Ache is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities. It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowleAche is commercial fiction exploring the aftermath of bushfire on individuals and communities. It’s quite draining to read, made more so by the knowledge that the author has qualifications in psychology and grief counselling, and wrote her Honours thesis about the representation of bushfire trauma in fiction.
The story centres around thirty-something Annie, who shot to tabloid fame by escaping with a small child from the burning mountain on a horse. (Need I say, this is a classic example of highly risky panic? So many people die trying to escape at the last moment. If you live in, or visit, anywhere at risk of bushfire, including the urban fringe, have a bushfire plan and rehearse it.)
Annie’s grandmother dies, as do other people in the small community. Her mother’s home is ruined, and her daughter is traumatised. And Annie, who lives and works in the city with her husband Tom, feels the urge to return to the mountain to help her mother and her uncle. She also needs to sort out her marriage and deal with her own grief.
The characterisation of the child, Pip, is painful. Quite honestly, if it were not for the author’s qualifications which show that she knows much more about this than I do, I would find it hard to believe that any parent could survive the bratty behaviour of this child and still love it.
A beautiful book, recommended to me by A Life in Books.
It is the achingly sad story of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a hill community in theA beautiful book, recommended to me by A Life in Books.
It is the achingly sad story of the disappearance of a teenage girl in a hill community in the heart of England. She was there on holiday, and she simply vanished. We have all heard stories like this in the media, and we know that these unsolved disappearances resonate long, long after the event. The names of Eloise Worledge, the Beaumont Children and Linda Stilwell are known to everyone my age, and never forgotten.
And yet… the saddest moment in this story comes when, years after the disappearance, one of the characters sees an item of the missing girl’s clothing, and doesn’t recognise it for what it is.
Isn’t that the most splendid cover image? It’s a cartoon called 'Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary' (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of GoethIsn’t that the most splendid cover image? It’s a cartoon called 'Gustave Flaubert dissecting Madame Bovary' (1869) by Achille Lamor, courtesy of Goethe University in Frankfurt. It graces the cover of Brian Castro’s latest book, Blindness and Rage, a Phantasmagoria, a novel in thirty-four cantos. Like much else in this book, the cartoon is droll, and captivating, and probably opaque if you don’t get the literary allusion.
Well, as usual with Castro’s books, I must confess immediately that there must be plenty of allusions that I’ve missed on a first reading but I am not too bothered about that because I know from reading Katharine England’s introduction to Drift (1994) that Castro doesn’t expect his readers to do that. Quoting here from my own review of Drift:
England quotes a paragraph from Looking for Estrellita in which Castro which explains that he prefers to read books that he doesn’t understand straight away, and that he writes similar books himself. So
"…Castro’s books are for readers who distrust easy certainties in fiction and like to work – and particularly play – with all the nuances of a text, reconstructing to their own individual satisfaction the author’s intentions and concerns". (Introduction, ix)
And what she says about Drift, IMO applies equally to Blindness and Rage:
"…if you like things in black and white – fixed premises, unequivocal answers – this book, in which everything moves and shifts and comes round again in subtly altered focus is probably not for you." (Introduction, x)
Castro suggests in this book, however, that it might not just be a case of whether you like a challenge or not… maybe people are losing the ability to play his games. Here in Canto XIII he’s talking about police giving up on their surveillance but they’re obviously not his only target:
… since it take a lifetime to encode high literature they grew disinterested when the digital age began to lose close reading skills and treated all this seeding and dissemination as something trite; too intellectual… (p. 145)
But he also acknowledges that allusions can be very sly. Poor Gracq misses one entirely because it’s based on a coded message with an address and time that an Australian would be unlikely to know:
‘But there is no time… [to meet] there is always no time.’ Lucien started to complain. ‘It’s in the poem by Verlain,’ she said, on this occasion broadcast on 5th June 1944 to signal the Normandy invasion. Je me souviens [I remember] des jours anciens [the old days] It was a quarter past eight in the evening, Lucien.’ (p. 152
Text Publishing sent me this book last year, but it’s taken me ages to get to it because I had misgivings about it. Max purports to be the narration oText Publishing sent me this book last year, but it’s taken me ages to get to it because I had misgivings about it. Max purports to be the narration of a child born under the Nazi Lebensborn program, which aimed to breed perfect specimens of the Aryan race. The book has been awarded a number of prestigious French prizes including the Prix Sorcières, but I had an uneasy feeling about its distasteful subject matter.
It’s not that I think there are no-go areas for writing fiction, but I do think that authors ought to tread very carefully when fictionalising sensitive topics. The Lebensborn (now in their sixties) are – through no fault of their own – biologically a product of racist eugenics, and socially, educated in Nazi ideology for a significant formative period of their lives. As individual people they deserve to be treated and judged on their own merits, but as a group they represent a loathsome ambition. Humanising them in fiction needs to be handled with delicacy, because a sympathetic portrayal runs the risk of validating the ideology that spawned them.
Wayne Macauley is an entertaining satirist who mercilessly exposes Australian follies, and I like his novels very much. I’ve read Blueprints for a BarWayne Macauley is an entertaining satirist who mercilessly exposes Australian follies, and I like his novels very much. I’ve read Blueprints for a Barbed-wire Canoe (2004, satirising our obsession with home ownership); The Cook (2011, it parodies foodies); Demons (2014, which exposes the inane narcissism of middle-class Melbourne ); and I have Caravan Story (2007) somewhere on the TBR. (Links are to my reviews). Macauley’s latest target, in Some Tests, is the medicalization of normal life…
Beth is a nice, ordinary woman with a husband and a couple of kids, living in an ordinary Melbourne suburb. She works in aged care, and David, her husband is an accountant. They are muddling through life as most people do, planning a renovation that they can’t really afford, occasionally worrying about infidelity without apparent cause, and coping with the vagaries of parenthood. Until one day when Beth wakes up not feeling very well, and David calls in a locum because their usual doctor isn’t available.
The locum’s diagnosis is a bit vague, but Beth is feeling seedy so she agrees to go for some tests. And from this innocuous beginning, she finds herself on a merry-go-round of doctors and specialists and referrals, with a patient file that grows ever larger but never records a diagnosis.
Ismail Kadare (b.1936) is one of my favourite authors: he writes stories about the use and abuse of power in allegorical form, setting his stories inIsmail Kadare (b.1936) is one of my favourite authors: he writes stories about the use and abuse of power in allegorical form, setting his stories in an indefinite past so that they have a timeless significance. The Traitor’s Niche is an early work from his Ottoman Cycle: first published in 1978, it was Kadare’s eleventh novel but it has taken 40 years for it to be published in English. Kadare is a prolific author and it is taking the Anglosphere a while to catch up with his oeuvre since he won the inaugural Man Booker International in 2005, when The Siege (see my review on my blog) and other novels were hastily translated from French editions into English in order to get them into bookshops.
The Traitor’s Niche has been widely reviewed, not least by the members of the MBIF Shadow Jury (see their combined reviews from here on this blog) but it didn’t make it into either their shortlist or the official one. But I was always going to read this novel, whether it won any plaudits or not… Kadare is a master storyteller and I am fascinated by the history of Albania as he tells it…
The Traitor’s Niche is set in Constantinople (now Istanbul) when it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. This is where power resides, power that is enforced through brutal repression and grotesque propaganda. The sultan displays the severed heads of any who dare to betray him in a special niche in the city square, and there is a whole apparatus of flunkies whose job it is to manage the display of heads for the entertainment and edification of the people.
Far, far away, so remote from the sultan’s decrees that most of them can be ignored, is Albania, powerless against the Empire but a place given to rash attempts to free itself. In his dotage, Ali Pasha Tepelena a.k.a.Black Ali Pasha, dreams of achieving glory like his legendary predecessor Scanderbeg who had a quarter-century of rebellion behind him but died an ordinary death in his bed. There is no prospect of him succeeding, but it’s not about that. Black Ali wants to leave a legacy and a symbol that will inspire others. So, will he cheat the sultan of his vicious vengeance?
If all goes well, I’ll be reading two winners of the David Unaipon Award during Indigenous Literature Week 2017. It’s an important award because as well as a prize of $10,000, the winner receives a publishing contract with category sponsor University of Queensland Press (UQP). Ellen Van Neerven won the award in 2013 for Heat and Light, and I have finally – at last! tracked down a copy of Larissa Behrendt’s Home which won in 2002. I’ve read quite a few of the recent winners, and they’ve all been interesting reading (links go to my reviews): •Not Just Black and White, by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams (2014) •Mazin Grace, by Dylan Coleman (2011) •Purple Threads, by Jeanine Leane (2010) •Every Secret Thing, by Marie Munkara (2008) •Swallow the Air, by Tara June Winch (2004, originally titled Dust on Waterglass) •The Mish: Childhood Memories of Framlingham Aboriginal Station, by Robert Lowe (2001) •Sweet Water, Stolen Land, by Philip McLaren (1992)
As it happens, I brought home another interesting book from Bayside Library today. It’s called Black Writers, White Editors, Episodes of collaboration and compromise in Australian Publishing History, (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009 ISBN 9781921509063) and the author is Jennifer Jones, whose research explored the editorial relationship for three foundational Indigenous women writers, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Margaret Tucker and Monica Clare. I’m unlikely to read it all because … a-hem… it is indeed a scholarly work, but it made me realise for the first time that the process of publishing indigenous narratives can significantly alter what is eventually published. Jones’s analysis shows (amongst other things) that for the three authors that she researched, there were numerous alterations which were not just spelling and grammar, including •changes that increase political impact in a passage; •insertion of alternative colloquialisms; •minimisation of character’s emotional expression; and •standardisation of colloquialisms.
Exit West, the fourth novel of Mohsin Hamid who was shortlisted for the Man Booker for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has been widely reviewed but it’sExit West, the fourth novel of Mohsin Hamid who was shortlisted for the Man Booker for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has been widely reviewed but it’s hard to do it justice. It is a superb novel. I loved the feeling of reading it yet sometimes I was almost overcome by emotion. Books don’t often do that to me!
Nadia and Saeed are ordinary people in an ordinary city, but their circumstances become far from ordinary. Their love story is a fable for our times.
Their un-named city is an Islamic city but as the story opens it’s one where women can choose to cover or not, and Saeed can have carefully maintained designer stubble rather than a full beard.
Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. (p.1)
Nadia is not religious – she doesn’t even pray in times of crisis – but she covers herself to avoid being pestered by men. This choice, however, does not save her from the deep disapproval of her conservative family when she elected to move out of the family home and live alone in an apartment, supporting herself with her job as an accountant. Angry and harsh words are spoken in a rift that the narrator foreshadows will never be healed. Partly from stubbornness, partly from bafflement about how to reconcile, and partly because of the impending descent of their city into the abyss. This city could be Kabul, or it could be any of the cities captured by ISIS, ordinary cities that have lost that status due to fundamentalist Islam.