‘There is meaning here, the voice says, but you must find it yourself.’
T.S. Eliot and his poetry, especially `Little Gidding' (1942) from Four Quartet...more‘There is meaning here, the voice says, but you must find it yourself.’
T.S. Eliot and his poetry, especially `Little Gidding' (1942) from Four Quartets, play a significant part in this novel. The poem is presented as a consequence of what Eliot saw, one night, as a fire-watcher on the Faber and Faber building in London at the end of the Blitz during World War II.
Iris, a fellow fire-watcher, was with Eliot that night, and later receives a copy of `Little Gidding' inscribed `To Iris, who was there'.
Jim, a pilot from Essendon in Victoria, is the pilot of a disabled Wellington - with a dove painted on its side - which flies over Iris and Eliot that night. The plane crashes, with Jim the only survivor. Jim cannot remember all the details of the crash and the period immediately afterwards.
`The dove descending breaks the air/ With flame of incandescent terror'
Sometime after the accident, Jim and Iris meet in a park. Iris asks Jim if he is alright, and leaves him with a rose. They are attracted to each other, and have an affair: war is everywhere around them with no end in sight; every moment is precious and to be experienced. Jim is tormented by the plane crash and what happened to his crew, while Iris is conscious that she has a previous understanding with another man. She tells Jim of this, and when their telephone conversation ends, so does their contact.
`Then there is special time, time that contains incident and meaning in ways that ordinary time doesn't.'
Sometime later Jim attends Eliot's reading of `Little Gidding' at St Stephen's, South Kensington, hoping to see Iris there as it is the church she used to attend and where she met Eliot. Iris is not there, and Jim thinks of leaving. But then he hears Eliot's `poet's voice' - a voice that is detached from the emotions that surely create poetry, he stays, and finds memories in the words. Later, exhausted, Jim finds his way to Little Gidding where he dies in the snow. And later still, Iris writes her own brutally realistic account of Jim's plane crash.
`What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'
I picked this novel up a few hours ago, and could not put it down. The characters of Jim and Iris are finely drawn and, having listened to a recording of T.S Eliot read some of his poems I have my own sense of his `poet's voice'. `Little Gidding' is a great poem: what Eliot saw and wrote is a very different telling of what Jim experienced. And that, for me, is one of the messages in the novel: perception and reality, memory and experience each depend on different individual assessments. Relationships have strengths, weaknesses and different dimensions. Reality is relative and memory is flawed.
This is Steven Carroll's ninth and most recent novel. It is the second of his novels in which T.S. Eliot plays a part.
‘I have that itchy skin feeling that someone is watching us.’
Tom and Jordy are brothers. They’ve been living with their grandparents since their mothe...more‘I have that itchy skin feeling that someone is watching us.’
Tom and Jordy are brothers. They’ve been living with their grandparents since their mother Loretta left them on the doorstep one day. One day, as the boys are walking between home and school, Loretta turns up. ‘I’ve come to get you, she says.’ It will be fun, Loretta tells them. Jordy is not so sure, but he joins Tom in the car. Together the three of them set of in Loretta’s run-down car on a long journey to a mystery destination.
Tom is eleven, and the younger of the two brothers. He narrates the story – telling what he sees and describing his experiences. But when Loretta and the boys reach their destination – an isolated, dilapidated caravan near the sea – Loretta disappears again. This location does not live up to Loretta’s memory of it, and disappointment sets in quickly. Their near neighbour, Nev, tells the boys to stay away (for good reason as it turns out) but helps them at the end of the story.
The story unfolds through a series of small events which (somehow) largely bypass disaster. And yet danger is never very far away, at least to adult readers.
‘It feels like a dream anyway.’
‘Floundering’ is Romy Ash’s debut novel, and is included on the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award 2013 which was announced earlier today. At just over 200 pages, it is a quick but haunting read. I literally could not put it down: I wanted Tom and Jordy to be safe, to be fed appropriately and to be cared for. I wanted Loretta to look beyond fun and find responsibility. I was pleased that Nev helped the boys, but wished he was more likeable. There is no neat ending to this story, and I was left wondering what would happen next – to Loretta, Tom, Jordy and Nev. ‘Floundering’ may relate to fishing (unsuccessfully in this case) for flounder, but it mostly relates to trying to make sense of people and life.
‘But all explorations were funded by something, Lars had told her more than once.’
Ingrid Christensen has waited for twenty years for her husband Lars...more‘But all explorations were funded by something, Lars had told her more than once.’
Ingrid Christensen has waited for twenty years for her husband Lars to meet his promise to take her to Antarctica. Twenty years, during which Ingrid has given birth to six children and Lars has built a whaling empire. In 1931, subject to conditions, Lars agrees to take Ingrid with him when he sails to the Southern Ocean as part of his whaling business. A landing in Antarctica may be possible. One of Lars's conditions is that Ingrid cannot be the only woman aboard the Thorshavn. Mathilde Wegger, withdrawn and grieving for her husband, is invited by Ingrid to join her as her companion. Mathilde, pressured by her parents-in-law, reluctantly agrees. Mathilde does not want to leave her children, but is afraid that she will lose them to her parents-in-law otherwise. Lillemor Rachlew is fascinated by Antarctica. When she learns of the Christensen's planned trip, she very much wants to be part of it. And with her husband Anton's assistance, she joins the expedition.
Three very different women: each with her own motivation for making this trip, in the enclosed space of a ship carrying fuel oil to the factory ships. Ms Blackadder creates both the beauty and the terror of the sea as well as the claustrophobic cabins of a working ship. Alliances are made, broken, and remade between the women as they rely on each other to survive in such a harsh environment. While some members of the crew are helpful, most of the men would prefer that the women were not on board. And which of the women will be the first to set foot on Antarctica?
`This was Antarctica, hard and bloody and full of need, longing and repulsion, fury, competition and jealousy, bargains made and payments extracted, everyone implicated, everyone faced with their own desire and brutality.'
I enjoyed this novel immensely. While the cruel reality of whaling is part of this journey, it underlines rather than undermines the broader story of the search for territory in Antarctica. It is Ms Blackadder's descriptions of the environment that primarily held my attention: the austere beauty and treachery of the ice. While, for me, the women were largely secondary to the surroundings, I was intrigued by their manoeuvrings and manipulations as each sought to try to gain an advantage.
The voyage described in this novel is loosely based, the author writes, on four trips made by Ingrid with Lars on board the Thorshavn. Lillemor and Mathilde accompanied her on different voyages.
‘And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.’
It’s 1953, and just outside the small country town of C...more‘And adults are part of this pretence – they hold one thing in their hand and call it another.’
It’s 1953, and just outside the small country town of Cohuna in adjacent farmhouses live Harry and Betty. Harry is a dairy farmer and keen birdwatcher, tending his cows in accordance with the rhythms of milking and breeding. Harry was once married, but his wife left him for another birdwatcher. He wonders what went wrong. Betty, the woman next door, is bringing up two children on her own. Betty works at the aged-care centre in town, worries about her children (Michael and Hazel) and imagines a physical relationship with Harry. Harry is something of a father figure for Michael and Hazel, and when he realises how confused Michael is about ‘things with girls’ he writes to Michael about the things he wished he’d known at the same age. Perhaps, if Harry had known more about sex, been both less ignorant and less eager, his wife wouldn’t have left him. Perhaps. Unfortunately, Harry hasn’t spoken with Betty before writing these letters for Michael.
‘Time, in Harry’s understanding is measured in the body. It has something to do with the lungs and the taking in and expelling of air.’
Much of this novel is about records: Harry’s bird watching diary; Betty’s record of her children’s illnesses; Hazel’s nature diary and Harry’s letters to Michael. Harry, the pragmatic farmer, is poetic. Hazel is observant and matter of fact, while Michael is walking the difficult path of adolescence. Betty would like more from life, but isn’t quite sure how to proceed.
In this novel, the natural world is both character and backdrop. Beauty and routine, the mundane and the tragic are all part of life experienced by Betty and Harry. Michael is trying to make sense of his own place in a world which always looks different when adolescence kicks in and Hazel is both observant and resilient. The natural world applies to humans as well as to animals and birds. Well of course it does, but it isn’t always as clearly integrated as it is here.
‘What is the fixative that causes one memory to congeal and set, while others dissolve?’
I enjoyed this novel. It is quietly different and beautifully written. It was recently announced (on 17 April 2013) as the inaugural winner of the Stella Prize 2013.
‘If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?’
This novel was inspired by the life of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger born in 1890...more‘If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?’
This novel was inspired by the life of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger born in 1890, who went bush in the 1920s after killing her third husband. This is Courtney Collins’s debut novel and re-imagines aspects of Jessie Hickman’s life. The narrator is Jessie Hickman’s buried child: “I should not have seen the sky turn pink or the day seep in. I should not have seen my mother’s pale arms sweep up and heap wet earth upon me or the white birds fan out over my head. But I did.”
The buried child tracks her mother’s movement, with her horse Houdini, across the land. Jessie has been accused of murder, theft and witchcraft by her neighbours and has a sizeable bounty on her head, enough to attract a number of men keen to claim it. She is also being sought by Sergeant Barlow, and Aboriginal drover and tracker Jack Brown. Jack Brown was her lover, while Sergeant Barlow has his own reasons for wanting to capture her.
‘This must be the longing of the dirt for the ones who are suspended in flight.’
Themes of death and deprivation are played against the backdrop of a generally harsh Australian bush landscape. The past and present are intertwined in this story: Jessie’s memories of her beloved father Septimus, and of her life as a circus performer contrast with her present in which survival seems unlikely. Jessie has survived by being tough, but her toughness covers a gentler, softer self which longs for an innocent acceptance of self: a form of peace. Which she does find, briefly, with a band of boys in the mountains. Together, Jessie and the boys manage to steal 100 cattle and sell them at saleyards before the owner notices they are missing. It’s a fleeting, pyrrhic victory.
‘This is all I know: death is a magic hall of mirrors and within it there is a door and the door opens both ways.’
I found this novel utterly engrossing. While I was initially very uncomfortable with the narrative device, the further I read the more comfortable I became. The image I formed – of a wise old soul – may not be the image the author intended, but it enabled me to embrace Jessie’s story. To see beyond the harshness, to appreciate resilience and to hope for some form of redemption.
This debut novel was shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2013.
‘THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE. I’d come to ask about a fatal debt.’
Ben Cowper, a psychiatrist at a prestigious hospital...more‘THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE. I’d come to ask about a fatal debt.’
Ben Cowper, a psychiatrist at a prestigious hospital in New York, has just been assigned an emergency patient. His patient is Harry Shapiro, who is a prominent donor to the hospital and was formerly a powerful investment banker. Harry Shapiro is now jobless and bitter, and possibly suicidal. His wife is worried about him, but when Harry rejects an extended voluntary stay in hospital, Ben releases him. There’s politics involved as well: an involuntary stay in hospital might impact on the Shapiro’s continued financial support of the hospital.
Just days later, Ben learns that there has been a shooting death in the Shapiro’s mansion. It looks like Harry has committed murder and, as the doctor who released him from hospital, Ben is in the spotlight. Especially as madness may be Harry Shapiro’s defence against murder.
‘Don’t talk to the hospital or the insurers or the police until you’ve spoken to him. And don’t go visiting any more prisons. You need a lawyer.’
Ben Cowper’s life is turned upside down. The hospital is interested in protecting its own interests, the District Attorney believes that Ben knows more than he’s telling, and the Shapiros seem to have some secrets of their own. Can Ben find out the truth?
‘While I was useful, they bought me, too.’
I found the setting interesting, and the use of the psychiatrist as the protagonist instead of the financier made it easier for the author to provide information about the financial world to readers. We learn, as Ben Cowper does, about the high stakes involved, about the murkiness surrounding certain events and people. Ultimately, though, the characterization of Ben Cowper didn’t work for me, nor did the ending, and this made what I would have described as a good read into an okay one.
‘I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.’
The novel opens with Don Tillman, a genetics professor about to give a public lecture about Asperger...more‘I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.’
The novel opens with Don Tillman, a genetics professor about to give a public lecture about Asperger’s Syndrome as a favour to his friend Gene, a psychology professor.
‘The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom.’
Don, you see, is routine-driven and socially inept, and is probably the best person to talk about Asperger’s (he seems a very likely traveller somewhere on the autism spectrum). Don is focussed on efficiency, and now as he is nearing 40 it’s time for him to get married. The solution is simple: the Wife Project, involving a 16 page questionnaire designed to enable Don to eliminate unlikely candidates before he wastes his time getting to know them. Very efficient! Enter Rosie, a 30 year old, whom he thinks Gene has sent him as a possible candidate. Don quickly realises that Rosie would fail his questionnaire, but despite this he’s a bit interested. When Rosie tells Don that she wants to find out who her father is, and then the Father Project comes into play. In trying to help Rosie find out who her father is, Don learns more about her, himself, and the illogicality of romance.
‘I had no idea sport could be so intellectually stimulating.’
It’s light, and funny. Don may be an unlikely hero, but he is a likeable one. And Rosie? She could be perfect for him. I understand that this novel started life as a screenplay, and I can imagine it as a light romantic comedy. There are a number of laugh- out loud moments in the story, especially where Don describes some of the situations he has found himself in.
‘She must have been a really great genius, and should be better known.’ (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, letter to his mother, 1869)
On Candlemas Eve in 1836,...more‘She must have been a really great genius, and should be better known.’ (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, letter to his mother, 1869)
On Candlemas Eve in 1836, the Twelve Men of Wreay met to consider Miss Losh’s request to make improvements on the road through Wreay where it passes the church and burial ground, to expand the churchyard. Miss Sarah Losh, then aged 50 and unmarried, was the largest landowner and wealthiest resident in her part of Cumbria, near Carlisle and close to the border with Scotland.
Miss Losh’s petition was successful, and six years later she constructed a new church of yellow sandstone. While the style of this new church, called St Mary’s, anticipated the Romanesque revival, it incorporated symbolism from different pasts: turtles and dragons were gargoyles, an eagle perched on top of the belfry, and the interior included ‘strange stained glass, bright leaves on black backgrounds, kaleidoscopic mosaics, alabaster cut-outs of fossils.’ There are snakes and tortoises, lotus flowers and pomegranates. And everywhere there were pinecones - ‘an ancient symbol of regeneration, fertility and inner enlightenment’ – carved onto the walls, into the roof beams and on the front door-latch.
‘To call herself an ‘architect’ would have been unthinkable: that was a man’s profession, and she was a woman and an amateur.’
We know what Miss Losh achieved, but not really why she did it. Miss Losh destroyed most of her personal papers, and the house she lived in has long been cleared of its contents.
In this biography, Ms Uglow writes that she first saw St Mary’s as a girl, and ‘years later crossing the road from the green in a haze of Cumbrian rain… I became curious about its creator’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti visited the church in 1869, sometime after Sarah Losh’s death, and described it as ‘full of beauty and imaginative detail, though extremely severe and simple’.
Sarah Losh (1785-1853) was the eldest of the three legitimate children of John Losh. John Losh himself was the eldest of four surviving brothers, who made their fortune in an alkali works, and then from iron foundries and railways. Sarah and her sister Katharine became their father’s heirs – examples, in Ms Uglow’s words of ‘how the industrial revolution made some women independent.’ Well, independent up to a point. In a different era, Sarah Losh might have designed and built cathedrals, but in 19th century Britain this could not be possible.
I found this book fascinating. I enjoy the way Ms Uglow writes (which was the main reason I picked up this book in the first place). In another place and time, Ms Losh might well have achieved more and different things. But St Mary’s, finished in 1842 with the Pennines to the east, and the mountains of the Lake District to the west, has its own mystery and charm. The photographs included in the book are a great adjunct to the text: I wanted to see and to know more about Sarah Losh and her work.