Tag Archives: Novel

Susan Hill’s Black Sheep

Susan Hill, Black Sheep (Chatto & Windus 2013)

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

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

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

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

The Book Group with A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016, Windmill 2017)

Before the meeting: This is a fabulous book to read after The Disappearing Earth. Both are by USians looking to Russia, but where Julia Phillips’s novel is a contemporary thriller (kind of) set in remote Siberia, and features Indigenous people, Amor Towles’s novel is a comedy of manners (kind of) whose action takes place almost entirely within the walls of the luxurious Hotel Metropol in post-revolution Moscow. It’s probably not stretching things too far to say that, for all their difference, they are both reactions against mainstream US’s Russophobia, while neither goes so far as to assert any sympathy with Communism. They seem to confirm that the Book Group has a recurring interest in Russia and the former Soviet Bloc, coming as they do after Anna Karenina (discussed in August 2009), Chekhov’s short stories (September 2012), China Miéville’s October (September 2017), and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (November 2017).

Count Rostov is a Former Person, that is to say a member of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy, whose life is spared because of a poem filled with pre-revolutionary zeal, and who is sentenced to live the rest of his life under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol. Rostov, whose aristocratic virtues include extraordinary social adeptness, courtesy, wit and generosity, has been a favourite guest at the hotel. When he is moved by decree from his luxurious quarters to a tiny room on the top floor, his relationships with members of the staff remain affectionate. He is befriended by a young girl (who initiates the friendship by asking him what has happened to his spectacular moustaches – which have been peremptorily scissored by a brutish apparatchik) and some decades later takes on the guardianship of her daughter, who becomes the emotional centre of his life. He is employed as head waiter in the hotel’s prestigious dining room, where his aristocratic training in tact and diplomacy serves him well. Over the decades of his house arrest, his gift for friendship wins him unexpected allies, even while his undaunted aristocratic bearing makes an enemy or two.

All this plays out against the history of Stalinism, the Second World War, the coming of Kruschev, forced collectivisation, purges, straitjacketing and worse of artists, writers and performers, the gulags, millions dying of famine, increasing wealth and eventual opening up to the West, samizdat. The Count leaves the hotel only once before the final pages; history comes to visit him, and friends fall foul of the iron hand of Stalinism. He is described as the luckiest man in Russia.

Beneath this charming fantasy, there’s a joyful assertion of the value of decency, a celebration of resilient humane virtues. I enjoyed it a lot, and laughed out loud more than once. But …

… although at no stage did I feel the urge to stand up and sing ‘The Internationale’ (to quote Mark Kermode reviewing Downton Abbey), I was uneasy about the possibility that the book plays into a quietistic approach to life, as in, ‘I can be decent, even generous, with people within my small sphere, but what can I possibly do about big issues like climate change when my sphere is so limited?’ I don’t know. Maybe this is a question for the Group – that is, if we can resist the pull to rip into Scott Morrison dealings with Trump.

At the meeting: I was surprised that this book was substantial enough to hold our attention for long, yet it provoked very interesting, wide-ranging, inclusive and at times robust conversation.

One man had read it twice, the second time when he had a visitor staying with his family to whom he read a page or so on a number of nights, which he and his audience enjoyed immensely. This man actually stayed at the Hotel Metropol some decades ago, a disclosure he managed to withhold until well into the evening, winning a round of applause for his restraint. He also challenged the idea that may have been floating in the room and/or the book that civility and grace were somehow aristocratic virtues – two of the most gracious people he had ever met were working class unionists Jack Mundey and Jack Ferguson.

I got to put my question, or call it my unease, and wasn’t dismissed out of hand. One man immediately wondered aloud if that unease wasn’t the actual intentional subject of the book. One chap described the book as a Western liberal response to the Russian Communist experiment, in which liberalism comes out as superior. Another (a recovering Trot, I think) saw it as asserting that attempts at major social change were doomed to fail because the old order just reproduces itself in new forms. Someone else heard me as using the rhetorical device of ‘What about …?’ – that is, asking how we could be giving attention to this froth and bubble when Climate Change. (I think I defended myself successfully against that charge.) If Rostov doesn’t engage with the social change activism, perhaps it’s because he’s under house arrest, and perhaps (this was a quick aside from someone) we all tend to feel we’re under house arrest.

We managed to talk about any number of subjects without leaving the book: Boris Johnson and the Etonian old boys currently running the UK (aristocratic virtues, anyone?), The Good Place (addresses the question of what it means to be good!), Poldark (which not many of have watched, but evidently it addresses contemporary issues through a story set in the past), being fathers of girls.

I love my Book Group.

The Book Group disagrees about Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth (Scribner 2019)

Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.

The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.

The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.

As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.

This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.

Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.

After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:

  • I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
  • One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
  • Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
  • One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.

We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.

Mark Brandi’s Rip

Mark Brandi, The Rip (Hachette Australia 2019)

I’m on holiday, and this was a birthday present. I knew from the start that it wasn’t my cup of tea. The cover is clever. Jock Serong’s back cover blurb makes me ashamed. He says:

What held me close in this novel was not the idea of a hidden population of drifters and addicts, but the writer’s reassurance that dignity and small kindnesses have a place in that world.

It makes me ashamed because I just didn’t believe in the drifters and addicts, and found the dignity and small acts of kindness as unconvincing as the rest. The narrator is a homeless young woman addict who has grown up in foster homes, at least some of them sites of sexual abuse. She has a good friend and protector in an older man, who doesn’t exploit her sexually and tries to find ways for her to avoid turning tricks for cash. They fall in with a very unpleasant character and it goes seriously downhill for both of them. There are no surprises in the plot,and the characterisation is minimal.

The narrator is not stupid, though she is extraordinarily obtuse at key moments, but she’s uneducated and very limited in her experiences. And very often in the writing, one has a sense of the writer pushing against her ignorance and limitations to say something that’s beyond her. Sometimes she quotes her friend (using the word ‘osmosis’, for example) and says she doesn’t understand what it means. Other times, it just feels as if she has become pretty much a ventriloquist’s doll for the author. Here’s a taste, from a passage early on where she’s describing what it’s like to use heroin:

I don’t want to make it sound romantic. Except it is romantic. And it’s just about the most wonderful thing there is. I love it. And it’s something I’ll always love, probably as long as I live. I suppose it’s a bit like smokers – maybe that’s a good way for people to think about it. Smokers might quit smoking because of all the other shit that goes with it, but the actual smoking part is something they enjoy – something they might always love. But they just make a rational decision, I suppose, that the downside isn’t worth it.

But for me, the downside is worth it. Because downside is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Getting high is my only glimpse of the upside, if that makes sense.

(Page 16)

To be fair, the unadorned narrative has an occasional meta touch that works well, if the reader is feeling forgiving): the main pair occasionally sneak into movies, and their tastes run to art-house features like Dogville and Pan’s Labyrinth. The narrator pours scorn on Hollywood’s need for happy endings, and there’s some discussion of whether the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth is meant to be real or just the girl’s fantasy. So when we come to the book’s ending (not to be too spoilerish), there’s a big doubt cast over what is actually happening. And in a clever postmodern way, the opening pages only make sense if read after the ending.

That said, it may be that it was a mistake to read The Rip so soon after two superb books: Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, which treats the world of ‘drifters and addicts’ with so much passion and complexity, and Elie Wiesel’s Twilight, which never tells the reader what to think and is never predictable. Whatever, it didn’t really touch the sides for me.

Elie Wiesel’s Twilight (at a distance)

Elie Wiesel, Twilight (1987, translated from the French Le Crépuscule, au loin by Marion Wiesel 1988;)

I was given this book as a birthday gift some years ago. I was finally spurred to read it by a moment in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam when he says that Holocaust survivor Frieda Menco became an international activist ‘after hearing fellow Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel discuss his experiences’.

Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee described him as ‘one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterise the world’, and his Wikipedia entry offers ample justification for that description. His writing of memoir and fiction about the Holocaust is just part of his extraordinary activism; it’s the part I’m interested in here.

His first book, published in 1956, was a memoir in Yiddish of his Holocaust experiences, And the World Remained Silent. Night (published in French in 1958, then in English translation in 1960) was a shorter version, focusing on his relationship with his father in the camps. According to Wikipedia, Night ‘now ranks as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature’. In the next years, he wrote the novels Dawn (published in French in 1960, and in English translation in 1961) and Day (1961/1962), making a trilogy that marked (again I’m quoting Wikipedia) ‘Wiesel’s transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall’.

It’s reasonable to suppose that Twilight (especially in its original French title, which translates as ‘Twilight, at a distance’) is meant to be read as a footnote to that trilogy, an extra phase of the diurnal sequence. Not having read those earlier books, then, I’ve come to this one at a disadvantage: I suspect it picks up lines of argument from the trilogy, either amplifying them or refuting them. So bear in mind, if you read on, that I’m writing as someone who came in late. (Imagine reading only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and none of the first six HP novels.)

Raphael Lipkin was a young Jew in Poland during the Second World War. His entire family was wiped out, mostly by the Nazis but some by the Soviets, but he survived thanks to the intervention of a character known only as the madman with veiled eyes, and Pedro, a heroic member of Briha, the underground organisation that helped Holocaust survivors escape Europe. The novel tells the story of his traditional Jewish family as the reality of the Nazi threat becomes clearer and eventually overtakes them. Intertwined with this narrative is the story, some decades later, of Raphael’s time spent in a New York psychiatric hospital where all the patients believe they are characters from ancient history. He goes to the hospital on the pretext of learning from the patients in his academic field of Jewish mysticism, but he is actually trying to find out what happened to Pedro.

The Holocaust narratives here are mostly stories of richly diverse Jewish life – there are Judaic scholars, historians, young people in love, Communists, Zionists. The focus is on the rich culture and community life that was being destroyed rather than on the horror of the process (though there are moments of horror). In the modern story, Raphael speaks constantly to the absent Pedro, whose name he seeks to clear, but though Raphael’s main motivation is to do with Pedro, that story becomes secondary to his engagement with the hospital inmates. He has substantial conversations with Adam, Cain, a prophet, a dead man, the ‘Messiah of mad people’, and finally God himself. As I read it, in all these conversations, Wiesel is addressing the question of how the Judaic religious tradition can deal with the fact of the Holocaust – is it possible to still believe that God exists, that life has meaning. I suspect that as a confirmed atheist, and from a Christian tradition to boot, I missed a lot of the nuance, and if a conclusion is reached it passed me by (though there is a revelation in the final pages that may amount to Wiesel’s theological conclusion, and that revelation is foreshadowed in the epigraph from Maimonides, ‘The world couldn’t exist without madmen’).

The passion and intelligence of the writing held me captive the whole time. As a for-instance, here’s part of a monologue from the mad Adam, early in the book, which states an extreme despairing response to the horrors of the 20th century:

Listen, God. What I am about to tell you is for your own good. Stop! Yes, God: Stop this senseless project. Believe me, even you who are omnipotent cannot succeed in this. You thought man would be your glory, the jewel of your crown. You make me laugh. Man is your failure. Face it. Give up your illusions. Wake up. Be considerate. Close the book before you turn the first page. Does it shame you to admit that I’m right? Then forget it’s my idea. Let it be my gift to you. Legally, philosophically, you will have fathered it. And you know what? Theologically too. All you have to say is: I tried, I was wrong. And, luckily for the world, I realised it in time. Thus, even if your dream will have lasted but one day, one lifetime, you will be applauded. By your angels and seraphim. By the countless souls who will escape the curse of being born only to die. By the trees that will not be felled by man. By the animals that will not be slaughtered. By the earth that will not be despoiled. And all of Creation, pure and resplendent, will say: Look how great is God, how admirable His honesty. He does not shrink from admitting His error. And yes, He can manage perfectly well without man …

(page 28-29)

As you see, this isn’t a book that offers easy answers. It’s not a comfortable read. But (and remember, I’m a man who said last week that I need a novel to be fun) it’s kind of exhilarating.

Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Just when I was beginning to think I’d become that typical older white man who doesn’t enjoy fiction, along comes Boy Swallows Universe and demonstrates that if anything my taste is reverting to that of a much younger demographic. It’s depressive fiction that I don’t enjoy. I want my novels to be fun, and this one is fun. (Come to think of it, it’s not so long since I read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, and some bits in that keep coming back as unbidden memories that make me laugh, so Boy Swallows Universe isn’t an anomaly).

This is a novel full of odd characters, vivid villains, plenty of colour and movement, twists and turns, silliness and tears, something new and diverting on every page. Eli Bell, the narrator, is thirteen at the start of the novel. His brother August/Gus hasn’t spoken since their parents split up years before, but communicates by writing in the air. Their mother and de facto stepfather are recovered junkies, now dealing heroin, precariously involved in organised crime. The story that unfolds involves terrible violence, of the out-of-control domestic variety as well as the spine-chillingly calculated kind. It involves deep betrayal, and at least one moment of abject self-abasement more horrible than any of the violence.

But it’s also a love story. The boys’ babysitter, Slim, is a notorious criminal, who once served time for murder. Whether he did the crime is left an open question – as it must, because, we’re told in an author’s note, the character shares the name and the history of a real man was actually the author’s babysitter. Slim is Eli’s mentor: he helps him develop his remarkable powers of observation, and offers profound philosophical advice – usually with a half smoked durrie hanging from his lip: ‘The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.’ There’s no doubt that he loves the boys. No doubt either that their mother, stepfather and even the father who turns up much later in the book, that they all love them in their wounded ways, and are loved in return. Eli knows that all these people have done bad things, and more, worse things are revealed as the novel progresses, and he wrestles with the question – not, How can you love a person who does bad things? but, What is a good person?

There’s a story early in the book that beautifully foreshadows some of this complexity. The school bully tells Eli to meet him in a secluded spot after school. When they meet, he and his thuggish offsider force Eli to splay his fingers on a flat surface while the bully, blindfolded brings a sharp knife dow=n, betting that he can land the blade between Eli’s fingers. They are interrupted in the nick of time by a school teacher, but Eli refuses to say anything untoward was happening. Later, asked by the bully’s mother – a powerful figure in the local drug trade – why he didn’t dob, Eli says, to the bully’s astonished pleasure, ‘Because he is my friend.’ And means it.

I was enjoying the book from the first page. The point where enjoyment turned to love is when Eli says:

I’ve never tasted the natural spring waters of Helidon, but I doubt they could match the sweet, restorative powers of an ice cold sarsaparilla.

(page 125)

You may need to be a Queenslander of a certain age to even understand what that sentence means, and I’m pretty certain that only a Queenslander could have written it. (Sarsaparilla, pronounced sarsprella in my childhood, is a soft drink that tastes like root beer, hard to find outside of Queensland, and not manufactured by the transnationals that otherwise dominate the softdrink market.)

Because, this is a Queensland novel through and through. Slim’s many escapes from prison earned him the nickname the Houdini of Boggo Road. The object of Eli’s infatuation works at the Courier-Mail. The beautiful names of Brisbane suburbs ring out through the story: Inala, Birrong, Sandgate, Toombul, Toowong, The Valley, The Gap. People feast on mud crabs, and no one trusts the police (it’s a just-post-Bjelke-Petersen novel).

There are fantasy elements – impossible conversations on a red phone, some romantic wish-fulfilment, maybe even the whole strand about Gus’s silence – that aren’t really integrated, and might irritate someone who wasn’t onside. For my part, I didn’t even have to forgive them: they work fine as decoration, they’re part of what make the book fun.

I feel a bit strange saying that a novel that includes scenes of terrible violence, a couple of teenage boys getting involved in drug trafficking, and some general degradation is fun. It’s not fun in the way, say, Breaking Bad, is, where sheer style carries the day. It’s fun because we encounter all those elements with an indomitably open-hearted narrator. Possibly spoiler alert: this is the kind of novel where the young hero, meeting the immensely powerful, chillingly evil villain, asks him on the record, ‘Are you a good man?’

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip (UQP 2018)

Among many splendid things at the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter this year was the Mission Songs Project concert featuring Jessie Lloyd, Emma Donovan and Deline Briscoe. Jessie Lloyd has been researching and reviving Aboriginal songs from the mission era (roughly 1901 to 1967) from all over Australia. At the end of a terrific concert Ms Lloyd urged us – mainly non-Indigenous – audience members, to connect, learn and engage with the songs. She wants these songs dealing with the hardships, sorrows and sometimes joys of mission life – to become part of the Australian songbook alongside ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Botany Bay’. She invited us to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures as integral parts of mainstream Australian history and culture. (A choir songbook is available for sale at the Mission Songs Project website.)

Too Much Lip holds out a similar invitation, though with less sweet music.

It’s the story of the Salters, an Aboriginal family in northern New South Wales, a story that includes violence, petty crime, child sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, neglect, dark secrets, seething resentments, alienation and general chaos. It’s what many would call a dysfunctional family, but that’s not a term that seems quite to fit. The central character, Kerry, thinks of it as a ‘grassroots family’ – as if their huge ordeals and conflicts don’t mark them out as special so much as make them representative.

I don’t want to say too much about this book. It’s very funny in places. Kerry arrives back home after a long absence – she’s been part of the Lesbian community in Brisbane and has just been dumped by her girlfriend after a failed armed robbery. Her pitiless sarcasm about white people (dugai) and men, not just white men, sets the tone for the opening sequence, and while she doesn’t exactly soften, there’s some delicious counterpoint when she falls for a … white man. This is just one of the brilliant, comic but believable transformations in the book. Sweet Mary, Kerry’s mother, is a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken is a pontificating drunken layabout who bullies his teenaged son; her younger brother, known only as Black SUperman, is a Gay man who lives in Sydney; Steve, the object of Kerry’s lust, is trying to set up a gym in town; Martina, a real estate agent from Sydney, has been seconded to the local office to help the mayor push through a deal that will result in a prison being built on a piece of land that has deep significance for the Salters. And there are a number of children, including the splendidly named Dr No (guess how old he is). In the course of the novel, each of these characters, including the children, reveals something completely unexpected abut themselves, or undergoes a radical transformation. To say that another way: we are invited to make judgements about every one of the characters, and by the end of the book we have revised our judgements radically.

I confess I started reading Too Much Lip with a sense of duty: as a dugai, I really ought to read writing by Aboriginal authors. Well, that’s what got me to page 1, and kept me going through Kerry’s reference to white people as normalwhitesavages, till about page 20, but after that I was there for the joys, sorrows and terrors of the ride.

There are talking birds and a talking shark, a ghost, terrible stories of white-on-black violence and of black-on-black violence (with an afterword asserting that all the incidents have occurred in the author’s extended family or, in a few cases, are drawn from the historical record or Aboriginal oral history). There’s a brilliant extended sequence where the family has a barbecue, and all the threads of the narrative twist together and apart dramatically – I’d say it was chaotic, but the reader is never confused about what is happening and what it means in the lives of each character.

It’s a brilliant book. The last pages sent me back to reread the beginning. Some of the jokes still make me laugh a week after reading them. It puts heart and body into abstract terms like intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, white supremacy. It doesn’t need my recommendation, but I recommend it anyhow.

Too Much Lip was a birthday present. It’s the eighteenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Virago 2014)

This is the third book in Marilynne Robinson’s superb Gilead trilogy. I wouldn’t be sorry to learn that the series will continue.

The first book, Gilead, is narrated by John Ames, an ageing Congregationalist pastor in the small US town that the book is named after, trying to explain his life of faith to his alienated son. A main strand of that book is Ames’s intense relationship with the Reverend Boughton, another pastor in Gilead. They both are devoted to their God, to their calling as clergymen, to each other, and to a rigorous thinking through of their Calvinist faith. I don’t know that I’ve ever read theological discussion that was so warmly human.

The second book, Home (which I’ve blogged about here and here), covers ground already traversed in the first, but from a different points of view: it’s mainly the story of Boughton’s disgraced son Jack, coming home with a new wife. Lila is named for Ames’s second wife, and tells the story of her radically deprived childhood and life on the margins leading up to the moment when she improbably but convincingly finds a home with the one she thinks of as ‘this good old man’.

I regret reading this so long after its predecessors. We only get what Lila overhears of Ames and Boughton’s conversations, and Boughton’s adult children have tiny, non-speaking roles, so there’s a sense of so much happening outside the scope of the narrative , some of which I’m fairly sure was explicit in Gilead. My impression is that the action of Home takes place after the action of this book, but I wouldn’t swear to it. And I don’t suppose it really matters. Lila’s story is compelling in its own right.

She was saved from probable death from neglect as a small child by a vagrant woman named only Doll. She grew up under Doll’s fiercely protective care in Depression USA, joining a group of itinerant workers, going to school enough to learn to read, always moving on when Doll feared they were about to be found by Lila’s vengeful kinfolk or other enemies. Doll’s life ends in violence – after she stabs to death a man who may be Lila’s biological father.

Lila manages to survive a time working in a brothel and the hardships of life on the road until almost by accident she walks into the church in Gilead. Before that, her minimal literacy has led her to the Bible, and phrases from Ezekiel about a baby weltering in its blood somehow struck a deep chord in her imagination.

Interspersed with this story, the story of Lila growing up, coming to Gilead and proposing marriage to Ames, there is the story of her emotional journey towards deciding to stay with him. Virtuous characters are notoriously difficult to create, and once created they are difficult to make interesting. From one point of view, Lila exists as a device to allow us to see Ames as interesting: her every interaction with him is informed by the violence and deprivation that have formed her, as well as her fierce love and loyalty to Doll.

We no longer hear the intricate theological discussions of Ames and Boughton. Instead, Ames is challenged to examine the basic nature of his faith. It’s a good bit of the power of the book that he rises to the challenge with humility, affection, even delight. It’s evangelical Christianity, but not as we have come to know it in the age of Trump.

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water with the Book Group

Kenzaburō Ōe, Death by Water ( 2009, translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm 2015)

Before the meeting: In flagrant disregard for established practice, our current Designated Chooser nominated two titles, to be read for successive meetings. The first, Edward Said’s On Late Style, was not exactly a triumph (the link is to my blog post), though it has been working away in the back of my mind ever since I read it. This is his second pick.

Kogito Choko is a writer in his eighties who revisits his childhood home with the intention of writing a novel about his father’s death by drowning when he was a child. What he thinks of as ‘the drowning novel’ had been one of his earliest projects, which he had laid aside because his mother wouldn’t give him access to the red trunk that his father had with him on the fateful night. Now, ten years after his mother’s death, the chest is released to him. An experimental theatre group who are passionately interested in his work are developing a project that will involve a dramatisation of his complete works, and hope to incorporate the process of writing the long awaited drowning novel. The theatre group has a signature audience-participation process featuring soft toy dogs and vigorous disagreements.

That’s the set-up. Nothing goes to plan. At one stage a character describes Mr Choko’s recent novels as ‘serial slices of thinly veiled memoir’, and that isn’t a bad description of some aspects of this one.

Kanzburō Ōe has a lot in common with his protagonist: same age, same childhood locality, same artistic medium (though Mr Choko doesn’t seem to have won a Nobel Prize as Ōe has), several novels in his back-catalogue with the same names. According to Wikipedia, Death by Water is Ōe’s sixth novel featuring Kogito Choko and his brain-damaged son Hikari (Ōe’s own brain-damaged son is named Akari). The novel’s imagined reader probably knows all this: I’m coming in very late, so shouldn’t complain if I feel disoriented at times. Which I do.

The novel progresses in an apparently haphazard way. The drowning novel is abandoned (a development it took me many pages to accept) and Mr Choko is persuaded to help write the script for the theatre group’s new project. A different theatre production is described in great detail. His wife is hospitalised and pretty much disappears from the book. He has a terrible falling out with Hikari and the problem of how to provide for Hikari’s needs remains on the agenda until the end. Key characters turn up well after the midpoint of the novel. The final movement deals with historical and remembered rape, incest and abortion – issues that have hardly even been hinted at earlier. It feels like one damned thing after another.

We learn about much of the action by way of letters to Mr Choko or conversations with him. Many words are spent describing theatrical performances and interpreting dreams and poems, though some of the dreams, we’re told, may actually be memories even though they involve a flying boy. Other characters tend to talk at Mr Choko, often offering him unflattering analyses of his personality or work, and they keep on talking in the absence of any verbal response, even one meant only for the reader. Mr Choko is asleep during the dramatic climax, and when his sister tells him (and us) what has happened she can only infer the action from what she has heard and overheard. The very final moments are Mr Choko’s imaginings of what might be going to happen.

At times it was like watching one of those Japanese movies that you can’t take your eyes off but which leaves your Western mind floundering.

My ignorance of Japanese history is part of the problem. Two historical uprisings feature strongly. The theatre group’s project is a stage play based on a film about an uprising during the Meiji Restoration, led by weeping children and warrior women. And Mr Choko’s father was involved in an ultra-nationalist plot to kill the emperor after the end of World War One. The incest-rape-abortion theme is linked to the first of these, and has a definite, though unclear to me, political meaning.

There’s also something about the tone of the writing that doesn’t travel well. For example, Masao, the artistic director of the theatre group, asks Mr Choko to reply to a questionnaire to help with the theatre project. What follows is several pages in which Masao delivers a series of monologues expounding on Mr Choko’s creative intentions and mental states at various points of his career. At the end of each monologue Mr Choko replies briefly to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ ‘That’s exactly right,’ ‘You may very well be right about that, too,’ and so on. In a movie, no matter how deadpan the performance, this would be comic. But it’s just not funny on the page. Something isn’t translating.

But I’m not blaming the translator. I was disconcerted by a number of US-isms: a mention of a character’s ‘trail of tears’, for example, had me wondering why Ōe was referring to that terrible event from US history, until I realised he probably wasn’t. But other unsettling language is most likely just as unsettling in the original. I had to return my copy to the library so can’t give examples, sorry.

Mr Choko plans to write a book in a ‘catastrophic late style’ à la Edward Said (who was a friend of his), and perhaps this is Ōe’s version of the same. Perhaps this is Ōe’s ‘drowning novel’.

Having written a first draft of this blog post, I re-read the last ten pages of the book before returning it to the library, and realised that for all the book’s opacity and apparent incoherence, it does hang together. It comes back again and again to the main image of Choko’s last contact with his father, just before the father drowned. The boy’s unresolved feelings about that moment are the novel’s engine, echoed by a young woman’s need for resolution about her experience of rape and incest: it’s a tortuous, and tortured, path for both of them, but in very different ways they each find some sort of resolution.

After the meeting: There was a terrifying moment when it seemed out host, who was also the Designated Chooser, wouldn’t be able to come to the meeting because of a family crisis. Happily – both in terms of the crisis and for the good of the group – he did turn up, and was able to deal with our general bafflement with lucidity and grace.

But first: my bafflement was generally shared. One man said that he had never experience so strongly a sense that he and a book were travelling along separate, parallel lines. His partner got exasperated with his moaning and told him to abandon it and read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles instead – advice he was happy to follow. He wasn’t the only one to jump ship.

Our host agreed that some elements of the book were mystifying, but they didn’t determine his response. For him it worked as a comedy – the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who thinks of himself as a distinguished novelist, perhaps a national treasure, but is in fact pretty much a has-been: the theatre group, which he thinks of a celebrating his legacy, is actually using his work as a springboard for something very different – devoted though they may be. He is managed by the women in his life – his mother, his sister and his wife; is useless at dealing with his son’s difficulties. And alongside this comic aspect, our host was enthralled by the way the images of forest and water are woven through the book, so that he was thrilled by the final moments (which I felt were clumsy and arbitrary).

I don’t know that he persuaded any of us to go back and reread the book, but it was a wonderful to have someone lay out a very different response to a book. One of us would say, ‘But what do you make of [blah blah]’. ‘Oh that,’ he’d say, ‘that’s something from Japanese culture.’ It’s no good argung about taste, as my Latin teacher used to say (but in Latin, De gustibus non est disputandum), but you can definitely learn a lot from talking about where different tastes take you.

Joyce Carol Oates’ Hazards of Time Travel

Joyce Carol Oates, Hazards of Time Travel (4th Estate 2018)

Maybe I’m being harsh, but this strikes me as an example of a literary novelist deciding to write science fiction in the spirit of someone slumming it. It’s a dystopian novel in which the world building is fairly slapdash and awfully familiar even to someone like me who doesn’t read a lot  of dystopian fiction. It has a number of twists that don’t really turn. The timing, especially in the final pages where there is a faux happy ending (or is it?), just doesn’t work.

Having said that, I think there is a serious argument that J F Skinner’s psychological theories are useful in understanding the creeping totalitarianism of our times: a young woman who asks questions (not too many questions, but questions at all) in the repressive future is exiled to a rural university in the US in the 1950s where Skinner’s theories are seen as cutting edge, and … oh I don’t care.

I haven’t read anything else by Joyce Carol Oates, so I may be missing something. Edward Said’s On Late Style warned that contemporaries dismissed the work of any number of great artists as they moved into the apparent carelessness of their late style. Perhaps that’s what is happening here. I’m open to argument