Tag Archives: 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.

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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.

Madeleine Thien and the Book Group Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)

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Before the meeting: This book tells a story of three generations of a Chinese family in the 20th century. It includes a graphic evocation of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the purge of ‘Rightists’ that preceded it, and an equally graphic account of the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, as gleaned by a young woman of the Chinese diaspora who was born and brought up in Canada.

I found the first 50 pages hard going, as the different time periods were introduced, with no clear indication of how they were related. But once the several stories were up and running, I was engrossed.

Of the vast amount that has been written about this period in China, I’ve read Han Suyin’s Wind in the Tower, in which the Cultural Revolution is seen as a brilliant strategy to save the revolution from living death, and William Hinton’s Fanshen (1966) and Shenfan (1984), brilliant accounts of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural revolution as they played out in a single village (I saw David Hare’s play of the former at the Pram Factory in Melbourne and then at Belvoir in Sydney). I haven’t read any of the famous memoirs such as Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, so I can’t say how this novel compares to them, but I can say that it makes Han Suyin look like a PR spin merchant, and gets horrifyingly deep under the skin of the kind of events William Hinton describes.

It doesn’t come across as anti Communist propaganda; it’s more a terrible tale of a dream betrayed. Even as people’s lives are being destroyed they stay firm in their belief in the revolution. Partly this is a survival mechanism – if you can say the correct slogans with sincerity your chances are greatly improved. Partly, though, it’s also a result of the power of the Maoist dream. The shattering of that dream as the People’s Army turns on the people in 1989 is among the most heartbreaking writing I’ve ever read.

Like any powerful novel, this one doesn’t let the reader imagine that the events it portrays are safely of another time and place. Call-out culture on the internet these days may not be as savage as the criticism sessions in the Cultural Revolution, but it shares some of its structure of feeling. The power of slogans to block complexity is having devastating effects on lives in Australia – or more precisely offshore from Australia – as I write this. The term ‘climate change’ is being expunged from Donald Trump’s US agencies as surely as ‘counter-revolutionary’ knowledge was erased under Mao. [Added next day: not to mention ‘fire and fury and – frankly – power’.]

I cried a lot.

After the meeting: The conversation stayed with the book for most of the evening, and even when it departed it was still tangentially related.

Not everyone loved the book as much as I did, but I came away from the evening with an enriched appreciation for its complexity. I think it’s true to say that everyone had at least one scene or character that had struck them. A couple of us said we found the descriptions of music didn’t work; someone said that these descriptions were clearly important to the characters, but not really to the reader. One chap said he had got out his recording of Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations – the same recording as features in the narrative – and put it on it while he read, and that this had worked brilliantly.

So not only is this a terrific novel to read, but judging by our experience it’s also a terrific book club title.

 

 

Jennifer Maiden’s Complicity

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives: Two: Complicity (Quemar Press 2016)

complicity

This is a sequel to Jennifer Maiden’s Play With Knives (Allen & Unwin 1990), taking up the action maybe ten years later. The manuscript has been circulating  for decades, and excerpts and commentary have appeared in literary journals, but it seemed destined to remain unpublished. Then Quemar Press made a PDF available as a free download last year.

The main characters of the Play With Knives novels (there are two more after Complicity) are George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, who have featured powerfully in at least fifteen of Maiden’s poems in her last half dozen books. The first novel begins with George, the narrator, as a probation officer assigned to Clare’s case, having to decide whether to recommend her release from prison, where she has served time for murdering her siblings when she was a young girl. There’s a plot involving a serial killer in western Sydney, but the heart of the novel is in their developing intimacy, and their almost obsessive questioning of what it means for both of them to live in the long shadow of Clare’s act.

In Complicity they have both moved on. George begins the novel working for an NGO (Prisoners of Conscience) monitoring dubious legal proceedings in third world countries; Clare is living with a journalist and runs a small business. George returns to western Sydney and their mutual probing recommences, along with a couple of lovingly detailed sexual encounters. As before, there are thriller elements: people are dying from poisoned benzodiazapines, and someone assaults Clare a number of times with escalating violence. As before, these elements are secondary to the ebbs and flows of relationships, and to George-as-narrator’s ruminations. The characters return again and again to  Clare’s childhood crime and to the climax of the first novel, analysing their meanings and their emotional impacts – much as real people might, rather than like characters in a TV thriller.

Lynda La Plante this isn’t. (I love at least some of Lynda La Plante’s TV shows, but one novel was enough.)

In six books over more than a decade now, Maiden’s George and Clare have been materialising in political hotspots all over the world, encountering characters ranging from Somali pirates to resurrected ancient Chinese nobility, with George W Bush and more recently Donald Trump somewhere in between. In those poems, George and Clare have their own adventures, but they are mainly interesting as lenses through which Jennifer Maiden can look at the wide world. In this book, though George Bush Senior’s Gulf War is a significant backdrop, George and Clare’s relationship is the focus. But we come to understand, perhaps even more than in the first novel, what it is about them that makes them such a useful lens. We see them grappling intensely and honestly with Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’: how people who are not monsters can perpetrate atrocities, and how to live honestly with that reality.

aww2017.jpgComplicity is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.

The Book Group at Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (Vintage 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Beatty’s Sellout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your mileage may vary.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some neat epigrams:

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

or:

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

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

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