“I learned how to slaughter the animals,” says Charlie Beal. “Learned to walk up to them so they trusted me and they weren’t afraid.”
The year is 1948, and the laconic, enigmatic Charlie has arrived in small-town Brownsburg, Virginia, carrying two bags. One is full of cash, and the other full of butcher’s knives. Taking a job with Will, the town’s butcher, Charlie proves himself a deft hand at his work, and slowly acquaints himself with the manners and norms of this deeply conservative, strictly segregated small town.
“The people here then, they believed in God and The Book…the faith of their fathers passed through them mother to son, son to daughter and son, until it peopled the towns they made,” recounts the book’s narrator, Will’s son Sam, looking back over the years to tell the story of Charlie’s arrival and the grim events that follow–and in which Sam himself was horribly swept up.
Brownsburg is a superficially picturesque town, but beneath its veneer of civility is something startlingly mercurial. In a context where it’s standard practice to turn a blind eye or to avoid rocking the boat, the existence of seething undercurrents of despair and loathing can only be expected. All that’s needed is an inciting event to set them bubbling to the surface. And Charlie Beal’s behaviour begins to depart from what’s appropriate and moral, peeling away little bit little to begin with, and then recklessly so.
It starts when Charlie admits that he’s not a church-goer–in large part because he has not found a church that focuses more on the positive aspects of spirituality rather than the fire and brimstone side of things. There’s a suggestion, of course, that there’s more to Charlie’s past than we ever learn as readers, and it seems that Charlie’s neighbours themselves have their qualms. It’s Will and his wife who insist that Charlie attend church if only to keep up appearances. Charlie, however, missteps by attending the local black church, which ignites gossip all around.
Charlie’s misdemeanours don’t end here, however. Upon meeting Sylvan Glass, the young, beautiful wife of the foul Boaty Glass, who has quite literally purchased her from her family, Charlie is smitten: “Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face.” It’s soon evident that Sylvan and Charlie are carrying on an affair, but the townsfolk’s habit of unseeing the truth, along with the general dislike levelled at Boaty results in an effective code of silence. Even though Charlie has set about buying up vast tracts of land in Sylvan’s name, something which can be easily checked by anyone who cares to look, no one says anything of it, and so Charlie continues to quietly rail against the town’s way of life, creating a disturbance that begins slowly but soon becomes difficult to ignore.
“It’s a sad thing to watch your best friend turn into somebody you don’t know any more. Or even want to know. Still, you’ve got to pretend. Make the best of it,” Will says early on in the book. He is speaking at the time of Boaty, but these same words can be just as aptly used to describe his relationship with Charlie. For Charlie grows ever-more self-destructive, and though we never learn what it is about his past that haunts him, there’s a suggestion of violence and brutality that increasingly haunts the pages.
Charlie may be “A better man than [Sylvan's] husband” but he is “nevertheless a man whose ownership of her consisted of giving her power over everything he had in this world, so that he had nothing, nothing at all except her.” This sort of dependency is something that Charlie loathes. ”He hated the way the dog looked at him with such pathetic faith…there’s something about helplessness that makes us despise the helpless,” we hear at one point, and we know that this deliberate ploy to give himself over to Sylvan is going to be his downfall: it’s as though he’s positioning himself beneath the guillotine. Charlie is like the dress that Sylvan loves, a dress that “only revealed itself after the initial effect had come and gone…as though the dress held a secret, and only told the secret when the time came.”
And yet, for all the lurking darkness and Charlie’s prophetic words about getting others to trust him utterly no matter the danger, the final act seems difficult to reconcile with what we know of him. It’s desperate and emotional and seems to go against the grain of the taciturn, if disturbed and amoral, man that we have come to know. In part it’s that the novel is told from the perspective of Will’s son looking back on these events, an approach that creates unnecessary distance, but it also seems as though there’s a need for a more explicit inciting act.
There’s a good deal to like here: Goolrick’s quiet, gentle prose serves up a good deal of darkness, and the elegant thematic echoes reverberate across the text in a way that means that much of the book works on several levels. However, the use of Sam as the narrator detracts from the book’s sense of veracity and immediacy, and some transitions, such as the beginning of Charlie and Sylvan’s affair, seem almost glossed over. The township’s fickle reaction to Charlie’s behaviour seems odd, too, and though their vacillation between acceptance and rejection of him is certainly rather disturbing food for thought, it feels engineered rather than real. In all, though, this is an intriguing and layered read whose themes will be sure to divide readers. (less)
Eva Khatchadourian is ambivalent on the notion of children: she fears the curtailing of her life and career, and the mind-numbing spiral into a world of baby-talk and mushy foods. But yet, Eva has always wanted something more out of her life than what it has offered up to her from its platter of banality. The anguish she experienced at her tenth birthday party stemmed not from the fact that her mother didn’t make an effort, but rather that she did, and the result failed to transcend the puerile, the day to day.
For Eva, the decision to have a child stems from an existential haze that is slowly descending on her to blinding effect. The birth of a child is seen in society as something transcendental, a way of establishing oneself as a member of a club that has bragging rights to its very existence: it is, perhaps, Eva thinks desperately, a way of escaping those endless barriers and manacles of daily life. But her romantic designs are soon humbled when she learns that pregnancy and motherhood are perhaps, in reality, as she has suspected, poisonous carrots dangled in front of dreamy, worldly women in order to entice them into a club of behavioural manipulation, and to narrow their sphere of existence rather than blowing it wide open.
Eva, the owner of a shoe-string travel guidebook company, whose very spiritual nourishment comes from the unique mixture of fear and delight of travelling abroad and who bathes in other cultures as a way of cleansing herself of her very Americanness–something she loathes enough that she flies the flag of her Armenian background wherever possible–sees having a child as, perhaps, a journey into those most unrelatable, challengingly foreign vistas. But rather, she finds motherhood draws a rather terrible parallel with a trip she takes to Africa not long after her son is born: everything is too much this way or that way; there is no comfort to be found; the available paths for the hapless tourist are few, and the desire to venture beyond these carefully delineated tour-guided areas can, so very readily, end in disaster. And if this does indeed happen, it’s your own fault.
“Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it’s against the rules, isn’t it, to actually have a baby and spend time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn’t,” muses Eva retrospectively, as she writes to her husband in the wake of what we learn is a multiple-homicide committed by her teenaged son Kevin. “But a Pandoran perversity draws me to prise open what is forbidden. I have an imagination, and I like to dare myself.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin is constructed in epistolary format, taking the form of a series of lengthy letters written by Eva as she contrasts her present situation with that of the past, slowly working her way towards the inexorable school shooting incident. In her brutally honest, unflinching manner, she carefully excavates the emotional artefacts of her past, carefully cataloguing and describing them, and as archaeologists do, ascribing a sense of narrative and purpose to them. Kevin is a novel that has famously divided its readers into two camps: those who put Kevin Khatchadourian’s actions down to an innate evil, and those who skewer Eva for her conflicted approach to parenthood, and even the conflicted manner in which she identifies as a parent: the precocious Kevin, from an early age, seems to catch on to this, calling Eva “Mommer”, a term that she readily goes along with.
Such small details, however, exist alongside larger ones across the identity and experience of Eva, and there are numerous instances of Eva settling in situations that are less than ideal, and others where she seems to seek out the terrible out of a desire for self-flagellation. She speaks of rough sex in the bedroom; marries a man who is the veritable opposite of the man that she thought that she would end up with–indeed, her husband is, in my mind at least, a blindly sexist man who is so wrapped up in his own entitlement that he scarcely sees Eva as a person–; gives up her body and autonomy throughout and indeed after a pregnancy; sacrifices her career in order to align with pressing societal expectation, nevermind that she is the CEO of a successful business, while her husband is a mere location scout; and meekly backs down when her husband purchases a vast suburban McMansion that is the antithesis of the home that Eva has always wanted.
It’s perhaps prescient, then, that Eva demands that her son should take her surname, so that she might have something upon which she is allowed to make her mark. Admittedly, though she only succeeds in her efforts after a good deal of protestation on her husband’s behalf, and her coup is only managed after evoking the Armenian genocide as an argument in its favour. The venom oozing from this scene, and the claim that she tries to makes of her son, provides an interesting contrast to Eva’s later matter-of-fact comment of her “approach to parenthood being conditional…the conditions strict.” She goes on to note that perhaps, rather than testing for deformities, the doctor in charge of her amniocentesis might have tested for “malice, for spiteful indifference, for congenital meanness.” The implication is, of course, that Eva may be aware that she carries these very transgressive genes.
I do wonder whether these qualities had been found that Eva would have acted on them: indeed, the very unqualified nature of the passage suggests to me that Kevin’s nature is something that Eva simultaneously despises and admires, largely because Kevin is so very much Eva, but without the fetters of being born female: “I leant from the best,” Kevin says at one point. We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a simple study of nature versus nurture, but it is also one of identity, projection of self, and of the reconstructive nature of prose. Eva has lived a life of the boundaries and limitations that are impressed from every angle on women, and especially on those women who choose to walk amongst the child-bearing mainstream. Her escapes overseas are a leap for oxygen after spending so long in the airless void of the dank depths of anti-intellectual consumerist America, but every effort to rail against the pressures of the cultural amniotic sac that surrounds her is stymied by cultural norms and the constantly evoked concept of “tradition”. If it is even noticed in the first place. Eva, then, is a victim of anti-feminist expectation, and she is, quite conceivably, angry about it.
In a world where women are tolerated under a guise of equality, it’s little surprise that Eva finds herself struggling for a voice. And one way of having another opportunity to speak is through having a child. ”In a way you get to do everything twice,” she says. “Even if our kid had problems at least they wouldn’t be our same own problems.” But, despite this, Kevin’s constant, endless misdemeanours go all but unnoticed: Eva’s husband either turns a blind eye to his son’s behaviour, or fails to notice it at all. “You never do [see anything wrong],” mutters Eva darkly at one point, simmering with the frustration of her desperation, and indeed Kevin’s own–for Kevin is an extension of Eva, of course–going unnoticed. ”For you he was ‘our son’,” she notes in one of her letters to her husband. “There was a persistently generic character to your adoration that I’m certain he sensed.”
For me, the constant battle between Eva and Kevin is that Kevin is as much as symbol as he is a character: he is Eva’s anger and frustration made manifest, the very embodiment of her own sense of uselessness and the focus of her country on the pithy, the trivial, the ephemeral. Kevin’s atrocious final act is, in a way, a violent interpretation of Eva’s own desperation, and perhaps something that means far more to her than it does to him. ”So he is resentful,” she says at one point. “And I don’t blame him for being bored with his own atrocity already, or for envying others their capacity to abandon it.” And yet, Eva, though she ostensibly abhors his actions, sets about reliving them and the compounding moments of transgression that lead up to this final protest.
“As far as I can tell, it was War on Weirdos,” she says of the increased vigilance surrounding a series of copycat school shootings. “But I identified with weirdos…Were I a student at Gladstone High in 1998, I’d surely have written some shocking fantasy…about putting my forlorn family out of its misery…or in a civics project on “diversity” the gruesome detail in which I recounted the Armenian genocide would betray an unhealthy fascination with violence.”
In fact, given the distanced nature afforded by the book’s epistolary format, it’s not inconceivable that Kevin is not just a vessel for Eva’s ever-growing disillusionment: I can’t help but feel that her earlier admission to wanting to “prise open what is forbidden” suggests that what we are reading may not necessarily be the truth at all, and that we may indeed be reading a narrative imagination. How much of Eva’s account is veracious, and how much is sheer imagination–a protest on paper, in the non-violent manner that Eva has spent her adult years preaching? ”His silence seemed to confront me with a miniature version of my own dissembling,” she says at one point. “If I found our son’s visage too shrewd and contained, the same shifty mask of opacity stared back at me when I brushed my teeth.” And perhaps, then, there’s more to Eva’s husband’s simple statement: ”The answer, if there is one, is the parents.”
For someone who eschews violence and seeks protest through other means, is it so unlikely that a woman who has striven all of her life for a voice might do so through the page, through that very medium that has allowed her to forge her career and to reflect? (Or, perhaps, if Kevin is indeed the stuff of the real world, through a third party who has all the benefits of being a white male at his fingertips?) Moreover, the letter format of the novel is adamantly one-sided, meaning that response and recourse is not possible: perhaps the non-responses to Eva’s letters have rather less to do with the fact that the person to whom she is writing is dead, but rather that for all we know he might not have existed in the first place. There is a certain truth in madness, and though Eva’s account is achingly lucid, it is difficult to determine where recollection is replaced with projection, and to me Eva and Kevin become very much one another, with the difference being that one lives in a world of non-actualised protest, while the other makes a statement so overt it cannot be ignored.
The Gordian connectedness of Eva and her son and their nihilistic outlooks is perhaps most clearly illustrated when Eva asks her son what he did what he did, and Kevin answers with, “I thought I knew. But I’m not so sure any more.” And it’s this endless ambiguity that is what make this such a brilliant, haunting read.(less)
“Every day I find stories sadder and more stupid than ours,” reflects Billy on his newfound addiction to those trashy magazines that line the check-out shelves at the supermarket. Not the fashion magazines or even the Hollywood gossip rags, but the ones that deal in the currency of the tragedy of the everyman. “It’s good. It helps. It means that I can tell myself that I’m lucky.”
Billy is attending his mother’s funeral.
At nineteen, Billy has become the carer for his six-year-old half-brother Oscar, for whom he is determined to care to the best of his ability–never mind the escalating bills, Oscar’s increasing insularity, or the fact that Billy will be off to university next year. Withdrawing from the world and all of its responsibilities, the boys seek solace in each other and the fort they’ve created from their mum’s home. Their lives become a blur of takeaway food, action movies and bath-time rituals, and by focusing on these small moments rather than the warnings from the gas and electricity company, and Oscar’s erratic behaviour, Billy is able to cope.
But coping is a long way from actually functioning, and his efforts to juggle his part-time job at the local museum, an awkward almost-love affair with a school teacher, and the haunting spectre of Aidan Jebb, the man who killed Billy’s mother, increasingly take their toll. Billy continues to push through, striving to prove that he is capable of caring for his brother, making light of issues such as Oscar’s wetting the bed, his bullying of other children and his complete and utter emotional breakdown over a Chupa Chup. Billy’s greatest fear is that he’ll lose the only family he has left, and when his Aunt Toni and Oscar’s deadbeat father attempt to apply for custody of Oscar we see just how damaged he is: his fear of abandonment and his coping-by-withdrawal methods become increasingly overt.
With the risk of losing Oscar becoming a reality, Billy turns to his valued methods of escapism, but increasingly finds that they’re turning on him as well. The computer game he spends his days immersed in lets him down when his carefully built armies and cities are destroyed; the Life! Death! Prizes! magazines for which the book is named merely numb him, and so does the pornography to which he then turns; the woman he’s been seeing slips through his fingers; his job is under threat.
So many of these things, however, are pure chance–just like the death of Billy’s mother, and he can’t help but fixate on Aidan Jebb, constructing a life for him, humanising him, and then tearing him down in the depths of his imagination. He recreates and reimagines, offering so many what ifs around his mother: what if she had simply let Aidan Jebb take the laptop computer he was trying to steal, rather than fighting back and losing her life over a cheap piece of plastic? He creates an imagined punishment for Jebb as well, using an historic incident involving two child thieves as a basis for justification. The Jebb thread is woven throughout the book as a marker of Billy’s obsession with his mother’s killer.
But his fixation on Jebb also, at times, humanises the man. When Billy, fearful about Oscar’s mental state, conjectures ”What does emotional abuse actually mean?” he asks, listing dozens of horrific cases of “properly abused” children: “thing us, we are our individual personality disorders. That’s what makes us human”, he is simultaneously creating an argument for Jebb and his actions as well. Indeed, towards the end of the book, the two are temporarily twinned; unfortunately, although the thematic consistency works well here, Billy’s actions as he reaches true Jebbian depths don’t quite seem to gel with what we know of his character.
Life! Death! Prizes! is what might be described as a biting narrative–it certainly sinks its teeth into you at times, leaving marks that you want to rub and prod at. May’s writing is sharp and honest, a mix of the bleak and the humorous, and he excels at contrasting the mundane and the human, and making something of the everyday.
Billy’s constant assertion that someone always has it worse and his news of magazine props to prove his point, not to mention the many methods of seclusion available to him in the modern world, is a sad but accurate reflection on the coping mechanisms of disillusioned and alienated society, and applies not just at the level of our protagonist, but across everyone in the novel as well. The sheer amount of coincidence in the book, a deliberate and effective ploy, only highlights how the terrible things we revel in as a way of elevating our own lives may only be an unexpected twist away.(less)
Just yesterday my husband were in the suburb of Flemington, where I was living when we first started dating. We wandered down Racecourse Road, noting the various cafes and nooks we’d eaten at and our memories of those moments: vinegar-drenched fish in the tiny park behind the public library; spiced baked eggs in a cafe regularly shaken by the trains running past Newmarket station; the oily scents of the hidden local laksa joint; the muddled meats and curries of the starkly appointed local Sudanese cafe; the shiny potato noodles that swooned off a fork at my favourite Kensington cafe.
As our relationship progressed, we moved beyond cafes and restaurants to cooking together–cocoa-smothered truffles that stickied our fingers and huffed a fine chocolate dust around my kitchen; mounds of garden-scented tabouleh; the earthy cross-sections of root vegetable lasagnes. After that we turned our attentions to Footscray market and its endlessly surprising produce. We cracked open spiny durians in search of their musky custard innards, peeled the gritty eyeballs of longan, hacked at the scaly flesh of dragonfruit, gritted our teeth at the prices of mangosteens.
When I picked up Michelle Maisto’s The Gastronomy of Marriage, I found myself and my husband in its pages. Michelle, like me, comes from an Italian background, and is pescetarian, as I was at the time I met my husband; her husband Rich, like mine, is Chinese. Food is a part of our cultural identities, and as it is for Maisto and her partner, it’s been a source of discovery and understanding for both of us.
Maisto’s memoir is written with endless epicurean flourishes in a style so rich you can almost taste it on your tongue; her prose revels in the sensuousness of food and the rituals surrounding it. This slim volume is an examination of how intrinsically food itself, as well as the ceremony surrounding the preparation and serving of food, is linked to culture and identity, and how traditions regarding food are passed down through families in so many ways–food as celebration; food as medication; food as love. Her discussions with Rich over congee versus pastina as the perfect food for convalescence make me think of the many times my mother-in-law has arrived with a giant container of chicken broth and bags of various dried herbs–not to mention the time she forced my husband to choke down a plate of chicken tendons in order to help heal his recently snapped achilles. The giving of care packages is reminiscent of those from my own family: nary an occasion passes without my arriving home with preserved olives, home-made pepper sauces or an unfathomable panettone, something I loathe and invariably cast off to some other unsuspecting soul.
There’s also the creation of new traditions, with Maisto and Rich puzzling out variations on the Italian-Chinese tradition, fusing salads with noodly mains, incorporating shrimp paste into hearty slow-cooked meals, and re-imagining those beloved family desserts. My husband and I have done the same, mixing and melding flavours and styles, and forging our own gastronomic path, giving our loved ones home-made jams and spiced shortbread at Christmas or Chinese New Year, sending foodie treats along with our ang pao. Perhaps the most notable of these efforts was our wedding, where rather than having a formal sit-down affair, we had our relatives and friends back their favourite desserts for us, in doing so, we hoped, encouraging a sense of sharedness between our two families and cultures.
Still, for all the importance of food ideology in a relationship and its resulting domestic negotiations–who cooks? how many dishes should be used? where should things be stored?–towards the end of this memoir I did find myself becoming a little burnt out, if you’ll pardon the pun, on the incessant melding of food and love, and began to long for some sort of off-topic amuse bouche to distract my palate between the heady mains of each chapter. By the last fifty pages, I did wonder whether this book might have worked better as a series of essays, or perhaps as something dipped in and out of, like a ten course tasting menu, rather than devoured all at once, hawker-style. Still, this is a beautifully written volume whose sweet aftertaste lingers, and I’d recommend it to lovers of food as well as lovers still working out the menu of their relationship.(less)
Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a slow learner. Why is it that the books I put off reading the longest are always the ones that end up resonating with me the most? Perhaps it’s that I’m getting old and the plasticity of my brain isn’t what it used to be, or that I’m settling quite comfily into the staid mindset that comes with becoming a proper adult, where at the end of each day, my overworked mind wants nothing more than to fling off its confining business-like trappings and slump into the intellectual equivalent of woolly slippers and and a Snuggie?
All I can say is that I’m glad that every now and then some literary singleton drags my poor little brain out for a spin. And yes, Alison Wonderland is indeed one of those books. If Lewis Carroll, Haruki Murakami, and Ulrich Beck got together and ate too many Smarties, snorted some lines of sherbet and then span around in circles for a good five minutes, this is the book they would subsequently sit down to write. It’s both surreal and hyperreal, and it’s very, very strange and very, very funny.
Freshly free of her cheating spouse, Alison Temple takes a position working as a freelance investigator. But as she sets about following suspicious married types about–note: your wayward partner may merely be, ahem, casting his rod for actual fish, not for other fish in the sea–she finds herself the subject of a bizarre investigation that is the result of a series of communicative blunders and assumptions, largely one involving a presumed intelligence and craftiness that is well beyond what the addled Alison, whose mind is always late for a very important date, exhibits. And thus, while Alison is off daytripping (and tripping) by the sea, in search of cabbage patch babies and witchy-poo myths, the authorities are cobbling together dozens of bits of wrongly interpreted evidence that they’re convinced proves that Alison is an activist mastermind bent on taking down the world’s GMO operations. Let this be a warning to those of you who care to mark down your friends’ star signs in your address book.
A frothy mix of plaited plotlines that weave in and out of our world and one very much beyond it, Alison Wonderland is a novel of sleuthing after cheating lovers, of genetic engineering, of undefined relationships and of the grit of London. Or at least, it seems to be–reality is very much a thing of question here. This is a novel whose verve and delight exists at the apogee of its plot, with its true appeal being in the hurdy-gurdy of Smith’s prose and her ability to slap the reader with a cod of insight that in other books would flail limply about on the page. She blends the mundane and the banal with the serious and the intellectual, and serves it up with a garnish of the absurdity that is a comedy of errors.
Along with assessments of social activists who rue that “a social conscience doesn’t leave much time for a social life”, we’re fed such sweet morsels as that involving the outlaw status of the Jaffa Cake, the “Robin Hood of the snack world” due to its VAT-exempt status; we shuffle ashamedly along with such painfully true statements as the businessperson who says “I never see my family” while meaning “see how attractive I am; my wife still loves me even though I ignore her except to talk about work”, and cringe at oh-she-didn’t moments such as where Alison objects to her friend Taron tying red protective ribbons to their foundling pseudo-daughter’s clothing because “she looks too much like an AIDS fashion statement”.
Like the Carroll novel that is its namesake–although other than its down-the-rabbit-hole dreaminess of this volume, there’s little else to connect the two–Alison Wonderland is the kind of book that stirs up all of the ignored gunk at the bottom of a fishpond and sets it seething to the surface, where you can’t help but see it, no matter how much you want to pretend you haven’t. It’s embarrassing and abrasive, and it’s also surprisingly beautiful, if, of course, a novel that involves sheep-pig bestiality can be called beautiful.(less)
It’s curious to review Heather Gudenkauf’s One Breath Away in the wake of Christopher Priest’s The Glamour. Though vastly different in content and tone, both feature multiple voices recounting their perspectives of a particular event, and both highlight how narrative and history can be rewritten and recreated based upon a viewpoint character’s particular perspective. Priest’s book opens with a character wondering how he arrived at such a point in his life, a challenge that is levelled equally at Gudenkauf’s characters.
The narrative of One Breath Away revolves around a single, central point: the arrival of a gunman at the local school. Gudenkauf provides us with myriad perspectives to attempt to make sense of the situation, and what emerges is a fascinating exploration of the personal guilt we all harbour and the damaged lives that many people live. It’s also an examination of involvement by degree, with the point of view characters varying in their level of implication in this immediate conflict.
There’s Holly, who lies in hospital, recovering from severe burns, when she learns that her daughter, Augie, is trapped in the school. Holly’s impotence and regret are achingly palpable, and her role is utterly removed from the conflict. So too is Will Thwaite, Holly’s estranged father, who is determined to see his grandchildren to safety without causing Holly any further trauma.
Augie, though within the school, is removed by a degree from the gunman, who has set up in her younger brother’s classroom. Like Holly and Will, Augie is wracked by guilt over her perceptions of having failed her family, and attempts to act to save her brother. Outside the school gates, police officer Meg, on the other hand, is torn over how to respond to the situation. Her daughter, who would ordinarily be in the classroom, is fortuitously away from school that day, but Meg is plagued by thoughts that she might respond differently to the situation were her daughter there. School teacher Mrs Oliver, on the other hand, spends the novel in the immediate vicinity with the gunman. Unlike the others, hers is a life that is largely free of regrets, and it’s this that allows her to act as she does.
Gudenkauf explores the stand-off between the police and the gunman from both within the school and from outside, with the characters on either side of the wall unable to know what is happening beyond their present sphere of existence. Instead, each character’s viewpoint chapters are full of possibles and imaginings, each of which overlays a particular narrative to what is happening, rather like in the Priest book. Guilt plays an enormous role here, with so many of the characters seeking to atone for past actions or inaction by becoming involved in the situation. The gunman’s identity, too, shifts as the various characters dig into their pasts and come up with a particular individual who may well be the man behind the mask. Brothers, fathers, past students are all possible solutions are various times as the characters project their damaged existences on to the present situation.
However, this ongoing misdirection and the slowness of the various participants in responding to the situation results in the middle section of the book feeling somewhat slow and devoid of tension. This is partly because the book’s focus is not on the gunman and his actions, but rather about the events that led to a character taking such a terrifying stand, and about the subsequent revealing of his identity. After the first few chapters we get the feeling that those in the classroom aren’t in any real danger, and what we’re watching unfold is a sort of waiting game. Although I appreciated the focus on the characters and on how their various pasts could all ostensibly lead them to a single present, there were times when the book felt a little as though it was treading water, particularly given the often rapid point of view shifts.
Still, Gudenkauf’s characterisation is, as it was in her earlier novel These Things Hidden (my review), excellent, with each character real and distinct. Setting, too, is beautifully utilised here: the heavy snow that has recently fallen acts as a stifling, limiting force, and underscores the slow pace at which the police can respond to the situation. The small town atmosphere feels real, too, and constantly highlights how little we know about those whose lives we come into contact with every day.
One Breath Away feels occasionally as though it’s between genres, and I think that’s where my ambivalence over the tension and plot comes in. From the blurb and the first few chapters, we seem to be heading into suspense or thriller territory, but beyond this the novel shifts towards thoughtful commercial fiction focused more on an internal journey than an external one. Still, slow middle aside, this one’s a worthy read, and I look forward to seeing more from Gudenkauf in the future.(less)
When walking home from dinner one night, my husband and I were hounded by a group of drunk youths who bellowed at my husband to go back to where he came from. This was only two years ago. I also remember as a teen in the late nineties being accosted by a drunk man while waiting for my train. He shouted at me, calling me a bloody wog.
Australia is a country of migrants, an ethnic melting pot of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and languages and lifestyles. We’re also a country famous for our racism, and despite how often the phrase “tolerance”, a loaded term in itself, is bandied about, there’s a seething undercurrent of paranoia and suspicion that’s scarcely covered by a blanket of civility. It’s telling that in both the situations mentioned above alcohol was involved–alcohol is, after all, a truth serum.
Diane Armstrong’s fourth novel Empire Day takes us back to 1940s Bondi, a time rife with racial and cultural conflict. Large number of migrants have arrived from Europe, bringing with them unfamiliar customs and languages that rankle the locals, who fear their way of life being set awash amongst a wave of foreignness. With the memory of WWII still fresh, fear and suspicion are palpable, and these “New Australians” bring with them an unknown factor that immediately sets the locals on edge. Without knowing who they are and what they’re saying, they argue, how are we supposed to know whether they’re with us or against us?
Armstrong narrows her focus to the residents of Wattle Street, who fall into the groups of the white Australians, or their new migrant neighbours. Within these groups, of course, is a diversity of experiences rather than the homogeneity they may seem to comprise at face value. The white Australians represent different classes and religions, and these come into play as a way of signalling the divisions that have long marked this country. The migrant groups, too, are separated by language, religion, and war-time experience–and when Armstrong extends her focus beyond the street, we can see a further division between those migrants who have experienced the war in Europe, and those who experienced it within an Australian context.
The migrant experience is one that’s necessarily complex, and for every individual there’s an individual story. Armstrong creates a careful, thoughtful picture of these experiences from both the perspectives of those new to the country and those who aren’t. The book is rife with miscommunications, misunderstandings, and differences of approach and belief, but there are also those who seek a common ground, or who choose to reach out even when there is no evidence of that common ground. The novel is many-threaded, with the plethora of point of view characters used to provide both the depth and breadth needed to navigate these stories in a balanced manner, and although some characters do become lost in the dense fabric of the book, Armstrong largely manages to keep things intertwined enough that it’s easy to keep on track.
Probably the key plot-line is that of journalist cadet Ted, whose role on a local rag affords him the opportunity to be able to explore the migrant context, and the discrimination levelled towards migrants, in a meaningful way, and whose stilted love affair with a young Latvian girl highlights the cultural negotiation involved in bridging two very different life experiences. There’s also Sala, whose wartime experiences and resulting Stockholm syndrome continue to haunt her, and who is also wrestling with how to begin her studies in this new country. There’s the taciturn, reclusive Mr Emil, who lives in a sort of self-imposed exile from a guilty conscience over his war-time choices; and there’s Hania’s mother, whose own forced decision-making during this time continues to torment her. And there’s single mother and bartender Kath, and the angry and seemingly vindictive spinster Ms McNulty, both of whom have been outcast in their own way throughout their lives.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but these various narratives are cleverly interwound–sometimes, admittedly, too much so. Armstrong manages to make sympathetic all of these characters, no matter how diverse their backgrounds and personalities. Yes, there’s an amount of romanticism here, and as the book progresses some of the subplots take on a soap operaesque tone, but character is king, and this is something at which Armstrong excels.
Perhaps what is most keenly felt here is the fact that everyone within this book–and in Australia–is an outcast in some way, and that those dividing lines can be drawn so arbitrarily. Whether it’s due to language, culture, red colour, religion, occupation or disability, it’s easy for a society to become one where everyone is maligned for their differences–but the flip side of the coin could be just as easily embraced instead.
Although I felt that Empire Day ended a little too abruptly and tidily given its breadth of scope and the time put into building its characters and setting, it’s a rich, enjoyable read filled with relatable characters and insights into post-WWII Australia, and one I’d recommend. (less)
I’ve always said to my husband that if I ever degenerate to a state where I’m no longer self-aware, or where my dignity no longer remains, then it’s time to pull the plug on my life. After all, what kind of life would it be when I’m no longer me? Would I even truly be living?
Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies is a book that explores the notion of what it means to be alive, but in the most unexpected of ways: it’s a book that examines life, in particular the notion and value of a human life, through the lens of death.
Our protagonist and surprisingly eloquent narrator is R, a chap who enjoys listening to Frank Sinatra, getting about in snappy smart casual clothing, and eating people’s brains. R may be incapable of articulating more than a few syllables at a time, and perhaps enjoys riding the escalators at the airport a tad too much, but his internal world is one of Proustian grandiloquence, and much of R’s time is spent reflecting on the existence and purpose of his zombie community.
And indeed it’s not merely a community, but a culture of its own, with a (pidgin) language, political structure, and even sophisticated social norms relating to eating, romantic engagement, and even the raising of children. It’s a culture that though seen by the living as something purely destructive and pestilential, is actually impressively creative and purposeful. Beyond the immediate need to survive, R’s zombie peers offer universal education to their youngsters, construct buildings and shelters, and even participate in rituals and rites such as marriage. Not too shabby for a bunch of shambling brain-munchers. (Still, I rather wish Marion had spared his readers the details of zombie sex.)
But like any culture, R’s has a thing for seeking spiritual transcendence or enlightenment, a mental and emotional escapism that’s found primarily through the devouring as brains (hey, at least it’s all natural). R, out hunting with some of his clan one night, happens across a particularly potent brain that precipitates in R something rather like a bad acid trip, or at least it’s bad from the perspective of his zombie fellows. R’s brain tab, however, has done two things: it’s caused him to immediately become smitten with the non-zombie Julie, and it’s created in him a new-found sense of agency, causing him to wonder whether zombie-ism might not simply be the result of a severe case of deficit thinking.
I should probably note here that although the book begins with something along the lines of zombies at Woodstock, the rest is ripped from the arms of the great Bard himself, and is largely a retelling of Romeo and Juliet against a context of Montagueian zombies and Capuletian fleshies. After all, what greater barrier is there to love than that of life itself? Although the book does, in a way, retrace the tragic footsteps of those famous starcrossed lovers, Marion offers a cleverly and somewhat humorously subverted version of events that is surprisingly optimistic.
But Warm Bodies is that kind of book. It’s a book that should be offputting and alienating, as truly, is there anything less appealing than a decaying lover (and indeed, a decaying lover with British teeth. Good grief)? But instead, it’s somehow affirming, and welcomingly self-deprecating: there’s a good deal of humour in these pages, and the book is stronger for it. R happily communicates through the Beatles and Sinatra while his living counterparts mourn the loss of the arts in the face of their need to survive.
The book thus merrily pits the fearful humans against their zombie counterparts in not just a physical battle, but an existential one, too, asking throughout where the dividing marker between human and not human should sit, as well as that between living and not living. And perhaps it’s not so surprising when so many of the living humans are relieved when the plug is pulled on their own lives.
Warm Bodies is not a subtle book, but then zombies aren’t exactly known for their propriety and indirectness. There are regular sections throughout where Marion cheats by breaking his first person narration, bringing in flashbacks and “editable” memories in order to allow the book to achieve a scope not otherwise possible, and bringing in the articulate human characters feels like a contrived way to speed up the narrative, but overall this is a wonderful read–even if I am still rather averse to the idea of kissing a zombie.(less)
“Mazeltov!” cried the new guy in the office when I returned from my honeymoon. When I thanked him, he added, “ah-ha! We can spot each other a mile away.”
Needless to say, he was a little saddened when I explained that I’m not Jewish.
But this odd little anecdote highlighted something for me that I’ve seen amongst many of my Jewish friends: an astonishing sense of family and community. And it’s this that Peter Lefcourt’s An American Family examines with unwavering insight and often brutal honesty, the latter which is fortunately diluted with a solid helping of humour.
Beginning in the 1960s and concluding in the present, the novel is a sweeping exploration of the lives of four generations of the New York-based Perl family, all of whom seem to long to break out from the thumbscrews of the family traditions and expectations, yet who continue to retreat beneath the shelter of its umbrella when things turn sour–and how they do. Like any family, there’s that ambivalent push and pull that’s involved with being an involuntary member of a community you don’t quite see eye to eye with, and in the case of the Perls, there’s also plenty of cultural baggage as well.
A recurring motif is the Thanksgiving holiday, which is used as the central point at which the characters unite to share, or not share, as is often the case, the changes occurring in their lives, and which mark an evolution of sorts of the family as a whole. There are certain notable thanksgivings that represent milestones that require the family to shift its frame of reference: the death of 80-year-old patriarch Meyer, for example, and eventually that of his son Nathan. The births that occur in proximity to these deaths also play a role in marking the gradual drift from one focal generation to another, and Lefcourt allows the narrative to progress accordingly, although the focus remains the five Perl siblings, all of whom live dramatically different lives, but all of them striving for acceptance with the family.
There’s cutthroat businessman Michael, who’s always looking for the next big thing, and is happy to stake his fortune on it; lawyer Jackie, whose career and sobriety are constantly up and down, but who remains the bail-out guy among his siblings; novelist and intrepid wanderer Stephen, whose sexuality remains unacknowledged by the conservative older generations of his family; Elaine, a teacher who fears that she has made the terrible mistake of “settling” in life; and Bobbie, the black sheep of the family, who escapes to California to free herself from the crippling expectations of her family. All are equally intriguing to read, not necessarily purely as individuals, but for the individuals they represent–that wider cultural imprint. Lefcourt describes his novel as a “cultural autobiography”, and it certainly has that larger-than-life, everyman tone to it. The honest simplicity of those older immigrant generations is frequently contrasted against the money-hungry, culturally-devoid attitudes of the subsequent generations in an ideological tug-of-war that, no matter how fallacious, will be familiar to anyone from an immigrant background.
Though the ending tugs a little too strongly on the heart strings, and the print edition I received was of poor quality–it’s an ugly edition, with too-small margins, an awful use of line breaks rather than returns to mark new paragraphs, and a shoddy proofreading job at best–overall this is a strong read. Lefcourt does an admirable job of making his characters both familiar and relatable, and there’s a sense here of the author’s intimacy with the stories being told.(less)
In the few months before my little sister started primary school, she had a new best friend: Cookie. Cookie trumped her other friends with ease, in large part because Cookie was imaginary. Imaginary friends, of course, are subject to the creative boundaries of their imaginers, and are also bolstered by their imaginers’ sense of what a friend should be. Needless to say, Cookie was essentially flawless.
Cookie also disappeared not long after my sister started primary school. She was discarded in favour of real friendships, which my sister promptly discovered that, although full of arguments about who sits where and who has the best lunchbox, are far more fulfilling than a passive intellectual creation.
That imaginary friends are typically fleeting is something about which Budo, the eponymous narrator of Matthew Green’s Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, is all too aware. Budo has reached the ripe old age of five, which is quite a significant milestone given the typically butterfly-like lifespan of most of his kind, and indeed in that time he’s seen many imagined creations fade away before him. It’s an unusual application of the longevity trope, and is made all the more interesting by the fact that although Budo is long-lived compared with others of his kind, he is human enough that he compares himself not with other imaginary friends, but with people. He’s a sort of imaginary Pinocchio: self-aware enough that he knows what he’s missing out on.
But Budo’s continued existence is contingent on the fact that his imaginer, Max continues to believe in him. Should Max stop doing so, then Budo will fade away. But, of course, part of growing up involves sloughing off the need for an imaginary friend as company or, in the case of Budo, as someone to help solve one’s problems. Budo’s desire for longevity, then, requires that Max never grows up, something for which Budo guiltily finds himself hoping. Budo’s ambivalence is understandable: he’s not only a creation of the (presumably) autistic Max, but an extension of him, much like some of the other imaginary friends in the book. Although Max is an intelligent boy, his ability to express himself or engage with others is severely deficient, and it’s Budo who demonstrates proficiency in these areas. In contrast, although Budo is lingustically and emotionally capable, he is unable to physically interact with others in the world around him, much as Max is emotionally unable to do so.
It’s a fascinating set-up, but things start to turn pear-shaped when we move away from the mundane day-to-day events of ordinary life and suddenly find ourselves embroiled in a thriller. Budo, although certainly articulate for a five-year-old imaginary spectre, is too much of an innocent to be able to describe the resulting story with the gravity and eloquence that’s required, and the effect is something that feels occasionally naff, but worse, often little more than a series of events with no underlying motivation or reason. The motivation behind what happens to Max is never convincingly explicated, for example, and the entire escapade for this reason doesn’t quite ring true; neither does the ending, which is discordantly coincidental.
There are other scenes that feel superfluous to the plot, such as the shooting in the gas station, and those that act as flimsy excuses for the plot not moving in a particular way. Indeed, in one scene, Budo realises that he could easily put a stop to the mess he finds himself in simply by asking another imaginary friend to talk to their imaginer, but instead designs a hugely circumspect solution to the problem that’s a little baffling in its complexity and which seems to push the boundaries of the internal consistency of this novel. Not to mention bloating out the page extent by a good hundred pages or so.
Still, awkward plotting and painfully expositional narrative aside–Budo has no qualms in repeating himself–the premise of this one is certainly enough to pique one’s interest, and will have readers reflecting on their own childhood selves. The final few pages mark growth in both Max and Budo, and although inexorable, provide satisfying closure to the question that’s hung over the novel since its opening sentence. Fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time will likely enjoy this.(less)
I’ve always wondered how much truth there was to Tolstoy’s assertion that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. It seems to me as though there’s a common thread in the misery of the average family: the fact that a group of individuals are forced, thanks to the umbrella of familial connection, to remain in each other’s lives, no matter how desperately they wish to be elsewhere. Even if there is distance involved–whether spatial distance, generational distance, or ideological distance–family members seek each other out, picking at the scabs of their shared histories until they bleed and fester.
The ambivalence and inescapability of the family connection is starkly, frankly examined in Hannah Richell’s superb debut Secrets of the Tides, a novel whose slightly twee title belies its depth and insight. Told across two time periods and the points of view of three of the Tide family members, the novel is rather like a cobweb in design: a broad swoop of threads that gradually knit together until they meet in a thickly wound conclusion, the central revelation of the plot.
When Dora Tide learns that she is pregnant, she is beset by a bevy of concerns, all of which have roots in the tragic, complicated past of her family. She is struck by the fear that having a child may mean giving up the intellectual endeavours and career she has worked so long for; by the niggling suspicion that her love for her partner may be something fleeting; and by the terrible dread that she is incapable of safely, lovingly raising a child. These troubles are all traceable to her childhood, a frayed and tangled thing of misspent time and misguided silence, of uprootings and shifts, of judgement and betrayal. And, of course, of one event in particular whose influence has been like that of a rock tossed into an already unsettled pond: ripples crashing into each other, interrupting and dispersing into a maelstrom of emotion and disjunction. As the circumstances behind this event are slowly revealed, Dora’s ambivalence over her pregnancy becomes understandable to the reader: when we learn of the circumstances behind her mother’s first pregnancy we can see that Dora is terrified of a history that is beginning to repeat continuing to do so all the way through to a reenactment of the terrible conclusion with which she is still unable to cope. But it’s only in reaching out to the past that Dora can hope to set things right for the future.
The nature of Secrets of the Tides makes it a challenging book to review: tugging at all on the thread of its narrative will cause it to unspool until all of its secrets are laid bare. But it’s a beautifully constructed book, intimately written and elegantly plotted. We see certain events through each point of view character’s eyes, but Richell does so in a way that avoids redundancy, which takes a good deal of skill. The use of the contrasting settings of bustling London and the lost country manor of Clifftops to dichotomise the family members, their dreams, and their different ways of grieving is also worthy of mention, and is instrumental in creating and maintaining the schism between the key characters. The plot relies heavily on parallels and circularities, but bar the awkward prologue, this generally works well, without the heavy-handed overtness that can often result from such an approach.
The Secrets of the Tides quietly written book that takes its dialogic cues from nineteenth century epics and those of setting from the gothics, and with these inspirations and more behind it it’s no surprise that the outcome is something eminently readable and tragically moving.(less)
A few years ago, my husband and I visited an antiquated lighthouse at the very edge of Western Australia. It was an eerily isolated place, an icon that represented the divide between land and sea, between the order of life ashore and the buffeted, rancorous nature of life on the oceans. It was a wall of sorts: the wind was such that the trees, the shrubs, everything was pitched towards the sea, growing with a hunch-backed bentness. At the very edge of the land were more flies than imaginable: a dark haze of the things that created a wall of their own. The divide between water and land could not have been any clearer, and yet, there was a strange, alluring pull on both sides towards this lighthouse, this beacon that strove to create order out of chaos.
M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is set in a not dissimilar context, although the lighthouse that forms the key milieu of the novel is located even further away from civilisation, on an island that’s wrapped about by the sea. The island, aptly named Janus, for the two-faced Roman god who looks simultaneously in two directions, is not only physically separated from the morality and social norms of the land, but it’s also a place that represents the key intersection of duality–and duality is a theme that arises again and again in this book.
Janus has but two inhabitants: the lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, a returned veteran, and his wife Isabel. Their existence is initially a quiet one, the couple fancying themselves as a lovestruck duo set romantically against the world, but their marriage is soon beset by the tragedy of several consecutive miscarriages. So when a boat carrying a dead man and an infant girl washes ashore, they see this moment as a karmic sign, a fulfilment of their desires to at last bear a child. But although Isabel is adamant that the child’s arrival is so serendipitous that it must surely be divine intervention, pragmatic Tom is beset by the unshakeable feeling that the child, unlike Janus, could surely not exist in isolation, and that somewhere she must have a family.
The consequence, of course, is that the Sherbournes’ happiness is built on what can only be the misery of others, and Tom finds this a moral dilemma he can’t abide. And surely enough, just like the lighthouse at Janus, the child, Lucy, becomes the light between two oceans, a force that both unites and divides. This division gradually extends and expands as Tom desperately tries to make things right by anonymously contacting a woman whom he suspects is Lucy’s mother, setting into motion a chain of events that render the illuminating force of the light not a halcyon savour, but rather the cause of the clash between two oceans that, much like the Indian and South Oceans themselves, are utterly different in origin, force and nature.
The paradigm of this dichotomy/duality is not only found in the relationship between the Sherbournes and their subsequent contact with Lucy’s mother, but also in the relationships and experiences found more generally throughout the book, and it’s intriguing to see how far this motif can be extrapolated across character and context. The small town of Partaguese, the closest such down to Janus, is rife with such things, with the recent WWI still looming large in the memories of its residents: there are divisions between the survivors of war and those who remained behind, divisions between class, between race, and so on, and all of them quite thought-provoking. However, it’s the ongoing struggle between the Sherbournes and Lucy’s true mother, as well as that between Tom Sherbourne and Isabel, that takes centre stage: each is convinced of the morality of his or her actions, and that, as Tom so often puts it, the lighthouse is always the first and foremost priority for a lighthouse keeper.
The Light Between Oceans is intelligently and warmly written, and Stedman has done an admirable job of creating three central characters whom it’s possible to identify with and support, no matter how divergent their perspectives. The duality motif does come across as a little explicit at times, and I’m not generally a fan of forefronting a later scene in order to artificially pique a reader’s interest, but overall it’s an excellent read, and one I suspect will become a firm book club favourite.(less)
I’ve always wondered why my grandparents were so determined that my dad and his siblings grow up as monolingual English speakers rather than speakers of both Italian and English. It’s something that’s always been a disappointment to me: my Italian surname is about all I have in terms of that cultural heritage. I was aware of course, that Italian immigrants had a difficult time of it upon arriving in Australia in the mid-twentieth century–Australia is, after all, famed for its notoriously racist immigration policies and its seething undercurrent of intolerance.
Set in 1943, during war-time Perth, A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrows highlights some of the many factors behind why my grandparents did all they could to cast off their Italian roots. The paranoid sense of us versus them is all-pervasive, with civilians balking at anyone who might possibly be an outsider, servicemen reducing their opponents to mere numbers, and government policy imposing harsh segregation requirements. So when Doreen Luca, a “white” Australian married to an Italian man, is found dead under suspicious circumstances, her husband is the prime suspect. Spouses, after all, are usually the first person to whom the authorities look when attempting to solve a murder, but in 1940s Perth, Frank Luca has another strike against his name: he’s one of those hot-blooded Italians.
If I were to categorise A Stranger in my Street, it would be as a cozy mystery novel, as it meets all of the conventions for this genre: it features an amateur sleuth using her social and work connections to solve a crime in a small community context. But where cozies are typically light-weight and whimsical, Burrows’ debut has the depth and complexity of plot, character and theme more often associated with mainstream or women’s fiction, and it’s a splendid read all around.
While the murder of Doreen Luca provides the impetus for the narrative, there’s so much more going on here than a straight whodunnit: Burrows, in fact, cleverly uses the cozy mystery framework as a backdrop for her explorations of the social context of war-time Perth. We follow protagonist Meg Eaton, a stenographer–or to the males in the book, a “typist”–as she and Tom Larange, a returned officer who also happens to be the brother of Meg’s deceased boyfriend, as they negotiate the ins and outs of Perth’s social scene in an effort to determine the true circumstances behind Doreen’s death, which turn out to be far more complex than they could have imagined.
The pairing of Meg and Tom is an intriguing one: coming from vastly different backgrounds, they initially bond only over their love of Tom’s dead brother. However, the entirely separate worlds the two inhabit turn out to be indispensable to the overall investigation. Meg, who is from an intelligent but uneducated girl from a working-class background, and is entirely comfortable around the migrant and working class families who comprise her neighbours, and has their trust in a way that Tom, a firmly middle-class Rhodes Scholar never could. Tom, on the other hand, has access to Perth’s socialite class and military personnel. Gender, too, is key: Meg interacts with the visiting US military officers in a way that Tom cannot, while Tom’s maleness opens for him far more doors than are available to Meg.
The careful intertwining of civilians and the military, of “Australians” and “foreigners”, of class and gender issues is exceptionally well done, and is used to both further the plot and provide a fascinating, if sometimes disconcerting, account of life on the ground during a wartime context. Burrows’ background as a historian is certainly evident, and the novel is packed with day-to-day minutiae that bring to life this era. It’s a book of juxtapositions: war-time rationing and social dancing; the strong and heroic soldiers and their broken, wounded returned counterparts; the effusive welcoming of the Americans compared with the hostile treatment of Australians of Italian descent, and so on, and overall the result is a brisk, page-turning read.
I admit to some disorientation in the first chapter, and there were a few plot-related instances where I found it a little difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief, but A Stranger in My Street an impressive, thoroughly engrossing debut, and one I highly recommend. A note on the cover, too: it’s lovely to see a cover that reflects a book so beautifully, even down to the cover model wearing an outfit described in the book.(less)
Diane Chamberlain is known for writing character-driven women’s fiction that unapologetically tugs on the heart-strings, and The Good Father follows in this very successful niche. The second book of Chamberlain’s I’ve read, the first being The Midwife’s Confession, which examined grief and grieving, The Good Father is squarely focused on the parental experience and the intergenerational influence and role of parents. As the title suggests, it looks at why people act in ways that may be inconceivable to others when there is a child involved: why sense, legality and safety can be done away with in a heartbeat if it means protecting that child.
The Good Father is told from three alternating viewpoints, and also crosses back and forth across time, making it rather difficult to succinctly summarise, and admittedly, rather difficult to make sense of initially. After the confusion of the first few chapters, however, things do become easier to follow, although a bit of re-reading may be involved for some readers.
Unusually for a book in this genre, the key point of view character is a male, with the other supporting points of views comprising those of two women who play integral role in his life: the estranged mother of his child, and a bereft woman who has recently lost her child and with whom he strikes up a friendship.
Travis, the protagonist, is a young father who has always seen love and passion as all that’s needed to get by: despite the ups and downs of his life, he sticks fiercely to the belief that if he wants it badly enough, it will happen. He has dreams of one day becoming a marine biologist even though his working-class background and limited income means that university is a pipedream. He’s also convinced that he is capable of acting as the sole carer for his young daughter. But when Travis is let go from his job and a house fire leaves him homeless, he begins to see how important it can be to live for the moment and not just the future. Having nowhere to live and no income means that Travis’s problems are real and immediate, and that he must do whatever it takes to get back on track so that he can protect his daughter. But finding full-time employment with a young daughter in tow is no easy matter, and Travis finds himself digging himself deeper and deeper into poverty. Until he’s offered a one-off job that can help him break the cycle–if he doesn’t get caught by the police.
Unwittingly complicit in Travis’s scheme is Erin, a grieving mother who is mourning the death of her only child and who has recently left her husband after feeling alienated by what she feels is his lack of caring. Though her husband is grieving in his own way, Erin is unable to recognise the validity of his grief, pushing him away for what she sees as moving on–something she fears doing herself. But Erin’s own healing process begins when she meets Travis and his young daughter Bella in a cafe, and the trio become unlikely friends. Erin is surprised that she is able to be in Bella’s presence without the overwhelming grief that usually accompanies being with a child, and slowly grows closer to the young girl. But this friendship is tested when desperate Travis involves Erin in a plan that could harm them all.
The final point of view character is Robin, the mother of Travis’s daughter. Born with a congenital heart defect, it’s a miracle that Robin is alive today: the fact that she is is down to a heart donor. When Robin found out that she was pregnant, she was a seriously ill teen, and scarcely made it through the pregnancy alive. Fearful that she would not live to be able to support her child, she opted to give up her daughter at birth, and has kept her daughter’s existence a secret ever since. Now engaged to a well-to-do politician, Robin’s life seems to be on the up and up: until she learns that Travis and her daughter are in trouble.
Parental responsibility echoes throughout the novel, with each of the characters reflecting not only on their worth as a parent, but also on the impact of their own, and others’ parents. Robin’s father, for example, saw Travis as too lowly for his daughter, and thus tried to put a stop to their relationship. A similar situation occurs when Robin’s teenage future sister-in-law becomes pregnant to a working-class boy and her new family attempts to break up the relationship. There’s Robin, of course, who feels tremendous guilt over choosing her survival over being a mother, and over not being well enough to be a true mother in the first place. There’s Erin, who’s constantly at war with herself over whether she’s grieving properly or to the right extent, and who can’t help but assess her and her husband’s actions on the fateful day her daughter died. And of course there’s Travis, whose intentions are for the most pure–if just a tad marred by a sense of pride–but whose actions are less so. But the question throughout the book is whether any parent put in any of these situations would do the same thing.
The Good Father is a moving read, and the “what if” that forms its premise is striking and intelligent. After a convoluted start the book begins to bloom into something like a family saga, and moves along easily and steadily until the last quarter of the book or so, when a very neat, very tidy resolution begins to loom. I had a number of problems with the way things began to turn out: I found the suspense element difficult to stomach (also, “baby formula” trafficking, Travis? I know you’re an innocent, but really.), and the subsequent chapters with Robin learning more about her fiance than she wanted to know, as well as what follows after her reunion with Travis, felt contrived to me, and I would have liked to have seen some more complexity here, particularly given that I think this genre demands a different, more congruous ending. I did, however, enjoy the resolution of Erin’s plot arc, which although a little saccharine, fit well with her character. There were also a few other oddities that struck me throughout the book, such as why Travis, despite his pride, didn’t just go to someone for help, and why he left Bella with Erin the way he did rather than, oh, simply asking her to babysit: the “pride” notion overrides the desire to protect his child here, and just doesn’t quite ring true to me. I also found that some of the parallels and echoes felt a little forced and coincidental, and in part these were to blame for the ultra-tidy ending.
In sum, Chamberlain is in fine form when it comes to her characters, who are as always admirably well-rounded and believable, and I appreciated the use of a male point of view character, which is unusual for this genre. Still, I can’t help but feel that plot-wise this one could have done with a little less drama and a little less coincidence: it’s the themes and the characters that make this book so riveting, not so much the plot.(less)
This morning I read an article about a rape case, despite videotaped evidence, being dismissed based on an argument that boiled down to the victim’s being in no state of mind to consent, and therefore being incapable of not consenting. Such pronouncements are a reminder that women’s perceived sanity or validity of mind is so often something decided by men. The article bore chilling parallels with Wendy Wallace’s debut The Painted Bridge, set in an asylum for women in Victorian-era England.
It’s little wonder that the term “asylum” has given way to other names, as it’s certainly a misnomer, and no more so than the Lake House institution described in the book. There’s something so utterly chilling about this rambling mansion, so utterly removed from the unfettered clamour of Bedlam, that makes it seem as though incarceration here could be worse than anywhere else. It’s the juxtaposition of the pleasant, genteel life suggested by the fanciful grounds and elegant building with the horrors that go on within: madness, after all, in these times was linked with moral depravity, and the more popular cures seemed to involve violent exorcisms via blood letting, leeching, and purging. Indeed, the horrors wrought upon the residents within the institution are so perverse that one can’t help wonder whether its owners and employees aren’t well on the path to sociopathic insanity themselves. But Lake House is a private institution clinging on in a context of nationalised psychological care, and it must justify–and pay for–its continued existence.
These contrasts and more are explored when Anna Palmer arrives at Lake House, enrolled there due to her husband’s claims that she is mentally unstable, claims that appear to stem from the fact that Anna has a fierce independent and philanthropist streak that does not fit with her husband’s idea of what being a pastor’s wife should entail. The book follows Anna’s attempts to prove her sanity and rationality and her desperate need to escape Lake House and the oppressive, patriarchal shackles that it represents, in doing so exploring notions of sanity itself, and the application of entirely different social norms to females and males–not to mention the ease with which these can be applied by a dominant gender. There’s also the arbitrariness of judging what is sane and insane, a point that is underscored in numerous and chilling ways, perhaps most movingly when one of the Lake House researchers finds that a diagnostic approach he has long been convinced of is not only influenced by the patient, but also by the diagnostician. If one comes to the diagnostic table with prejudices and certain less than above-board motivations, then how is it possible for the outcome be one that’s impartial and accurate?
The Painted Bridge is not an easy book to read, and I suspect that it’s one that readers will appreciate more than they enjoy. Wallace’s writing is elegant and subtle, requiring the reader to work with a series of hints and allusions in order to pull together the wider picture of what is going on, and the way in which she examines the many facets of sanity and insanity against the lenses of class, gender and family is darkly fascinating. The daughter of the owner of Lake House, for example, though exhibiting symptoms far more questionable than Anna’s, simply cannot be insane purely because it’s not allowable given her position. A woman who has fallen in love with a man of non-white descent is clearly morally corrupt, and is sent to the asylum as a form of excommunication. Anna’s treatment, too, is an extended form of punishment by a husband who wishes to keep her in her place, and its results create an outward appearance of madness to those around her, thus perpetuating the assumptions that had committed in the first place.
Though I did find that the book flagged towards the end, and that certain plot elements, such as Anna’s flight to freedom with the asylum owner’s daughter, felt a little contrived, The Painted Bridge certainly offers food for thought regarding both sanity and the continued careful subjugation of women at the hands of their male counterparts–and there is a good deal here that does, worryingly, resonate our experiences today.
In my perusals of Buenos Aires bookshops for English-language material I unearthed, along with all manner of questionable bodice rippers and deliciously un-PC adventure stories, a couple of gems that I suspect will stay with me for some time: Shirley Hazzard’s languidly striking The Bay of Noon (see my review), and Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, a marvellous read that teeters oh-so-ambiguously on the wire between comedy and tragedy, and which boasts a rather pugilistic nature, no doubt packing a punch (or at least raising an eyebrow) upon its release in the 1960s.
Intelligent and educated, Rosamund Stacey has at her disposal all the benefits of a liberal middle-class upbringing: her parents, both academics, have railed against the sharply delineated social norms of British society in order to raise Rosamund and her sister as sophisticated egalitarians; nevermind than in doing so they must carefully turn a blind eye to their own privileged status. Rosamund, though happy enough to take advantage of the benefits brought by this upbringing, is uneasy when it comes to acknowledging it, and this disquiet conflict is evident in the close-lipped approach she takes whenever it comes to discussing her present or future circumstances. Rather than denying or confirming her privileged upbringing, Rosamund simply lets others make of her circumstances what they will–an evasive approach that has extraordinary consequences as Rosamund grows older.
Such evasiveness is notable not only in her taciturnity regarding her living situation–though a full-time student, Rosamund has the run of a large flat, and her unwillingness to discuss how this came to be leads her acquaintances to believe that she is far more well off than she is–but also in her romantic relationships. Rosamund has a habit of simply falling into relationships, whether platonic or otherwise, simply because it’s easier to allow them to progress than it is to end them. She is not, however, one to push things of her own accord: despite nominally being in two romantic relationships, she consummates neither, exhibiting an asexuality that’s fitting with her let-it-be mindset. However, this propensity towards letting things simply go the way they will eventually turns against her: after passively going along with the advances of yet another suitor, Rosamund finds herself pregnant.
While an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not especially noteworthy today, The Millstone‘s context is such that Rosamund’s situation is rather more difficult. With access to legal abortion highly curtailed, Rosamund decides to keep the baby, an action that is at once a clear fit with her character and one that seems in conflict with it. Keeping the child, of course, is in line with her approach of what will be will be, but yet doing so will pit her against the institutions, both social and political, of the era, and has the potential to cause harm to those around her, something which she has assiduously avoided doing. But yet, channelling her parents’ liberal mindset, Rosamund blithely notes that her ability to continue her work and complete her doctorate should be in no way compromised by a baby, and simply goes about her merry way. There are two curiously divergent motivational currents running here: Rosamund’s simple desire to let things progress as they will and a latent desire to fly in the face of what’s expected of her. Rosamund is simultaneously furiously independent and strangely subservient, making for some fascinatingly conflicted reading.
But where the book really hits its stride is the later stages of Rosamund’s pregnancy and her child’s eventual birth, upon which Rosamund finds herself wrestling not only with her desire to remain independent and to avoid leaning on, or inconveniencing in any way, those around her, but with the sudden challenge to her liberal beliefs that her child presents: her world suddenly shrinks to one that involves only her and her child, precluding all others.
Beautifully and wryly written, The Millstone is a thought-provoking read that, although dated, contains a good deal that will resonate with today’s reader, and is certainly worth seeking out.(less)
I was not expecting, in my rambles through the bookshops of Buenos Aires, to come across much in the way of Australian writing, let alone a c...more4.5 stars
I was not expecting, in my rambles through the bookshops of Buenos Aires, to come across much in the way of Australian writing, let alone a crumpled Penguin edition of a 1970s modern classic by Shirley Hazzard. I picked up this slim volume to keep me occupied whilst my husband snoozed in the small plazas we’d settle into after a day of walking, or to read in snatches between tango classes, and found myself caught up not so much in a story, for to be honest there isn’t much of one here, but in a setting that all but seethes off the pages, and in piecing together the fumblingly vague snatches of the characters who exist somewhere between the gauntness of memory and the shadow cast by the blinding Neapolitan sun.
Dead Heat is Bronwyn Parry’s third novel, and her confidence as an author veritably hums off the pages: she could be easily likened with romantic susp...moreDead Heat is Bronwyn Parry’s third novel, and her confidence as an author veritably hums off the pages: she could be easily likened with romantic suspense stalwart Nora Roberts. With its strong suspense narrative, the novel offers a twist on the rural romance literature I’ve been reading of late, and its rural setting also makes it stand apart from the gritty urban settings so often seen in crime novels. The rural setting is perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about Dead Heat, and Parry exploits it to excellent effect.
Christopher Robin Milne, embattled star of the Winnie the Pooh books, was known to have been highly ambivalent about his life having been ex...more2.5 stars.
Christopher Robin Milne, embattled star of the Winnie the Pooh books, was known to have been highly ambivalent about his life having been exploited in his father’s books. In Mr Toppit, the debut of Charles Elton–an author who has worked with the Milne estate in a literary agent capacity–a similar situation is examined, but in the present context of mass media, the paparazzi, and the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity.
Meredith Pancetti adheres to the idea of “a rose by any other name”. Born into the tumultuous Hathaway clan, an immensely wealthy farming family from...moreMeredith Pancetti adheres to the idea of “a rose by any other name”. Born into the tumultuous Hathaway clan, an immensely wealthy farming family from Iowa, Meredith was privy to all manner of familial dysfunction as a child, and now, with both parents dead and the few remaining members of her family scattered about the country in their own efforts to escape, Meredith has become someone else entirely, living in a tiny New York apartment and going by a name that has no outward connections to the Hathaway estate. Even her childhood nickname is anathema now.
Occasionally I come across a book that’s not so much a story as it is an exploration of place and setting. Nick Lake’s In Darkness, a diachronic accou...moreOccasionally I come across a book that’s not so much a story as it is an exploration of place and setting. Nick Lake’s In Darkness, a diachronic account of Haiti taking place over the tumultuous post-earthquake present and its revolutionary past. Lake draws a number of parallels between the two, and there’s an omnipresent sense of fervour and chaos throughout.
We see the Haiti of the past through the eyes of the revolutionary Touissaint L’Ouverture as he leads a slave uprising, but also through the eyes of “Shorty”, a gang-member teen who lies pinned beneath the debris of a hospital in the aftermath of the 2012 Haiti earthquake. The two are connected through voodoo, with the spirit of the former re-emerging in the latter, whose buried, darkened state is reminiscent of that needed to create a zombie–a zombie, of course, is reborn from the darkness...
As 1Q84‘s characters seek the truth of a manuscript whose subject matter is utterly absurd, merrily slip between dimensions to apply whicheve...more2.5 stars
As 1Q84‘s characters seek the truth of a manuscript whose subject matter is utterly absurd, merrily slip between dimensions to apply whichever reality allows the novel to press forward (a dimension where it’s possible to walk through doors certainly helps breaking and entering), and wax lyrical about whether Chekhov’s gun should be fired, there’s a topic that the novel frequently touches upon: the fact that the people of Japan have made the strange and demented Air Chrysalis a huge success simply because it’s the cool thing to do. Given that the characters frequently remark on the book’s odd title (the misuse of “chrysalis” vs “cocoon”) and the fact that the reading population will buy anything they’re told to, one can’t help but wonder whether Murakami is making a (very, very long-winded) statement about his readers.
What would you do if your estranged, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Powerball jackpot-winning father, the man who told you that you’d never see a c...more3.5 stars.
What would you do if your estranged, Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Powerball jackpot-winning father, the man who told you that you’d never see a cent of his $350 million dollars, the man who dumped your mother in front of a crowd of hundreds by tossing her a $20 million cheque and telling her to bugger off, suddenly invited you to dinner after four years of radio silence?
And not just any dinner. A dinner in Sweden. A dinner in Sweden where you’d have to convince a high-up diplomat that you were a NASA rocket scientist.
If you were Brandon, a thirty-ish no one with a severe allergy to coriander, with a fiance who spends her every waking moment matching tablecloths to serviettes and organising seating charts, with future in-laws straight out of the Triads (and one with Seinfeld-esqu man-hands no less), with a job pretending to sell ad space for a minor television network whose star show is the ultra-classy Honey Buns (marketed using a picture of said buns), and with a best friend whose most meaningful conversations revolved around toddler toilet training…well, you’d probably go for it.
The cover of Favel Parrett's debut is understated yet quietly eerie: there's a sense of something canted and off-kilter, of loss and confusion. And it...moreThe cover of Favel Parrett's debut is understated yet quietly eerie: there's a sense of something canted and off-kilter, of loss and confusion. And it's apt, for this laconic little read is in equal parts challengingly compelling and surprisingly sympathetic from start to finish.
Personal distate for smart-mouthed, tequila-shooting, alpha-inclined main characters aside, I enjoyed Chasing Fire. Yes, both the mystery an...more3.5 stars.
Personal distate for smart-mouthed, tequila-shooting, alpha-inclined main characters aside, I enjoyed Chasing Fire. Yes, both the mystery and romance elements are roughly as tidy as Ro after two (two!) bottles of tequila, but the intriguing setting and the secondary characters–particularly Ro’s dad and his new girlfriend Ella–kept me quite happily turning the pages.
Ah, the great American novel. Many have tried, many have failed. History is littered with those who have come off a little worse for wear for having a...moreAh, the great American novel. Many have tried, many have failed. History is littered with those who have come off a little worse for wear for having attempted such a thing: shattered marriages, flabby livers, unfortunate shotgun accidents and, well, plenty more flabby livers abound. Creating a novel that will touch the hearts of the everyman is a lofty goal, and it takes a certain amount of passion and skill, and a rather liberal addition of je ne sais qoi to succeed.
Unless you’re Pete Tarslaw. Embittered by a soul-destroying career writing university entrance applications and shattered by the news of the upcoming marriage of his ex-girlfriend, Pete sets out to turn that shruggable “I dunno” element of Great Fiction into a paint-by-numbers affair–and a profitable one at that. The key elements of his plan for literary world domination? To show up smarmy pseudo-literary author Preston Brooks, and to show his ex exactly what she’s missing.
The planning component of Pete’s literary fervour involve stalking Borders patrons and flicking through the Lifestyle channel for tear-jerker topics (widows, WWII, and abandoned dogs), must-have settings (Vegas! France! Peru!), and elements required for bookclub consumption (clubs and societies! baking and muffins! a depressing and/or ambiguous ending!). It’s hilarious, but painfully so, because I’m quite sure than in the past year or so I’ve reviewed plenty of such books (high-concept YA and secret society thrillers I’m talking about you).
Hely continues his teeth-grittingly accurate depiction of the writing process (procrastination, junk food, and an over-reliance on non-prescription medication), and of course the publishing process (“if we’d turned down the books we’d accepted and accepted the ones we’d turned down we would probably be in the same situation”). It’s unflinchingly rude and cynical, and it’s a riot. But the novel really gets going when Pete’s novel starts to climb the Amazon charts–an occurrence that’s about as transparent as Ulysses. Pete’s unashamed hubris and his vindictive motivations start to give way under the combined pesky forces of insight and conscience, and he slowly begins to realise that he’s dressed about as appropriately as the proverbial emperor.
Like the hilarious Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch by Richard Hine (see my review), How I Became a Famous Novelist is a spot-on satire of both the publishing industry and those who populate it. Although Hely’s approach does occasionally veer more towards condemnation than critique, there’s more going on here than a railing-against-the-establishment furore. While no publishing stone remains untouched (book reviewers cop quite a clout!), there is a certain warmth here: the novel, for all its bilious ardour, is also a frank assessment of the power of story and the costs of cynically manipulating it for financial gain. Tarslaw may not be the most easy character with whom to sympathise, but the emphasis on situational (and systemic) humour will keep the reader chuckling away.(less)
Despite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, I’m still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come...moreDespite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, I’m still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come. If you’re after a read that’s relentlessly desultory but that is, despite its inherent emo-ness, worthy of your emotional investment, then pick up a copy of this book, and read it straight through. I would, however, suggest supplementing your literary journey with a hot chocolate or something similarly comforting. This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com
Ethan Frome is a challengingly bleak novel that slowly, quietly forces itself upon the unsuspecting reader’s psyche. It’s less a recount of something that has happened than one of what might –or could never–have happened. Wharton takes a circular approach to her narrative, using the flashback framing device popular when the book was written to explicitly contrast the then and the now. The book opens with an unnamed narrator hiring a crippled husk of a man–Ethan Frome–as his driver during his stay in town. Inclement weather forces them to return to Frome’s home, where the stranger speculates on Frome’s downfall, after which point the novel takes us back to the events that culminate in Frome’s disfigurement–a disfigurement that certainly seems to be a sort of moral or karmic retribution.
Some twenty years ago Frome was a strong, able-bodied man, although emotionally he has never been in especially good shape. Frome’s life has been one of expectation and obligation, and he has spent the better part of his youth caring first for his mother, and subsequently for his wife Zeena, whom he takes in out of a sense of duty. The dynamic between Frome and Zeena is a chilling one, and it’s one that no doubt deserves some dissection by someone who’s more pyschoanalytically inclined than I am. Zeena is the type who is perpetually indisposed, something she puts down to her past efforts to care for Frome’s mother, and their entire marriage revolves around this fact. Zeena plays the consumptive card to keep Frome close, while Frome’s sense of residual guilt over both his late mother’s and over his wife’s health sees him take her incessant barbs without comment.
The puritanical context in which Frome and Zeena live, as well as Frome’s wont towards self-flagellation, essentially create a scenario that is all about stagnation, repression, and resentment–so what better way to throw a spanner in the works than a love affair? And this Wharton does in style by introducing Mattie, a live-in, unattached housemaid who happens also to be Zeena’s cousin. What follows is an abject depiction of a love that is notionally requited, but that is acted upon in only the most roundabout way. This affair, after all, is representative of Frome’s freedom–something which his moral concerns disallow him from chasing after. Every wayward thought or action, therefore, becomes something that cripples Frome with its weight, and Frome and Mattie find themselves in a spiral of increasing lust (if one could call it that) and thus increasing self-loathing.
Zeena, of course, is aware of the tension between the two, and thus of Frome’s desire to reclaim his freedom and youth, and she seeks solace in her illness by claiming ever worsening symptoms. In what is a stroke of manipulative genius she heads off to a nearby town in search of a diagnosis solemn enough that it might force Frome to remain by her side. Frome and Mattie are left alone during this time, but their sense of duty and moral uprighteousness, which are underscored by the moralistic challenge inherent in Zeena’s actions, precludes them from doing anything wayward. But it’s not their adulterous actions that pose the problem here–it’s the fact that that desire exists despite not being acted upon. And given thatFrome’s relationship with Zeena is necessarily emotional rather than physical, the psychological nature of his adulterous inclinations is all the more sordid.
Did I mention that Frome is the self-flagellating type? Well, things become even more desperately bleak upon Zeena’s return, when Zeena circuitously condemns the affair by noting that she has hired a new girl to replace Mattie. Given that Zeena has essentially okayed casting out her own kin, Frome feels vindicated in doing the same, and decides that he’ll leave his wife at last. But upon making this decision, he realises that he cannot do so without taking advantage of those who have historically been kind to him. Mattie gets in on the act at this point, suggesting a suicide act by sled (possibly one of the more novel approaches to suicide I’ve heard), but Frome’s guilt is such that he derails the sled at the lost moment, meaning that the two end up seriously injured rather than dead. This, perhaps is the most challenging aspect of the novel, and I could go back and forth for hours attempting to tease out the motivations here. Mattie, now an invalid, is cared for by Zeena and Frome (or at least by Frome when he is well enough to do so, having been nursed back to health by Zeena), adding a whole new dimension to the dynamics here. Is this Frome’s way of seeking retribution? His way of ensuring that he can spend the rest of his days by Mattie’s side? His way of punishing both himself and Mattie for their unbidden love? And what of Zeena’s response to this? Where her husband’s infidelity was ostensibly once the stuff of her paranoia, she now has proof of its existence, but is forced to live with the knowledge of his quiet desperation for the rest of her days.
Ethan Frome is proof that sometimes the greatest horrors are those that aren’t made explicit. It deliberately forces the reader to imagine the twenty years of convalescence and obligation that occur between the first and final chapters, and to endure the emotional challenges no doubt involved in this time. And if you’re not thoroughly disturbed by the thought of this, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.(less)
This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page b...moreThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page break is all that’s needed for me to be convinced that there’s some action going on. But there’s something to be said for those rollicking adventure stories of old: those where a hapless individual chases after a questionable end goal whose purpose is minimal at best. The type of narrative I’m talking about is that were each chapter might well begin with “And then…” And with an oeuvre that’s all about hair-raising, pulse-speeding adventures, the famous French fabulist Jules Verne fits perfectly into this breathless, zany genre.
Around the World in Eight Days is one of Verne’s most celebrated works, and has no doubt played more than a slight role in the sudden ubiquity of goggles, pocketwatches, cravats, and adventuredom beloved by the steampunk crew. Its plot is slight, its internal logic akin to my own, and its characterisation flimsier than a house built from crepe paper, but goodness, it’s a lot of fun. And when listened to in audiobook format in the gloomy early hours of the morning (yay for my 50 minute hike to the office at 7am daily), it’s all the better. Particularly when that morning walk involves trekking through Fawkner Park, where hot air balloons regularly land after their morning flights.
Phileas Fogg is the kind of man who would put an atomic clock to shame. Much like a production editor, he has every moment of his life regimented into strict segments. In fact, perhaps the only spontaneous thing he’s ever undertaken in his life is his sudden decision to attempt an around-the-world journey in 80 days–no more, and no less. But while the completion of the journey will net him a hefty sum indeed, it’s the strict time requirements of the journey that most interest Fogg. And, so, having mapped out in his mind the exact chronological requirements of the journey, he and his hapless assistant Passepartout set out on their omnicontinental journey. But while Fogg’s dogged punctuality sees things starting off on the right track, there’s necessarily a spanner or two thrown in the watch-works. First, Passepartout’s bumbling shenanigans, which see the pair get themselves into all manner of time-chewing mischief, and the fact that Fogg is being stalked by a Terminator-esque police officer who is adamant that Fogg is in fact a bank robber on the run. Having found myself stuck for several days in international airports, missing all manner of connecting flights, one can only imagine how easily things could be derailed in a time where correspondence via snail mail (pony mail?) was the order of the day.
Yes, it’s all rather ludicrous, and each chapter essential entails Fogg and Passepartout setting out on a leg of the journey, Passepartout screwing things up, and Fogg saving the day (and time) in the end. It’s kind of the narrative equivalent of There was an old lady who Swallowed a Fly. But really, there’s a great deal to like here. For my part, I’m rather impressed by Verne’s efforts to put together a worldwide itinerary in pre-Google days. There’s also the cold pragmatism of Fogg, who feels like a clockwork man himself–perhaps he’s a precursor to the Vulcan race? But Fogg, despite being intransigent in his goals, is surprisingly beneficent, being willing to help out just about anyone along the way so long as his his time constraints aren’t stymied.
But while the characters are so thin as to be see-through, there is some character growth. Fogg, who throws money at just about every obstacle that comes his way, does so in a way that indicates that money is no object: rather it is one’s intentions, beliefs, and passions that are paramount. But while extreme punctuality may not seem like an exceedingly admirable goal, rest assured that Fogg’s chilly heart does begin to warm in the name of lurve. Passepartout, too, while a shambling delinquent for the most part (I picture him rather as one of the Frenchmen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail–”your father smells of elderberries!”), is in fact a big-hearted chap who does what he can to see the goals of those he cares about realised. The contrast of rationalism and passion–indeed, the two men are both archetypes for their respective countries–is often hilarious, and Verne’s clever mix of poignancy and tongue-in-cheek mockery makes for a rather fun read indeed (and the fact that Verne’s characters can make it around the world in 79 days when the Melbourne Metro system takes similarly as long to get from one station to another makes for some relevant modern-day commentary…).(less)
Every couple has their own dictionary: all those shared moments lead to a secret language that can be utterly incomprehensible to the outside observer. These lovers’ dictionaries are continually evolving, and are perfect for tracing the trajectory of a romance (and not to mention those cringe-worthy pet names). David Levithan’s latest novel, The Lover’s Dictionary, does exactly this. Divided into a series of brief alphabetically arranged entries, each headed with an evocative single-word title, the book follows the ups and downs of a relationship between two unnamed characters. Certainly, the method is a trope, but in Levithan’s capable hands it’s one that is, with the exception of a few slightly melodramatic or extraneous bits and pieces, close to flawless.
Levithan captures so perfectly the events that transform a nervous acquaintance into a tentative relationship into full-blown coupledom, and his laconic style allows this path to be traced with surprising narrative elegance. It’s not a linear narrative, and we see hints of a darker future amidst the rosy explorations of those earlier entries. Much of the book relies on allusion and on elision, with the reader forced to do much of the legwork to fill in those meaningful gaps. After all, it’s the pauses and hesitations that are often more meaningful than words themselves. And Levithan certainly doesn’t shirk this fact, doing everything he can to exploit it. Dark, challenging entries are juxtaposed against whimsy and XKCD-like observations to moving contrast, and while there are moments where it’s a little blatant (the repeated entries regarding one lover’s infidelity being a case in point), for the most part it’s highly effective.
Levithan’s incisiveness is perhaps what surprised me most about this book. There are so many painfully familiar moments in it: those ambiguities, ambivalences, those moments of self-loathing and self-doubt that are inevitable in any relationship. All of those tiny turning points in a relationship are somehow captured in this concise little tome. And oh, it’s so easy to see oneself popping up here and there in its pages (although perhaps that’s my inner narcissist preeningly rearing its head). It’s a saddening, maddening book in so many ways: it’s not so much a dissection of a failed relationship as the analysis of a psyche determined to remain in an increasingly desultory relationship out of sheer determination to make things work. But Levithan’s wit and irreverence stop it from becoming a book with which to drink away one’s sorrows, which makes it a refreshing entrant in the world of relationship narratives. It doesn’t moon, it isn’t platitudinous: it just is.
Perhaps what I liked most about this novel is its confounding of archetypes and othering. Levithan neither names his characters nor gives anything away regarding gender. Perhaps due to my fleeting familiarity with Levithan and his other work, I read this under the assumption that both characters were male, but having done a quick google, it turns out that almost everyone else has defaulted to a male/female heterosexual relationship. It’s a touch saddening to realise this, and there’s certainly opportunity for a dialogue here. But while the story is all about the universality of love (and its myriad related conditions, afflictions, and emotions), a part of me wishes that Levithan had screwed the Irving Goffman bit and gone on record.
All in all, this is a refreshing, wonderful little volume that you’ll delight in dipping in and out of–if you don’t devour the thing like I did. It’s simultaneously sparse and sumptuous, incisive and irreverent, but it’s always human. A great read.(less)