Tag Archives: Novel

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ Love Songs of W E B Du Bois

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Love Songs of W E B Du Bois (Fourth Estate 2022)

An African-American woman once told me about a research project in which she interviewed Black women in the US who were leaders in a range of fields. Among other things, she asked her subjects what internal obstacles they’d had to overcome to take leadership. Almost every one of them, she told me, had referred unprompted to the legacy of slavery. For someone like me – white, male, middle class, Australian – the US history of slavery was something belonging to the distant past. Not for those women.

The Love Songs of W E B Du Bois, a door-stopper of a novel at nearly 800 pages, has reminded me of that conversation. It tells the story of a young woman, Ailey, who grows up in a small town in Georgia in the second half of the 20th century, goes to a local college and eventually becomes a history scholar. Ailey’s story is inseparable from the stories of her family going back two generations – she is close, for example to her great uncle Root, a fair-skinned African-American who made it in academia when few Black people did; and we follow the tragic loss to addiction of her beloved older sister Lydia.

Then there are the ‘Songs’. These are sections interspersed among the chapters of the 20th century story, in which different, older stories are told in an almost shamanic voice. The Songs begin with the Native Americans who lived in the place where Ailey’s family town was to be built, and take us through the horrors of genocidal dispossession, and then the story of slavery as if unfolded in that place. As you read, you really want to believe that the author is indulging in Hanya Yanagihara–style suffering- spectacular, but this reader at least was convinced that the narratives were grounded in research.

There’s no mystery about the relationship between the narrative threads. They are both connected to the same place in rural Georgia. But when, thanks to Ailey’s historical research, they come together explicitly, the emotional effect is huge. Faulkner’s line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ may have become a commonplace, but this book bring is vividly, viscerally home.

I’m not sure why W E B Du Bois is in the title. The great scholar and early advocate of civil rights for African Americans is definitely a presence. Each chapter is prefaced by a quotation from him, and each of the quotations is profoundly insightful about racism in the USA and elsewhere. Uncle Root met the great man in his youth. Characters discuss his writings. But he’s not a character, and I can’t see how the ‘Songs’ can be attributed to him – unless perhaps Honoré Fanonne Jeffers is implying that her own deep immersion in Georgian Black culture and history is due in some large degree to his influence.

It’s a good book to have read when Georgia is again in the news, and not in a good way, when Critical Race Theory is being attacked by legislators who, probably not knowing anything about it, are concerned that it will make white children suffer. This book is a graphic reminder where the much greater suffering has been, and still is. It’s also a riveting read.

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (Picador 2020)

This is a Book Group book.

Before the meeting

Shuggie Bain is the story of a boy who grows up in poverty in Glasgow, the youngest of three children. His mother, Agnes, is an alcoholic who is brutally treated by her husband, Shuggie’s father, and then abandoned by him. Once a stunning beauty, she struggles to maintain appearances as she descends into increasingly desperate poverty, alienated from other women and sexually exploited, often violently, by men. From an early age, Shuggie takes on the burden of looking after her, protecting her and trying to make things better. The downward trend is reversed at times when Agnes joins AA, finds part-time employment and has a relationship with a decent man, but there is never any doubt about how her story will end, or that she will take Shuggie down with her. Through it all, Shuggie is singled out by adults and other children as different, not a proper boy – it’s a story of growing up gay.

The Wikipedia entry on Douglas Stuart gives an account of his childhood that could easily be a plot summary of the book. It’s surely no coincidence that ‘Shuggie’ rhymes with ‘Dougie’ (though maybe not in Australian pronunciation, if ‘Shug’ is short for ‘sugar’ as in The Color Purple), and the opening line of the acknowledgements refers to the author’s mother ‘and her struggle’. So the book presents itself as a fictionalised version of the author’s own childhood. As such it’s a valiant work of imagination, wrangling terrible experience into words. I admire it, I read it compulsively, I must have been moved by the horror because when I reached the book’s one moment of genuine tenderness I felt an extraordinary sense of a weight lifting from my mind, even though I knew it was only temporary. But …

… if I hadn’t been reading it for the book group, I would have stopped at page 37, where Agnes is beaten and raped by Big Shug. Really, do I need any more images of that sort lodged in my brain? I did read on, encouraged by the fact that the book won the Booker Prize in 2020, and I’m glad I did, but I found the insistence on the misery of Agnes and every other character in the book disturbing. I can explain what I mean by way of a tiny moment fairly early on. Agnes has regained consciousness after a night of drunkenness, destruction and violence:

Agnes wrapped her lips around the cold metal tap and gulped the fluoride-heavy water, panting and gasping like a thirsty dog. 

(page 72)

She has been beaten up, raped, and shunned. She has done appalling things in her drunken state. Now, the tone of this sentence implies, she has reached such a state of degradation that she drinks directly from a tap, and not only that, but the water has been fluoridated! Where I come from, you don’t have to be subhuman to drink fluoridated water from a cold tap. It feels as if the narrator, if not the book itself, has lost perspective, and I lose faith. It could be that this sentence is a momentary false note. After all, as Randall Jarrell said, a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it. But my uneasy sense that perhaps this was a work of Misery Porn persisted for the rest of the book, even while I engaged intensely with the characters.

Between reading the book and the Book Group meeting: I took the book, and my unease about it, seriously enough to do some counterpoint reading – that is, to read writing that deals with similar material from different points of view. Interestingly enough, the other reading led me to a better appreciation of Shuggie Bain.

1. Jimmy Barnes’s memoir Working Class Boy (link to my blog post here). The early chapters tell of a childhood in a family and community in Glasgow, where alcohol-fuelled violence is as prevalent as in Shuggie’s. Young Jimmy could easily have been one of the boys who terrorised young Shuggie.

They are different kinds of book, of course. Jimmy Barnes can expect his readers to know him as a rock star, and to read the memoir as his back story. As he tells it, the young Jimmy was able to escape from the violence at home, and he went pretty wild on drugs and alcohol himself. Writing as a grandfather, he repents the errors of his youth and writes with generosity and forgiveness of his parents.

The narrator of Shuggy Bain doesn’t have that kind of safe distance from the events he describes. The novel has a visceral immediacy. The account of Agnes’s degradation is told from a point of view not far removed from Shuggie’s own, so the reader is aligned with the helpless child bystander. If the narrator has any distance at all, I imagine it’s that of an adult Shuggie who has escaped Glasgow, and looks back in horror at what he witnessed and endured.

2. Wendy McCarthy on the ABC’s Conversations podcast describes her own response when she saw her father lying drunk in the gutter.

This boy said to me, ‘You know your father’s a drunk,’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ and just kept walking. I learnt something then: I’m not going to carry his shame.

(The link is here. The quote is at 14 minutes and 20 seconds.)

Wendy McCarthy was already at high school when that happened, and had had time to build her inner resources. Shuggie Bain is a novel about a child who didn’t have that chance, and who was caught in the vortex of his mother’s shame.

3. Kit Kelen’s Book of Mother (blog post to come). On the face of it, this poetry collection has nothing in common with Shuggie Bain. Mostly, it plunges the reader into the experience of living with the poet’s mother’s dementia. The son/poet-narrator is an adult, but the poetry captures a kind of mental vertigo that has a lot in common with the way Shuggie is drawn into his mother’s struggles. Comparing the books, I realised Shuggie isn’t just a dreadfully abused child, but he’s also a person of extraordinary heroism. When everyone else abandons Agnes or – in the case of Shuggie’s siblings – escapes her destructive gravitational pull, Shuggie stays, loving her and trying to make things better for her, until the bitter end.

After the meeting: We met in person, all but three who were respectively on the road with a theatrical production, visiting New York for major family event, and home with non-Covid sick children. As usual we ate well and eclectically. Among other things we discussed the role of table tennis for one of us in the process of retiring from regular work; the joy for another at having no income to declare as he too is in the process of hanging up his tools; and our shared relief at having a government that isn’t just about slogans, announcements and cruelty.

The Chooser kicked off conversation about the book by saying that if he’s known what it was about he wouldn’t have picked it, but he’d trusted his wife’s recommendation. I think we were unanimously glad he had, as the book provoked animated, and at times intensely personal conversation.

Many, if not most, had had to overcome initial reluctance that ranged from my own borderline prissiness to not wanting to dredge up memories of a major alcohol-related disruption in his own life.

A number of the chaps said they’d had to take breaks from reading it – one said a dull work on (I think) the energy grid was a perfect palate cleanser. One of the night’s three absentees texted that it was like Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life ‘but without the gratuitous violence etc.’ Another absentee sent us a long text part way through the evening, and encapsulated the general sentiment in his summing up: ‘In the end it was really good but hard going. I’m glad it’s over but glad I finished.’

A number of things were identified as having won us over. We agreed that it’s beautifully written – one man said he kept stopping to reread sentences for the sheer pleasure. It feels real – you believe that the author has experienced something close to Shuggie’s life. The narrative has a strong forward drive: as readers we share Shuggie’s hope that Agnes will snap out of the downward spiral, or at least we want it desperately even though we know it’s futile – and we keep turning the pages. The moments of lightness, tenderness and spirited resistance (there are more than the one I remembered) are beacons in the gloom. And we feel strongly for all the characters: Shuggie’s older brother Leekie won more than one heart, and (for me at least) Eugene, the one man who genuinely loves Agnes, tore my heart out when he became the unintentional agent of her destruction.

It’s a terrific book. Next meeting’s Chooser has been urged to choose something cheerful.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives at the Book Group

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (Bloomsbury 2020)

Before the meeting: It was my turn to pick the book. I loved Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart when I read it last year, and I chose this one over three contenders because a) I like the idea of us reading work by Nobel Laureates, and it’s so good to have one whose writing is accessible, b) it’s time we read a book by a non-European writer – the last ones were Burruberongal woman Julie Janson’s Benevolence in October 2020, and two months before that In the Country of Men by US-born Libyan-parentage Hisham Matar.

Afterlives is a terrific book. It was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2021. That prize was won by Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I have no quarrel with the judges, but my horizons were expanded much more by this book than by that one.

It’s set in the first half of the 20th century in what is now Tanzania and was then German East Africa / Deutsch-Ostafrika. It’s a family saga, a romance, a war story, a picaresque, a colonial tragedy. It tells the huge story of colonial brutality and East African engagement in two world wars, and also focuses closely on the intimate story of a handful of characters. It’s beautifully written, brilliantly visual, and paying attention to the intricacies of language in Africa under colonial occupation.

It takes risks: in the first third of the book a main, beloved character named Ilya disappears – he’s an African who was educated by German missionaries, and decides as an adult to join the askari, the native troops who serve under the Germans. His absence remains an unresolved ache for the other characters and the reader until the final pages, when a character from the next generation manages to unearth his story – and then the book abruptly ends.

In this colonial context, possibly the most painful story is that of the askari or schutztruppe, African soldiers who are brutally treated by their German officers and in turn perpetrate terrible atrocities on other Africans – not unlike the Native Police in the colony of Queensland where my great-grandfather grew sugar in the late 1800s. This passage is from the account of the First World War as experienced by the characters (my emphasis):

Even as the schutztruppe lost soldiers and carriers through battle, disease and desertion, their officers kept fighting on with manic obstinacy and persistence. The askari left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands, while they struggled on in their blind and murderous embrace of a cause whose origins they did not know and whose ambitions were vain and ultimately intended for their domination. The carriers died in huge numbers from malaria and dysentery and exhaustion, and no one bothered to count them. They deserted in sheer terror, to perish in the ravaged countryside. Later these events would be turned into stories of absurd and nonchalant heroics, a sideshow to the great tragedies in Europe, but for those who lived through it, this was a time when their land was soaked in blood and littered with corpses.

(Page 91)

My love for the absurd and nonchalant heroics of The African Queen just became much more complex. After reading this book, it would be hard to think of African suffering, or for that matter African love or prayer (the mosque is significant for some characters), as a sideshow to anything.

After the meeting: There were only five of us, others being out of town with family for Easter/school holidays and otherwise detained – no one in Covid iso this time. We’re still a little bit thrilled to be meeting in person: this is the third time in more than two years. Our host departed from recent bring-a-dish tradition and provided all the food – tuna steaks and a fabulous broccoli salad resting o a bed of tahini. I had been dreading a conversation about the election campaign and had laid bets that someone would predict an LNP win: it didn’t happen until the very end of the evening when there was consensus that it was a toxic topic, press coverage was abysmal and the leaders of both major parties, for different reasons, were invitations to despair.

We talked about theatre – Girl from the North Country, The Picture of Dorian Gray and White Pearl – and other books and podcasts (the ABC’s The Ring In on the Fine Cotton Affair was strongly recommended). There were outrageous travellers’ tales, gossip about the very rich, and general catch-up. When we finally came to the book, we had a terrific conversation, all appreciative.

The book conversation began with a confession: ‘I read it weeks ago, in a single sitting. I loved it but I don’t remember anything of it.’ When asked to say what he loved about it, he who had confessed proceeded to give an account of the book that was much more specific than I would have been able to manage: the detailed descriptions of life in a small Tanzanian town, the sweetness of the characters, the way terrible violence is described but doesn’t dominate the narrative, the overall sense that one is learning history that has been a closed book, the sex scenes – and there was more.

One chap was interested enough in the history to do some research. He produced an atlas and showed us the part of Africa where the action takes place. He had printed out a number of pages on the history of what was German East Africa, and some illustrations of askari in uniform. He was happy to report that the novel’s public events – mainly rebellions and battles – were historically accurate.

One man had read the book twice. The first time, several months ago, he appreciated all the things others had named but was left feeling somehow distanced from the characters – so different from reading that other novelist of colonial pain, Amitav Ghosh. He cared enough to read it again. This time he was no more engaged, but felt it to be a feature rather than a problem. On reflection, he came to understand (I hope I’m representing his subtle comments accurately) that his sense of non-engagement was because we are being shown the deep effects of colonisation on the colonised: the characters are beset by cruelty and oppression on all sides, and they are intent on survival. This means they reach out with kindness to each other – there is an amazing amount of kindness in this book, often in unexpected places – and live very much for what joy and they can find in the present. There’s no room for them to reach out to us readers.

I loved this insight. It helped to see the book as a whole. For example, Hamza, the male romantic lead, responds to most situations with silence. We can tell that he is variously humiliated, elated, disappointed, puzzled, grateful, terrified, but he never communicates it. The narration shows us what happens to him and what he does in response (usually he tends to passivity), but we are not given his internal dialogue. He doesn’t talk to us, the readers.

It also makes sense of the ending. Someone said that the last few pages, in which the fate of Ilya is discovered, feels like a postscript, yet (I think it was me who said this) it resolves an issue that has been hanging from very early in the story. In such a beautifully constructed book, it’s unlikely that this is a rough and ready tying up of loose threads. It’s hard to say more about this without being spoilerish so I’ll just say, with apologies for being vague, that the book’s final sentence, which on first reading felt naggingly anticlimactic, picks up the deep theme the group member identified, and offers a sharp change of perspective on the way the rest of the narrative has been resolved.

Afterwards, I thought it would be interesting to hear a conversation between Abdulrazak Gurmah and Alice Walker, the final moments of whose very different novel Possessing the Secret of Joy make an interesting contrast.

When we arrived the sky was clear. As we left the rain was bucketing down and, just like after the last meeting, the streets were awash.

Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo

Amanda Lohrey, Vertigo (Black Inc 2009)

Gertloveday recommended this book in a comment on my blog post about Amanda Lohrey’s more recent book The Labyrinth. They were worth reading together, she said, ‘as fire plays a part in each book’. She could have added that both books have a major narrative strand dealing with a lost son. They’re both set in the town of Garra Nalla, and each of them describes itself on the title page as ‘A Pastoral’.

Gertloveday was right. The books make a good double feature. They have no characters in common, unless you count Garra Nalla itself as a character, but each of them entails a retreat from the city to live in a small seaside community with the aim of healing, and in each of them the dangerous rip at Garra Nalla is a symbolic warning to the reader that this is no Eden. And they are both relatively short. Vertigo has just 140 pages.

In Vertigo, thirty-somethings Luke and Anna leave the city partly because of her asthma, partly because of his generalised discontent. They are accompanied by ‘the boy’, who acts like a normal four or five year old child, but is somehow insubstantial. The details of the couple’s new life are fleshed out: the relationships with various neighbours, the discovery of bird life, the threats to the environment posed by corporate take-over of a nearby property. Though Lohrey’s writing is fresh and clear, the first two thirds of the book offer little more than a blow-by-blow account of an uneventful move to a new place. Anna watches news about the invasion of Iraq on CNN, and Luke reads (with us reading over his shoulder) excerpts from The Land that is Desolate by Sir Frederick Treves, a real 1913 travel diary about Palestine left by the house’s previous owner. It’s not dull, but only the mild mystery of the boy’s silent, intermittent presence creates a forward impetus. Anna ruminates near the end of the second of the book’s three parts:

So what is this pointless dance that they are engaged in, this dance where they whirl together in an endless circle, locked in the illusion that they are going somewhere, that what they do has meaning beyond their own day-to-day survival? At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is the land and so small are they. And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless. She has lost her roots, her anchorage to the earth; she might float away into the blue of the sky and never be heard from again.

(Page 85)

Then in the third part all hell breaks loose in the form of natural disaster, vividly described. An acknowledgement of Henry Lawson in an end note acknowledges that the description is part of an Australian tradition; and the apocalyptic quality of the writing gives it astonishing relevance to events that were to take place more than a decade after the book was written. The peril facing all the characters is real, and as with the book’s less dramatic moments it feels as if it was taken from life. It also precipitates a resolution to issues that have been more or less unstated, and we realise that, like The Labyrinth, this is a book about grief.

One more point of comparison between the two books. I complained that The Labyrinth lacked illustrations. Tiny photographs by Lorraine Biggs are scattered through Vertigo. They appear to be images of the coastal landscape – sadly, in the trade paperback edition I read they a bit smudgy.

So, many thanks to gertloveday. The next time I visit the south coast, Amanda Lohrey’s imagining of it will be with me.

Curdella Forbes’s Tall History of Sugar

Curdella Forbes, A Tall History of Sugar (©2019, Canongate 2020)

My father was a sugar farmer in North Queensland, on Mamu Country. My childhood was full of the sights, sounds, smells and language of sugar, but nowhere was that world reflected in the books I read or movies I saw. So now I seize greedily any movie, novel or poem that touches on it, from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll to A Girl in Australia (Bello onesto emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata), a 1971 film starring Claudia Cardinale that sank without trace. Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy 1983), set in Martinique, was the first film I saw that showed sugar farming from a non-settler point of view. (The analysis of colonisation in I Walked with a Zombie (1942) had gone over my head in the 70s.) Jean Devanny’s social-realist novel Sugar Heaven (1936) broadened my understanding of the history of my own town, my own family. If a book mentions bagasse (we used to call it megass), meaning the great flakes of ash that fill the sky during ‘the season’, I am wide open for whatever else it sends my way.

A Tall History of Sugar isn’t obviously about sugar at all, but it’s set mainly in Jamaica, beginning in 1958, four years before Jamaican independence, and its characters live in a world dominated by the colonial sugar industry. They suffer a number of wounds and afflictions that are somewhat magically caused by sugar. And there is bagasse (though I’m surprised to find on rereading this extract that the word itself isn’t there):

The cane is burning. Soot from fires twenty miles away floats through windows and doorways, soiling chenille bedspreads and the pristine white of lace doilies artfully strewn on tables. (Doilies are always
made in white, even during cane-crop time.)

To the children, the soot flies like charred paper planes, or rat bats, birds of ill omen. Tumela women cover the beds with rags and remove the doilies, hiding the precious delicate things in cupboards until the cane is fully reaped. They put newspaper over the dressing tables. The newspaper will soil the tables black, but you won’t see the stain unless you wipe the table with a clean cloth or put something clean on the surface.

Sometimes people close their windows, but the soot seeps between the jambs and slats. And it is hard to be so confined, in a place where nobody locks a door, even at night, except in fear of things that
are not human.

(Page 99)

I don’t remember doilies or fear of things that are not human, but I recognise the rest in my bone-marrow, including the unlocked doors.

When the main male character first arrives in London, there’s a wonderful description of the colonised gaze, including this:

Covent Garden Mayfair Shepherds Bush Notting Hill Tyburn Tree Victoria Station Waterloo Trafalgar Square the River Thames. Everywhere was strange yet nowhere was strange, because he had seen it all before, in the books he had read at school, almost all of them from England, and then at last a few that were still from England but written by people from the place where he was from and these had opened like a light to him that first year he and Arrienne went to university …

Sometimes he had the strange sensation that he was leaking, not body fluids but ink, printer’s ink, that had made his skin porous over many years of exposure; he was poisoned in his bloodstream by other people’s words written down, and he couldn’t tell what the outcome would be, except that because of such words a foreign place had become more familiar to him than any place should be that he had never been.

(Page 177)

Another of the book’s charms is its use of Jamaican patois. Early on, Curdella Forbes dutifully translates non–West Indian speech, sometimes hilariously. For example, here an old woman comments to the mother of the book’s main male character, a child born with rare, and in this world uncanny, physical differences:

Miss Hildreth fell into the habit of prophesying his future. ‘Him gwine have a hard time, Rachel. Dat skin an dat hair gwine mek him way in dis world hard-hard. Hard travail. Mi si it. Ehn-hn.’ This unresolved body in which history has made ructions will make his pilgrimage difficult. This is what I have seen.

(Page 45)

But what’s the book about, you ask. Well, it’s the story of Moshe, a boy ‘born without skin’, found in bushes in a basket made of reeds, and big, dark-skinned Arrienne, exactly a year older, who becomes his protector from his first day at school. They are so close as children they communicate without speech. Their bond is deeper than romantic love, though there are some awkward sex scenes (awkward for them but not for the reader – Curdella Forbes’ telling is never less than brilliantly alive). They go on very different life courses: she to political activism at home in Jamaica, he to artistic success in Britain, but the bond endures. Their story plays out in the aftermath of the sugar plantations and slavery, manifesting in magic-realist wounds that bring torment when harvesting season begins, in characters’ engagement in the politics of post-independence Jamaica, in Moshe’s visit to Bristol where the slaver Edward Colston is celebrated as a great philanthropist.

I loved it.

The Book Group in Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth

Amanda Lohrey, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing 2020)

Having threatened us with another Rachel Cusk title, this month’s Book Chooser opted for last year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, a decision I applauded.

Before the meeting: The book’s narrator, Erica Marsden, moves to a small town on the south coast of New South Wales to be near the prison where her son is serving a life sentence for murder. Harking back to her own childhood in a mental institution where her father was head psychiatrist and inspired by a dream, she decides that a way out of her depression is to ‘make something’, and sets out to create a labyrinth in the weedy patch of sand beside her shack. Between dispiriting prison visits, she makes connections in the local community, and runs into an illegal immigrant who has just the skills needed to help design and build the labyrinth. As she realises her plan, she regains a degree of equilibrium, and her son seems – tentatively, incompletely – to be returning from the weirdness that had led him to commit a horrific act and then be lost in rage-filled (and, she believes, mother-blaming) isolation.

That’s it. It’s beautifully written, including some evocative moments when Erica is bemused by unspoken understanding among diverse male characters. I loved it.

My one small complaint is that there are no illustrations. Even though the descriptions the making of the labyrinth are very clear, I lack the visual imagination needed to interpret them. When I looked online, key words like ‘seed pattern’ seemed to have different technical meanings from the ones Erica gives. I mention this in the hope that an illustrated edition may be on the way.

What you get from a work of art depends on what you bring to it. I brought quite a bit to this book that intensified my enjoyment of it. I’ve seen the labyrinth at Chartres, and it was covered with wooden chairs just as Erica describes it. I’ve meditatively walked a small labyrinth at Glendalough in Ireland. Much more significantly, I took part in Connecting Hearts Project, an art work created by the Emerging Artist, which invited participants, among other things, to walk a kind of labyrinth made of terracotta hearts while reflecting on our common humanity, on our connection to people fleeing persecution, especially those held in detention by successive Australian governments, and on what it means to belong. With her permission, here are a couple of images:

And a video of the London iteration, where the spiral/labyrinth appears from 2 minutes 22 seconds:

After the meeting: There were six of us. The streets were awash outside, but we were warm and dry in our host’s home, which had been a rundown mess when we met there just before the onset of Covid, but he and his family have rebuilt as a joy and a wonder to behold. We ate well, and drank well (I wasn’t the only one to bring non-alcoholic beer, one of the many pleasures of the evening).

Probably because we were all so pleased to be meeting in person again, and because of the absence of him who has been tacitly designated the group facilitator, we spent a long time chatting – mainly about the new house and the current theatre work of one of us, complete with some great inside-theatre gossip – before focusing on the book.

The terrific discussion was kicked off by someone who said he had reread the second half of the book because it seemed that everything that had been built up in the first part was then wasted in the second. Characters were introduced with the beginnings of narrative arcs, and nothing came of it: an architect promises to get back to Erica with ideas for a labyrinth, then nothing; a teenage girl is seen self-harming, then nothing; Erica meets a neighbour’s daughter, then nothing. On a second reading he felt he had been too harsh, but still felt like things more or less petered out.

I couldn’t fault him on his description, but I felt that it worked, and struggled to say why. In some way, the incompleteness of the stories was the point. The labyrinth itself (mild spoiler alert) is never finished, and there’s a tiny movement in a key relationship towards the end that could be the beginning of significant change. I passed around printouts of some of the above pictures.

A third chap said he read the book as a study in grief: after the ordeal of her son’s trial and imprisonment for a horrific crime, Erica is in a fugue state, and the failures to connect or follow through on other people’s stories is a function of that. He drew our attention to the last two paragraphs, and when they were singled out in this context I think we could all see how beautifully the book is brought home. Both the opening speaker and I said we now felt like rereading the book from the beginning.

One chap confessed right at the start that he hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the discussion, and I almost wished I could have been him when, in the middle of all the discussion of grief and fugue states, small town communities, the perils of living as a refugee, the points of similarity and difference between this book and, say, Sea Change, and so on, someone asked, ‘What about the book burning?’

Then five of us made our various ways home, all through streets that were awash.

The Book Group in Second Place with Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk, Second Place (Faber & Faber 2021)

Before the meeting: I borrowed a copy of the book from my local library and just had time to read it and return it before heading out of town over the New Year. So I scanned a random page, intending to focus my pre-meeting blogging on that page.

Then the Book Chooser sent around a WhatsApp asking how we’d all feel about changing to Transit, an earlier book that ‘gives a better sense of how Rachel Cusk has transformed the novel form’. After some discussion, it was agreed that each of us could read either or both of the books, and we’d let the discussion play out as it would. I decided to stick with just Second Place.

‘Second Place’ is the name given by the narrator to a kind of guest dwelling on her property on the edge of a darkly beautiful marshland. As she spells out for the benefit of slow readers, it also refers to the status of women under patriarchy – and there you have the subject of the book. When she was young, the narrator – known as M – fell under the spell of landscapes by L, a celebrated painter, and she now believes he is perfectly suited to capture the beauty of her marshland. She writes to invite him to stay as her guest in the Second Place. After some pretty rude back and forth, he accepts the invitation, turns up with an unexpected female friend, and continues as he has begun, the guest from hell. Somewhere along the line, we realise that M, without quite admitting it to herself, hopes that his paintings of her marsh will reveal something of her to herself. This develops into wanting him to paint a portrait of her, which he eventually does, devastatingly.

The story, we are told in an end note, was inspired by Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. I haven’t read that book, but it feels as if the note explains a lot: maybe this book is not so much a novel in its own right, as a response to – a retelling of, a meditation on – that other book. In the early parts of Second Place, M tells her story to someone called Jeffers. We are given no information about Jeffers at all, but Lorenzo in Taos was addressed to the US poet Robinson Jeffers. It seems that this device is a straight lift from the source material, a little Easter egg for the scholarly reader (or for someone like me who google-skims reviews).

By and large, the book left me cold. The characters don’t feel fully imagined. What I take to be the thematic concern about art and artists could be boiled down to the familiar warning: ‘Never meet your heroes. They’re sure to disappoint.’ M does a lot of introspecting, and the dialogue generally feels stilted. If something is being said about sexism, it’s that some men are cruel, and some women are vulnerable. Not exactly a revelation, and not exactly leading anywhere interesting.

On the random page I scanned (page 74), M and L run into each other walking by the marsh very early one morning. She asks him, pretty much out of the blue, if he will paint her portrait:

He looked at me with a faintly quizzical expression.

‘But I can’t really see you,’ he said.

‘Why not?’ l asked, and I believe it was the utterance that lay at the furthest bottom of my soul, the thing I had always been asking and still wanted to ask, because I had never yet received an answer.

That line about the utterance at the furthest bottom of her soul reads just as awkwardly in context as it does here. All too often the characters are going about their business and then there’s a little introspective interjection, sometimes addressed to the mysterious Jeffers, to explain the significance of what we’ve just read. The reader can’t ‘see’ the narrator either. When she talks about the furthest bottom of her soul it’s hard to take her seriously, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe she’s a needy person who has no idea about art but wants to be immortalised, a risible figure; or maybe we’re meant to take seriously her introspective misery and the way she turns to art as a way of feeling seen and perhaps understanding herself. I didn’t know at this point of the story, and I still didn’t know, or much care, by the end.

Back to page 74: She doesn’t get an answer from L, because Brett, L’s young female friend, turns up and interrupts them:

She was holding a bundle in her hands, which turned out to be all the linen from the bed in the second place, and she tried to offer it to me as I stood there in my nightdress on the wet grass.

‘Would you believe it,’ she said, ‘but I can’t sleep against this fabric. It irritates my skin – I woke up this morning with a face like a broken mirror! Do you have anything softer?’

She stepped closer, across the line that generally separates one person from another, when they’re not intimately acquainted. Her skin looked perfectly fine even at close quarters, glowing with youth and health. She wrinkled her little nose and peered at my face.

‘Do you have this fabric on your bed too? It looks like it might be having the same effect on you!’

L ignored this basic piece of effrontery, and stood with his arms folded looking at the view

Unlike all the other characters, the obnoxious Brett is realised with almost cinematic clarity, bringing a welcome element of waspish comedy to the narrative. But this slightly surreal interruption doesn’t so much move the story forward as expand, a little baldly, on the novel’s thematic concerns. Unlike L, Brett thinks she can see M. M wants to be seen, but not like this, close up: this is effrontery. As it turns out, the exchange foreshadows the climactic moment when the narrator stumbles upon L and Brett, probably high on something, collaborating on a viciously unkind representation of her.

Though my Leavisite lecturers in Eng Lit in the 1970s did this sort of thing with relish, it’s unfair to judge a book by one randomly selected page. But the thing is I don’t remember much else about the book. Harsh? Yes. Sentence by sentence I enjoyed reading it, and I expected my view to soften as a result of the Group’s discussion.

After the meeting: Thanks to Omicron, we were back on zoom. There were eight of us, and unlike when we meet in person, the discussion was fairly disciplined – generally only one person spoke at any given time, and we didn’t spend a lot of time on other subjects.

All but one of us had read Second Place. One had read In Transit. Only one (I think) had read both. It sounds as if In Transit was a much better experience, as we were treated to a number of readings from it, whereas no one was to be persuaded to read more than an odd phrase from Second Place.

One chap took vehemently against M. In his reading, she was a wealthy woman who decided it would be fun to have a famous artist as a scalp – so that she could boast of having had him stay, and have a painting of her place and perhaps of herself on her wall. This chap knows a number of famous people and has witnessed first-hand the effect of ‘fans’ intruding on their privacy, so his sympathy lay with the obnoxious L.

Another had read a review in the Guardian that, he said, read the book as somehow referring to Rachel Cusk having sold a house for millions of pounds and left England in protest over Brexit. Neither he nor the rest of us were clear how the book and the life were related, but it fitted the generally perplexed mood.

Another had read a little Rachel Cusk a couple of years ago and couldn’t bring himself go back to it for this meeting. He couldn’t remember anything of the books except a general sense of turgidness. The word ‘turgidness’ struck a chord with many of us.

A number of people said they appreciated the perceptive writing about art and life, life and death, men and women. An overlapping number said they were irritated or bored by tedious writing about the same subjects. Some read it as a strong feminist text. One man read quotes that, the antithesis of feminism, described the cruelty of men and the suffering of women as inherent, part of the essential nature of things. Which brought us to the question of whether we are to take M seriously or see her as a dire warning.

Those who had read In Transit spoke of Cusk’s splendid skewering of social cruelty. They were delighted by the way she dispensed with a narrative arc and with the depiction of rounded characters. I couldn’t understand what they said she did instead – I’ll have to read the book to find out. Perhaps the things I found exasperating about Second Place are a feature rather than a bug, but I still can’t see it.

In the one noteworthy straying from the subject, one chap who has recently moved into a new home, which he is in the final stages of renovating, gave us a quick guided tour. It’s a house we met in when it was newly bought a couple of major lockdowns ago, and it was a joy to behold the transformation he had wrought.

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 going. 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.