary magazines. George and Clare’s relationship as lovers and conversers firms up, and there is more violence. (Quemar Press published it as an ebook in 2016.)

2005: After a fourteen-year absence the characters reappear / are resurrected in Friendly Fire (Giramondo). Maiden says in an introduction that soon after 11 September 2001, she thought, ‘What are George and Clare thinking?’ The question begins to be answered in a prose narrative set in Lower Manhattan on 9 September 2001, and then in six ‘George Jeffreys’ poems, each beginning:

George Jeffreys woke up in [xxx].
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad.

The first four of these poems pretty much sticks to the question of what George is thinking – about post–911 events up to and including the invasion of Iraq. Then, in the fifth and sixth poems, he moves beyond just thinking, to chat with George W Bush (in the White House, in #5) and Saddam Hussein (in Baghdad, in #6).

2010–2016: Another 14 ‘George Jeffreys’ poems appear in Jennifer Maiden’s next five books. There are also four poems named for Clare: ‘Clare and Paris / Manus / Thessaloniki / Nauru’. Both characters make an appearance in ‘The Year of the Ox’ in Liquid Nitrogen (2012) – George watching Obama on TV, Clare in contact with the ghosts of her murdered siblings, both watching Gillard on TV. George w Bush fades from the scene, and so eventually does the TV set.

While George and Clare continue to provide a medium for reflections on world events, they also assert themselves as characters, turning up at hotspots all over the world working for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience. They are great talkers, to each other of course, but also with political figures ranging from the Master of the Crossroads in Louisiana and a brace of ancient Chinese philosophers to a CIA operative and, in a poem published the day after his electoral victory, Donald Trump.

The poems are embedded in a compelling body of work, only one of a number of conduits for reflections on the constellation of themes in each book – war and violence, ‘ethical security’, government surveillance, Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’, culling of feral animals, and more. Other pairs of characters appear in similar series, including Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt in 14 poems, Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria in six. But only George and Clare’s poems develop progressively into more rounded fictions*. There are Hitchcockian shoot-outs in spectacular settings, dramatic rescues of abused women, a spot of arson on Manus Island. People and animals rescued by Clare become part of their domestic life back in Mount Druitt.

2016: It seems a logical progression, almost a response to pressure from the characters themselves, when the novel series comes back to life. Quemar Press reissues Play with Knives, publishes Complicity for the first time, and then Play with Knives Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker, all as ebooks in PDF format.

End of chronology.

This third novel in the Play with Knives series differs from the previous two by being mostly in verse. It differs from the poems of the previous decades by having room to focus on the characters’ intimacies (which it does in explicit detail) and space for their conversations to veer off down innumerable byways.

After a brief prose prologue from George (all the prose sections are George speaking in the first person), the first chapter begins in the well-established way, ‘George Jeffreys woke up’: he’s in Thirroul, just south of Sydney, house-sitting with Clare, in a house filled with Gary Shead prints of D H Lawrence and Frieda. (Thirroul is where Lawrence wrote Kangaroo. A number of the prints are lovingly described in the text: you can see images of them on this Pinterest site). As well as Lawrence on the walls, they share the house with a pet rat named Johnny Depp, canaries (Lily and Snape) and a blue tongue lizard (Hello Kitty).

It’s the night of a scheduled execution in Indonesia strikingly similar to the real-world killing by firing squad in April 2015 when of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and six others are to be killed by firing squad in Indonesia. Clare and George have (of course) been involved with one of the prisoners and their emotional preparation for and then response to the executions is the central action of the first two chapters, which constitute more than half the book. Seeking distraction and human contact, they have quite a lot of explicitly negotiated and described, not entirely conventional sex, they swap stories about D H Lawrence and Norman Mailer, come close to using Assange as a term for a sexual practice, criticise Freud and de Sade, discuss Trump’s policies, quote A E Housman, Nye Bevan, A J P Taylor, and a lot more. There’s a recurring sentence:

The clock by the bed went round, but it wasn’t time.

This is all so absorbing that one hardly notices that some time in the night, they learn by phone that George’s grandson Idris is heading their way from England, where his hacking activities have put him in danger. The next night, still exhausted by events in Indonesia, well past the halfway point of the book, George and Clare go to bed:

They slept there for an hour, then George woke to a noise.
It was like a cat tapping to get out, except that he saw it was
actually his grandson, tapping to get in. He thought: If he
calls me ‘Dude’, I’ll kill him. He unlocked the door quickly,
admonished, ‘Don’t wake Clare.’ Idris hugged him, no different
to his exuberance as a child. George had always been his
favourite male relative. George locked the door. Idris still
hadn’t let his arm go, exclaiming, ‘Dude, how are you? You
look great.’ George hugged him back: ‘I’m fine. You seem in
quite good shape, yourself, boy.’

That’s the start of what in a conventional genre novel would be the central action (and the echo from the poems in ‘George woke’ suggests that we are indeed at a new beginning). But, once everyone has said hello and Idris has said he’s being followed by some ‘weird dudes’, everyone goes back to sleep. When Clare wakes in the morning she muses on one of the Shead paintings, remembers a Civil War song, looks at the sleeping George …

Sure, there’s a story to be told, but life is full of moments. Idris’s partner Sophie (whose life Clare saved in Paris years earlier) arrives with baby Florence, and there is a wonderful sequence of extended family domesticity.

In chapters 3 to 4, George picks up the narration in prose, and in what is only slightly less leisurely (there’s still time for a lit-crit discussion of Peter Pan, some wine-snob chat and a brief reflection on infant circumcision), the tension mounts to a climactic shoot-out on the Bulli Pass. That too, as much as the sex and the images on the wall, is the subject of Clare-and-George conversation. Clare asks:

‘How did you shoot that Frenchman?’

‘Apart from using withdrawal symptoms to concentrate? I remembered what you said about empathising. I knew where to aim for in his arm, and I didn’t feel as if my own arm existed. Fortunately, by the time his mate killed him, most of the empathy was over.’ Although I instantly remembered, very accurately, the screaming.

In [redacted to avoid spoiler], her eyes were lightning on rockpools. I thought of my finger in the sea anemone: that temporary sudden small ridge appearing from nowhere after the opening, testing itself against an invader, making the whole map change. She asked, ‘But how did you shoot him?’

I answered, ‘I am descended from the Hanging Judge, you know. It was easy. I just forgot everything I ever knew.’

Some novels are blatantly written with the Hollywood machine in mind. This is not one of them: it ignores the genre rules about structure, and its pleasures are in the detail of relationships – in sex, in play between adults and small children, in the joys of conversation, in the grief and rage of seeing state machinery destroy lives, in engagement on many levels with art, literature and politics. There is a twist at the end, in the last two short chapters, chapter 5 in prose and chapter 6 in verse,  which makes the whole hacker plot seem a little like an elaborate misdirection. The clock by the bed still goes round, but in these final chapters we have a different understanding of what that means.

I won’t spoil things by telling you if Idris escapes safely to Moscow.
—–
Jennifer Maiden poems featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins 2005–2016
In Friendly Fire (Giramondo 2005):
George Jeffreys 1: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kabul
George Jeffreys 2: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kandahar
George Jeffreys 3: George Jeffreys Woke Up in London
George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin
George Jeffreys 5: George Jeffreys Woke Up in the White House
George Jeffreys 6: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Baghdad

In Pirate Rain (Giramondo 2010):
George Jeffreys 7: George Jeffreys Woke Up in New Orleans
George Jeffreys 8: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Rio
George Jeffreys 9: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beirut
Clare and Paris
George Jeffreys 10: George Jeffreys Woke Up in a Pirates’ Ship

In Liquid Nitrogen (Giramondo 2012):
The Year of the Ox
George Jeffreys 11: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Langley
George Jeffreys 12: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Oslo
George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beijing
George Jeffreys 14: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Sharm el Sheikh

In Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)
George Jeffreys 15: The Fourth Terrace
George Jeffreys 16: George Jeffreys Woke Up in South Iceland
Clare and Manus

In The Fox Petition (Giramondo 2015)
George Jeffreys 17: George and the Holy Holiday
George Jeffreys 18: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Kos
Clare and Thessaloniki

In The Metronome (Quemar 2016, Giramondo 2017)
Clare and Nauru
George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo
George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Washington

There are more to come, in Appalachian Fall, due out from Quemar in October.
——
aww2017.jpgGeorge and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.