Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Reading The Snow Queen, which was published in 2003, made me realise that it really does help if you have a particular interest in the subject matter that is central to a story. I recently wrote that I wasn’t interested in the haute couture described in Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker, and didn’t enjoy the book as much as friends who did have an interest in it. It probably doesn’t work like that for great books, but maybe it does for rather more ordinary books like this one. This time the focus is on ballet and Adelaide, and I’m very interested to read about both these topics. Be warned if you aren’t.

Set in the 1970s, the story is shared by two main characters. Edward Larwood has returned to Adelaide to take charge of the nascent state ballet company, Ballet South, after a successful career as a dancer and choreographer overseas. Galina Koslova is a retired ballerina who trained in Russia and briefly ran her own ballet company as well as a ballet school in Adelaide before marrying and settling down there. Teddy and Galina have unfinished business; she feels he betrayed her when they were younger. She writes and account of her life which includes her view of him; she hopes to turn Adelaide’s arts community against him. From this memoir we learn of her training at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, the impact of the Russian revolution, joining the Ballet Russes, and being stranded in Australia at the outbreak of war. Larwood returned to Adelaide briefly after the war, and danced in her ballet company until their falling-out. The Snow Queen is a ballet created for Galina’s company.

McConnochie is a very competent writer, and she’s been quite clever with Galina’s voice. ‘You think my English is not good enough,’ she says to her husband, who replies ‘you’re not really a word person, are you?’ So it reads realistically that Galina’s memoir is a bit stilted. She is also quite clearly an unreliable narrator; Teddy recollects the same events quite differently, so we know that any truth lies somewhere outside their version of events. Galina and Teddy personify different approaches to ballet, and to life. Galina has fully imbibed the rigorous discipline of the Russian system, where technique is everything; self-expression comes a poor second. ‘Before you ever get to dance, to leap about, to express yourself (there is such an emphasis these days on expressing yourself), you must learn the basics,’ she writes. Teddy, on the other hand, has presence and charisma to cover his dislike of hard work. Galina wants to be the best. Teddy wants to be loved. McConnochie presents a thoughtful psychological picture of the clash that arises when these two world views collide. Can they ever be reconciled?

Combining the present, the memoir, and the characters’ own recollections of the past, makes for a rather untidy story, but I guess it works well enough. There are clunky bits, like Teddy’s relations with his family, which are very two dimensional. A homosexual encounter by the River Torrens is probably only there because of a notorious homosexual drowning in that river in 1972. I think the section dealing with Galina’s company is a bit too sketchy; where, for example, could she possibly have got all those dancers from in Adelaide? It’s true that a number of the Ballet Russes dancers chose to remain in Australia after the outbreak of war, but I doubt there were enough ballet schools of sufficient standing – certainly not in Adelaide – to make up even a part-time company like the one McConnocnie describes. (In fact the history of Galina’s company is rather like that of the Borovansky Ballet Company which began in Melbourne in 1939 as a part-time company and grew into the major ballet company in Australia before its closure and the foundation of the Australian Ballet in 1962. McConnochie seems to suggest that the Borovansky company formed well after Galina’s company.) But this is just me being pedantic; the story is ultimately quite satisfying.

So did I enjoy the ballet? Yes, there are some interesting reflections on the practice of ballet, on choreography, and on the role of ballet as a part of the national consciousness. Teddy thinks dance can help ‘uncover the real Australia’, a fairly trite insight perhaps, but the book would be weaker without the discussion, particularly as the 1970s were a time of burgeoning national consciousness in the arts. And what about her treatment of Adelaide? McConnochie was brought up in Adelaide, but was only just born at the time she is writing about. Her view is fairly stereotypical: the boring provincial city, the arts-supporting community largely made up of philistine society ladies, the ballet-going public preferring the old standard classical ballets to anything more modern. It’s a pity she didn’t populate her Adelaide with more interesting characters, particularly as the Galina she describes would never have fitted into that society in the way she has her do after she finishes her dancing career. And don’t sneer at audiences who loved Swan Lake; I remember queuing for hours to get tickets. And there was a embryonic avant garde in Adelaide; I also remember the ballet school I attended putting on a production of L’enfant et les sortilèges, set to Ravel’s spikey music. McConnochie could have done a bit more with Adelaide. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

There’s not much about McConnochie on the internet; here’s her Wikipedia entry. She was named one of the Best Young Australian Novelists by The Sydney Morning Herald on the strength of this book.

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This book is set primarily in the 1930s at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, with all the horror and suffering that involved. And Mo Yan does not shrink from graphic accounts of cruelty and death. I went on reading this distressing book for three reasons. First, it is my book club novel, which I therefore feel I have an obligation to read. Second, events like this happened, and continue to happen; it is little enough to ask that I accept the challenge of reading about them and facing the awfulness on the page that some people face in reality every day. And third, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012; this book, published in 1987 (translated 1993), is an important part of the work for which the prize was awarded, and as such deserves huge respect. But it was still a struggle to get through it.

The story is written as if it were a family chronicle by a son looking back at the lives of his father and mother and grandpa and grandma, though the son hardly ever comes into the story himself. It is in fact quasi-biographical. It is not chronological, moving mostly seamlessly between the experiences of his grandma as a young woman, and the Japanese invasion of China a few years later. The story begins with his father taking part in a guerrilla attack on the invading Japanese near the village of Northeast Gaomi but then moves back in time to when his grandma as a young woman is sent to be married into a rich peasant family in that village – they make wine from sorghum – though things do not go as planned. Incidents may recur, though with slightly different details and emphasis. One example is the accounts of why the family’s wine is so good. Another is the death of Uncle Arhat, who by one version was a resistance martyr and by another a foolish man carried away by rage, though it is presumably Yan’s point that both may be true.

Duality is at the heart of the story. In the landscape there is ‘the Yang of White Horse Mountain’, and ‘the Yin of the Black Water River’. The narrator both loves and hates the village: ‘I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart and to hate it with unbridled fury,’ he says. The township is ‘easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, the most unusual and most common, the most sacred and most corrupt … place in the world.’ The ubiquitous sorghum turns red when the grain is ripe; it looks like a ‘sea of blood’, and that is what it becomes with the arrival of the Japanese. The narrator’s grandfather Yu is both brave and cruel, a man for whom murder is simply a means to an end. Yet is there a difference between murder and killing wounded enemy soldiers? And I couldn’t help wondering about the duality of the whole project of resistance to the invaders; certainly it was heroic, but equally it was doomed, and brought frightful retribution.

Yan has no qualms about being graphic about the violence which both sides inflict on each other, though the Japanese have greater fire power and therefore more occasions to display their brutality. But life in rural China even before the invasion was no picnic. In a way the book is partly a love story, but there is no room for sentimentality; life for the peasants was, to use Hobbes’s phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Yan views life with a slightly wry air; for example the spade Uncle Arhat has attacked a mule with sticks out of its side ‘at a jaunty angle’. The reader already knows just what is going to happen to Arhat because of his actions, making the use of the word ‘jaunty’ highly ironic. This no doubt intentionally makes the story even more difficult to read. I have to confess that I did skip over some bits of the violence.

In line with this duality, there is much lyrical writing, especially about the landscape, and the ever present sorghum fields. The red sorghum represents life and regeneration; there is again a conscious irony that when the narrator returns to the village at the end of the story, the red sorghum has been replaced by a hybrid green variety. It is only through pursuit of red sorghum that he can redeem himself.

Mo Yan’s life seems to reflect the duality that inhabits his writing. Mo Yan is a pseudonym which means ‘don’t speak’, and he rarely gives interviews. He says that ‘for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated’. Some of his writing is critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but he has been a member of the Party for many years, he had a career in the army and is – or has been – the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer’s Association. As the first mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature he received praise from the Party, but Chinese expatriate writers are critical of him for not being more critical of the repression of free speech by the regime. He has, however, had his share of criticism by the government for his sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Communist Party members. As one reviewer noted, his readers ‘have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances’. Here is the text of a rare interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel – though it didn’t really clear up much of the confusion. On the other hand, if resistance to the regime is as suicidal as resistance to the Japanese, which of us would undertake it?

You can read more about him here, including details of the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him. A highly acclaimed film of Red Sorghum was made by a Chinese studio in 1987-8, released in the West in 1989; here’s a review. I don’t think I want to see it.

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I’ve noted before that the choice of books made by my book club, admittedly often on very limited information about what to read next, is idiosyncratic, sometimes good, sometimes less so. This one is definitely less so. When I started reading the book, I realised that I’d read at least some of it before, but I hadn’t any memory of what happened. It’s that sort of book.

The story is set partly in seventeenth century Venice, and partly in more or less present day Venice (there don’t seem to be many mobile phones or computers). The plot begins with Corradino Manin, a master glass blower, who has returned to Venice from France, where he revealed the secrets of glass blowing and mirror making to Louis XIV’s court. His defection now means he is a marked man, for glass blowers were forbidden to leave Venice so as to maintain its monopoly in fine glass making. The story of why he left and why he returned runs throughout. Alongside it is the story of his distant descendent Leonora Manin. Distraught at the breakdown of her marriage, she flees from London to Venice, the home of the father she never knew. She already has some skill in glass blowing; now she wants to work as a glass blower in Venice. And she is driven to find out more about her ancestor, Corradino. Most of the story is told from the perspective of these two characters, though there are a few odd cases where we get the perspective of other characters.

The plot conforms to two genres. On one level, it is a romance. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, but there are no prizes for guessing that they overcome these and end up together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a romance plot – Pride and Prejudice, for example, has one – but the formula needs better handling than it gets here to remain fresh and interesting. On a second level, it is a mystery story, where Leonora undertakes a quest (sort of) to find more about the life of her ancestor, which she needs to do in order to achieve her dream in the present day. There are some potentially interesting parallels between Leonora and Corradino’s motives, but little is made of them. There are some links between the romance and the mystery, but it is hardly what you might call intricate plotting. Some of the story is pretty silly, too.

One aspect of a book that can rescue a fairly predictable formulaic plot is the setting. Fiorato, who is herself part Venetian, has certainly chosen an interesting place and an interesting craft to write about. Who would have known, for example, that the glass blowers of old had worn away the skin on their fingers so they had no fingerprints? The details of the glass-making trade seem to be more or less authentic, both then and now, and Venice is a clearly a magical city. Can the setting carry the book? Unfortunately I don’t think so.

The problem is that the writing is pedestrian. As always, I find it hard to say exactly what it wrong with it, but it just doesn’t ring true. The characters fail to come alive because they are described in unimaginative ways. The journalist Vittoria, for example, has hair that ‘flashed blue-black in the sunlight’, ‘perfect teeth’, ‘glossy red lips’ and ‘sexy confidence’. This is the language of Mills and Boon romances. What characters say is stilted and trite. Even when Fiorato is trying to be dramatic, she succeeds only in producing melodrama. ‘He laughed harder with the last of his breath.’ Really? And most annoying of all is her habit of placing what is supposed to be a character’s self-reflection and insight in indented italics, as in ‘I shouldn’t have said that. How presumptuous and … clumsy. I’m behaving like a schoolgirl.’ There should be no need for such signposting of feelings; they should be expressed as part of the ordinary writing. I found these indented sections increasingly irritating.

So overall, pretty much a disappointment. Fiorato has a history degree from Oxford, so one might have expected better. You can find out more about her – and her three subsequent books – here. And if you think I’m harsh – after all, the book seems to have sold well – have a look at these comments on Goodreads. There’s lots more detail there about what one reviewer thinks is wrong with the book. And I have to agree with him. Not all of the other Goodreads reviewers feel the same way; some find it harmless escapism, or think the setting redeems it somewhat. I’m all for harmless escapism sometimes, but not when it makes me bored and irritated, as this book does.

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David Malouf is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers. This is his 2009 rendering of sections of Homer’s Iliad– roughly, a much abbreviated version of books 16 to 23. But it explores details not in the original, and exhibits a grace and imagination that befits both the story and the writer.

Ransom deals with the death of Patroclus, Achilles’s battle with Hector, his abuse of Hector’s body and Priam’s recovery of it. This last makes up Part 3 of the book, and goes well beyond Homer’s version. When I started reading, I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming weariness in the face of the apparently never-ending horrors of what men do to each other in war. Why write about it again? But as I read further, the beauty of Malouf’s writing, and the essential humanity of this retelling of the story drew me in.

Malouf was first attracted to the story of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks when he heard part of it as a child during World War II in Brisbane – then the headquarters of General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the war in the Pacific. The story seemed to him the archetype of all stories about war, especially as at time he didn’t know how the war on his doorstep would end. So rather than writing something new, he wrote about the first war to appear in literature. ‘There’s little new that matters under the sun,’ writes David Marr, reflecting on Malouf’s work. ‘We are what we have always been, what moves us has always moved us; we’re writing now as we have always written.’ Malouf says that the ‘whole story of the Trojan war is really central to my notion in terms of feeling of what war is and what the vulnerability is of people, women or children, but also soldiers in war. So it’s haunted me for a long time.’

Malouf believes that since Achilles and Priam were going to come together at the climax of the book, ‘the reader must know as much about those two people as possible’. Achilles is a very divided figure; a hero, the greatest warrior of the Greek army, but also in his grief and anger, capable of doing un-heroic things, as can be seen from his treatment of Hector’s body, as well as sulking in his tent and letting Patroclus fight in his place. He knows that he will die in the war – his mother, a goddess, has told him so – and it becomes a question of how he will be remembered. He is if you like ransoming his future reputation. Future remembrance is also Priam’s concern. He knows that ultimately Troy will fall and he will die, but in addition to acting out of genuine grief over the death of his son Hector, and his outrage at the desecration of his body, he wants to do something that he will be remembered for. He is offering a ransom for his son in a conventional way, but his manner of doing it is startling – an act of moral rather than physical courage.

But Malouf didn’t want just to re-tell the story; ‘I wanted to deal with different aspects of stories from the ones that Homer deals with,’ he says. Thus he writes about Priam’s childhood, and the chances that brought him to the throne of Troy. He also makes it clear that Priam’s choice of how to act in this instance is quite revolutionary. I think the carter who transports the ransom – and certainly his mule – are also from Malouf’s imagination.

I’ve said the writing is beautiful. It is simple and clear, yet quite profound. One random example can show this. Priam is trying to explain to his wife Hecuba his reasons for making his moral act to ransom Hector’s body; he is telling her how it felt to be a child in danger. ‘Imagine, then,’ he says, ‘what is was like to be that child. To actually stand as I did at the centre of it, of what was not a story, not yet, but a real happening, all noise and smoke and panicky confusion. To know nothing of what is to come and simply be there – one of a horde of wailing infants, some no more than three or four years old who have been driven like geese out of the blazing citadel, along with rats, mice and a dozen other small, terrified creatures, all squealing underfoot.’ The precision of the detail is important in evoking sympathy, as is the use of italics. But it’s more than that. Somehow it just gels –the right word in the right place.

It is now agreed that Homer’s story has a basis in fact. As I read about Priam’s expedition to the Greek camp, I was sharply reminded of the landscape of Troy as it is today. The seashore, where the Greeks were camped, is further away now than it was then; his journey would have been considerably longer. The archaeological site that contains the ruins of Troy sit in the middle of open country, with a scattering of olive trees; it is easy to understand how Troy simple disappeared from history until its rediscovery in 1871 by Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist/adventurer who essentially looted the site, carrying off what may or may not have been Priam’s treasure. The entrance to the site sports a giant wooden horse – a part of the history of the Trojan Wars that comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, not Homer’s Iliad.

You can read more about David Malouf here. And here’s an interesting interview with him about the book, from which the above quotations are taken. I’ve also reviewed another book which has Achilles and Patroclus at its centre: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

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I recently saw the final episode of Tony Robinson’s World War I, which covers the last year of the war and the Allied victory, and it reminded me how accurate a picture John Buchan gives of the final German offensive in his 1919 book Mr Standfast. The title even echoes the argument of one of the historians on Robinson’s program: that the British fought best with their backs to the wall – ie, standing fast. I’m sure there are other books – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind – which give a much more realistic account of the experience of the war. Buchan’s book is one of his series of ‘shockers’ featuring Richard Hannay; he defines these as ‘the romance [– read adventure -] where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. They were designed to divert, not educate. They are books I read when I was young and I have a real soft spot for them – Empire loyalty and all. But my point is that Buchan had an accurate view of what happened, and used it cleverly in his story.

Buchan had good reason to know what was going on at the front. A lawyer by training, he worked as a war correspondent, as director of intelligence in the Ministry of Information with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and later as a director of Reuters news service. Greenmantle, the other of the Hannay books directly concerned with the war (reviewed here) also has some interesting observations about aspects of the conflict. These include the Young Turks movement and the Islamic revival in Turkey in the early years of the war. Hannay, working undercover in Germany, is actually involved with shipping arms to the Turks to fight the Allies at Gallipoli. And the Russian assault on the Turkish city of Erzurum is real – one of the few Tsarist victories of the war. Here, only the end of the story involves the factual trajectory of the war, when the Germans made their last desperate thrust to get around the Allied positions in northern France.

In this book, Hannay is again recalled from active duty and sent to work undercover, this time in a pacifist enclave at Biggleswick in rural England, the premise being that one of the German spies from The Thirty-Nine Steps is living and working there. Buchan is not hostile to the pacifists, though he clearly prefers those who serve; he makes a hero of a conscientious objector who becomes an unarmed messenger at the front. The code Hannay uses is based on The Pilgrim’s Progress; Mr Standfast is a character in that book. In this one, Peter Pienaar, who has joined the RAF, is his counterpart. The American Blenkiron is also in the story, and there is a new character, Mary Lamington, who Hannay falls in love with. Hannay is soon on the trail of the spy’s network, and chasing him through Switzerland and Italy. As with any quest, there are setbacks as well as victories. The reader always knows what will ultimately happen – it’s that sort of book – but Buchan is more than anything else a great story teller, and keeps the reader thoroughly intrigued along the way.

Mr Standfast is nevertheless my least favourite of the four Hannay stories, (not counting the much later Island of Sheep (1936), or the two other books in which he makes a minor appearance). Too much of it isn’t ‘just inside the borders of the possible’; it’s firmly outside. There’s too much coincidence. The villain gets to gloat over Hannay and of course tell him of his nefarious plans – a plot device I never like. Buchan is notoriously bad at female characters; Mary is far too good to be true. The section dealing with the war comes at the end, and isn’t fully integrated into the rest of the story; it fulfils a purpose more related to what happens in The Pilgrim’s Progress than what happens in the spy story. You have to suspend disbelief, but if you can do so, despite my reservations it’s a good read.

While I found the section on the war at the end to be a clever use of imaginary events that could have happened , Buchan perhaps didn’t take the war story far enough. What he emphasises is the importance of aircraft reconnaissance to the battle to stop the Germans breaking through at Amiens. He doesn’t present it as the turning point it was in the nature of the war, from the horrific slaughter of the static trench stalemate that had prevailed for so long, to a much more fluid and coordinated push by air and ground forces supported by the relatively new weapon, the tank (first used September 1916). I was pleased to see Tony Robinson giving credit to the Australian General, John Monash, for the so called ’Dark Day of the War’ for Germany, the battle which the incident Buchan describes is part of. A civil engineer, not a career soldier, Monash saw the potential of tanks and planes more readily than some of his professional army colleagues. If only this had happened earlier in the war … I might need to read Roland Perry’s biography of him – Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War (2007).

There’s a lot about John Buchan on the internet; you can read a brief outline of his life and work here. Aside from being Governor General of Canada, Buchan is probably best remembered for his shockers, though he would have preferred to be remembered as an historian. You could look out for his own History of the Great War (1922).

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I first came across Bryan Appleyard in 2009 when I read his article in the Sunday Times repudiating his previous scepticism about global warming. He is a columnist who often questions the dogmatism of science, so this was a significant conversion. What brought about the change? ‘I exposed myself to any journalist’s worst nightmare — very thoughtful, intelligent people.’ He’s written several non-fiction books, mostly about some aspect of science, and this is his second novel. It is only indirectly about science.

Bedford Park (2013) begins in 1912 with Calhoun Kidd on his way back to America after spending more than twenty years in England. It then jumps back to his original decision to quit America, his arrival in London and his reluctance to leave it – a kind The Europeans in reverse. I say this because while the book is clearly a satire on the English literary establishment of the day, I’m not always sure just who or what is being poked fun at. Henry James gets a mention, but doesn’t appear in person. Cal is the very opposite of the stereotypical American – he is languid and indecisive. Soon after he arrives, he finds the murdered body of an acquaintance, but is he too ineffectual to do anything about it?

Bedford Park is a real place, developed on the (then) western edge of London in the 1880s. It was seen as a place for residents to escape from the dirty and crowded inner city, the first of the ‘garden suburbs’. And a number of members of the cultural elite lived there or frequently visited it, including the Yeats family and their poetical son Willie, G.K Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. The Russian anarchists Stepniak and Peter Kropotkin frequented it as well. In the book, Cal meets all of these real people, and others; indeed, an important factor in his decision to stay in England is an encounter with Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse, and reputedly the most beautiful woman in Europe. He also becomes friends with the editors of two rival periodicals, W.T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, and Frank Harris of the Fortnightly Review. Some readers may enjoy this; others may find it all too clever by half. I probably missed heaps of sly references.

In an article about the actual Bedford Park, Appleyard seems quite sympathetic to the place, but in the book he emphasises its ‘artistic and political pretensions’. These range from a sort of folksy ‘merry England’ through spiritualism, with Blavatsky and Bessant, to a vague sense of the inevitability of scientific progress. ‘It is a place of art and genius … These suburbs are the way of the future,’ says Cal. ‘It is here that history is being nursed into being,’ says Ford Madox Ford. None of the real characters is treated seriously. Where does the science come in? W.T. Stead claims that spiritualism has a scientific basis, which is clearly nonsense, yet Cheiro, the Irish palm reader (a real person) gives an extraordinarily accurate reading of Cal’s character. This is contrasted with the view of one of the made up characters who has an equally unscientific view of the powers of electricity – but he knows that he doesn’t really understand it, and has real insights into the pretentions of Bedford Park. This exemplifies one of the things that puzzles me about satire: what is being mocked, and what is not? Is there any solid ground for the reader, or is nothing to be taken at face value? I think here it’s the latter, which leaves me flailing round trying to get a grip on what Appleyard is really saying. Though maybe he’s not really saying anything, except that the search for certainly is futile.

Despite the interest of real characters and real places, I have another problem with the book: the plot is thin to the point of being non-existent. It’s hard to write a compelling narrative about a weak man who is ‘blown from side to side like a falling leaf’. Throughout the story the insubstantial Cal is contrasted with Frank Harris, who is blunt and forceful, but his actions are too chaotic to give structure to the story. Instead, we have several set pieces, which are versions of things that did happen, but seem there for effect rather than narrative drive. These include a séance with Madam Blavatsky, a Festival of Healing, and visits to the Bioscope to see moving film and the Olympics at White City in 1908, all historically interesting, but not satisfying as a plot.

There is a twist in the book which I suppose could be called playful, and which isn’t apparent (or wasn’t apparent to me) until you read the appendix at the end. Don’t cheat and read it first – though one review I saw stated it as a known part of the story. It turns on a detail that some people might know, and others might guess, but I think finding it out at the end gives strength and even structure to the story that is otherwise lacking these qualities. Intrigued? Yes, but don’t go overboard trying to find a copy of the book. I think I’d stick to Appleyard’s journalism.

Appleyard doesn’t seem to have a webpage. His books are listed here. And all his articles are available here. He has been three times Feature Writer of the Year and is currently Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards; try this interview with Philip Pullman to see why.

PS There’s a Bedford Park here in Adelaide, but it is definitely not a garden suburb. There is a university in it, though, so perhaps it could be said to have intellectual pretentions.

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End of the Night Girl was published in 2011, as part of the prize attached to an Adelaide Festival Award for a Best Unpublished Manuscript. Apparently it had been turned down by a number of other publishers before this. I find this hard to understand; I think it is a very good book.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how well written it is. I just wanted to keep reading. It made me wonder yet again what makes some writing seem so entirely appropriate to the story it is telling. Is it the right word in the right place? Do the images the writer uses evoke the feeling or the place in a particularly striking way? Or is it because of the story itself touches something specific to the reader’s experience or imagination? Whatever it is – a combination of these perhaps? – I would have thought the book worth publishing just for the power of the writing. Some readers might not like some of the language – I don’t much like the C word myself – but Matthews has a great ear for dialogue, and for language appropriate to character. She captures how people do think and feel.

So what of the plot? Molly is a waitress in an Adelaide restaurant. She has dropped out of university, had a number of boyfriends, drinks too much after work, and is drifting, directionless. Much of the story is made up of small incidents to do with her work and her family, and finally her decision to take on a bit more responsibility. Molly has a sharp tongue and is given to feckless behaviour, but is an interesting and engaging character. Yet if the book consisted only of the daily round of her life – however sensitively portrayed – it might leave the reader saying so what? Is that all there is to it?

But Molly is haunted by the Holocaust. And she writes down bits of a story about a young woman, a Polish Jew, that come, seemingly unbidden, into her head. ‘I’ve been writing this stuff for a couple of years,’ she says, ‘just little scribbles on spare bits of paper.’ The fragments that she has written, set perhaps unnecessarily in a different font, are interspersed throughout the book. They are not in strict chronological order, but start in the 1930s. They tell – or at least indicate – the story of Gienia a village girl, from the death of her father to an arranged marriage in Warsaw then all too soon to the Nazi death camps. The back cover of the book talks of ‘a murdered Polish Jew’, and Molly does write of Gienia’s death. I thought at first that there was sufficient ambiguity in Molly’s account to suggest that she has allowed Gienia to survive. But I guess that whoever wrote the notes for the back cover knows better than I do. Matthews has certainly shown Gienia suffering deeply, and perhaps more unexpectedly, shown her battling for survival against other Jews in the camps.

There is a constant tension between the stories of Molly’s and Gienia’s lives. On one level, they are totally different. Molly’s urban hedonism contrasts with Gienia’s peasant upbringing. When Gienia is starving, Molly is throwing away uneaten food. Gienia tries to hold onto her family, Molly pushes hers away. Gienia has a fierce determination to live while Molly just drifts. But while Gienia’s story has its own outcome already to a large degree predetermined by our – and Molly’s – knowledge of the Holocaust, it also reflects Molly’s own circumstances. Through what she writes about Gienia’s life, Molly is examining her own. ‘I don’t know why I find this life so hard, when it should be so easy,’ she thinks. ‘Standing before the cliff-face of the Holocaust the wild fear I feel sometimes makes perfect sense.’ ‘I build horrors, to make mine trivial, and send her into hell.’ And ‘There is no equivalence, a little voice hisses, but not wanting to listen, I let my thundering heartbeat drown it out.’

So is there an equivalence, and if not, what point is Matthews making? I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s a case of ‘read it again’, or maybe Matthews isn’t clear enough. What worries me is Gienia’s death. Why show all that suffering, all that determination to survive, only to kill her off? If there isn’t a link, an ‘equivalence’, between the two stories, then Molly’s story is diminished. If there is – and surely this is the case – then what is it in Molly’s story that is equivalent to Gienia’s death? We’ve known of that death from near the beginning of the book (to say nothing of the back cover). Sometimes Molly seems scarcely able to control the story she has created; she fears ‘the flurry of words will bury me alive’. But she has chosen that outcome for Dienia; quite early in the story, she says that Dienia’s death ‘has become a constant in my life, something I can depend on when all else falls away.’ Perhaps the point of equivalence is that by the end, Molly no longer needs her? I feel this would be perverse, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps I’m just being sentimental about wanting her to survive. Or maybe just too literal; there are ‘non-realist’ elements in the book. I’d love to know what other people think.

You can read a little more about Amy Matthews here (strangely she doesn’t seem to have a web page), and here is an interview with her. She worked for a time as a waitress, so really knows what Molly’s life was like. And just out of interest, here’s another opinion of the book which doesn’t differ all that much from mine. But I was interested to see that it cites a critic from a major Australian newspaper who thought that Molly’s and Gienia’s stories could be considered separately. I think that’s missing the point.

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