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Archive for the ‘Literary Fiction’ Category

This book, published in 2016, has an intriguing title. It is a French phrase used to describe twilight, where shapes become indistinct and it is impossible to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog. This makes it an uncertain and potentially dangerous time, and it is such a time that Blain chronicles in the lives of the major characters in this book.

The story, which is set mainly in Sydney, takes place on one day and concerns the interplay of the lives of three members of a family and one ex-member.  There are also flashbacks to some of the events that have brought them to where they are. Hilary, widow of a well-known painter and a film maker in her own right, has two daughters, Ester, a family therapist and April, a singer. The fourth member of the cast is Lawrence, a pollster, Ester’s ex-husband and father of her twin daughters. All of them are on the cusp of change, though not necessarily for the better. Hilary has cancer, though she hasn’t told her daughters. They are estranged from each other for reasons that become clear in the story. Ester might be about to start a new relationship, April to find some direction in her career. Lawrence might well be facing professional disgrace (and is definitely facing the impact of technological change on political polling. I was interested to note that this reflects reality; polling methods did change to robo polling about this time. Small irony: one section of the story turns on Ester not answering the phone because she thinks it might be a robo-poll.) The narrative is taken up by each of the characters in turn, but such is Blain’s skill that the end of one chapter seems to slide into the next, like one scene of a film dissolving into the next, as one critic has perceptively noted. True to its title, the story does not fully resolve any of their dilemmas with complete clarity, though some of the outlines are clear and others becoming more so.

The theme of shifting perceptions – maybe wolf, maybe dog – is strong throughout. The interplay of past and present is a shifting boundary. Of Hilary’s film she thinks ‘Yes, it is about death, but it is also about living – about what we cling to and what we relinquish – about how we remember.’ Ester’s professional consultations which occur throughout the day and give the story structure are also an interplay not just between psychologist and client but also between experience and the memory of it. The characters themselves are in flux. Is Lawrence really, as Ester claims, in love with the power of lying and cheating? ‘That’s what Lawrence does,’ he thinks; ‘he lies, he cheats, and he fucks up.’ But now he has lost all sense of himself: ‘he doesn’t know what wants …or what it was he desired. It’s all shifting, and he is seasick with the motion …’ Can he redeem himself, crossing back where he can be trusted?

Liminality is also inherent in the descriptions of time and place in the story. The day in Sydney is rainy; rain on glass reflects and distorts. Lawrence ‘sees himself reflected in the rain-streaked window and flinches.’ It’s still day, but ‘it’s so bloody dark and miserable outside it might as well be night’ says April. Yet the rain can also make things beautiful: Hilary, looking at the wet plants in her garden, thinks ‘The world is a place of wonder’. At the climax of the book it is twilight. ‘It is that hour’, thinks Hilary ‘Where day turns to night.’ And ‘the daylight slides away’. Metaphors reflecting the duality expressed in the title abound throughout the book.

It might be possible to argue that the problems of the characters are of the kind designated ‘First World’ problems. Blain is aware of this; Ester remembers that Lawrence says that as a therapist she ‘pedalled false hopes to a spoilt middle class. She handed out security blankets to children who should just grow up.’ It is ironic that this sentiment comes from Lawrence, who has clearly never grown up. But the story is about growing up. And the pain that Ester as a therapist and all characters in their lives deal with is real, and the issues of love, regret, aging and death are universal, even if most of the characters are solidly middle class.

When I read this book, I did not know that when it was in the manuscript stage in 2015, Blain was diagnosed with a brain tumour similar to the cancer that Hilary is suffering from in the book. Blain died thirteen months later in December 2016. As Kerryn Goldsworthy notes in her thoughtful review in the Sydney Review of Books, ‘It was difficult to read the book through any lens other than a sympathetic awareness of the situation’s terrible irony, and almost impossible, though most reviewers at the time tried honourably hard, to read the book purely as a work of fiction on its own terms, something separate from the fate of its author.’ I was fortunate to be able to read it unencumbered by this knowledge, and thought long before I included mention of her death in this review. I did so because I think the knowledge of it does add depth to an already complex and subtle story.

You can read more about Georgia Blain here. This was Blain’s eighth novel and second to last book. Her final one was a memoir, The Museum of Words, which was written during her treatment for cancer; it is reviewed here, again in the Sydney Review of Books.

  1. There’s one passage – among others- that struck me as particularly relevant to someone of my age. It is an illustration of Hilary’s concern about what we remember and what we forget. She acknowledges that her grandchildren will miss her ‘for a while’. ‘And then life will go on, and I will be someone they remember occasionally, with fondness, but with no real substance to the recollection. And that’s the way it should be … And then there’s a fainter imprint left behind, a period in which you are remembered. After that you are gone.’ How important it is to have someone say this.

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Published in 2017, this book deservedly won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Quite randomly, a character in the book wins a Pulitzer Prize. ‘It’s not Pew-lit-sir’, he says. ‘It’s Pull-it-sir’. That’s an in joke. Perhaps if you want to be deeply moved or challenged it’s not the book for you. But if you want to forget for a while the awfulness of things, you’ll love it.

Arthur Less is a middle aged, middle brow writer. He lived for a number of years with Robert Brownburn, doyen of the Russian River School of writers in California; he’s the one that wins a Pulitzer. (The Russian River Writers Guild is real; Robert sounds a bit like the ‘beat’ writer Alan Ginsberg.)  Arthur has more recently been living with Freddy, but they have split up, and Freddy is about marry someone else. Though he is of course invited, Arthur cannot bear the thought of being anywhere near the wedding, so he accepts a swag of invitations that will take him overseas – to a teaching post, a conference, a travel article, anything … He plans to spend time in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India and Japan. What could possibly go wrong? The book is the story of his travels, with flashbacks to earlier events; it is also an exploration of getting older, and what it means to love.

Arthur’s surname, Less, is an aptronym, a personal name aptly or peculiarly suited to its owner; think of Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind. Less is – or at least he feels he is – less of a writer, less of a person, less loveable than other people. He is, he says, ‘Nobody’.  When his most recently published book is praised in Italy – having been largely ignored in the United States – he thinks it must be because the translator ‘worked his mediocre English into breathtaking Italian’. Believing he must have been mistaken for someone else and is in the wrong car, he ‘readies himself for full mortification’. Asked to read from the book in Germany, he thinks he is being set up for a ‘writerly humiliation planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.’ In France, criticism from another writer leads him to think not just that he is ‘a bad writer … a bad lover, a bad friend, a bad son. Apparently the condition is worse. He is bad at being himself’. In India, he thinks ‘What an ass he is, everywhere he goes.’

The book is suffused with a gentle, wry humour. Often this arises when things go wrong. He’s (naturally) lost his luggage; ‘he is well acquainted with humility. It is one piece of luggage he has not lost’. What he has lost ‘will circle the globe to no purpose, like so many travellers.’ Sometimes it is because of the disjunction between Less’s catastrophizing and what actually happens; when, for example ‘life has pardoned him at the scaffold steps’.  And sometimes it’s just in the writer’s understated observations, as in ‘the restaurant … is very old and water stained in ways that would delight a painter and trouble a contractor’.

Less’s most recent manuscript has been rejected by his publisher, and one of his hopes for the journey is that he can somehow fix it up at a writers’ retreat in India. This doesn’t happen quite as he hoped, but he does get to revise it. His agent says it is ‘Too wistful. Too poignant.’ Arthur realises ‘with a joy bordering on sadism’ that he can ‘deglove every humiliation’ of his character ‘to show it’s risible lining’. And ‘somehow bittersweet longing begins to appear in the novel … It changes, grows kinder … our benevolent god grants his character the brief benediction of joy.’ ‘If only one could do this in real life!’ And this is exactly what Greer does for Less.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator saying: ‘From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad’. And Greer gives him some victories. Another character says to him ‘You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool, you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won.’ Arthur’s response is of course that he doesn’t feel victorious, he feels defeated. But he isn’t, in fact, the terrible, undeserving person he thinks he is. We know he is a good person from the narrator, who seems to have an overview of Less’s life. I didn’t think much about this narrator at the beginning; it was as if it was just Greer writing about Less. But as the story goes on and Greer inserts the narrator more and more, he or she takes a bigger and finally crucial role. I didn’t guess who he or she was until almost the end of the book, though looking back there are clues there for the more astute reader. These post-modern conceits might in less sure hands – pun intended – have been annoying, but here I think they work very well. As the narrator says, it is a love story.

You can read more about the author and his other five books – four novels and a book of short stories – on his website.

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I admire J.K. Rowling. I love the way she uses her fame to support social justice causes and to call out sexism and racism; see for example her tweets lambasting Donald Trump. After a tentative start with the first couple of Harry Potter books, I enjoyed the series. (Everyone loves the Harry Potter books, but I think they improved as they went along.) I am also very much enjoying Rowling’s crime series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith; here’s my review of the first one. But The Casual Vacancy? Not so much.

This book (2012), the first she wrote after the Potter books, belongs in the category of adult social comedy, though like many books so categorised, it is certainly not funny unless you like you humour very black. It is set in Pagford, a small, post-card-perfect town in the West Country. The town is run by an elected Parish Council (a local government term, nothing to do with the church). The Council is also responsible for the maintenance of a rather squalid housing estate, known as The Fields, just outside the town; it is largely inhabited by welfare recipients. The Council is divided between those who believe that the residents of The Fields benefit from their association with Pagford, and those who want to be rid of any responsibility for them. The casual vacancy on the Council arises when one of the elected representatives, Barry Fairbrother, a keen supporter of The Fields, dies suddenly, leading to a bitter campaign between the two factions to fill the vacancy.

There is a large cast of characters; Wikipedia lists twenty main ones, rather too many in my view, making it hard, at least initially, to remember who is who. While the main plot centres on the battle over the vacancy, all the characters have their own stories, for most part concerning relationships between husbands, wives, partners and friends, and parents, their children and their friends. And there is not a really happy person amongst them.

I have no idea what her intentions were, but to me this book reads as if Rowling, having written only children’s books up to this time (albeit wildly successful children’s books), decided to show she could write about people in ways other than the black and white characterisations we find in the Harry Potter stories. With this in mind, she makes sure that almost every character has both good and characteristics, motivations or actions. This of course reflects reality. The problem I have is that she pretty much emphasises the various ways in which the characters are unpleasant to each other, to the point I found it hard to much like anyone in the book. This undermined my enthusiasm for reading on, and after the account of a particularly miserable dinner party about half way through, I started skipping to find out what happened, rather than seeking to understand the situation of all the characters. A member of my book group thought Rowling was perhaps challenging the reader to go beyond initial dislike and look more deeply at the human condition, but if so, I failed the test.

Some characters have no redeeming features at all, like the Chair of the Council, Howard Mollison, and his wife Shirley. Theirs is not a Voldemort take-over-the world-style evil; it is petty malice, snobbery and racism expressed through gossip and inuendo – a distinction I expect Rowling was consciously making. Others, like their daughter-in-law Samantha have some redeeming features, whereas others again, like Kay Bawden, are basically good, though with insecurities and terrible judgement that get in the way of happiness. Of the five teenagers who play a significant role, four – Krystal, Andrew, Sukhvinder and Gaia – are kids trying to find their way in varyingly difficult circumstances. But Stuart, aka Fats, with his possibly realistic but nevertheless nasty lack of empathy, his calculating selfishness and his self-justifying glorification of a warped existentialism, seems to me to have little going for him. Only Barry Fairbrother, dead by page 4, seems to have been a genuinely nice person, and even then his wife resented the time he spent helping other people. (His grief-stricken wife and children seem more or less ok too.)

As you would expect from Rowling’s juxtaposition of Pagford and The Fields, the book touches on a number of social issues including racism, addiction, theft, domestic violence, rape and child neglect. And the writer being who she is, it is not surprising that while residents of Pagford might like to think that these are issues only in The Fields, they are also issues in middle class Pagford, though manifested in somewhat different ways. Class is also an issue; I was a little surprised that Rowling emphasised the class difference between the Pagford and The Fields residents so starkly in the language they use – standard English versus lumpen argot – but maybe this is an accurate representation of reality. And if the poor characters come off worse, then that’s a reflection of reality too. Given the complexity of these issues, and the minefield of personal relationships between the characters, it’s not really surprising that there isn’t a happy ending for any of them; for some there is tragedy, deserved or undeserved, while for others there is the merest vestige of hope.

It’s a long book. I think it might have benefitted from some judicious editing. I preferred some of the Harry Potter films to the books because the films were rather more condensed, and the same may well be true here. Fans of the book – and there are many – can point out that every character has important interactions with other characters, so none could be left out. And I do agree that underneath the verbiage Rowling weaves a very good plot. This is her great strength; she engaged me so that I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen, even if I finished up not reading every word. But books I really like I know I’ll read again, and this won’t be one of them.

You can read more about the book – its characters and plot, and its critical reception – here. You can read more about J.K. Rowling here. The Casual Vacancy was made into a three-part TV series in 2015.

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Published in 2008, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. And deservedly so in my opinion. I recently reviewed the 2014 winner – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and this one is, if not a better book, then without some of the flaws that made Tartt’s book so frustrating at times.

I also recently wrote that I preferred books with a strong narrative thread. It is obviously foolish to generalise in this way, because this book does not have a strong narrative thread, and the structure still works well. It is essentially thirteen interconnected short stories, a form that allows both sustained development of character and setting, and the quick insight of short stories. Olive Kitteridge, her husband Henry and to a lesser extent their son Christopher are the main characters in seven of the stories; Olive’s role in the other six varies from significant to just a mention. The two in which she has only a mention are perhaps the weakest links of the thirteen, lacking the connection the Kitteridge family gives to the whole . With one exception, when Olive goes to New York to visit her son, they all take place in the small town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine; the book presents a slice of small town American life, as well as a portrait of Olive from mother of a young child to a 74 year old widow. No dates are specifically mentioned, but the sequence begins when Christopher is quite young, in perhaps the 1970s, and ends during the presidency of George W Bush. We know this because Olive is concerned about ‘another’ terrorist attack and is horrified to find that someone she is getting know and like voted Republican.

The stories all deal with events of everyday life in families and the community. People go to work, plant tulips, have breakfast at the marina, walk their dog. They are faithful or unfaithful to their partners, good friends or sometimes not. They gossip. They have people over for tea. Underlying these ordinary activities are the themes of public and private grief, loneliness, aging and death – though not all who die are old. In several of the stories there is some sort of betrayal. This makes the book sound depressing, but it isn’t. I think this is because of Strout’s humanity; she shows deep empathy with all her characters and their situations, even the unpleasant ones – and that includes Olive at times. Ultimately Strout seems to be suggesting that people do what they can to cope with life. Olive knows that things aren’t fair: ‘Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right’. But she ‘had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life had increasingly become’. And Olive does ultimately does find some comfort. The prevailing tone is bitter-sweet.

The book begins with Henry, a good and kind man, looking back at the joys and sorrows of his life as the town pharmacist and husband of Olive, who teaches maths at the local junior high school. After this, the Kitteridge family chapters are dominated by Olive’s point of view. She is anything but good and kind; she is often combative and angry, her judgements harsh. She is as one critic says, both fierce and thwarted’ .People are morons, simpletons, snot-wats. As she later acknowledges, she never says sorry. But we also see a different side of her; her humour, her love of people, her acute self-awareness and her a concern for others. In several of the other stories she is a source of comfort.

Strout’s empathy is amplified by the form of her writing. She uses ‘free indirect speech’, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. At her son’s wedding, for example, Olive ‘drops her gaze so as to avoid getting stuck in one more yakkety conversation’. The use of ‘yakkety’ is very much Olive’s word, as is the word ‘ridiculous’ in ‘The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor’, though both are narrative statements. We are seeing the world from in this case Olive’s perspective. This means Strout never takes an authorial overview which can make use of a wry or sardonic perspective to deprecate a character or point of view*. There is no satire in the writing but what the characters impart; mostly there is an honest realism about people’s feelings and relationships, even when they are deluding themselves, or hiding their feelings behind polite nothings. This, coupled with the small town environment, might make it sound like the writing is folksy, but it isn’t. There is the bitter as well as the sweet.

In 2014 a mini-series of four episodes based on the book were shown on American TV to universal acclaim. I hope they didn’t glamourise Olive too much. In the book she is large and not particularly attractive; it is part of what makes her a compelling character. The Wikipedia entry on the min-series describes Olive as ‘misanthropic’ so I guess it doesn’t. Her part is played by Frances McDormand, who won various prizes for her acting and also co-produced the series, so hopefully it was well done. It was shown in Australia (but not free-too-air) in 2015. You can read more about the mini-series here, and about Elizabeth Strout and her work here.

 

*I don’t mean it is a bad thing to have a satirical authorial voice – some of my favourite books and all that – it’s just that the free indirect speech give a different result.

 

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Questions of Travel (2012) won the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2013, and has been highly praised by many reviewers – see for example this long review in the Sydney Review of Books, or this one from Frank Moorhouse in the Guardian. I read it for my book club, and though there are things to like in it, overall I found reading it a chore. Why don’t I respond to it like the judges and reviewers?

I can’t write about this book without disclosing important aspects of the story, so it’s a case of spoiler alert, though the book isn’t plot driven and other reviewers seem to have no qualms in revealing much of what happens. You’d probably call its form picaresque, a term I recall from English 101 many years ago, in the sense that it’s a series of loosely connected episodes. De Krester describes this form of writing as ‘like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there’. The book follows the lives of Laura Fraser and Ravi Mendis over about forty years, in more or less alternating chapters. In the first half, Laura leaves Australia to travel, living in Naples and London; Ravi lives in Shri Lanka. In the second half, Laura returns to Sydney and gets a job with a company that publishes travel guides. Ravi comes to Australia on a tourist visa and seeks asylum after the politically motivated murder of his wife and child in Shri Lanka.  He works for a time at the same company as Laura, though the pair scarcely know each other.  Along the way are many people and places, some social satire – which I don’t find very funny – and some tragedy, which is truly tragic.

The judges and reviewers are right that the book reflects on major aspects of Australian life. The experience of living in Sydney runs throughout the second half of the book for both characters, though of course they experience it in different ways. The harbour, the bridge, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney’s weather are all lovingly evoked. Laura’s life seems dominated by a series of unsatisfactory sexual relationships, which aren’t distinctively Australian, but Ravi’s experience as a refuge in Australia does throw light on important issues. De Krester says she didn’t want to make Ravi, as the refugee, all good, and Australians all racist; his situation is indeed much more nuanced. He does experience racism, both visceral and casual – how can he claim to be a refugee if he wasn’t in detention? – but he also experiences kindness and support. This is a subject well worth exploring.

But more than the book’s specific Australian content, its theme – as you might expect from the title – is travel, away from and towards Australia and Shri Lanka; ‘travel of all kinds: colonial expansion and its postcolonial manifestations, migration, exile, tourism’, as one reviewer notes. The book is dotted with clever little aperçu about tourists and travel: ‘Time after time Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late’. Tourists from the former Easter bloc countries were ‘serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held’. ‘The twentieth century was best represented by an unwilling traveller … people who don’t belong where they end up and long for places where they did.’ ‘There’s no past in tourism. It’s one thing after another.’ ‘Tourists see invisible things.’ When tourism promoters try to give customers an ‘authentic’ experience it is written off as ‘spectacle and show’. And producing travel guides removes all romance. At the end of the book, Ravi returns to Shri Lanka because he doesn’t want to be ‘a tourist in his own country’, even though he has been granted asylum in Australia and faces possible death in Shri Lanka. And Laura travels to Shri Lanka to get away from her life in Sydney; both arrive on the day of the 2004 tsunami and an unknown fate. I guess de Krester wants us to see both sides of travel. Here is how she sums it up:

Travel connects us to the world and brings us closer to other cultures … But it’s possible to spend a very pleasant three weeks in another country and come away with no idea of what life is really like for people who live there. The native lives in history and there is no suspension of knowledge, but as a tourist you do have access to wonder.

Reviewers have commented at some length on de Krester’s prose, which is sometimes unashamedly lyrical, full of what one reviewer calls ‘baroque flourishes’. Her Atlantic Ocean is ‘slow as a slattern that smears its grey rags along the shore’. Australians ‘succumb to chicken parmigiana and to sex’. ‘Surfers with eyes like blue fish.’ Sydney ‘squinted over its brown back at Africa, at India.’ In Melbourne, ‘the balloon-like faces of people dressed in black float down laneways’. I agree that the water imagery – beginning on page 1 with Laura almost being drowned by her brothers and ending in the last with her probably being drowned by a tsunami, give structure to the story it otherwise lacks. This is fine if you like this sort of thing – which can only be appreciated in retrospect- but for me there are just too many words. In other places her tone is satirical, but I seem to detect a note of superiority in the unkind humour. The thought she gives to Laura about Australian literature – that ‘She approached Sydney gingerly in fiction. Was it really up to literature, even the Australian kind? … What if the performance came over as provincial and amateurish, or blustering and self-important?’ – is simply smart-ass. And having Laura vote informal at an election without apparent interest in or knowledge of politics? Too cool for school.

It’s always difficult when I fail to enjoy a book that judges and reviewers have found extremely rewarding. Am I failing to appreciate fine writing? Making facile judgements? Or is it a matter of taste? I think I found the book difficult to read for two reasons. First, I don’t really like the picaresque form. I prefer a clear narrative thread. I can’t keep track of all the characters; on the odd occasion that someone turns up from the past, I’m scrabbling to remember who they are. Characters fall out of the story. The incidents, more particularly in Laura’s case, don’t add up to anything, and are fundamentally unmemorable. Perhaps life is like that. But it doesn’t make for pleasurable reading.

The second reason is that I can’t engage with either of the main characters. I know you don’t have to like characters to find them compelling. And as I noted above, de Krester wants her characters to be realistically flawed. But above all they do have to be interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, Laura isn’t. Despite the occasional flashes of self-knowledge she is allowed, she is self-centred and entitled, her travel is drift, her relationships are superficial, her lack of desire to do anything with her life is pathetic. No doubt there are people like this, but I don’t want to read about them. Up to the point where he loses his wife and child I felt much the same about Ravi. The numbness with which he is inflicted afterwards is no doubt realistic; it presumably explains his often perverse behaviour, though his thought processes remain obscure to me. By the end, I didn’t much care what happened to him, though in his case, I’m probably more frustrated than bored with him.

But probably the overall reason I didn’t like the book was that it didn’t offer me any hope. De Krester seems happier mocking than affirming. There were people that she presented as good and kind, but they were outweighed by those she chose to present as selfish and shallow. The message the main characters portrayed was one of misery and emptiness. Her vision may be true to what I read in the daily press, but I look for something a bit more inspiring in literature.

You can read the very little there is on Wikipedia about Michelle de Krester here. Most of the quotes from her above come from this interview. I note that she has a new book, The Life to Come being released this October. I read that it eschews ‘conventional narrative structure’ and is ‘beautifully elliptic’, so it’s probably not for me, even though it is reported to be ‘ultimately hopeful’.

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Where do I begin? The Goldfinch, which runs to around 770 pages, was published in 2013 and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.The judges called it ‘a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart’. Sometimes I just wanted to put it down and leave it, other times I could have gone on reading it all night.

The story is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up. Theo Decker is thirteen when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He survives, but his life changes dramatically; almost all subsequent events flow from here. In the aftermath of the explosion a dying old man presses on him a painting that has been blown from its frame; it is The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Theo takes it with him as he escapes the crumbling building. He also carries a mental image of Pippa, the girl who was with the old man; she becomes his unattainable ‘missing kingdom’. (The book is sometimes described as ‘Dickensian’, and I thought often of Estelle in Great Expectations, though of course she is unattainable for different reasons.) He lives briefly with family friends, but his father, who had deserted him and his mother, takes him to live in Las Vegas. He returns to New York and eventually becomes an antiques dealer. He carries with him a sense of irreparable loss and of self-blame. I can’t tell you any more without giving away the plot.

Some of the fifteen or so years the story covers are dealt with in great detail; others are left almost blank. Reading the book I found this a bit frustrating. Why, for example, did we have to hear in such detail about Theo’s drunken and drug fuelled-life with his friend Boris in Las Vegas? But by the end, I could see by the balance of the story why Tartt had chosen to write at such length about it. There are other set pieces that are quite long, but all serve a purpose. Maybe Tartt could just overall write with more economy; there is an awful lot of detail – some might say padding – in the book, though maybe this is just a question of taste. But best of all in terms of the plot, there was for me a real ‘wow I didn’t see that coming’ moment, a moment that both pulls together and undercuts the action. There are not many books that have done this so powerfully for me; Tartt is a great story teller.

But much as I ultimately came to see the strength of the plot, it is Theo’s thoughts and actions that dominate the book. Although he was already testing the limits – he and his mother had only dropped in at the museum on their way to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school – the death of his mother and his own narrow escape dictate his future choices. He has survivor guilt – ‘the why did I and if only that had wrecked my … life’. His wild behaviour arises from his narrow escape from the exposion; sometimes he is manic, ‘with a self-propelling recklessness … that I associated with having narrowly missed death’. But at other times he feels he has ‘suffered a chemical change of the spirit … [that] leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair’. His possession of the painting sometimes makes him feel ‘tainted and worthless and wrong’, but at other makes him feel special and different, not bound by the same rules as other people. ‘How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret …?’ he muses. ‘Yet I had.’ I guess this is a thoughtful even brilliant picture of a boy placed in just such a situation. But at the same time I found some of his terrible choices over- the- top stupid; it was then the bond between reader and character weakened and I stopped wanting to read on. But there’s a good chance that this reflects more about the reader than the book.

And then there are the big ideas in the novel, about the enduring qualities of great art, the search for meaning in life and death, fate and choice. If Tartt comes to any conclusions about these, I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps a second reading would make them clearer.

Unsurprisingly for a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, it has received many rave reviews. I find it interesting, though, that a few of the most highbrow literary critics have pushed strongly back against this tide of approval. Here are some quotes taken from an article in Vanity Fair discussing the literary controversy. From James Wood, in the New Yorker: ‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature’; he considers it  ‘a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness’. In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, ‘for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language … and [it contained] passages that were bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase’. Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, writes that ‘A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them … It coats everything in a cozy patina of “literary gentility.” ’

This kind of criticism is hard to deal with because it makes you feel that if you like the book, your judgement is immature. Well perhaps mine is. I can agree with a few of these criticisms, but not most of them. I didn’t find the plotting far-fetched; I thought the connections Tartt establishes were a major strength of the book. I did find Theo’s behaviour over the top at times, but am not convinced that someone in his position would not in fact act as he does. As for clichés in the language, the book is written from a young person’s perspective, and this is how they think and speak. I do agree that the language is over-lush in places. I don’t really understand Theo’s justification at the end of the story, and find it – in so far as I do understand it – remarkably self-regarding. But I’m not sure what the highbrow critics want, if not this. It seems to be an argument about what constitutes not only good writing, but serious literature, a question that can often only be answered by the passage of time. For me, it’s probably a question of whether I want to re-read the book, and in this case, despite my reservations, I certainly do.

Donna Tartt is a very private person and there is little about her on the internet. Here, however, is a quite revealing interview she gave to the Sydney Morning Herald after the publication of The Goldfinch.

 

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After reading some of Mitchell’s recent books, I’ve gone back to the beginning to read his first one, published in 1999. It’s probably just as well I enjoyed some of the later one before trying Ghostwritten, because without some understanding of his work, I doubt if I’d have got beyond it. I would probably have admired his prose, but given up entirely on the content.

Like Cloud Atlas (2004), which I reviewed here, and The Bone Clocks (2014) – hereGhostwritten is a novel in a number of parts – nine in this case. Each part has a different narrator, a different location and a completely different feel to it. The first and the brief coda at the end have the same narrator, Quasar, who is a member of a millenarian doomsday cult responsible for a gas attack on the Tokyo subway, based on a real terrorist incident. The second is about Satoru, a young Japanese jazz lover working in a record shop in Tokyo. The third is a monologue narrated by financial lawyer Neal Brose, who is part of a money laundering scheme in Hong Kong. The fourth is told by an old Chinese woman who runs a tea house on Mt Emei, the Sacred Mountain, and who has lived through and suffered under the warlords, the Nationalists and the Communists. But heaven forbid that Mitchell be considered a realist writer; the fifth section is told by a disembodied spirit, a ‘noncorpum’ which survives by inhabiting living hosts. This section takes place mainly in Mongolia, where the spirit is trying to trace its origins. The sixth section is set in St Petersburg, where Margarita Latunsky is a museum attendant in the Hermitage Museum; she is also working for a gang of art thieves. The seventh section features Marco, a part-time drummer and part-time ghostwriter in London. In the eighth section, Mo Muntervary is a physicist studying quantum cognition; she returns to her birthplace in Ireland in an attempt to evade American officials who want to use her work to create intelligent weapons. The ninth section is the text of segments of a talk-back radio program in New York, where the announcer is contacted by an entity, Zookeeper, that seems to the reader, though not to the host, to be a disembodied artificial intelligence. The brief coda returns to the Tokyo underground.

As one might expect from having read other of Mitchell’s books, these sections have some links, with characters from one having walk-on roles in another. Thus Neal Bose sees Satoru and his girlfriend in Hong Kong, his maid is the granddaughter of the Chinese tea house keeper, a backpacker staying at the tea house goes to Mongolia as the unknowing host of the noncorpum, Marco shoves Mo Muntervary out of the way of a taxi, the man whose life story he is ghostwriting knows one of the art thieves in Moscow and so on. A few of the characters appear in some of his later books.

These ‘coincidences’ highlight one of the major themes of the book – the importance of chance. Quasar has been given a code phrase and number to ring after completing his mission but the cult has betrayed him and the number connects to a random phone – that of Satoru’s record shop. But in going back after closing up to answer the phone and hear the, to him, meaningless message, Satoru meets the girl he is already attracted to and they begin a relationship. Marco’s section deals overtly with chance. His band is called the Music of Chance. He speculates on a possible pregnancy arising from a tear in a condom he has used: ’Weird. If I’d bought the pack behind on the shelf …’ Then there is his own identity. ‘Why am I me?’ he muses. ‘Chance, that’s why. Because of the cocktail of genetics and upbringing fixed for me by the blind barman Chance.’ And he visits a casino, just to rub in the point. Mo Muntervary’s quantum cognition also raised the issue of chance: ‘Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty’, she thinks.

But are these encounters and actions coincidences? There is also a counter theme; that of design. Some actions are controlled by a non-human intelligence, either the noncorpum – as when the backpacker decides to go to Mongolia – or by artificial intelligence in the radio talk back section. It seems that Mo Muntervary – from the previous section – has designed this artificial intelligence to conform to four ‘laws’. But there are circumstances in which it is impossible to comply with all of them at once. So has design failed too? I found the radio talk back section deeply confusing. A check of comments about the book on the internet confused me even more; see for example this one, which tries to trace the supernatural connections through all the sections.

So what is Mitchell trying to do? His deliberate refusal of coherent narrative, and the themes of chance and design, suggest he wants the reader to approach perceived reality with scepticism. And maybe this is where the title comes in. Marco, the ghostwriter, is talking to the man whose ‘autobiography’ he is writing; the man says ‘the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.’ Marco replies ‘it doesn’t seem very honest. I’m not writing what really happened.’ ‘We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us’. ‘So where does that leave us?’ Marco asks. ‘How well does the thing read?’ is the answer he receives. Hmm. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Nothing that I’ve said takes away from the undoubted power of Mitchell’s writing, though I think it is even better in some of his later books. But I might not have gone on to read these, based on this one. This is because I found it pretty depressing. The hopeful sections seem well and truly cancelled out by the hopeless ones. Mitchell sees a dystopian future, and, it seems to me, no chance of avoiding it. But given how opaque it all is, I might be quite wrong. Do tell me what you think.

David Mitchell doesn’t seem to have a web page. But here’s a review of the book – not that it helps all that much.

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The Seven Sisters (2002) is the fifteenth of Margaret Drabble’s nineteen novels. I’ve only read one other of her books, The Red Queen (2004), which I quite enjoyed (here is my somewhat underwhelmed review) so I can’t say how far The Seven Sisters compares to her other work. But she is clearly a major and revered figure in the English literary landscape, so maybe she’s allowed a few minor efforts like this one.

Candida Walton has found herself in late middle age divorced and alone. She has moved from Suffolk to London and bought a flat in Ladbroke Grove in north-west London; she describes the area as run down (though it must have had a renaissance since 2002). She determines to write a diary, and this makes up the first, and the much longest section of the book. In it she chronicles the small events of her life such as her visits to a health club, shopping, her prison visiting, her dental appointment or entertaining a friend. There is information about her previous life and her hopes and fears about the situation she finds herself in. The second section, which is told in the third person, describes a visit to North Africa and Italy she makes with some friends and a tour guide – the Seven Sisters of the title. Several of the friends are from an evening class she attended on Virgil’s Aeneid; this fires her enthusiasm to trace Aeneas’s legendary route from Carthage to Naples. The third section is from the point of view of Candida’s daughter Ellen, and the final section is told by Candida back in London.

When I first started reading, I was very attracted to Candida’s self-awareness – and her tendency to play too much solitaire, a weakness I suffer from myself. The reflections of a middle aged and middle class woman are bound to be of interest to a similar (if somewhat older) sort of reader. At times it seems that Drabble must have had direct access to my thoughts and feelings. ’Self-pity is a seductive emotion … It deludes as well as seduces.’ Well yes. And if at the beginning of a novel you find the words ‘Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again’, you experience the wry enjoyment of recognising an unreliable narrator, because of course something is going to happen – there’s a whole book ahead. A reader might expect it to be about Candida reinventing herself, and this is the main theme. However as a character she is undoubtedly passive; unfortunately it makes her rather boring. She doesn’t have the gumption to go out and get a job; the thing that shakes her out of her passivity is an unexpected financial windfall. By the end of the diary section I was beginning to wonder if I really liked Candida, or whether in her own words, she is ‘mean, self-righteous, self-pitying’. As one critic says, ‘Drabble has managed to capture this sensation of insignificant life, but without forging it into significant fiction.’

The story is actually a bit frustrating too. I don’t really mind that nothing much happens; it’s more that there are so many lose ends, events that seem about to lead somewhere but end up petering out. This may be true to life, but it’s hard to turn it into ‘significant fiction’. One example is the audio tapes that Candida is given, but can only hear noise on, when the friend that gave them to her obviously thought they would be meaningful. And what is the mystery surrounding what Anaïs is purchasing? Other linkages seem artificial, like the man Candida visits in gaol for murdering a woman by drowning her; he is presumably only in the story to contribute in some vague way to the theme of water and drowning that runs through it. (Though if we are following the Aeneid, Dido self-immolated, she didn’t drown.) I’m don’t know the classical references well enough to really comment, but it’s not clear to me that they add much to the story.

It’s true that the story line isn’t completely linear, and that there is a bit of postmodern fictional playfulness, though I’m not going to spoil the twist by saying what it is (more than I’ve already done). Drabble is playing with the idea of ‘voice’ – in more ways than one. She is probing the limits of the fictional voice when she attributes to Candida doubt about her ability to render the speech of others: ‘yet again’, Candida says, ‘I seem, relentlessly, inescapably, to have given the other person my own syntax and vocabulary’, and ‘I probably shouldn’t attempt dialogue’. Yet this is precisely what Drabble the author does all the time. The narrative twist is quite clever, but for me it fell a bit flat. Maybe I was already disengaged by the time I got to it.

Friends have pointed out to me the psychological depth of the story; Candida must be reborn to transform herself, and get outside herself to do this. Their insights did add gravitas to the book, though I could ask if we all need to be psychologists to appreciate it? But I guess getting different perspectives is the whole point of having a discussion.

I have one other quite unfair but inescapable reaction to the story. Published in 2002, it is of course set well before the Arab Spring made travel such as Candida and her friends undertake difficult and dangerous. Tunis, the site of Carthage (more or less) has escaped most of the worst of the violence, though a lone gunman killed a number of tourists at a nearby resort in 2015. And the passage across the Mediterranean is now a life and death affair for thousands of refugees, with Naples an uncertain refuge. I know this has nothing to do with Drabble’s book, but I can’t help but see today’s reality in contrast to the well-meaning, well-to-do English tourists of the story.

Margaret Drabble doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read a bit about her here or here. And you can read her version of her famous feud with her sister A.S. Byatt here.

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Run was published in 2007, following the success of Bel Canto (2001), which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and which I reviewed with some reservations here. I have a few reservations about this book too, but overall found it enjoyable and quite moving.

The action is decidedly domestic. It takes place over twenty-four hours, with background about the characters and their lives filled in along the way, and a sort of epilogue at the end. As one character reflects, ‘he didn’t think the entire story could possibly take more than ten minutes start to finish’. The book begins with background: the story of a statue of the Virgin Mary that has been in the Doyle family for several generations. It then moves to the present day Doyle family. Bernard Doyle and his wife Bernadette had one child, Sullivan, and then adopted two black baby brothers, Tip and Teddy. They were still very young when Bernadette died of cancer, leaving Doyle to bring up the boys. He is a successful lawyer and sometime Mayor of Boston, and hopes that either or both of his two younger sons will take up the political career he never achieved. Sullivan, who is older, has not lived at home for some time and has most recently been working in Africa. Neither of the younger boys is much interested in politics; they feel they have heard it all before. Tip wants to be an ichthyologist and Teddy seems drawn to the Church through his closeness to his uncle, who is a retired priest. One snowy night outside a political lecture, Tip argues with his father, and not looking where he is going, only avoids being hit by a car because a woman, Tennessee Moser, pushes him out of the way, though she herself is seriously injured. Her young daughter Kenya is distraught, but she knows why her mother wanted to save Tip from harm. The rest of the book draws out the connections between the characters, including Sullivan who has unexpectedly returned, and reaches a resolution which establishes new patterns between them.

Family relationships are at the heart of the story; these are teased out through both actions and dialogue. ‘Tip knew how to put words to things while Teddy knew how to follow what was in his heart’. Sullivan can be charming, but so far has been essentially selfish. Doyle is the reasonable parent who is nevertheless unreasonable. Kenya is loyal and honest – a bit unrealistically so. It is from her ability – and desire – to run that the book takes its title, and there is a great description of how she is truly herself while running. The title might also be taken to imply that everyone is running – either to or from something. Sullivan certainly is.

The structure of the story works quite well except for what I think is an extremely clunky way of introducing the backstory of Kenya’s mother, Tennessee. But it reveals information that is known only to the reader; the characters form their relationships without knowledge of it. I think this is a strength of the story because it reinforces the theme that families form in many ways. However I am less sure about the role of the uncle, Father Sullivan, who has attracted an unwanted and, he thinks, unwarranted fame as a faith healer. A series of incidents related to touch suggest Patchett is close to endorsing faith healing. Even if it is allowable in fiction, I don’t think faith healing is necessary to the structure of the story. Father Sullivan is necessary to the book because of Teddy’s attachment to him, but I don’t think he adds much else. Patchett has been praised for her warmth at a time when more cynical writing is the norm. The danger is that warmth can spill over into sentimentality, and I think this is a trap she has fallen into here. If she actually believes in faith healing, does that make it any the less sentimental?

As well as the theme of family, there is reference to both race and class. As black sons of a white father, Tip and Teddy are unusual in their social circle, but they scarcely notice it because they are from a socially and economically privileged elite. Patchett makes us aware of this through Kenya’s eyes; the daughter of a poor, black single mother, she can scarcely believe the comfort in which the Doyles live. Waking in a bright bedroom in the Doyles’ house, ‘she wondered if there wasn’t a way that light was divided and somehow … more of it wound up in better neighbourhoods’. Tennessee has no medical insurance, but Doyle, a Democrat, isn’t interested. ‘The uninsured poor are such a compelling political issue until you actually meet one,’ Sullivan taunts him. Despite this dig, Patchett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for President, makes it clear that Doyle’s insistence that his sons take an interest in politics arises from a hope that they might improve the lives of others, rather than just living out his unfulfilled dream. But though she points out the Doyles’ privilege, Patchett doesn’t really criticise it; indeed there is a Cinderella-like quality to the final resolution. Sums up the Democrats, maybe.

You can read more about Ann Patchett here. Her most recent book, Commonwealth (2016), has been widely praised – see here, for example.

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‘If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented?’ This is one critic’s assessment, and I can only agree with it. David Mitchell is one of the best prose writers I have ever read. He’s pitch perfect whatever voice he is using. I wondered in my earlier review of his Cloud Atlas (2004) whether he was anything more than a very clever mimic. But reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – reviewed here – convinced me that he actually has that rare ability to make all the voices the novelist uses sound utterly authentic.  This capacity is again on show in The Bone Clocks (2014). And while I thought the convoluted structure of Cloud Atlas might be a bit over-clever, I accept that the episodic structure of Bone Clocks works perfectly. I really am a convert!

But aside from how he writes, I still have some hesitation about some of what he writes about. The book consists of six sections – almost short stories – set over a period beginning in 1984 and ending in 2043. The first and the last concern Holly Sykes; the other four have different narrators, though Holly is in all of them, and several other characters recur. And although each is completely different in time, tone and content, there is another aspect linking them all which I’ll come to in a moment; it is this aspect I’m not entirely comfortable with.

In 1984, Holly is a teenager completely smitten with slightly older man. She fights with her mother over it and runs away to live with him, only to find his declarations of love are false; she keeps on running – or rather walking. Over the next couple of days she has some strange experiences but returns home after hearing that her younger brother is missing. In 1991, Hugo Lamb, a postgraduate student at Oxford, is clever and charming. But it soon becomes clear that he is an also accomplished con man. On a visit to Switzerland for the skiing he meets Holly Sykes. Can she redeem him? In 2004, Ed Brubeck is a foreign correspondent just back from Iraq to attend the wedding of Holly’s sister; he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter, Aoife. He denies being a war junkie, but he can’t get what he’s seen in Iraq out of his head. The next section covers the years 2015-19 in the life of an aging novelist named Crispin Hershey. He at first despises Holly, who has written an unusual and popular book, but comes to love her. In 2025 Iris Fenby is a psychiatrist, but I can’t summarise this section without giving away much else in the book. And then in 2043, Holly is an old woman living in the west of Ireland with her granddaughter and a Moroccan refugee she has adopted. It is the time of the Endarkenment. The economy, electronic communications and transport are breaking down. Her small community is threatened by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, and civil order is collapsing. She and the children live precariously on what she can grow or barter. This is the section of the book that stays most in my mind, though it could be seen as a coda to the action. Its power derives from the sense that this is what the future will be if we continue to destroy the environment and fail to take steps to curb the growing inequality of wealth across the world. But there is fine writing in all of the sections, mixing grim reality with psychological insight and even a bit of humour.

But there is something else altogether going on in this book. In each section, but particularly in the fifth one, there is a perpetual war being waged between tiny groups of Atemporals, the Horologists, and Anchorites, the former being entities that can enter people’s minds, and who enjoy a form of immortality through transference to new bodies, the latter being humans that are able to defer death, though only through taking another human’s life. (I’ve oversimplified that a bit, but then these entities are oversimplified into good v evil.) In addition, a few people have the gift of precognition. Humans, being mortal, are ‘bone clocks.’

At times Mitchell appears to make fun of both himself and the idea of magic powers. Hugo Lamb for example says that ‘the paranormal is always, always a hoax.’ ‘The mind-walking theory’ is only plausible ‘if you live in a fantasy novel’ – which of course he does. A critic in the story says of Crispin Hershey’s novel that ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s state of the wold pretentions, I cannot bear to look.’ And critics have said much the same about this book. But other less compromised characters defend the idea. Holly says ‘Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.’ And another character says that some magic is ‘normality you’re not yet used to’. So I guess Mitchell at least wants readers to take the paranormal elements of the book seriously. And this is a problem for me, not so much in accepting what I perceive as fantasy – there are many great fantasy stories, not least two of my all-time favourites Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials – but because of the mixture of fantasy and reality. As one critic put it, ‘The fantastical elements can … appear overblown and absurd when placed against some of the beautifully realised human moments.’

There is a lot more complexity to this book than I have covered here, and I haven’t even begun to comment on the way that some characters, and major themes like the precariousness of civilisation, appear in most if not all of Mitchell’s books; all Mitchell’s novels form a unified, if extraordinarily complex, whole, an ‘uber novel’. You can read more assessments of his work, as well as the place of The Bone Clocks in it, in two great reviews, one from the Sydney Review of Books (from which the quote above comes), and one from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘David Mitchell’s Almost-Perfect Masterpiece’. And this one, from which the quote which opens this post comes, even has a connection guide. And here’s another one, where Mitchell discussed The Bone Clocks.

Overall, despite any reservations, The Bone Clocks is a rewarding, challenging – if at times frustrating – and memorable novel. I highly recommend it.

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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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Back in 2014 I reviewed Some Hope, published in a volume consisting of the first three of St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. I said at the time that I was looking forward to reading it. But now that I’ve got round to it, I found I didn’t enjoy it much at all. I think this is partly the book, and partly me.

The novel begins in August 2000. By this time Patrick is practising as a barrister – though he doesn’t seem to do much actual work – and is married to Mary; they have two small children. (OK, I know August is holiday time.) The first section of the story is told through the eyes of Patrick’s son Robert, who is far more insightful and introspective than any five year old I’ve ever met. Can the birth of his little brother Thomas really cause him to remember what it felt like in the first days of his life? The second section, set in August 2001, is told through Patrick’s eyes. On holiday at his mother’s house in France, he is horrified to see the hold Seamus, clearly a fake healer and genuine con man, has over his mother Eleanor – and her property. But at the same time he is board, listless and self-pitying, and ready for an extra marital affair. The third section is Mary’s story; she devotes herself to motherhood and tries to find ways of dealing with Patrick’s infidelity. The fourth section, set in August 2003 has no particular protagonist; the family travel to America.

The book continues in the style set in the first three books; it is a clever diatribe against the fatuousness, snobbery and malice of the English upper class. St Aubyn’s ear for dialogue and his biting wit are as sharp as ever, as you can see in one of my favourite exchanges. A child has been bullying Robert; his mother offers a kind of apology. ‘I’m sorry about that … Eliot is so competitive, just like his dad, and I hate to repress all that drive and energy.’ ‘You’re relying on the penal system for that,’ Patrick replies. Gold. There is also the continuing theme of the harm parents can do to their children. Both Patrick and Mary fear to pass on to their children the deplorable traits they think their parents gave them, but is there not a danger that in avoiding those, they are passing on others?

So what’s not to like? I found Patrick too self-pitying, too much given to what one reviewer calls ‘spoiled-brat whininess’. Another reviewer, who found the book ‘enjoyable and entertaining’ wrote that ‘we are very much on his side’. But I didn’t feel that way. It’s true he is highly self-aware; consider the following exchange: ‘Oh, darling,’ said Julia, resting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders, ‘are you your own worst enemy?’ ‘I certainly hope so,’ said Patrick. ‘I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.’ This can be perversely amusing, but it’s highly artificial and makes me want to shake him. Ultimately I don’t care what happens to him. Obviously the reader doesn’t have to like a character, but being indifferent to them is fatal to engagement with the story.

My reaction to Patrick is perhaps symptomatic of my reaction to the whole book. When I read Some Hope back in 2014 I was still in to mood for acerbic social commentary directed at the English upper classes. Now I don’t find the whole genre funny. After dislocation arising from Brexit in England and disaster of the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA, the worsening effects of climate change and the threat of recession, the boorishness of the upper class doesn’t seem worth wasting time on. St Aubyn doesn’t see it in class terms; he sees ‘a democracy of entrapment. Everyone is trapped in their personality’. True, no doubt, but those people who aren’t the English upper class – that is most of us – are also trapped in an economic system likely to leave us much worse off than the already rich and powerful. Knowing that some upper class people are unpleasant and probably unhappy doesn’t help much. I guess I won’t be reading At Last (2012), the final novel in the set, even if it does resolve some of the issues raised in Mother’s Milk.

St Aubyn doesn’t appear to have a web-site, and has only a very brief Wikipedia entry. But you can find out much more about him, and how his fiction mirrors his life, in any of these three interviews, here, here or here.

 

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Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

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Published in 1988, this is Kingsolver’s first novel. Having read several of her later ones and enjoyed them very much – Prodigal Summer (2000)  is reviewed here, The Lacuna (2009) is reviewed here, and Flight Behaviour (2012) here – I was interested to see where all this started. The Bean Trees is a short book, in contrast to the much longer ones she later wrote, but she introduces some of the same themes she later develops about families and friendships, and you can see in her writing something of what she later achieves much more fully.

Marietta – Missy Greer – she later changes the Marietta to Taylor – is born and brought up by her single mother in poor, rural Kentucky. But she clings to the idea that she doesn’t have to do what most of the local girls do – get pregnant, get married and stay there for the rest of their lives; as her mother says, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen isn’t her style. Her life is changed when a new teacher arrives at the high school, not in the usual way in stories of opening her mind to education, but by the fact that his wife, a nurse at the local hospital, needs someone to work there part-time, and he gives Missy the job. She saves enough that, after graduating from high school – an achievement in itself – she can change her name to Taylor, buy an old car and head west in search of adventure. But in Oklahoma her car breaks down. She stops at a garage and restaurant near a Cherokee Indian reservation, and is literally left holding a baby when a Native American woman thrusts it into her hands and drives away.  What should she do?

The plot is relatively slight; as I said, it’s a short book. It also seems to me a little unrealistic. However It turns on the fact that the child Taylor is given is Native American, and maybe what happens is possible in such a scenario. The story also has some interesting present-day relevance, one strand being about illegal immigration into the United States. But plot isn’t everything. Kingsolver also delights in set piece descriptions which add warmth and colour, but aren’t really about advancing the action. Examples are scattered through the book; they include the results Missy sees of an accident when working at the hospital, the fast food restaurant she works at, a dinner, and a picnic. These all give her the opportunity to draw a cast of sympathetic characters; there is no one with any significant part in the plot who is cruel or unpleasant, though cruelty and misery lurk on its borders.

I find it interesting to compare this book with Flight Behaviour, which is also about a woman, Dellarobia, from a poor white community, this time in Tennessee. Both Taylor and Dellarobia are struggling to take control of their lives. Like Missy, Dellarobia dreams of flight, though unlike her, she did get pregnant, married, and stayed in her community. Like Taylor, her life is changed by a stranger (though he is a product of strange events, not chance). Like Taylor, her main concerns are her children, and family relationships. But in the later book, these issues are treated with much greater sophistication and maturity. Though The Bean Trees is told primarily in the first person, and Flight Behaviour in the third person, Dellarobia comes alive much more vividly for me than Missy/Talyor. And the great social and environmental issue addressed in Flight Behaviour, the impact of climate change, is much more fully developed, and more integral to the story than the illegal immigration strand in The Bean Trees. I say this not as a criticism of the earlier book, but to note how brilliantly Kingsolver’s work has matured.

One of the attractions for me of Kingsolver’s work is the deep commitment to social justice that runs through all of her books that I have read. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a literary prize is intended to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change and human justice. Given her support for feminism, environmentalism and human rights, it not perhaps surprising in today’s America that she has her critics. Writing in the New Republic, (not, to be fair, a conservative publication) one commentator responded to The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by calling her a master of “Calamity Writing” and wrote that she offers “the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art”. He also characterized her as an “easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer [who] has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time”. I certainly don’t agree; I think she is a great political novelist. For example, I find it interesting that Kingsolver gives us a detailed and sympathetic, yet acute picture of the poor white communities to whom Donald Trump, now the President elect, appeals, and who are often demonized by liberal Americans. And I find her writing masterful. You can, however, read her opinion of Donald Trump here. I can scarcely imagine what she must be feeling about the outcome of the election.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. Pigs in Heaven (1993) is a sequel to The Bean Trees.

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Like many of Ian McEwan’s books, Sweet Tooth (2012) is a story with a twist. For better or worse, before reading it I saw a review which unconscionably gave away that twist. This means I didn’t read the book in the way the writer intended; I already had knowledge that put a different slant on things. I’m not going to reveal the twist, but it may be that my reading is a bit perverse because of knowing it. I did wonder if the reviewer gave away the twist because it made the book more interesting to write about. If so, I can see there may be some excuse for this; the twist means there are a whole series of double meanings which give a sardonic humour to the story. Yet you can’t pick up on the double meanings unless you know the twist, read the book twice, or have far better recall than I do. But even though these double meanings are clever, knowing what’s to come meant I didn’t find the story compelling.

Sweet Tooth is billed as a spy story, but even trying to think about it without foreknowledge of the twist, it lacked for me the interest, let alone the high tension of good spy novels like Le Carré’s. In the late 1960s, beautiful young Serena Frome goes to Cambridge to study mathematics because her mother wants her to. She spends most of her time reading fiction and doesn’t get a good degree, but enjoys various affairs, the most important being with a History tutor, who is much older than she is. He gets her an interview with MI5, who take her on. Most of the work she (and other female graduates with much better degrees) gets to do is purely clerical. But because of her knowledge of fiction, she is given the task of vetting an author who MI5 think might fit into an operation they have named Sweet Tooth. Believing that much of the literature and commentary of the time is left-leaning, they want to subsidise, through a compliant Foundation, authors that might be critical of communism and the Eastern bloc – rather similar to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. She is sent as a representative of the Foundation to interview the writer, a university lecturer named Tom Haley. He is pleased to accept the stipend offered because he wants to write without having to spend most of his time teaching. But Serena and Tom find they are mutually attracted. Furthermore, one of her colleagues is also jealously attracted to her. What could possible go wrong? The story is helped along by a minor twist concerning her Cambridge lover, with the major twist coming at the end.

Of course even without the twist – though the novel is inconceivable without it – there is much more to the book than a genre-style spy story. (I was amused to note that McEwan has adopted some of Le Carré’s spy jargon, with ‘the watchers’, a ‘honey trap’ and the ‘fifth floor’. I’m sure he’s being deliberately referential.) There is the usual clever if somewhat facile characterisation, achieved with minimum fuss; you can for example perfectly visualise Serena’s parents, though is there a resort to stereotypes involved? I found Serena rather shallow. And then there is the interesting setting of London in the bleak years of the early 70’s, the coal strike, the three day week and the Irish troubles; people wore dressing gowns at work over coats to try and keep warm in unheated buildings. Even if the suspense isn’t as developed as in a Le Carré’ spy story, there is some tension as Serena is increasingly embroiled in lies which threaten both her personal and professional life. There are also some dead-ish ends which feel a bit like padding.

Because Serena reads lots of fiction, and because she is involved personally and professionally with a writer, McEwan has lots of opportunity to comment on literature. Serena tells us – the story is presented in the first person – that she doesn’t like post- modern writers who were ‘determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions … I believed writers were paid to pretend … So no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in books I liked for the double agent.’ She believes in ‘mutual trust’ between reader and writer, and dislikes the ‘fictional trick’. Haley, on the other hand, admires post-modern novelists – though he isn’t really given much scope to explain why. And of course McEwan’s work is the height of ‘tricksy’, the novel depends on a fictional trick. And what would a spy story be without a double agent? In terms of her relationship with Tom, Serena is her own double agent. The point of all this cleverness is only made clear at the end.

Some reviewers have suggested that there is a large measure of autobiography in McEwan’s presentation of Haley. Serena reads and summarises – at boring and surely unnecessary length – several of Haley’s short stories and his short dystopian novel; the stories in particular apparently sound very like some of McEwan’s early short stories, given their bleak or ‘noir’ character. (The short novel actually sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse.) Haley’s agent and publisher are, or were, actually McEwan’s. Haley teaches at the University of Sussex, where McEwan did his undergraduate degree; he is clearly satirising Selena’s snobbish approach to the place. And Haley reflects McEwan’s literary tastes, as you can see from the final twist.

The novel has generally been favourably reviewed, for example here, and here, so my rather lukewarm response may indeed arise from knowing the twist. But I don’t think so; indeed its cleverness, which lies in its ‘tricksy’ nature, is not evident on a first read (though maybe the reviewers knew the twist …)  McEwan is generally considered to be an excellent story teller, but I just can’t get excited about this one. It’s too clever by half. You can see from my reviews that I didn’t much like Solar (2010), reviewed here, or even his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam (1998) reviewed here. So best read the book. Twice.  If you can be bothered.

You can find out more about Ian McEwan and his work here.

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In the interests of fair disclosure, I have to say up front that I’m not a fan of Peter Carey. I didn’t even enjoy his (second) Booker Prize winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), reviewed here. The Chemistry of Tears (2012) shares one of the same devices used in the earlier book: a story imagined around a real event or object. In this case it is an automaton, a swan that moves as if real. The story is partly about its creation, and partly about its restoration. Carey says that happening to see it being refurbished in a museum was the impetus behind the book.

Catherine Gerhig is a horologist who works at the Swinburne Museum (the V&A?) in London. One day her secret, married lover, who also works there, dies suddenly, leaving her bereft. Her boss, who may be in love with her too, gives her a new project to distract her: the reconstruction of a mechanical swan. The other half of the story, told in sections that alternate with Catherine’s, concerns Henry Brandling, a rich Victorian whose beloved son is ill with consumption. Henry hopes that the gift of a mechanical toy will improve his health, or even cure him. He initially thinks he has commissioned a mechanical duck, but the German watchmaker/inventor instead constructs the swan. Catherine reads Brandling’s story in the journal he kept of while the automaton was being constructed.

There are clearly meant to be parallels between the stories: whether ‘the huge peace of mechanical things’ can overcome grief is central to both of them. Both Catherine and Henry experience misery, rage almost amounting to madness, frustration and betrayal. It is a matter of opinion whether the two stories are fitted together like a well-oiled machine, or are mechanical in the pejorative sense. Catherine’s story has oddities enough, but Henry’s journal is positively opaque, and I got quite lost trying to work out what was going on. Much of it relates the story of the German watchmaker, Sumper, who has more or less kidnapped Henry; he tells Henry about the time he spent in London working with Sir Albert Cruickshank on something that sounds a bit like a computer, whose aim was to bring order out of chaos. Again there is a clear parallel with the reconstruction of the swan, but so what?

It doesn’t help that I found it hard to empathise with Catherine. She seems to have been made needlessly unpleasant, responding to grief with alcohol, drugs and rudeness. Nor could I understand her relationship with her assistant, who is apparently some sort of spy – but who for and why bother – with the Dickensian name of Amanda Snyde. She seems to have some kind of weird religious interest in the mechanism that makes the swan work, but again, I couldn’t see the point of it. I understand that not everything in a novel has to have some point, but in a novel about fitting together parts so they will move, you’d think her role would one of those moving parts. Perhaps it was and I failed to see it. But if so, I’m surprised that no one else in my book group could figure it out either.

Of course it’s not Catherine’s fault I couldn’t relate to her, or Amanda’s that she seems crazy; it’s Carey’s. I just don’t think he writes well about women. I didn’t find either of them convincing. It’s true I’ve been prejudiced against him ever since he wrote dismissively of his former wife – who had been his editor and muse – in his 2006 book Theft: a Love Story (though he shrugs this accusation off. You can read about it here). But the rest of the book club, who don’t share my prejudice, agreed neither character was realistic.

A review in the Guardian by the eminent writer and critic Andrew Motion didn’t suggest he had any of these problems with the book; rather the opposite. For him Carey exhibits ‘an easy-seeming mastery’ and is ‘too subtle a writer to spell out precise meanings …’ You can read his glowing assessment – ‘an impressive achievement’ –  here.

I have to admit that the swan itself is interesting, though I find it a bit bizarre. It was actually made in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth as in this story. It is housed in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Teesdale, County Durham, England. You can read about it here, and watch a YouTube of it in action here.

You can read more about Peter Carey’s life and work on his website.

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Graham Swift is not a prolific writer; he publishes a new book every four or five years. Having loved two of his earlier ones, Waterland (1983) and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders (1996) (reviewed here), I always have high expectations of a new one. Wish You Were Here (2011) (not to be confused with Taylor Swift’s song of the same name) is the second to last of his books. It covers some similar ground to Last Orders, but somehow it doesn’t quite come up to the standard of the earlier book.

The story uses the same techniques as much of Swift’s writing in that it jumps backwards in time from present to past. Like Last Orders, it tells of a journey that ends in a funeral. Jack Luxton, the last of a long line of dairy farmers in Devon, has sold his land and with his wife Ellie has become the owner/manager of a caravan park on the Isle of Wight. The story begins with Jack standing with a shotgun in his Isle of Wight cottage after a fight with his wife. Is he going to shoot himself, or her, or both of them? The pressure of not knowing builds throughout the story. The fight seems to be over something relatively trivial: Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to the funeral of his brother, a soldier killed in Iraq. But it has called into question everything in Jack’s past: the effects of the mad cow disease cull of their farm animals, his brother Tom’s decision to run away and join the Army, the death of their father, his marriage to Ellie, daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the sale of the farm land, and of the old farm house to London yuppies as a country retreat.

Unlike Last Orders, where a range of people had a voice in the story, this story is told largely from Jack’s perspective, though Ellie and Tom do get brief turns. This allows Ellie to be presented in a largely unfavourable light. It is she who has taken the initiative in selling the farm and moving to the Isle of Wight, she who resents the hold the memory of Tom has over his brother Jack. Has she trashed the things that were important to Jack? Her contributions to the story do something to balance this negative view of her, and after all, Jack went along with all this. Perhaps it is his sense of self-betrayal that Swift is getting at – the giving up of his heritage. ‘The smell of cow dung mingling with earth, the cheapest, lowliest of smells, but the best. Who wouldn’t wish for that as their birthright and their last living breath?’

One of the issues with Jack is that although the story is mostly in his hands, he is essentially inarticulate. He has trouble putting his feelings into words. The title of the book comes from the wording of a postcard he sent as a boy to Ellie while away on a rare beach holiday in a caravan with his mother and brother. The holiday is one of the best times of his life. Yet he misses Ellie. How can he convey this complex message of ‘honesty and guilt’? The other side of the inarticulate coin is that a single word, like ‘holiday’ or ‘caravan’ conjures up a whole complex of emotions. When his brother leaves, he gives him a card and says goodbye at the same time. But he can’t think of anything better or more intimate to say than: “‘Good luck, Tom. I’ll be thinking of you.’ Which was a foolish thing perhaps to have said, because it was exactly what he’d written on the card.” While I’m sure that Swift is making the point that inarticulate people have strong feelings, it forces him at times into third party narrator expedients like ‘he might have said but didn’t’ which aren’t really convincing. Which is not to say that Swift doesn’t write well; he does, really well.

Even though both are about a death, Wish You Were Here is a much grimmer book than Last Orders. It seems that Swift’s world view has darkened. The decline of the dairy industry, hit first by BSE and then by foot and mouth disease (after Jack has sold up, but he still feels somehow involved), the war in Iraq, the shadowy war on terror, economic and social inequality, all have more or less direct impacts on Jack. One of Swift’s great talents is to draw connections either directly or through metaphor; Jack’s shotgun, for example, is both a real object and a symbol of other deaths, both in the story and beyond, so a story that is limited in time and space acquires much wider ramifications.

I note that the Guardian review sees the story as a meditation on Englishness. Certainly Jack thinks of the farm as a ‘little bit of England’. It is an elegy for a lost world, and perhaps loss is a particularly English sentiment at the moment. I’m not sure of Swift’s intention. It may be so, but he is at least as interested in the impact of writers from outside Britain in the magic realist tradition as in internal soul searching. There isn’t any magic realism as such in the story, but there is a slightly surreal quality to some of the writing. For example Jack finds he can’t be sure of what’s real and what’s merely in his head. And to bear out my point about the interrelatedness of Swift’s themes, there is the madness everywhere – arising from BSE, reflected in of culling healthy animals, the madness of the war in Iraq, the madness, it seems, of modern life … Such madness is hardly confined to England.

You can read the review I referred to here. Swift doesn’t seem to have a website – which isn’t really surprising, he seems a very private person – but you can read a bit more about him here. His most recent book, Mothering Sunday (2016), has received much praise, so is a must read for me.

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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 recently reviewed Grenville’s The Lieutenant (2008), a moving but rather grim story about the first contact between white arrivals in Australia and the Indigenous inhabitants. A friend lent me The Idea of Perfection (1999) with the assurance that it was just as well written and much happier, and she was right.

The two main characters both consider themselves and their lives to be far from perfect. Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer, good at his work, but self-conscious and awkward with people. He has been sent to Karakarook, a small town in outback Australia, to demolish and replace a damaged bridge. Waiting to be served in the local pub, ‘he felt the urge to apologise simply for existing, much less wanting breakfast’. Harley Savage is equally gauche, and carries with her the belief that she is somehow likely to damage people she becomes close to; she feels she has ‘a dangerous streak’. She is an expert in fabrics who has come to Karakarook to help a local committee establish a pioneer museum. Karaakarook (Gateway to the Foothills), like so many outback towns, is dying, and the committee hopes to give it a fillip by encouraging tourism. The first meeting of Douglas and Harley, where they literally bump into each other, in inauspicious: ‘a moment extending itself into awkwardness … two bodies hitting together, two people standing apologising’. To make matters worse, they seem destined to be on opposing sides on an issue that is dividing the town: should the bridge, which is a piece of pioneer history, be replaced, or repaired? But seasoned readers are likely to guess that obstacles will be overcome, and that the two will find friendship, and probably something more. Their story is counterpointed by that of Felicity, the bank manager’s wife, who thinks the local butcher is in love with her, though it very soon appears to be the other way round. She wants to be perfect, but it is obvious that her idea of perfection is completely dysfunctional, and constrains her.

The craft of quilting runs through the story, and is one of the themes that offers contrasting views of perfection. Reflecting on the tradition of deliberately placing an asymmetrical piece in an otherwise symmetrical hand-made quilt, Felicity thinks ‘it was just another part of the perfection, really, not being perfect. But it only counted if you were not being perfect on purpose.’ She gave up quilting for fear it might damage her physical perfection (yes she is a bit crazy). But all of Hayley’s quilts are purposely asymmetrical; she thinks that ‘to anyone else [they] would probably look like something gone wrong’. Yet her quilts are highly sought after works of art, reflecting her passions and insights; any ‘perfection’ they have is unspoken.

One of the things that makes the book such a pleasure to read is that Grenville is ultimately kind to all her characters. This is despite the fact – or maybe because of it – that she writes about them with a certain dry humour, often conveyed by the italicising of certain words, as in: ‘The trouble was, even as woman looked at dog and dog looked back at woman, still life turned into life’.  Both Douglas and Hayley initially find the small town atmosphere somewhat hostile and intimidating – but this is a perception partly born of their self-consciousness. On better acquaintance, they find that the townspeople, despite, or even because of their eccentricities and inquisitiveness, can be kind and approachable. They both learn from their experience there. For Douglas, ‘the thing he would like to learn was not something you could ask anyone, although it was so simple. How do people get on?’  He realises that ‘crankiness could be a kind of intimacy’. Hayley comes to realise that ‘out here, people went by different rules … You forgave people for being who they were, and you hoped they would be able to forgive you.’ Coralie, the driving force behind the idea of a museum, and her husband Chook, foreman of Douglas’s work gang, seem initially hostile to Haley and Douglas respectively. They are furthermore on opposite sides in the bridge controversy which might be expected to make them antagonistic to each other. Yet by the end of the story, Grenville grants them ‘a second of simple love’, and Hayley realises that the love she has thus far pushed away, however complicated, could be ‘the simplest thing in the world’. And just as they learn from the town, the town learns from them.

Another nice thing about this book is its cover, which shows a wooden bridge which has bowed in just such a way as the bridge that has brought Douglas to the town. The cover is a photo – meaning that the story is inspired by a real life bridge. No wonder Grenville’s descriptions of it are so detailed and evocative.

You can read more about Kate Grenville here. The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize for 2000.

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This, Stead’s best known book, was published in 1940 but largely ignored until it was reissued in 1965 with an introduction by the American critic Randall Jarrell, who hailed it as a masterpiece. A new edition (2010) has an introduction by Jonathan Franzen who is just as enthusiastic. They concede the book’s weaknesses, but find great strengths to weigh against these. I guess it’s a personal choice whether you can appreciate the great things about the book, or feel depressed by the awfulness being described, and disinclined to read further. Even Franzen questions whether ‘enjoy’ is an appropriate response to the book. Either way, I have to agree it contains some great writing.

The book covers a year or so of the life of the Pollit family, Henny and Sam, and their six – soon to be seven – children. The eldest, Louisa, is Henny’s step daughter. The story is episodic, in that there are a number of set piece scenes – sometimes in my view over-long – that describe the life of the family, rather than forwarding the action. Indeed there isn’t much action until the end, when some of what has arisen earlier comes together in the climax of the novel. Instead of action there is wonderful description of landscape and keen observation of behaviour – though few of the adult characters are presented as likeable people.

It’s pretty trite to use Tolstoy’s comment that ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ in relation to this story, but I’ll do it anyway. This is because Tolstoy has got it wrong; you can’t separate families into ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ in this way. This is the story of a very unhappy family: Henny and Sam fight frequently, openly and bitterly. Sam ‘called a spade the predecessor of modern agriculture, she called it a muck dig; they had no words between them intelligible’. ‘Ugly duckling’ Louisa is the butt of their malicious comments and jokes, in addition to which, being the eldest at eleven, she has to look after the younger children and wait on her mother. But the Pollit children don’t know they are unhappy, because they know no other form of living, and they are objectively happy at least some of the time. For Louisa it is when she can escape into books or daydreams. To me, this blending of the experiences of childhood is far more convincing than ‘all happy’ or ‘all miserable’. But the misery is certainly laid on thick; every humiliation or disappointment one can remember from childhood appears here magnified by a factor of ten. ‘They all laugh at me,’ cries Louisa in despair. Henny sees everything in the blackest terms: ‘Isn’t it rotten luck,’ she exclaims. ‘Isn’t every rotten thing in life rotten luck?’ Sam thinks he is the voice of reason, but he is as selfish and cruel as his wife. The baby-talk language he uses to his children makes me cringe in the same way as fingernails on a blackboard. Yet the children seem to love them both. Even the tragic climax grows out of love.

Knowing a bit about Stead’s life helped me better understand the book. It is to a significant degree autobiographical, with the character of Sam based on her father, David Stead, a marine biologist, who seems to have been a domestic tyrant. Louisa is modelled on Stead herself; her mother died when she was very young, and her father married again, producing a further six children. I don’t know if her step-mother treated her as Henny does Louisa, but I hope not – though Stead no doubt cherished some of Louisa’s ambitions and dreams. The adult Stead had left-wing leanings, eventually marrying William Blake, a German Jewish Marxist, but she is clearly no starry-eyed idealist; Sam’s doctrine of universal love, his ‘humane folly’, is unswervingly revealed as superficial nonsense. Franzen suggests that Stead’s treatment of Sam is at times funny; I didn’t find it so, but she is certainly satirizing such ideas. The book has no overt politics, but the slide of the family from gentile poverty into grinding want underlies the bitter climax of the story; money – having it, not having it and losing it run like a red thread throughout the book. Sam’s belief in eugenics is an even blacker mark against him when one remembers that Stead’s partner was Jewish.

One aspect of the book that interests me is that the story was originally set in Australia, but the setting was changed because Stead’s publishers in America – where she was living at the time – thought an American setting would be more appealing to American readers. Critics like Jarrell and Franzen – both Americans– see some inaccuracies in setting and language, but I was completely unaware of these. Indeed I find it hard to see how it could have worked as a story in Australia, though I suppose gentile poverty is the same the western capitalist world over.

It’s a challenging book to read just now, when the spotlight in Australia is being turned on domestic violence. As Franzen points out, Stead, who probably never heard the words ‘domestic violence’, treats what we would call ‘abuse’ as a natural feature of the familial landscape. I found it heavy going.

It is impossible to do justice to the book in a short review. Read Randall Jarrell’s introduction if you have the Angus and Robertson edition and you can read a long review by Franzen in the New York Times here. There is a good short biography of Stead in the Australian Dictionary of Biography here, and there are several full-length biographies of her, the most recent of which is by Hazel Rowley (1993). The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Australian fiction is named  the Christina Stead Prize in her honour.

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