Exhaustively researched & written in a deliciously almost-purple prose (very 19th century, I thought), this book certainly gave me a clear impress...moreExhaustively researched & written in a deliciously almost-purple prose (very 19th century, I thought), this book certainly gave me a clear impression of the slums & poverty of Sydney at the end of the 1800s. It starts with the sad story of unmarried teenage lovers forced by financial circumstance to surrender their baby daughter to 'baby farmers', where she shortly died. When you're a young man who can't afford to feed a family on one measly income, or you're a young woman who can't afford to declare your motherhood because if you do you'll lose your job, there's not a lot of options. But the idea that people would buy & sell babies in the classified sections of newspapers still shocked me, & also shocking was the fact many services offered up this option: "you will never be bothered by your child again".
I admit I skim-read the 'begatting' section at the front of the book that came after this brief intro. This is the bit that travels back a generation or two to explain how the key players all got to Australia (in short: they were mainly broke, & they usually stole some food, & then they were put on ships & sent to the penal colony, booyah), although even a brief read of that section does make it clear what a bunch of starving, sad white people we had in Sydney back then. But at that stage, I was more interested to understand what baby farming *was*. And it is simply this: the unpoliced trade of children for cash. I was surprised to hear how common it was -- apparently even Jane Austen was farmed out to a local village for a few years of her infancy (in Britain, not in Sydney).
Around 6000 babies died in NSW annually between 1880-1890. 7500 in Victoria during the same period. And tangentially, a neat way to kill a baby was to use opium-based 'mother's helper' tonics -- a byproduct of Britain's rather brutal imperialism in India & China. The baby would be so stoned it would starve silently.
Also, the effect looked a lot like syphillis--the most common, naturally-occurring baby killer of the time.
So I figured that, given the amount of resistance I've always had towards this book, I might end up loving it fiercely when I finally read it. But I d...moreSo I figured that, given the amount of resistance I've always had towards this book, I might end up loving it fiercely when I finally read it. But I didn't. I just liked it. Well enough.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the fact it's almost a series of short stories rather than a novel (Park herself said she wanted to write a book that was plotless, like life). I enjoyed the early chapters, which were mainly character portraits. I enjoyed the way Park evokes the poverty, over-crowding and lack of hope of the pitiful classes living in Surry Hills in the post-WWII era. I enjoyed one character in particular. Who died. Of course.
I was also pleased to find out how gritty it was. (The chapter with the bed bugs stands out!) I even enjoyed the Strine (Australianisms) which might otherwise have evoked desperate acts of cultural cringe in a more sentimental book. And I felt like I grew to understand why people with no hope will continue to pleasure the flesh--mostly through alcohol--rather than try for any grander, more apparently-impossible and longer-term kinds of acts.
I didn't enjoy the patronising racism or some aspects of the 'angel in the house' gender moralism, obviously. 'Nuff said.
I initially enjoyed but then grew weary of the way no character seemed capable of experiencing an emotion without it somehow becoming Grand and Great, as either a sign of their class, race (Irish, mainly, for some reason) or gruelling lifestyle. I also grew tired of being reminded that anger springs from hurt, & all the ways anger springs, & all the hurts that exist.
Though I did, for once, enjoy the 'hooker with a heart of gold'-type character! And also the nuns. And the boarder who refuses to share her first name right up until she leaves. Ha haaa! But especially the hooker, she was kinda great.
I did feel that Park occasionally laughs at her characters (for example, when two of them believe they're looking at a ruby when in fact it's something cheaper) & occasionally during the early chapters, I felt there was sometimes more pity than compassion, if you know what I mean. It's hard to quantify a sensibility, though, & I might just be that the old fashioned prose combined with the god-like perspective felt arch when possibly it wasn't intended that way.
And I found some of the more tragic events eye-rollingly predictable, but that's with the benefit of several decades more literature to read, about how fate is kinder to women who make servile decisions and how the physically challenged exist to teach the rest of us a lesson about our humanity. But wait! I said I wouldn't mention the moralism.
I was glad to receive a kind of happy ending for most of the characters.
The title still gives me hives, even though I now know it means The Irish in Australia, & not, as I feared, The Quite Dull Musical Instrument Inna Field Someplace. Conversely, I was pleased to find the word 'verdant' does not appear anywhere in the text.
I was, finally, struck by the intimacy of the Darcys, with each other and with the neighbourhood. I thought about them several times as I wandered through my neighbourhood over the weeks I was reading this book. I thought about the mud, & the vibrancy, & the life that was crammed into the streets of these old Sydney suburbs. And I was very glad it's not quite that bad anymore.
#aww2013 no.17 (marked as 19th Century reading in my list only because it evokes that earlier era)(less)
Initially I was kinda confused because I'd gone into the book thinking it was a mystery: a conclusion I'd built from the back cover blurb & the apparent subtitle on the front ("What has happened to Ingrid?"). But it's not a mystery. Instead I was taken by surprise by how sombre it is and by the whole Henry James soberness (I actually wanted to write that as 'sombriety') - though I do applaud Tranter for fixing the depressing ending of PORTRAIT OF A LADY (thank-you!). Occasionally it reminded me of Donna Tartt's marvellous THE SECRET HISTORY in its undergrad/postgrad setting & mood. But of course at other times it manages to be entirely its own book, a more personal book than its two most obvious peers.
A quick précis: after a short, sharp prologue from Ingrid's point of view, the novel becomes the story of the more purposeless Julia as she obsesses over Ralph (& Ingrid, to some extent) while Ralph obsesses over Ingrid who goes missing during the 9/11 attacks which prompts Ralph a year later to buy Julia a ticket to New York so she can wander through the apparent end of Ingrid's life. So that even when Julia does discover a purpose ('to answer the question on the front cover'), it's really not her purpose, it's Ralph's. Which is very Henry James of her, of course.
I enjoyed some of the writing in THE LEGACY, but ultimately I wasn't satisfied by the book as a whole. I do admire books that can sustain a mood, though, and throughout this book there is a delicate sense of Jamesian portent - but it's often accompanied by an attention to detail so thorough that, say, the act of choosing a cranberry juice on page 225 takes 3 lines.
("Wait," our protagonist tells her companion, and for an instant you think she's found Ingrid, that there's about to be some revelation or terrible happening, some light or dark to what happens next. But then she crosses to the fridge and takes out a cranberry juice. And three lines later you're left wondering, 'did she pay for that?')
The feel of a mandarin in her hand, the spot of blood on a tie, the pile of papers someone carries - they all feel kinda over-observed and drawn out. Worn out, in fact, by the very insistent *application* of drama. The detail _should_ be dramatic, you think, but in the midst of the vast extent of the book's supposed drama, it fails to stand out. As if the drama isn't occurring naturally in the story. As if it is only observed. Not felt. And perhaps that's why I found the book heavy going: there's detail, yes, but there's not a lot of meaning to the detail. Which is a kind of post-modern contrast to James, really, when I think about it.
Looking back, I wonder if the book would have worked better for me if it had broken away from Henry James much sooner, shrugged off some of its maudlin earnestness and instead added some other dimension. A counterpoint to (the rather insipid) Julia, say. Someone willing to stand up to our unhappy protagonist and say, 'Oh, Julia, you miserable sod, get over yourself'. Some light for the darkness. Some humour or even a critical perceptiveness to alleviate the moroseness. It's almost as though the protagonist sucks everyone into her orbit of unjustifiable despair. Even a teenage party, even a sexual encounter feel kind of ponderous and weighty. And when Julia comments on someone's smile as having 'a transformative effect', I noticed that the smile came at the end of their meeting, not the beginning. As if that person was glad to see the back of Julia (as I would be, by the end). I had a sense, watching Julia meander through Sydney and New York that she brought the darkness with her; that it isn't so much that her dread is a portent of bad things to come - but a cause.
Okay, so I didn't like Julia. And I didn't like Ingrid, despite my sharp surge of compassion during the prologue. Alas, after the blunt and shocking prologue, she drops away to become little more than 'the object of obsession'. And stories of obsessive love or friendship - strictly imho - are often hampered by their own objectification. If you describe the object, you run the risk of your readers reacting with 'I don't get the big deal about Ingrid, she seems a bit of a princess' (I bet that motivated the prologue). If you don't describe them, you end up with a book that is self-absorbed, an internal examination of the sense of obsessiveness, a reflective self-consciousness. And THE LEGACY does sometimes feel like a very personal transcript by a character who's really rather mopey.
That said, I'll continue to read Kirsten Tranter's novels because I have a sense that with the perceptiveness and patience to be found in this debut novel, Tranter's work will keep getting better & better.
This is a dense, complicated book delivered in a staccato prose. It's relentless, sometimes exhausting, with a brand of Strine so thick I admit I didn...moreThis is a dense, complicated book delivered in a staccato prose. It's relentless, sometimes exhausting, with a brand of Strine so thick I admit I didn't always know what was going on. It's also thoroughly absorbing. Marvellous to see so much of Sydney in the story - and a realistically multicultural Sydney at that. Hurrah!
I don't think I ever really took to protagonist Nhu 'Ned' Kelly or the assortment of difficult people that surround her. I did wish we'd gotten to see more of her mother, Ngoc, who seemed such a figure of pathos. But as Nhu says of her parents, they were "[c]onfident they'd live to know their daughters, not realising the need to leave clues."
Nhu herself is the kind of character that carries a lot of rage, gets into a lot of fights & is relatively humourless. Admittedly she has a lot of tragedy in her life, some of it outside her control (for example, the early death of her parents) & some of it within (her affair with a married man).
Remarkably, I actually managed to guess at some of the plot, which is an otherwise unheard-of feat for me. It only endeared the book more. Another hurrah!
This is a very individual book, told in a unique voice. And if I wanted to maybe edit 80+ pages out of it, well, regular readers of my reviews may already know of my impatience with long stories - & they will know to take my comments with a grain of salt.