Tag Archives: Novel

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare 2016)

2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which led to a flurry of novels retelling his plays. Apart from the seven titles in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, of which Hag-Seed is one, there were at least Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (a take in Hamlet read by my Book Group on a date I couldn’t attend) and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart (which includes a deft retelling of Measure for Measure, and which I read recently).

Hag-Seed relocates the story of The Tempest to contemporary Canada. Felix Phillips is sacked as Artistic Director of a Shakespeare festival in the small town of Makeshiweg. He goes into solitary exile with the ghost of his young daughter, hoping, Prospero-like, to take revenge on the men who usurped his position. His hope comes to fruition through a production of The Tempest that he directs as part of a literacy program in a men’s prison. He plays the deposed and vengeful Prospero himself.

I’m a sucker for stories that revolve around theatrical productions of classic texts. Theres’s the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows (2003–2006), and Kenneth Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Two of my favourite films seen this last year were Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), which features Uncle Vanya, and Emmanuel Courcol’s Un triomphe (2020), which features En attendant Godot, each of them illuminating its respective play as well as gaining heft from it. If the theatrical production happens in a prison or similar institution, my suckerness intensifies: Un triomphe is in that catergory; I still remember the joy of seeing Peter Brook’s movie of Marat/Sade in the late 1960s, and the different joy of a high-school production of Louis Nowra’s Cosí directed by and starring the late Jesse Cox. In real life, my first copy-editing task at The Currency Press was to mark up two short plays, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, written by prisoner Jim McNeil and staged by the Resurgents Debating Society in Parramatta gaol, a group not completely unlike Margaret Atwood’s Fletcher Correctional Players.

This may be the first novel I’ve read that both retells a classic and has the Let’s-Put-on-a-Show story-line. Mansfield Park is as close as I’ve got. (I haven’t read Thomas Keneally’s Playmaker – maybe I should.)

So it was inevitable that I’d love this book.

The story of Felix’s revenge is cheerfully improbable fun, involving hi-tech jiggery-pokery, hallucinogen-spiked grapes and a convenient confession, but the real interest of the book is in the production of The Tempest. For someone with my superficial knowledge this is a joyous introduction to the complexities of the play and its potential for interpretation.

For just one example, none of the the prisoners in Felix’s ‘class’ is going to risk playing Ariel. Caliban, fine – everyone signs up for him. But everyone knows they’ll never survive being seen as a fairy on TV by the whole prison population (the prison won’t allow the play to have a live audience). Felix does a brilliant job unpacking the nature of the role, to the extent that more than half the group now want to play Ariel as a possible alien, super-powered force of nature – it works at the level of story, but it also offers fascinating insights into the play.

The role of Miranda doesn’t allow for such persuasion. There’s nothing for it but to cast a real woman – and the presence of a young woman who is a dancer and a champion in martial arts is the source of some good clean anti-sexist fun.

In a couple of chapters towards the end, the members of the class present their ideas of what happens to their characters after the play ends. At this stage it occurred to me that this book would be an excellent teaching aid for a high school class studying The Tempest. The prisoners are doing just the kind of exercise that such a class might be assigned. And you know what? That thought didn’t dim my enjoyment one bit.

Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman

Bernadine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin 2013)

Bernadine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Mr Loverman doesn’t have such a weighty status, but it’s wonderful. The narrator, Barrington Jedidiah Walker is seventy-four (same age as me, which may be why the book was insistently recommended to me), living unhappily married in London. It’s 2010 and he has been in love with his friend Morris since they were children, and having an active, clandestine sexual relationship with him.

He’s a great character, and the story of his coming out – a term he dislikes – is told with enormous charm and energy, in language inflected with the rhythms of his native Antigua and filled with sparkling wordplay.

While our sympathies are firmly with Barry, the book doesn’t let us forget how badly his deception has affected his wife and daughters. The ending is almost Shakespearean in the way it ties off everything in neat bows. Speaking of Shakespeare, the largely self-educated Barry loves to quote the Bard, to terrific effect and in my case a serendipitous similarity to the last novel I read, also by an English of African heritage.


No reflection on the books, but my blog posts for the next couple of weeks will be short and – hopefully – to the point. I don’t imagine an explanation is needed but it’s summer-time, my extended family are in Christmas–New Year mode, the Emerging Artist and I will soon be crossing state borders to spend a couple of weeks away, and on top of all that I’ve got a very painful hamstring (don’t ask!) and a non-Covid coronavirus infection.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury 2017)

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ He was born in Tanzania in 1948 and has lived in the United Kingdom most of his life. Gravel Heart is his ninth novel, and the only one available in my local library. It’s not singled out in any of the biographical outlines I’ve read, but it’s a wonderful novel. Here’s how it starts:

My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending, and hating.

Not to be too spoilerish: when I read the last page of the novel, I immediately flipped back to those sentences. It’s hard to imagine an introduction to the story that follows that is more misleading, and yet at the same time true to the story.

The narrator, born in Zanzibar, travels to England when he finishes school, with the support of a wealthy uncle, leaving his father who is eking out a miserable existence on the margins of their town, and his mother who is having a liaison with a powerful man in the government. After decades, in which he leads a fairly aimless life in the UK, he goes back home for a visit. His mother has died and he spends a substantial amount of time with his father.

I approached the book tentatively – these Nobel Laureates can be tough reads. But I’m happy to recommend the book as a completely absorbing read. I felt the young man’s painful yearning for home and his mother, and his difficulty in communicating in letters across the widening cultural gulf was so intimately real to me that I had to keep reminding myself of the vast difference between his life experience and mine. (I was sent off to a prestigious boarding school a thousand miles from home at age 14 and had no idea what to write in my mandatory weekly letter home.) Mostly in England he associates with other non-White people, though some of his amorous liaisons might be white. There’s only one moment of explicit, vile racism, and though the reader sees it coming the young man is caught completely, devastatingly off guard.

The real thrill of the book for me is in the final chapters where the naturalistic mode of storytelling is stretched to its limit as the father tells his son the story of his life over two long nights. But you decide to accept the manifestly artificial set-up because the story is so powerful, and fleshes out the tantalising hints that have been there from that first paragraph. Then, stretching verisimilitude just a bit further, the son realises that his father’s story is a variation on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (The book’s title is a phrase from that play, though I still don’t know what it means.) I can’t say how or why, but I found that moment deeply moving: something in my understanding of the world, of colonisation and racism, moved deep inside my head.

Melissa Ashley’s Bee and the Orange Tree, plus November Verse 13

Melissa Ashley, The Bee and the Orange Tree (Affirm Press 2019)

Most people know that the story of Cinderella has been told in myriad ways in many cultures, and that the version most commonly told to children in the west these days – the source of the Disney version – was written by Charles Perrault, a late 17th century Parisian. But did you know that he was part of a thriving fairy-tale publishing scene in France between 1690 and 1725, and that most of the many authors of original fairy tales of that time were women? And had you even heard of the Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy, the woman who coined the term ‘fairy tale’ (conte de fée).

Melissa Hay’s novel The Bee and the Orange Tree, set in 1699, takes place in that gap in our collective knowledge. It’s main characters are Marie Catherine, old, racked with arthritic pain and about to publish her second collection of tales; Angelina, a largely fictional character based on Marie Catherine’s youngest daughter; and Mme Nicola Tiquet, a friend of Marie Catherine who is accused of conspiracy to murder her abusive husband. Chapters are narrated from the point of view of each of these three characters in turn. The struggle to save Nicola from execution is a main narrative thread, secrets from Marie Catherine’s past are revealed, Angelina falls in love, and both Angelina and Marie Catherine reach turning points in their writing careers.

It’s a historical romance, even a bodice ripper, though rather than any bodice being ripped there’s a revelation of bound breasts and, at the novel’s steamiest, a lustful eye is cast at a décolletage. Paris of the time is vividly evoked, from the salons where ladies read their fairy tales to the huge public festive horror of an execution. Men tend to be peripheral to the story, except possibly for him of the bound breasts.

The novel has an agenda to retrieve some lost literary history, and some history of women and gender non-conforming people, and it achieves that interestingly, though I wasn’t completely convinced by the portrayal of the salons, and didn’t believe in the fairy tales included in the book. On the other hand, the sexual intrigues and the various plot revelations are pretty much determined by the genre – serviceable rather than engaging.

The part that worked best for me is the account of the execution as a public event that people feel compelled to witness, whether as sympathisers, as ghoulish entertainment seekers, or as participants. (It’s not a spoiler to tell you there is an execution – the threat of it hangs over more than one character.)


And now, because it’s November:

November verse 13: 
Three thousand sombre people gathered,
candles lit, when Ron Ryan* hanged.
By needle, bullet, stones, gas pellet,
rope, electric chair or sword,
Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, China,
Texas to South Carolina,
state killing still goes on today.
Polite, we turn our heads away
where once it was a great occasion:
come and see a life cut short,
come see how great the power of courts,
see how we'll kill, for God or nation.

Wise though we others claim to be
we'd still watch, glued to the TV.

* Ronald Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia. It was 8 am on Friday February 3 1967 in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. He refused a sedative so that he could write a note to his daughters. The note ended, ‘Goodbye, my darlings … Lovingly yours, Dad.’


The Bee and the Orange Tree is the 14th book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Matt Nable’s Still at the Book Group

Matt Nable, Still (Hachette 2021)

Before the meeting: The Chooser for this book was strangely apologetic: a page-turner that he’d really enjoyed, he said, but he could easily find a second option … No one objected to a page-turner, especially as the 1960s Darwin setting made it a logical follow-up to Return to Uluru. The chat on WhatsApp brushed his apologetic tone aside.

Then came the book’s opening sentences, and my heart sank:

The long tufts of spinifex curled over on a gust of warm wind. Whispered voices broke with a gravelled edge and the sounds of violence disturbed a brown snake resting in a tight coil on the corner of a steep embankment.

This isn’t meant to be read word by word. Every adjective except ‘brown’ is unnecessary (‘tight’, ‘steep’), feeble (‘warm’) or off kilter (‘long’, ‘gravelled’). Where are an embankment’s corners, and what does it mean to be on one of them? Why are the two parts of the second sentence linked by ‘and’ rather than being separate sentences? But none of that matters if you read it fast and just take in ‘spinifex … wind … whispers … gravel … violence … snake’.

Sadly what follows needs to be read in the same careless, abstracted way: don’t linger over any sentence; don’t think too hard about any plot developments; don’t concern yourself with probability; just go with the flow. It’s Midsomer Murders in print, transposed to 1963 during the NT build-up, minus any self-mockery, mystery or nuance.

Maybe this is peculiar to me as a copy editor, but consistently, several times a page, I was yanked out of the narrative by a malaprop, a run-on, an Americanism, a non-sequitur, a physical impossibility, a roaring cliché, or glaringly unnecessary words … I wonder who made the decision that this book was good to go.

To test my feeling that the badness was pervasive, I asked the Emerging Artist to pick a number between 1 and 375, and another between 1 and 30. This would give me a page and a line. The first time, she picked page 34 line 2, which falls in the middle of this sentence:

Ned could smell Riley’s aftershave, the same one he always wore, it was sweet and, though pleasant initially, Riley wore too much of it and it invariably became overpowering and distracting.

Apart from the run-on, the hanging modifier, and the odd use of ‘distracting’, why not just, ‘Ned could smell Riley’s overpowering aftershave’ or, ‘Riley’s aftershave was as overpowering as ever’? Or maybe just delete the sentence, because like many references to smell in this book it feels as if it’s there because the author was told to include appeals to all the senses.

The EA’s second pick, page 105, line 5, turned out to be the final line of the one episode that I enjoyed, where the white policeman hero Ned Potter tries to catch a barramundi with his bare hands, as he has been taught by an Aboriginal man, and fails. The first words are what Ned imagines the victorious fish saying as it swims away:

Fuck you, Ned. He resolved to try again, to win, to catch a barramundi by hand.

On first reading, the second of these sentences felt like dead wordage. Why not let the fish have the last word? Or if we must have Ned making a resolution, why not end the sentence with ‘win’? The last phrase is only necessary if you don’t trust the reader to have read the previous three pages. It turns out – spoiler alert – that this sentence is there to foreshadow emphatically that Ned will indeed try again before the book ends, and there are no prizes for guessing whether he succeeds.

The book’s cover features high praise from Jane Harper – which is enough to make me decide not to read any of her novels.

I came to the meeting hoping others would be less unforgiving and find joy in the novel, which they’d be able to communicate – and dreading it as well, as it would confirm that I’m a joyless pedant.

Just before the meeting: We decided to meet in person. In the online deliberations leading up to the decision, we all disclosed our wide range of vaccination statuses. Possibly on no interest to anyone but copy-editors, here’s the range: double vaxed, double vaxxed, double vacc’d and double vaccinated.

After the meeting: I enjoyed this meeting hugely.

Most people enjoyed the book, as I’d hoped and feared. I guess I’m a joyless pedant, and a literature snob. No one was unkind enough to say either of those things in so many words, though the word ‘pedant’ was used. At least one person couldn’t believe that I was unmoved and unconvinced by the plight of the main female character. Even those who sympathised with the gist of my rant (and yes, I did have a rant, but only after a number of people had spoken positively about the book) had trouble seeing that I wasn’t swept along by the sheer pace of the narrative.

Our resident retired assistant film director said the book works very well as a fleshed-out treatment for a movie, and I’d say the majority of us concurred. Various people referred to the convincing dialogue, the back and forth of the narrative, the occasional sex scene, the violence, the narrative drive, the attention to place, and indeed the predominantly visual, scene-based nature of the writing. The cliche elements are acceptable because it is after all a genre piece. Someone thought I was being snooty about it because it’s an unpretentious page-turner, but I deny the charge. Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruín is a page turner, but it’s literate, and just look at Peter Corris or Peter Temple.

One man felt that the book was in many ways similar to Return to Uluru, and even superior in its treatment of racism. That’s a view so far from my own that I can’t begin to understand it.

I tried my party trick of asking someone to pick two numbers. The line that turned up was the last paragraph in this exchange between Ned and Ron Thompson of the coroner’s office, which takes place in the morgue:

Ned walked toward Thompson, settled beside him and looked over the bodies again.

‘That’s Lionel Frazier.’ Ned pointed to the body.

‘The white fella?’

‘Yep.’

Thompson looked over the body of the larger man. ‘He’s a Kanaka.’

‘What?’

‘The big one here.’ Thompson nodded at the larger corpse.

A punctilious copy editor would query the ambiguous phrase ‘looked over’ even if it only occurred once, and the awkward repetition of ‘larger’ might attract the blue pencil, but the narrative moves along, and there’s nothing outstandingly terrible in this writing. My party trick failed to make my point.

A degree of consensus was reached on the notion that the author had a story to tell, which he imagined in cinematic terms rather than in words; the book is a stepping stone to the complete work, which will be a film or TV series whose script will have passed through several more drafts and then be interpreted by a director and actors. Someone has heard that a TV series is already in the works. There was also a degree of consensus that I got i my own way as a reader of this book. (I disagreed, but not strongly.)

Did I mention that we met in person? We shook hands and even rubbed shoulders. We ate and drank together: I even shared a can. Excellent gossip was exchanged about the rich, famous and powerful, and toward the end of the evening we contemplated the terrifying inanity of the Prime Minister’s plan to take a PowerPoint presentation to Glasgow. We learned from Google that Opus Dei is an institution of the Catholic Church. We learned that Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed is due for another short season in Parramatta and that Girl from the North Country is worth seeing.

Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty

Aravind Adiga, Amnesty (Picador 2020)

Danny is an illegal immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney. Like the thousands of undocumented workers discussed on The Drum on the ABC the other night, he came to Australia on a student visa and then stay on beyond the visa’s expiry date. He arrived by plane, so he’s not one of the visible–invisible ‘boat people’ who are held indefinitely in detention. His application for refugee status was rejected (being a Tamil from Sri Lanka who has been tortured wasn’t enough to qualify him), and now he has now spent four years working cash in hand, observing Sydney customs so as to pass unnoticed, and reading books on Australian law in a local library so he and his fellow illegals can better understand their options.

His precarious equilibrium is shaken when a previous client is killed, and – mild spoiler alert – he knows who did it. But the murderer knows that he knows, and threatens to dob him in as an illegal immigrant if he goes to the police. Should he do the right thing by the murdered woman, or should he opt for self-preservation? This moral quandary and the cat-and-mouse game with the murderer play out in short sections time-stamped from 8.45 am to 7.03 pm on a single day. During the day we learn details of Danny’s story: the circumstances of his torture and migration to Australia, his exploitative work set-up, his history with the murdered woman and her murderer. We also get to see Sydney through his eyes, as he wanders erratically around the inner suburbs.

I was less than enthralled.

Danny’s dilemma doesn’t become any more complex as the novel progresses. We know from early on what the stakes are; there’s no mystery, no intensifying danger, no real suspense. The interest lies in the way the novel shows Sydney and Australia from a different point of view. In the episode of The Drum I mentioned earlier, the panellists all agreed that the visa overstayers were beneficiaries of a well-known scam. That’s not how it appears in this book. There’s a scam all right, but Danny, like others we glimpse through his eyes, is trapped, living precariously, and vulnerable to exploitation. He lives in a room above a convenience store in a kind of indentured servitude to the owner of the store. He has a girlfriend but hasn’t dared tell her about his illegal status.

Danny knows that you don’t pronounce the p in receipt. When he hears another brown man pronounce it, he knows that that man is a legal immigrant who doesn’t have to worry about such things. Several times in the course of the day, there is the look of recognition between brown men that happens in a white-dominated place like Sydney, but for Danny it’s not a simple matter of like recognising like. He is more vulnerable than legal immigrants, and he needs to be wary of them as much as of anyone.

This could have been compelling. But I was yanked out of the narrative too often by things that were weirdly wrong.

Some, I think, are the result of intrusive and culturally arrogant copy-editing. Though my copy of the book says it was published in London, North American spelling prevails, most egregiously for Sydney Harbor and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. (I would find it just as jarring to find a reference to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC.) This is almost certainly not Aravind Adiga’s doing.

Some of the weirdly wrong things may be Danny’s mistakes, part of the characterisation. For example, ibises are near-ubiquitous in the inner suburbs of Sydney in real life. Here they are called jabirus, completely different birds, though a Google image search might not make that clear. When there’s a mention of sulphur-breasted cockatoos, a kind reader would think Danny had misheard ‘crested’ (until the name turns up correctly 100 pages later). These errors took the shine off the pleasure given by Danny’s nice observations about ‘Aussie mynas’, which until recently Australians called Indian mynas.

Most disturbingly wrong are a number of geographic impossibilities. There are several references to ‘the cliffs that rise up at Pyrmont’ –  it’s a huge stretch to describe the cuttings in Pyrmont as cliffs. There are palm trees down the middle of William Street. Parramatta seems to be awfully close to Erskineville. Danny stands at Hyde Park looking east, and has the Harbour, which in real life would be on his left, on his right. And there’s this:

He turned around and looped back aimlessly, down into the area known as East Sydney, which had a view of Sydney Harbor [sic] … Through a vista of palm trees, he saw blue ocean and, near it, the white opera house.

(page 92)

You can’t see the Harbour from East Sydney; he probably means Woolloomooloo. But no matter how you slice it, the Sydney Opera House is nowhere near the ocean. And what are these palm trees Danny keep seeing? It’s like Saving Mr Banks‘s version of North Queensland.

It’s easy to see how these things can happen: it looks as if the author didn’t get to revisit Sydney when the novel was in manuscript, and depended on friends with no experience as proofreaders to correct any errors. And none of it would matter, except that the narrative meticulously names places, even down to street numbers, and when the geography doesn’t work, the whole world of the novel begins to feel untrustworthy. In the end I struggled to take any of it seriously.

Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters

Catherine Menon, Fragile Monsters (Viking Penguin 2021)

It’s 1985. Durga’s relationship comes to an end when her lover returns to his wife. She leaves her job as a maths lecturer in a Canadian university and takes her wounded heart back to her native Malaysia where she gets a job at a university in Kuala Lumpur. When the novel opens she has left KL for Diwali to visit her cantankerous grandmother in the village of Kuala Lipis where she grew up. A gift of fireworks goes badly awry, the roads are shut by floods, she stays in the village much longer than expected, and while she’s there confronts the ghosts – fragile monsters – of her past.

In alternating chapters we read the story of Mary, Durga’s grandmother: her childhood, her experience of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Malayan Emergency, her relationship with her daughter Francesca, who was Durga’s mother.

The two narratives come together in the climactic final chapters. Durga makes some deeply disturbing discoveries about her family history, and the great miasma of stories that she grew up with are resolved into some kind of reality.

Throughout, there’s a contrast between Durga’s world view and her grandmother’s. Durga is thoroughly westernised, and loves the world of mathematical exactness and consistency. Her grandmother is a wild woman who tells stories that differ with each telling. Durga finds herself being drawn back into her childhood world of ghosts and half-truths.

I’m glad I read this book. The characters, especially the grandmother in the present time, feel real, and there are rich insights into Malaysian traditional culture and history. (The university in Kuala Lumpur is an offstage presence that tries to pull Durga back to westernised, mathematical reality, but without a lot of success.) But it didn’t sweep me away. It was as if I could always feel the work that was going into the writing – a symptom of this is the occasional reflection on mathematical concepts. These feel like scaffolding the helped the writer create the work, but needed either to be more fully integrated or designated as darlings to be killed.

Richard Powers’ Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory (William Heinemann 2018)

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

(The Overstory, page 385)

That’s the challenge Richard Powers has taken on: to write a compelling novel about the contest for the world. While I was reading it, the Australian Commonwealth Government was trumpeting the virtues of coal even while the memory of last year’s devastating fires was still fresh and temperatures in Canada reached staggering new heights. You don’t have to be particularly radical or visionary to realise that the climate emergency is upon us and decisive action is needed; but most of us go on, with occasional breaks for demonstrations or lockdowns, more or less business as usual. The Overstory resolutely turns its gaze on the crisis currently facing humanity, focusing on the world’s forests, attempts to protect them, and the catastrophic scale of destruction.

The opening section, ‘Roots’, reads like eight short stories, each more or less complete in itself, and with no obvious similarities or connections between them. It turns out that we are being introduced to the nine main human characters, and the role trees have played in each of their lives. A boy lives on a farm where his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father, have photographed a particular chestnut tree once a month for a century, so that he has a stack of photographs that can be flicked through to show the tree’s growth over that long time. Another boy becomes an early computer nerd, whose life changes dramatically when he falls from high in a tree. A girl is fascinated by what turns out to be a priceless scroll her father has somehow smuggled out of China when he left as a refugee.

In the second and longest section, ‘Trunk’, the main narrative is played out. One character develops a hugely popular and lucrative computer game. Another, who Wikipedia says is modelled on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, makes world-changing discoveries about how trees communicate with each other. But the dominant thread is about five characters who become part of the ecological movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. There are brilliantly powerful accounts of front-line protests to save the forests of north west USA (of the kind that still continue today, as in Sally Ingleton’s 2020 doco, Wild Things. Avoiding extreme spoilers, I’ll just say that their activism doesn’t end well, and that it ends spectacularly.

The third section, ‘Crown’, is pretty much aftermath. That is, the sense of anticlimax never quite dissipates. Life continues. The activists build new lives. The computer game becomes more complex, more successful, and ultimately less satisfying to its creator. The scientist, whose work was initially ridiculed, is now validated and in demand.

In the fourth, shortest section, ‘Seeds’, the novel’s big question comes into focus. So much damage has been done, such a huge proportion of the earth’s forests has been destroyed, and attempts to prevent further destruction have failed. The damage is either irreparable will need more time to be repaired than we have left: where can we go from here? A number of possibilities are raised – seeds for the future, not all of them including human thriving – but I’m glad to report that the book’s final pages are neither glibly optimistic nor glibly despairing. There is no saying which of the seeds will take root or bear fruit. Trees will survive, but will humanity?

If, like me, you know intellectually how serious the climate emergency is but have trouble really holding that knowledge in your mind and heart, then reading this book will probably bring you closer to facing up to the reality. It is full of passionate love for trees, and for their interconnectedness in forests. I’m not a tree scientist, but my impression is that Richard Powers has immersed himself in the research, then produced his own lyrical, impassioned version, nudging it slightly towards science fiction/fantasy – at times crossing over to mystical communication between trees and humans – but still true to the spirit of the science. Likewise, when Nick and Olivia, now calling themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, spend a year on a platform high up in a threatened redwood, I read it as beautifully realised fiction, but trust that the fiction has solid roots in the realities of those ecological protests.

The Overstory is brimful of ideas: about computer technology, tree science, political organising, the function of art. It’s full of history – in particular of the destruction of the forests of North America by disease and rapacious capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; and of US environmental law, environmental protest movements and, less overtly, land art. It also has nuanced, complex relationships among humans and moments of visceral violence. There are moments of devastating wit, not least the moment towards the end when a Native American perspective is sharply introduced. And all the way through, it rhapsodises about trees, and this, for me, is the engine that keeps the book alive when the plot sometimes loses momentum. Here’s the moment when Nick and Olivia first drive into the redwood forest:

The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-sweeping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns to the most-swarmed floor – straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.

(Page 211)

When I’d hit Publish on this I went for a walk and as I passed the trees in the park near our place and in the surrounding streets, I realised that the main joy of The Overstory for me was that it reminded me of how much I love trees. There was a time in my early days in Sydney when I couldn’t talk about the trees near my home in North Queensland without tearing up. More recently, when we left our house for an apartment, it was the guava tree and the cumquat tree that I missed most. Again and again in this book, Richard Powers as narrator or through one of his characters gives unabashed expression to what I suppose should be called dendrophilia.

Here’s a eucalypt catching the afternoon light in our park just now, and some of its tree neighbours.

Janice Galloway’s Trick Is to Keep Breathing at the Book Group

Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989, Vintage Classics 2015)

Before the meeting: When I was about half way through this book, the following exchange happened on WhatsApp:

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing is a possibly-brilliant novel that I, for one, hated.

It’s a first person narration by Joy, a woman who has tipped over the edge into extreme depression and mental disorder when her married lover drowns on a holiday in Spain. At first I thought that my copy of the book, in a Penguin Vintage Classics edition, had been poorly reproduced from old film: the type is mostly dark and slightly blurred, though occasionally, apparently at random, a sentence or two is lighter and clear. There are odd blank spaces as if several lines are missing. And every now and then the margin boasts a word or a column of words, perhaps partly obscured by the gutter or running off the edge of the page. It took a while to realise all this was deliberate, a way of physicalising the state of Joy’s mind, on a continuum with the way the width of the column changes every now and then when Joy relays to us a horoscope or an advertisement from a magazine, or the type switches to italics as, bit by bit, the traumatic event in Spain is revealed.

It must be this typographic play that led the New York Times reviewer quoted on the back cover to write: ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy as rewritten by Sylvia Plath.’ I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, but a bit of unconventional typesetting doesn’t make a Tristram Shandy.

The portrayal of Joy’s unrelenting descent into darkness, starvation and disorder must be what led the judges to award it the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year for 1990. According to the website of ‘mental health charity’ MIND, ‘this well-established literary prize celebrates writing that heightens understanding of mental health issues in all their forms’. Elsewhere, Fay Weldon, a frequent judge, acknowledges that it is a little-known prize, and that ‘”literature” is not what concerns us here, but effectiveness, accessibility, honesty, optimism and helpfulness’. She wrote that in 2011. The judges’ desires were different in 1990, or they read the book differently from me, because I found very little optimism or helpfulness in it, and while Joy’s experience is vividly realised, I don’t think my understanding of anything is heightened.

The novel is a nightmare account of an experience of grief, anguish, disordered thinking, despair, self-starvation. The men in Joy’s life are generally sexually exploitative and/or clueless about her mental state. Her one woman friend has gone to the USA, and that friend’s well-disposed mother offers baked goods as an optimistic panacea. The doctors she encounters are unable to help, and in some cases, callously, don’t even try. If her account of her time in a mental institution is even half accurate, then the system needed to be burned to the ground: but it’s more of a darkly satirical fantasy, almost certainly with some truth but not something you’d trust as an account of anyone’s actual lived experience. For me, and I may be completely idiosyncratic here, the book came across as a kind of mental-illness porn.

At least one member of the group has signalled in advance that he loved the book. I’m open to persuasion, but only by a crack. I expect there will be discussion of the ending, which may be ambiguous, though I’m fairly clear about how I read it. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

After the meeting: Covid–19 brought restrictions to Sydney again on Wednesday, and though we were only six people and could have met legally in someone’s home, we decided to meet online.

Once we got settled in – ‘Hi, I like your beard’ ‘How did the test turn out?’ ‘Are people wearing masks in your part of town?’ – we moved on to a terrific discussion of the book.

Why it was terrific is that two completely incompatible readings of the book were aired, and the proponents of each could see that the other was coherent and justifiable from the text. It was all in how you read the tone. I guess I was at one extreme, reading the tone as something like that of Truffaut’s movie The Story of Adèle H, unremitting misery: Joy is sunk in grief and depression, goes through the motions of daily life and relationships, keeping up appearances but unable to show anyone – friends, former lovers, current sexual predators, co-workers, doctors – the depth of her despair. The chap putting forward the other extreme read it as grimly comic: through her terrible grief, Joy never loses her sense of herself, holding onto what she can of relationships and keeping with her routines as a way of staying in the world, vulnerable to predators but keeping her core self shielded from them, bantering defiantly with the useless doctors. Others were in different points along a spectrum between the two readings. No one else had read the ending as grimly as I had, and when I read the final paragraph to make my point, my opponent offered a completely valid alternative reading. I say ‘opponent’, and at one stage someone thought we were being a bit intolerant of each other, but I really don’t think that was happening: certainly I was delighted by the difference, and my respect for the book ballooned, give that it could sustain such different readings.

There was some talk about the terrible weather in Glasgow, and how what someone from tropical North Queensland (that is, me) might see as unrelentingly grim, might be seen by others (including possibly Janice Galloway) as dourly amusing. We’re reading another Scottish book for our next meeting to put that theory to the test.

Proust Progress Report 22: The end

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2334–2401

Finished!

Seven volumes, 2401 pages, finished!

Having read a little of À la recherche du temps perdu first thing most mornings for the last 22 months, I’ve reached the end. My copy of the book has suffered: not only has the print on its covers worn way as in the image to the left, but the back cover has broken free, taking the last four pages with it.

I probably should have something brilliantly perceptive to say, but nah! I’m enjoying Patrick Alexander’s translation of the whole work one tweet at a time at @ProustTweet, and seeing how much I missed by reading it with my inadequate French; and I’ll probably read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life sometime soon, but if my life has been changed I can’t tell (yet).

In the final 70 pages, Marcel continues his detailed account and analysis of the currents and undercurrents of high society, of the toll taken by time on his A-listers as seen at his last matinée. When he meets Gilberte’s daughter, he realises that this young woman is like a place in a forest where many roads meet (‘les «étoiles» des carrefours‘) – so many threads of his life, so many relationships converge in her person, and through her he is able to see how different parts of his story interconnect.

But then, with hardly so much as a paragraph break, he moves on to contemplating the huge project he is about to embark on – namely this book. There are wonderful passages about his plans and expectations. Having long since lost his fear of death, he now fears it again, but now he fears it for the sake of his work, not for himself. He will write all through the night, perhaps for a thousand nights, but cannot know whether his destiny will, like Scheherazade’s sultan, allow him to live another day in order to hear the rest of a story:

Et je vivrais dans l’anxiété de ne pas savoir si le Maître de ma destinée, moins indulgent que le sultan Sheriar, le matin quand j’interromprais mon récit, voudrait bien surseoir à mon arrêt de mort et me permettrait de reprendre la suite le prochain soir.

And there’s this, about what it would mean to take on the project:

[L’écrivain] devrait préparer son livre, minutieusement, avec de perpétuels regroupements de forces, comme une offensive, le supporter comme une fatigue, l’accepter comme une règle, le construire comme une église, le suivre comme un régime, le vaincre comme un obstacle, le conquérir comme une amitié, le suralimenter comme un enfant, le créer comme un monde sans laisser de côté ces mystères qui n’ont probablement leur explication que dans d’autres mondes et dont le pressentiment est ce qui nous émeut le plus dans la vie et dans l’art.

In English:

[The writer] would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces as for an offensive, to bear it as a load, to accept it as a discipline, to build it like a church, to follow it like a fitness routine, to overcome it like an obstacle, to win it like a friendship, to feed it like a child, to create it like a world, bearing in mind those mysteries which probably only have their explanation in other worlds, the sense of which is what moves us the most in life and in art.

Later, typically, he undercuts this heroic tone, saying that the project is less like building a cathedral and more like sewing a dress. He says that Françoise, his barely literate housekeeper, understands the nature of the work better than many educated, literary people.

The prospect of death hangs over the closing pages, and the knowledge that his anxiety was well founded – this volume and the preceding one were published after Proust died – intensifies the poignancy. Having lived with this book for nearly two years, if only for a couple of minutes a day, I’m now surprised to find I have an urge to start all over again. Here’s the last sentence:

Aussi, si elle m’était laissée assez longtemps pour accomplir mon œuvre, ne manquerais-je pas d’abord d’y décrire les hommes, cela dût-il les faire ressembler à des êtres monstrueux, comme occupant une place si considérable, à côté de celle si restreinte qui leur est réservée dans l’espace, une place au contraire prolongée sans mesure puisqu’ils touchent simultanément, comme des géants plongés dans les années à des époques, vécues par eux si distantes, entre lesquelles tant de jours sont venus se placer – dans le Temps.

I had serious trouble translating that, and when I looked up Stephen Hudson’s translation (here) I got the impression that he had trouble too. Here’s his (the ‘…’ in the first bit marks the omission of several phrases that aren’t in the edition I’m reading):

If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to … therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.

I don’t think mine’s any better, but here it is:

So, if a long enough time was left to me to accomplish my work, first of all I would not fail to describe men in it, making them resemble monstrous beings that occupy a place so much more substantial than the restricted one reserved for them in space – a place, rather, that extends immeasurably because, like giants immersed in the years, they simultaneously touch all the distant periods they have lived through, between which so many days have been placed – a place in Time.

That ‘longtemps‘ at the start of this sentence reaches all the way back to the first sentence of the first novel:

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.