Last weekend at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, I went to a session featuring debut authors, and became interested in this novel The Ties ThatLast weekend at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, I went to a session featuring debut authors, and became interested in this novel The Ties That Bind because of its subject matter. The chair, Nadine Davidoff, made the point that it traverses a number of themes with ideas bustling for attention but in a really good way. Davidoff is an editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne, and she’s been a commissioning editor at Random House and Black Inc., so she knows what she’s talking about. I think that book groups would enjoy discussing this title, and I also think that it would make an absorbing film.
The author, Lexi Landsman said that the book had its genesis in her own experiences. She had a colleague, she said, who was adopted but had no interest in meeting her sudden siblings. She had visited the Cumberland Resort in Marysville not long before the town was destroyed by bushfire, and had struggled to come to terms with how the landscape could be there one day, and then not. She also knew someone who had needed stem cell therapy and through the real life synchronicity of finding an American donor, had seen how the chance of finding someone on the other side of the world could change a life. And because she had been writing since she was a child, she found herself writing about these things and one day realised that she was writing a novel…
I am not often flummoxed by a book, but Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Radish tested my ability to interpret a writer’s purpose. It seems to be an allegoI am not often flummoxed by a book, but Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Radish tested my ability to interpret a writer’s purpose. It seems to be an allegory for China’s Great Leap Forward but this was not something that sprang immediately to mind while I was reading it. Reading it, I was simply overwhelmed by the suffering of the central character, a little boy called Hei-hai, and puzzled by the behaviour of the characters in general.
Radish is one of a series of Penguin Specials, marketed as short books designed to ‘fill a gap’, and designed to be read in a single sitting. Suitable for the commute, the lunch break, or between dinner and bedtime, they say. Radish is only 86 pages long and the prose is simple and easy to read. But it manages to convey striking ideas, where the reader has enough knowledge of the subtext to recognise them. Like all writers in China, Mo Yan is writing under the constraints of heavy-handed censorship and so there are allusions to events and perhaps to people that are not immediately obvious. The reader has to be in the know, and I think it’s a safe bet to say that most westerners don’t know much about Chinese history. It’s possible that young people in China also aren’t much in the know, if their ignorance of their own history is as widespread as Linda Jaivin suggested in The Empress Lover.
Here’s an example of allusions that are not immediately obvious. These are the opening lines:
An autumn morning, the air hung humid, a layer of transparent dewdrops clung to blades of grass and roof tiles. Leaves on the scholar tree had begun to turn yellow; a rusty iron bell hanging from a branch was also dew laden. The production team leader, a padded jacket draped over his shoulders, ambled towards the bell, carrying a sorghum flatbread in one hand and clutching a thick-peeled leek in the other. By the time he reached the bell, his hands were empty, but his cheeks were puffed out like a field mouse scurrying away with autumn provisions. He yanked the clapper against the side of the bell, which rang out loudly, – clang, clang, clang. People young and old streamed out of the lanes to converge beneath the bell, eyes fixed on the team leader, like a crowd of marionettes. He swallowed hard, and wiped his stubble-ringed mouth on his sleeve. (p.1)
It took more than one re-reading for me to notice the first allusion. The leaves of the scholar tree turning yellow refers to the autumn of intellectual freedom and the coming Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This year, 2016, is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of this disastrous period of China’s history .
But you also need to know something about Chinese history to recognise that this team leader is an emblem of corrupt leadership and greed.
Hope Farm is Peggy Frew’s second novel, and it’s longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Although its setting is a hippie commune in decline, itHope Farm is Peggy Frew’s second novel, and it’s longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Although its setting is a hippie commune in decline, it’s an elegy for kids brought up in dysfunctional circumstances anywhere.
Silver, looking back on her childhood and the traumatic events of her thirteenth year in 1985, narrates most of the story, with interleaved excerpts from her mother’s memoir filling in her own backstory. Her mother is Ishtar née Karen, who embraced the communal lifestyle when at seventeen she became pregnant and it seemed like the only alternative to giving up her baby. Their subsequent life involved trailing around from one commune to another, Ishtar chasing the love she didn’t get from her parents when she needed it, and Silver – initially the sole object of Ishtar’s love and attention – gradually becoming wise beyond her years as she observes her mother’s immaturity fracture their relationship.
By the time they get to Hope Farm in rural Gippsland, Silver has become inured to neglect and squalor, and she absorbs with stoicism the taunts of her schoolfellows at each successive school. She longs for a stable home but has no illusions about her mother’s latest boyfriend, Miller. He makes a noisy entrance to the commune and spruiks lots of grand plans, but he doesn’t even know enough about farming to recognise that a self-seeded pumpkin vine isn’t going to produce any pumpkins once the summer is over. He starts projects but lets them lapse, and soon he and Ishtar join the rest of the residents in a fog of inertia, booze and drugs.
A Girl Made of Dust is a semi-autobiographical novel by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi who, like some of the characters in her story, moved to the safety of EnglanA Girl Made of Dust is a semi-autobiographical novel by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi who, like some of the characters in her story, moved to the safety of England in 1983 when Israel invaded Lebanon. She has written the novel from the perspective of an eight-year-old, but overcame my resistance to child narrators with a vivid story. This point-of-view enables the portrayal of the baffled dismay that many of us naïvely feel about religious hatreds, and, sadly, it also shows us how children adapt to living in war zones, and have no concept of living in peace. The novel also raises issues which, since the destruction of cultural artefacts by religious extremists, have become more topical than when the book was published back in 2008.
For Ruba and her older brother Naji, living in the village of Ein Dowra outside Beirut, the civil war means the rumble of shelling in the city, and they do not connect it with her father’s strange behaviour, which readers will recognise as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Papi (Nabeel) sits in his chair for most of the day, saying very little, leaving his shop closed and bringing grave financial and emotional stress to the family. The long-suffering women, (his wife and his mother), have had to make adjustments: they can no longer afford a maid so Mami (Aida) has had to learn to cook and iron (and isn’t very good at either). Mami also has to put up with being patronised by a former friend who takes pleasure in complaining about the servant problem and how difficult it is to pack her many possessions in preparation for her exodus to safety. While all around them families are leaving, Ruba’s friends among them, their family has no money and must take what comes.
Shadowstory is a deceptively simple story by Irish writer Jennifer Johnston, a favourite author of Kim from Reading Matters so I didn’t hesitate whenShadowstory is a deceptively simple story by Irish writer Jennifer Johnston, a favourite author of Kim from Reading Matters so I didn’t hesitate when I saw it at the library. It’s a coming-of-age story that explores the nature of love – and the betrayals that complicate it.
Polly is born into a loving Anglo-Irish family, but she becomes an outsider in her own family after her father Greg is killed in WW2 and her mother Nonie remarries. Polly sees this remarriage (and the unnecessary secrecy beforehand) as an act of betrayal and although she gets used to things even when she reaches her teens, she never recognises her stepfather Charlie as having any legitimate interest in her affairs. While vaguely fond of them, the small step-siblings that take away her mother’s attention only reinforce her sense of separateness.
It’s miles away from Dublin, at Kildarragh in County Donegal, that Polly feels at home. She is very fond of her grandparents Beatrice and Geoffrey who live on a large property, large enough to have farm hands, a couple of domestic servants and a devoted cook called Sadie who seems to anticipate every need. It is there that she develops a close bond with her uncle Sam, youngest of the brood and only five years older than she is. It is Sam who tests the boundaries of love, burdening her with his secret ambitions to be part of the Communist Revolution in Cuba. It is never made clear exactly what he does for the movement, only that he is doing some sort of preparatory work before going there, and that he won’t allow her to tell anyone about his plans or his whereabouts.
Summer Crossing is breathtakingly good – even if you didn’t know that Capote (1924 – 1984) wrote it when he was only 19. It was his first novel, thougSummer Crossing is breathtakingly good – even if you didn’t know that Capote (1924 – 1984) wrote it when he was only 19. It was his first novel, thought to have been destroyed by him, but it turned up and was published after his death. It is a coming-of-age novel, about a rich, spoilt and beautiful girl improbably named Grady after a dead brother. Her mother, an ambitious socialite, has grand plans for her daughter, plans which Grady is determined to frustrate, and opportunity arises to do just that when they abandon her alone in New York while they go off somewhere in Europe on holidays. (It’s hard to remember details when listening to an audio book en route to work).
Grady (only seventeen years of age) has a temptestuous love affair with Clyde, a most unsuitable young parking attendant. His rival, Peter, knows about it, but tries only to protect her from the consequences of her own defiance. (He is so nice, and so wise, he must surely be modelled on the young Capote himself.) The inevitable happens, but the denouement is a shock and even more so on this exquisite narration by Lorelei King.
Over at Jane Rawson’s blog there’s a spirited conversation taking place about the novella. Is it new? Is it ‘hot’ or ‘not’?
What’s not new is GiramondoOver at Jane Rawson’s blog there’s a spirited conversation taking place about the novella. Is it new? Is it ‘hot’ or ‘not’?
What’s not new is Giramondo Shorts. I’ve read and reviewed five of them, starting with Anguli Ma, a Gothic Tale by Melbourne author Chi Vu back in 2012, and that wasn’t the first one. The series now includes a second translation, (the first was Varamo by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews) and this one, See You At Breakfast by Guillermo Fadanelli, is also Latin American, this time from Mexico.
The translation by young Australian Alice Whitmore is flawless. She captures the unsettling atmosphere of the novel in crisp, effortless prose.
Before leaving, El Alfil looked Ulises in the face. He seemed like a good man, like all the guys who ended up with his sister, good, cowardly, cry-baby men.
– Look what the good Lord sent us, she said.
Alfil wasn’t jealous. He looked at Cristina’s men as if they were new scars she would never be rid of. Every now and again he worried about those scars, and made recommendations. Once, not so long ago, it had even occurred to him to give Cristina a little tube of pepper spray.
– This is my brother, Cristina said. They call him El Alfil. He’s here to protect me, but as you can see he’s had his face broken. (p. 124)
Even with the context missing (which I’m not going to provide because it’s a spoiler), you can see Fadanelli’s disconcerting style. He is an exponent of what’s called ‘ Mexican dirty realism’ and there is no doubt that his juxtaposition of events and characters will take most readers aback, even if you’ve seen a few episodes about Mexico City on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program…