Tag Archives: Novel

Sarah Winman’s Tin Man

Sarah Winman, Tin Man (Tinder 2017)

tinman.jpgThis is a gentle love story. It starts out with a man who we gradually discover is grieving for the loss of his wife and best friend in a car accident. Over the novel’s short length we discover the rich complexity of the relationships among the three of them, the depth of their loves, their joys and their sorrows, maybe particularly their sorrows: not a ménage à trois, but what one of the characters calls a mélange.

It’s very English, tactful when erotic, and filled with the kindness of strangers and the healing of wounds.

 

Marija Peričić’s Lost Pages

Marija Peričić, The Lost Pages (Allen & Unwin 2017)

lostpages.jpgThis book begins with a lie.

The imprint page includes standard disclaimer, ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental,’ but what follows purports to be an account by Max Brod (a real person, you can look him up on Wikipedia) of his relationship with Franz Kafka (ditto). Brod famously disobeyed Kafka’s deathbed instruction to burn all his papers, and so gave the world The Trial and other works that established Kafka’s eminence in 20th century literature. So we’re set up from the beginning for a historical novel about a literary friendship.

Usually, historical novels thrive in the gaps in the historical record: the facts as we have them remain fixed points, and the novelist’s imagination goes to work with people, events and dialogue that have been undocumented. In The Lost Pages, things aren’t so cut and dried. Brod’s biography of Kafka is one of the main historical sources about him. This novel is presented as a manuscript found in Kafka’s papers as preserved by Brod and now owned by two Israeli sisters (which really do exist, unexamined by scholars): so what the fictional Brod writes here can claim to override the historical Brod’s version.

And it does.

It’s a tale full of obsession, anguish, betrayal, jealousy, paranoia (well, it is a story about Kafka), hallucinatory episodes (ditto), and enormous improbabilities which are resolved by even less likely revelations. I kept forgetting that it was written by a 30-something woman living in Melbourne – I was away in the world of Prague literary celebrity a century ago, having a great time. It would be wrong to say the book is silly, but I find it hard to think of a better word for its quality that most charmed me. It’s a romp, if a romp can include social exclusion (Brod in real life and in the novel had severe spinal curvature), abject humiliation, extreme mental anguish …

The Lost Pages is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride

Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)

freedomride.jpgThis is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers, lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie finds a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.

And that is what plays out. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park when his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.

At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RsL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.

A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom ride, and links it to the 1967 referendum, the land rights campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to  informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.

First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal  characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]

And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes agains Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and are terrible cooks. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefitting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.

Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and the Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (©2007, Translated Jennifer Crofts 2017, Text Publishing 2017)

flights.jpgBefore the meeting: If I hadn’t been reading this for the Book Group, I would have stopped reading at about page 80. As it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, it seems that wiser heads see it differently, but to my mind it consisted of fragments of story interspersed with short, mostly banal reflections on aspects of travel. It was like reading excerpts from a notebook, some of them expanded to a degree.

I did keep going, from a sense of duty to the Group and in the hope that some of the fragmentary narratives might be continued later.

On page 83, it turns out, the narrator is in an airport and encounters a lecture being given on Travel Psychology. A quick Duck-Duck-Go search shows that travel psychology is a real thing, but the discipline by that name in this lecture seems to be Olga Tokarczuk’s invention, and the lecture has every appearance of telling the reader how the book works, that is to say, the lecturer is the character some film critics would call Basil Exposition. The foundational idea of travel psychology, he says, is constellationality:

in life […] it is impossible to build a consistent cause-and-effect course of argument or a narrative with events that succeed each other casuistically and follow from each other. … Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth. […] Human life is comprised of situations. There is, of course, a certain inclination towards the repetition of behaviours. This repetition does not, however, mean that we should succumb in our imaginations to the appearance of any sort of consistent whole.

That is, abandon hope of finding a consistent whole, all ye who enter here.

Some of the stories that follow do allow for development and even resolution, particularly one about seventeenth century anatomists, and another about a woman who steps out of her life to become homeless in Moscow for a time. The most frustratingly curtailed story from early in the book does continue to a resolved state in the last section. But in general, though there’s a salient theme to do with the preservation of human bodies for display purposes, the book fulfils that warning not to expect ‘the appearance of any sort of consistent whole’. I’ve got nothing against constellations or constellationality, but I guess I do like a bit of a consistent whole. I did enjoy some moments, but over all, I’m a long way from being a fan of this book. Sorry!

[A pedantic note: As a lazy blogger, I looked online to see if someone else had quoted from that Travel Psychology lecture, planning to cut and paste. As a recovering proofreader I was interested to see how what I found in the Chicago Review of Books differs from the text in my copy of the book, which is what I’ve quoted from above: the review follows US spelling conventions, omits the word ‘Human’, and has ‘made up of’ rather than the incorrect ‘comprised of’. It looks as if the US editors were more rigorous than the ones responsible for the Text Publishing edition. If I was even more obsessive than I am, I’d hunt out a US edition to see if, for instance, it too misspells ‘minuscule’ or if its translation of ‘quaestio oritur‘ [‘the question arises’]  sticks to the correct literal translation or gives the common but erroneous ‘begs the question’ as in my copy.]

After the meeting: We had a good conversation over spaghetti bolognese, just seven of us. Mostly people enjoyed the book more than I did, but I think I’m right in saying that no one absolutely loved it – I had been hoping it would find an unabashed champion who would make me see what I had missed, but it was not to be. One man in particular found a thematic glue to do with the unpredictability of life, but mostly there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. What did emerge in the course of the conversation was the range of stories: none of us could remember one of the episodes singled out for mention on the back cover, but we reminded each other of many moments we had enjoyed.

Given that in one way or another, most of the reflections and narratives in Flights are to do with travel, it was appropriate that the conversation moved on to our own travellers’ tales: two of us had independently visited the bogs of Estonia and a festival in Riga, one had seen wonders in Texas and California, and one had had a transformative experience in Arnhem Land.

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980, Virago 2004 … 2014)

transit.jpgBefore the meeting: Serendipitously, I heard that this book had been chosen for the Book Group’s June meeting just after visiting the wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library, which features the actual transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769. I enjoyed the exhibition much more than the book.

Sadly, though I’m in awe of The Transit of Venus for its passion and complexity and astonishingly subtle prose, I just couldn’t like it. I feel mean saying so, because it feels like a very personal book – Shirley Hazzard and her protagonist Caroline Bell have a lot of history on common. At the same time, it’s the way the author injects herself constantly into the narrative that alienated me. Though she never actually addresses the reader, as in ‘Reader, I had an adulterous affair with him,’ she regularly winks at us over the characters’ heads – informing us of one’s eventual fate, giving us just the beginnings of sentences whose cliché endings she expects us to know, or commenting with Patrick White–like snobbishness on someone’s snobbery. The prose is studded with literary allusions, not all of them convincingly attributed to the characters, of which I recognised enough to know that I was mostly being cast as an outsider.

Two young Australian women whose parents died in a marine accident are in the care of their martyrish older half-sister, who brings them to England a little after World War Two. The younger sister, Grace, makes a boring marriage and the novel focuses on the complex relationships of Caro/Caroline, the older sister. Caro is loved by a young scientist of working class origins, Edmund Tice, but she falls for a sophisticated playwright, Paul Ivory, who is engaged and then married to a nasty piece of aristocratic work named Tertia. Caro eventually frees herself of Paul’s charms and finds happiness with a wealthy US social justice activist, Adam Vail. Vail’s death years later introduces the final act, in which both Grace and her husband are separately tempted to adultery (it would be a spoiler to tell if either or both succumb), and circumstances bring Caro back to her youthful love triangle, where there are as many revelations as you’d find at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, delivered pretty much in an extended monologue by one of the characters. Then there’s a final scene that, like the ending of The Sopranos, is illusorily inconclusive.

It’s not as soapy as that summary makes it sound, but that’s the bare bones. Here’s a sample of the writing, picked pretty much at random. Caro and Paul are visiting a megalithic site, and Caro is in awe. Then:

Some stones were rounded, some columnar. That was their natural state, unhewn, untooled. Paul Ivory said, ‘Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.’
The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete. Aware of this advantage, Paul awaited the moment when Caro’s silence would be transferred back, intensified, from the place to himself. He was calm, with controlled desire and with the curiosity that is itself an aspect of desire. As yet he and she had merely guessed at each other’s essence, and her show of self-sufficiency had given her some small degree of power over him – power that could only be reversed by an act of possession.
Preliminary uncertainty might be a stimulus, if the outcome was assured.
Caro had a wonderful danger to her, too, that derived not only from the circumstances, but also from her refusal to manipulate them. The danger and the attraction were the same. There was, in addition, her strong, resilient body, strong arms and throat, and her aversion to physical contact. Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity.

The quote from Genesis is the kind of thing most characters in the book come out with, except that the Bible crops up less than Yeats or eighteenth century London gossip. I’ve recently visited a megalithic site a little like the one in the book (mine was near Évora in Portugal), and while I completely get Caro’s awe, I simply don’t believe in her need for ‘salvation’ or her resulting vulnerability to Paul’s seductive intentions. And all that stuff about essence, power,  possession, uncertainty and violation … well, to me it’s very high-level hooptedoodle. If it’s to your taste or sheds light on the human condition for you, you’ll enjoy this novel a lot more than I did.

But don’t let my comments put you off. When I’d finished the book I read an excellent article about it circulated by a member of the Book Group, ‘Across the Face of the Sun’ by Charlotte Wood in the Sydney Review of Books. It’s an excellent article, though not something you should read before reading the book. She writes:

It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

Well, there you have it. I’ve read it for the first time.

After the meeting: It was a small meeting, just five of us, of whom four had read the whole book – though one of the completers confessed to skipping slabs of it.

It turned out we’d all responded to the same elements in the writing, but our responses were vastly different. Two of us, neither of whom usually does this, had marked a number of short sentences that had delighted them, and when they read them aloud it turned out that some of them were exactly the kind of thing that had increasingly turned me off the book. Someone said he had laughed out loud at parts that I registered as annoying smart-arsery.

I had read the book as permeated with a kind of expatriate contempt for mid 20th century Australia. Others read it very differently, as challenging English assumptions of cultural inferiority. One chap spoke of visiting Britain as a young man and being surprised to discover that there were people there who had a mental hierarchy of cultural worth, in which he had been given a low place as an Australian. There are a number of moments in The Transit of Venus that challenge that ranking: snobbish Christian Thrale observes silently that the two young women don’t seem to realise that they are just a couple of Australian girls living in rented accommodation.

We made the non-completer leave the room at one stage so we could discuss the ending, something everyone who read the book for the first time needs to do.

Everyone had enjoyed the book more than I had, and though I don’t think anyone thought it was a truly great book, we were unanimous in our awe of it. I certainly had to rethink my own response. Maybe I’ll get to a revelatory second reading some time.

The Transit of Venus is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Robert Seethaler’s Whole Life

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins (first published in 2014, translation 2015)

life.jpg

‘You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.’

If this slim book is any guide, I really should read more German fiction. It tells the life story of a simple working man in a mountain village. He has moments of quiet joy, and small achievements, and he stumbles. He is brutally treated in his childhood, is a conscript in World War Two and a prisoner of the Soviets long after the war is over, and has his share of violent tragedy. He keeps his integrity and his dignity, and though it’s true that his life is made up of moments, it’s also true that he has a whole life.

I only know about six words in German, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation. But I can say that it read smoothly and is beautiful English prose. The quote at the top isn’t typical: mostly the book’s characters are pretty inarticulate, but this statement was more or less blurted out by the manager of a construction company when he was hiring the protagonist. It could have been a clunky insertion of a thematic statement, but in Seethaler’s (and Collins’s) hands, it is like a magical realist moment where the character momentarily becomes an oracular figure – without causing a ripple in the flow of the narrative.  And the book is full of such joys.

 

Nadeem Aslam’s Golden Legend

Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend (Faber & Faber 2017)

legend.jpgThis novel includes the standard disclaimer. It is a work of fiction: not only are all its characters, events and organisations creations of the author, but not even any resemblance to persons, events or organisations is intended.

I’m sure that’s technically correct, but the book’s power derives from the pervasive sense that the Pakistan in which its characters live is at heart an accurate representation of the actual Pakistan, that the terrible world of murderous religious intolerance, both of the Muslim majority against the tiny Christian minority, and of militant Islamists against both Christians and other Muslims, is not too far from reality. Certainly the events that have disastrous impacts on all the main characters have close parallels in the real world: US drone attacks that maim children and worse, sexual violence resulting in death virtually ignored by the authorities, behind the scenes machinations that enable crimes committed by US diplomats to go unpunished, the atrocities committed by Indian military in Kashmir, suicide bombings..

What the book does is make these forces painfully real by showing how they work in the lives of a small group of people. By contrast, there are characters for whom Islam is a sustaining and life affirming force, in particular a gentle imam, who always carries a set of beads in one hand and a bulky ‘book of sins’ in the other. One of the beads gives delight to the children of his village – Christian as well as Muslim – because it contains a tiny image of a holy Muslin shrine and a magnifying lens through which to look at it. And there is a book compiled by the father of one of the characters, nearly a thousand pages long, that is

an acknowledgement and celebration of the countless ideas and thoughts that had travelled over the ages from one part of the planet to another. It outlined and examined how disparate events in the history of the world had influenced each other, the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure.

The book is destroyed by a man from the Pakistani military, and the main characters spend the rest of the book reassembling its pages and sewing them back together with gold thread, reading excerpts as they do so. Through this device the horrors of the current sectarianism are interspersed with reminders that, for example, Dante had ‘in all probability’ read of Muhammad’s journey to Paradise and Hell before he wrote The Divine Comedy, and that over centuries the relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have been mutually respectful, cooperative and productive.

And through all this there’s a love story, a chase, poignant family stories.

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (Fourth Estate 2002)

belcanto.jpgThe logical book to read after Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty would have been Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. But travellers can’t always be choosers, and Bel Canto was in our luggage.

I knew nothing about the book except the little Ann Patchett said about it in Truth and Beauty, namely that it was her breakthrough book. I hadn’t even read the back cover blurb. If you plan to read it, I recommend that you do likewise. I’ll try to give as little way as possible in this blog post.

As the book opens, a world famous opera singer has just finished singing and, members of the audience believe, her accompanist has risen to kiss her, when all the lights in the room, including candles, are extinguished. The performance is in the home of the vice president of a small unnamed Latin American country, part of a birthday dinner for a Japanese businessman, a prospective investor in the country. The sudden darkness is caused by a group of guerrillas who are there to kidnap the country’s president. A hostage situation ensues.

If, like me, you come to this narrative with a real siege in mind – like the one in Martin Place where two hostages were killed – you may find the subtly comic tone uncomfortable. Luckily, some way into reading the book I watched the first Die Hard movie on TV, and this turned out to be a much better context for my reading experience. Set against Bruce Willis’s heroics and Alan Rickman’s urbane, ruthless villainy, there’s something wonderful about Patchett’s focus on the unheroic, unvillainous, and mostly un-urbane relationships within the besieged building. It’s not exactly a humanised case of multiple Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a benign reimagining of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, but it has elements of both those, as well as a meditation on the role of art, a multi-dimensional love story, a political tragedy and many other things.

It completely won me over.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China Miéville’s Scar

China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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