Japanese author and Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata is famous for his ‘palm of the hand’ stories, stories so small and taciturn that they could fit iJapanese author and Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata is famous for his ‘palm of the hand’ stories, stories so small and taciturn that they could fit in the grasp of one’s curled fingers. These stories comprise mere moments: a meeting of gazes, a gesture, a brief downfall of rain, the arranging of flowers, the steeping of tea. They are like wells: despite having a small, hemmed in surface of finite dimensions, their depths are unknown, dark, requiring close examination, speculation on behalf of the reader. Read the rest of this review here....more
A few years ago, my husband and I visited an antiquated lighthouse at the very edge ofThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
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....more
**spoiler alert** Lexi Baill’s life has been anything but easy. With an absent father and heroin-addict mother, Lexi finds herself shunted from foster**spoiler alert** Lexi Baill’s life has been anything but easy. With an absent father and heroin-addict mother, Lexi finds herself shunted from foster home to foster home. But when she is legally adopted by her aunt, Lexi’s life takes a turn for the better. She finds herself attending a good school in a good community, and quickly becomes close friends with Mia Farraday. The picture-perfect Farradays are soon a second family to Lexi, and their ties become closer when she begins dating Zach, Mia’s twin brother. But a fatal accident sees Lexi’s, and the Farradays’, lives torn apart. The consequences are far-reaching, and both Lexi and the Farradays find that piecing back together their lives is a far greater challenge than they ever imagined–particularly when the past refuses to remain where it belongs.
(the spoiler-averse might wish to stop reading here, as my analysis touches on some key plot points you may prefer to read for yourself)
Best-selling author Kristen Hannah writes with confidence and flair, and it took me all of a few pages until I was completely enamoured of Lexi and her story. Yes, the against-all-odds approach is more than cliched, but Hannah manages to take her characters beyond archetypes and imbue them with such a sense of self that it’s difficult not to feel compassionate towards them. The narrative initially traces Lexi’s efforts to become integrated into the world in which the Farradays inhabit, but soon splits into a dual narrative: that of Lexi and the struggles she faces to become accepted both the first, and a second time, and that of Jude Farraday, the claustrophobically protective mother of twins Mia and Jude.
Curiously, I couldn’t help but think of F Scott Fizgerald’s Tender is the Night (see my review) when reading Night Road, as both novels deal with the growth of one character at the expense of another: in Night Road, Lexi comes into her own as Jude flails, and then, conversely, Jude takes a sense of power from Lexi’s social demise. The catalyst, of course, is the death of Mia, Jude’s daughter and Lexi’s best friend, in a road accident–an accident caused by Lexi, who was at the wheel at the time, and drunk. The effect that this accident has on all parties is obviously devastating: Lexi loses her best friend, and of course her lover Zach, while Jude loses her biological daughter Mia, and also her soi-disant adopted daughter, Lexi. Jude, who has always been protective to a fault, lashes out at Lexi as a result, pressing for a harsh penalty to avenge her daughter’s death. But these efforts serve only to further punish Jude herself: not only does she effectively lose Lexi, too, but she pushes away her devastated son. It’s a challenging scenario, and one that Hannah depicts beautifully–the anguish all but drips from the pages.
But things, of course, are only about to get more complicated, and after Lexi is sent off to prison Night Road gets a little The Lovely Bones on us. Lexi it seems has fallen pregnant to Zach, which poses all manner of problems to these fractured individuals. The pregnancy raises issues such as the value of Lexi and Zach’s relationship, the role of Jude as a grandmother and would-be mother, and perhaps most importantly, the notion of life inevitably springing from death (a theme I recently looked at in my recent review of Salley Vicker’s excellent Instances of The Number 3). But it’s in this area where I felt the novel flailed a little. Zach, still professing his undying love for Lexi, takes full custody of his new-born daughter without so much as a brief moral struggle (let’s bear in mind that this kid is 18 and about to head off to university). His altriusm is unending: he sacrifices everything for his daughter, and continues to secretly love Lexi, despite her lack of reciprocity, throughout the intervening years. For her own part, Jude continues to punish both herself and Zach by refusing to engage with her granddaughter at all.
While Hannah is undoubtedly a good writer, it’s hard not to stop such a situation from devolving into a soap opera-esque debacle, and unfortunately none of this evokes quite the pathos desired. In fact, it all becomes rather tedious after a few hundred pages, as Jude’s anguish, her deteriorating relationship with her husband, and her inability to forgive are reiterated endlessly, and we cover the same narrative ground time and time again. Moreover, the characterisation and setting seem to slowly crumble, too: jail scenes of Lexi befriending a tough-as-guts lifer feel like something out of an 80s boxing film, and things struggle to pick up when she gets out of prison and begins, well, stalking her daughter. (There’s also the fact that Lexi’s daughter’s invisible best friend is ostensibly the ghost of Mia, but this very notion strained an already struggling narrative so much that I tried to pretend that this was not the case). While I commend Hannah for attempting to deal with such a challenging scenario, I can’t help feel that Heather Gudenkauf’s These Things Hidden (see my review) did so with much more elegance.
Narratively, things only become more implausible from here: Lexi and Zach passionately reunite, and Jude manages to rend the outfit of mourning she’s been wearing these past years. It’s just all so very neat, and all so very convenient. Given that the cynic in me finds it very hard to believe in puppy love as something that will last out the years, I struggled to believe that Lexi’s past as an ex-con did nothing to sway Zach’s feelings at all.
Still, while the narrative as a whole feels rather too colour-by-numbers for me to endorse whole-heartedly, there are some surprisingly good moments in this novel, and I can see why Hannah is such a popular writer. Jude’s relationship with her husband, for example, is tenderly depicted, and there are many characters who, despite being only sketchily drawn, are easy to empathise with–characterisation is clearly Hannah’s forte as a novelist. The setting is believable, and the dialogue for the most part is spot-on. If Hannah steps away from these neat endings in future, she might well have a winner on her hands....more
Tender is the Night, one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s later works, was begun in 1925, but was not published until some years later. Indeed, the lapse betweTender is the Night, one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s later works, was begun in 1925, but was not published until some years later. Indeed, the lapse between composition and publication had significant impact upon the book’s success: although the author considered it to be his masterpiece, it was met with little of the runaway success and critical accolades of a work such as The Great Gatsby, which arguably remains today Fitzgerald’s seminal work. This in part was due to the temporal disconnect between the novel’s setting and themes and the emerging literary trends at the time. Rather than the novels of excess and delight that had so been in vogue in earlier years, the American literary horizon in the 1930s demanded greater austerity, greater restraint. Fitzgerald also considered the book’s structure to be commercially problematic, and as such, a significantly reworked second edition of the book was subsequently released after his death; it is this edition that is discussed in this review. Read the rest of this reviewhere...more
In the few months before my little sister started primary school, she had a new best fThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
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....more
The setting of John Vaillant’s remarkable work of narrative non-fiction The Tiger is Primorye, a little known province in Russia’s far east, a cruel aThe setting of John Vaillant’s remarkable work of narrative non-fiction The Tiger is Primorye, a little known province in Russia’s far east, a cruel and inhospitable place that is, counter-intuitively, crowded with the most unlikely profusion of wildlife, an array of flora and fauna so rich that the like of it exists in few other places in the world. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Amur tiger, an animal that has stepped maddeningly at the edges of dreams and superstition of all who cross it. To the residents of Primorye, to the native peoples and the European Russians alike, the tiger is not just one of many animals that crackle through the frigid undergrowth or slink amidst the dense arboreal profusion of the taiga, but is something else again, a canny huntress given fearful reverence, awed respect. The tiger is the perfect predator, adapted to this most challenging of environments to an almost incomprehensible degree, and armed not only with staggering physical strength and agility, but also, if we’re to believe Vaillant’s account, with an almost human-like habit of mind, the ability to understand what another is thinking. It seems that the Amur tiger is not only perfectly primed as a huntress, but also as a cold-blooded revenge killer: it is endlessly patient, incomparably determined, boundlessly brutal, and all but impossible to track. Read the rest of this review here...more
“Someone once told me, that in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead. What she didn’t tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.”
So begins Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, the third in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series.
It has been eight years since Vianne Rocher left the tiny, conservative village of Lansquenet, and though she has convinced herself that she is happy with her present life – her two daughters, her enigmatic partner Roux, and her growing chocolate business – she is stricken with restlessness, with a fear of settling. ”More. Oh, that word. That deceptive word. That eater of lives; that malcontent…” she thinks, adding: “what more could I possibly want?”
So when she receives a letter from her deceased friend Armande telling her that she is needed in Lansquenet, she needs little more reason to set off to the small village upon whose fabric she, with her chocolate-making and vaguely witchy ways, has so indelibly made her mark. It’s a jarring plot mechanism, and one that is never explained or elaborated upon, and though I’m new to this series, I couldn’t help but feel that this was an unsubtle way of forcing a character whose story arc has perhaps already been completed back into the fictive realm.
Once in Lansquenet, however, things begin to improve, and the story feels less flailing. The village where Vianne began her forays into chocolate-making has changed since her last visit, with new tensions bristling between the older Catholic population and the growing Muslim one. Vianne arrives with the changing wind – a motif that flits determinedly and weightily throughout the book–all too aware that her second sight will lead her to the truths about the simmering religious and cultural prejudices affecting the town. As well as these, she fears, she may learn something about her own relationship that she would rather remain an unknown.
“If I stay in Lansquenet, I will find out those secrets. It’s a talent – or a curse – to see beyond the surface. But this time, I do not know whether I really want to see.”
Vianne soon meets with Father Reynaud, the old-fashioned, Eeyore-esque priest who has found himself in the centre of the growing discord. Not only is Reynaud tasked with dealing with the increasing fall-out occurring amongst the village residents, but he is seen by many as a precipitating force. ”I told Pere Henri the other day, a priest has no friends. In good times, he has followers; in bad times, only enemies,” he says. The incident that may cost Renaud his job is a recent arson attack on the new Muslim school, which has been set up in what was formerly Vianne’s chocolate shop. The shop, as it (presumably–I’ve not read this book’s predecessors) did in the first in the trilogy, is again a point around which the frequently described winds of change, here including culture and religion, pivot.
The narrative alternates through the viewpoints of Reynaud and Vianne, both of whom have similar goals – bridging the divide in the village communities–but diametrically opposed outlooks. ”I am sure that whatever problems Reynaud may have encountered in dealing with this community can be solved through humour and dialogue,” says Vianne. Reynaud, on the other hand, think of Vianne as ”one of those people who seem to laugh at everything – as if life were some kind of perpetual joke, and people endlessly charming and good, instead of being mostly stupid and dull, if not downright poisonous.”
For Reynaud, Vianne arrives in town with “her usual gift of mayhem, dreams and chocolate”, and to be honest, he’s not far from the truth. Vianne prescribes food as social and cultural medication, wandering about the town and making friends by thrusting upon them truffles and jams. She seems to walk relatively effortlessly between the town’s two cultural groups, with two exceptions: a self-loathing, violent man from the Catholic community, and the enigmatic, niqab-wearing Ines, the woman many believe to be just as culpable as Reynaud in widening the village divide. Though Vianne is convinced of her ability to read people, along the way she learns that she has been wrong about one important person in her life, leading her to wonder whether she has allowed herself to be misled by the current of half-truths and prejudices whirling about on those Lansquenet winds.
Peaches for Monsieur le Cure has its moments of beauty and resonance, but also suffers at times from redundancy and simplicity of plot, character and prose. At times the writing is gorgeously dreamy, with hints of magic and vivid imagery that make the journey so very enjoyable. At others, it’s oddly stilted, with a reliance on ellipses and rhetorical questions that almost feel as though they’re placeholders for elements of the text that are still waiting to be filled in, or that are used as easy justification for plot elements that don’t quite make sense. Take for example the following about a young girl Vianne ends up harbouring in her home: ”What are her parents thinking now? Why has no one come looking for her? And how long can I keep her here before the news of her presence gets out?” There’s an odd sense that everyone in the book seems to be simply waiting for Vianne to call around with a tasty snack and aura-reading ways to set things back on the straight and narrow.
Where some characters, such as Vianne’s young children, the teenaged Anouk and the (likely) autistic Rosette, are beautifully drawn, others seem to fall by the wayside. Roux, for example, waves goodbye to Vianne at the beginning of the book, and features only in Vianne’s thoughts until the very end of the book. For a character over whom Vianne spends so much time musing, we never really get any sense of who he is. It’s to be assumed that he is more carefully fleshed out in the earlier volumes in the trilogy, but even so it doesn’t seem right to expect such prior characterisation to somehow transfer over, ghostlike, to this one. Indeed, Vianne herself says, of Roux, ”A man without a past is like a man without a shadow.”
The book almost seems to be in conflict with itself, and I think this confusion is summed up in Vianne’s own line: ”I never said I was wise. All I do is make chocolates.” There’s a sort of sophistry here that feels as though it pervades the book, which has a feeling of betweenness. It’s not quite wise, and it’s not quite magic, and I think this uncertainty is where the problem lies.
And yet, for all that, there’s something rich and beautiful about the people and the stories that inhabit these pages, and I found myself, even in spite of my reservations, delightedly immersing myself in their world–which is always a good sign as a reader. ...more
Having read rather a good deal of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tenThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com
Having read rather a good deal of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tend to vary widely upon where they fall upon this rather broad genre. At one end are those novels that are a step or two away from traditional romances (with a few brand names and a bit of extra snark thrown in for good measure), while at the other are those that could fit quite snugly into the mainstream, or even literary fiction, shelves. These particular novels tend to have a darker core than their zippier, more romancey cousins, and may also flirt with other genre conventions, such as that of the mystery or thriller genres. Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary is one of these latter novels: one that might be nominally chick lit, but which would be rather more comfortably placed in amongst its mainstream peers—especially if those mainstream peers are in close proximity to the mystery shelves. It’s a rather surprising novel in many ways, and is certainly one that confounds a number of genre expectations.
It has been three years since Sophie Honeywell broke up with almost-fiance Thomas Gordon, and Sophie, although not necessarily regretting the decision—Thomas, while a lovely chap and a good chef, didn’t exactly inspire in Sophie the sort of breath-stealing passion she’d rather like in her lover—is beginning to wonder whether she might have missed the boat in terms of all things love and baby-related, and her biological clock is sounding about as subtle as Munich’s glockenspiel. However, Sophie’s life is given rather a shake-up when Thomas’s Aunt Connie bequeaths, rather surprisingly, her stunning estate on the tourist haven Scribbly Bark island to her. Needless to say it’s not only Sophie who is surprised by her sudden windfall, and Sophie finds herself in the midst of some family politics more transient and unstable than that of Liberia. But the mystery of Aunt Connie’s will is not the only mystery facing Sophie and the family into which she has again been catapulted: Scribbly Bark island, it turns out, is home to a number of uber-secrets that, if they come out, could well be the island’s commercial undoing–and the undoing of the family itself.
I have to admit that, based on the light and fluffy cover, and the fact that I nicked this novel out of my mum’s notoriously beach-readish library, I was expecting something a little less challenging from The Last Anniversary. I was, however, delighted to find that I’d been led astray by outward appearances. While the novel does, of course, spend some time dwelling on the existential angst that apparently comes with being single and childless at forty, it’s far more than one women’s race against her biological clock. In addition to some of the more light-hearted fare encountered throughout the narrative, Moriarty engages a number of challenging themes, and does so thoughtfully and unflichingly. The post-natal depression experienced by the outwardly unflappable Grace, for example, is presented in a way that is raw and unrelenting but, due to Moriarty’s excellent way with character, is sympathetic at the same time. Other dark issues such as rape, betrayal, and the day-to-day emotional bullying found in some romantic relationships, are also addressed, and while not allowed quite the same amount of page space in order to be addressed in a complex, thorough manner, are treated in a way that is substantially more than superficial, and that is often eminently believable. Moriarty, however, balances these more challenging themes beautifully with the less confronting parts of the narrative, and manages to do so in a way doesn’t trivialise them in the least.
While the narrative itself follows a fairly unsurprising path, it’s not the plot that’s the star of this book. Rather, character and setting shine here. The setting of Scribbly Gum island is beautifully rendered, and Moriarty’s evident attention to milieu is augmented by a cast of characters who slot perfectly into this setting, with the two bridged together by the author’s profound understanding of Australianness. Moriarty avoids the ponderously overt approach to “doing Australian” injected with such painful determination into so many Australian novels (or worse, novels that aren’t Australian, but try to be), and instead allows her characters’ culture to shine through in a number of snippets that will have readers familiar with the plight of the aspirational classes nodding along: iced Vo-Vos, pots of tea, marble cake recipes, terrible clothing, Weight Watchers, awkward attempts at entertaining, and appallingly bad children’s literature, just to name a few, pop up in passing, but aren’t given the lavish attention some authors seem to think they require. Through a combination of the above, and of course the omnipresent family politics, the reader is given an in-depth understanding of most of the book’s characters, and given the rather substantial cast, the fact that each character (with the exception of Rose and Enigma, who tended to blur together for me, although perhaps, given the book’s twist, this was intended) is so easily distinguished from the others is testament to Moriarty’s skill with characterisation. I did, however, have some misgivings about the male characters in the book, as they did tend to feel rather less well-rounded than the females, and in the cases of characters such as Ron, Mr Egg Head, and Rose and Connie’s father, are condensed down into something approaching evil. Given the diversity of female characters in the book, and the balanced approach taken to their actions present and past (and let’s be honest, there are enough skeletons in this family’s closest to warrant a home with rather more storage space), the condemnatory approach taken towards the male characters is all the more noticeable.
While The Last Anniversary is for the most part (there are some robotic-sounding missteps with the present-tense used throughout the book) enjoyably and effectively wrought at the prose level, written in a style that veers between the fluffy and flitty to the astonishingly cruel as required, this sense of authorial control, as mentioned earlier, isn’t quite as evident at the narrative level. The mystery surrounding Scribbly Gum Island is perhaps played up a little too much, particularly given the fairly mundane (and easily guessable) truth behind it, and one can’t help but feel that the book could have been streamlined a little by reducing the emphasis on this particular plot point. Similarly, there’s some redundancy in Sophie’s quest for love and romance, and this results in a certain amount of tedium that detracts from an otherwise quick and zippy plot. I was, however, quite delighted with the eventual outcome of Sophie’s quest to go forth and multiply, as the fairly non-traditional solution felt rather more fitting with Sophie’s character than her previous mooning over married men, men with girlfriends, men with significant others, and, well, really, just about any man with a heartbeat.
The Last Anniversary was a surprise discovery for me, and one I’m rather glad I came across. While it’s not a flawless work, it’s certainly one that’s thoroughly engaging, and that will have readers caught up in the complex familial machinations of the residents of Scribbly Gum Island. Moriarty has considerable facility with characterisation, and works hard to balance the darker elements of the plot with moments of delightful levity (competitive body building for Weight Watchers members, anyone?), resulting in a read that is somehow both insouciant and thoughtful at the same time. It’s a fine outing, and Moriarty is clearly an author to watch....more
Caravaggio’s famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man whCaravaggio’s famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man who has walked anonymously with two disciples reveals himself as Jesus. The scene echoes Jesus’s earlier words that he will always appear when others gather in his name, and this theme of rebirth, although more of the spirit than of the spiritual, becomes a key motif in Salley Vickers’s novel The Other Side of You. Read the rest of this review here...more
In my family the humble stove-top espresso is a powerful signifier, marking both time, such as the beginning of a day or the contemplative lull afterIn my family the humble stove-top espresso is a powerful signifier, marking both time, such as the beginning of a day or the contemplative lull after an evening meal, and occasion: family gatherings to celebrate births, marriages, deaths come to mind. There are so many joys to what is really such a simple ritual: the wincingly tight espresso cup around one’s finger, the steamy warmth sweating between the pressing web of one’s fingers, that frank and bitter fragrance, so sharp and determined against the sweet waft of biscotti or wafers. Meeting for coffee is a social event vastly different from meeting for a meal, or meeting for a drink of the alcoholic persuasion: coffee is versatile, ubiquitous, and comforting. There is something about coffee that appeals to the mainstream, the cultural elite, and everyone between. It is an elixir that heals, that promotes, that soothes, that poses a challenge to both the new and the experienced palate. Coffee is divisive, gaining a passionate lover with each passionate enemy, and drawing its share of pilgrims in search of that elusive, perfect brew. In The Various Flavours of Coffee, Anthony Capella, author of a number of food-themed novels, including the recent Empress of Ice-Cream (see my review) explores the growth in the demand for coffee, and the appreciation of the same, in early twentieth century London.
Foppish gadabout and would-be poet Robert Wallis delights in his own self-importance, whiling away his days in about as useless a manner as he can manage. However, Robert gradually begins to realise that there is a certain disjunct between his spendthrift ways and his less than substantial income, and thus when he is offered a job helping to develop a taxonomy of the various flavours of coffee, he finds himself, despite his aversion to the lurid vulgarity of writing for money, accepting. Of course, the fact that his employer’s daughter Emily is a highly eligible young lass does help things along somewhat, and Robert, using all of the (admittedly minimal) charm available to him, seeks to woo Emily. But fate, economics, and stern fathers intervene, and Robert soon finds himself shipped off to Africa to further familiarise himself with the life cycle of the coffee bean. After a number of impressively humbling failures in the spheres of coffee-growing and romance, Robert returns home to a London that is deeply unfamiliar: Emily is lost to him, the coffee trade is undergoing significant change, and the suffragette movement is at its height–and all of these elements have a substantial impact on the way in which Robert’s life will eventually play out.
In reading The Various Flavours of Coffee I’m reminded of the work of science fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose short stories typically mash together a number of seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Capella’s novel, however, while combining several key themes and ideas, lacks a little in the cohesion stakes, and one can’t help but feel that had the author picked one particular narrative or thematic element upon which to focus the book would have been far stronger. As it is, the book is not more than the sum of its parts, but is rather lessened as a result as it struggles to cohere coffee-flavour notation, the norms of early twentieth century London life, intercultural and interclass forbidden love, treks to Africa and Brazil complete with a sort of cursory anthropological analysis, an examination of the slave-owner relationship, feminism and the suffragette movement, and the micro- and macroeconomics of the coffee trade. Taken alone, any one of these elements would have made for a fascinating read, but the combination of the same is rather like mixing a number of strong and heady coffee blends and then re-brewing them without changing the beans: simultaneously overwhelming and oddly diluted. Capella himself appears to be aware of the way in which his various narrative choices threaten the pacing and general cohesiveness of the book, and as the book progresses it shifts from being told only from Robert’s perspective to Emily’s as well, giving the effect that the author is trying desperately to cling to the floating balloon of his narrative. This sudden shift to multiple point of view characters is something I noticed in The Empress of Ice-Cream, occurring similarly when the narrative, originally taking part in one geographical area, began to travel abroad.
In addition to this, Wallis’s narration is full of pomp and self-satisfaction, and is extraordinarily self-conscious. His references to dandyism and Oscar Wilde are so frequent that one suspects he might well be wearing, beneath the gaudy sleeves of his subcontinent-style garments, a What Would Oscar Wilde Do? bracelet. Unfortunately, where Wilde has seemingly unlimited amounts of charm, Wallis’s own charms are rather more finite, and his endless quips, pedantry, and insufferable know-it-allness become trying–a fact that the author/narrator explicitly acknowledges, apologising for the ceaselessly boorish behaviour of Wallis. There are moments that are truly fascinating, and the reader can tell that Capella has undertaken some rigorous research, but the depiction of Wallis’s descent into slatternly slovenliness becomes rather dull after a while, and it takes some time for the novel to really get going. Wallis, of course, does eventually redeem himself, spending rather less time in brothels and rather more time being an upstanding young lad on the front lines of the suffragette movement, but this redemption occurs only towards the end of the novel, and after a good deal of narrative circumlocution.
There are parts of the novel that, taken separately, are truly excellent. Scattered throughout the pages are breath-taking descriptions of the aromas and notes of coffee, and some of the exposition is quite beautiful. The tales of Robert’s being fleeced by a stunning slave is highly entertaining, as is the account of the time he spends in Africa and elsewhere abroad, but these read more as a short story than as an integrated part of a larger narrative, and one suspects could quite easily have been excised from the novel without negative consequences. The discussion of the diabolical economics behind the coffee trade is also rather interesting, but again feels more like an appendix or a footnote than truly part of the wide narrative. Emily as a character is fascinating, too, and her moral and intellectual strength, combined with her head for business and her actions as part of the suffragette movement make for some excellent reading–and of which I wish there had been rather more. The chapters from her perspective are some of the more interesting in the book, and to be honest I would have been quite happy to have read a novel written solely from her point of view, or to have read a narrower narrative that allowed more focus on the business and (potential) romantic relationship between Emily and Robert, rather than being whisked off to various exotic locales. As it is, however, the rangy narrative and Capella’s love of the melodramatic make for a plot that meanders and digresses, but that ends with a dramatic, but perhaps not entirely believable, or necessary, ending in which A Point Is Made and where all of the various preceding elements of the novel are jammed together into a huge snowball of a conclusion.
From its opening pages I was expecting The Various Flavours of Coffee to read rather more like an espresso or a long black than the Starbucks-esque frappuccino with syrups, sauces, and chocolate savings that it turned out to be. While it contains some exquisite elements in terms of prose, historical detail, character, and theme, these are hidden beneath a splendiferous layering of prose-level calisthenics and narrative digression that, like a topping of cream, smothers what might otherwise be an excellent blend....more
When Peter Hansome dies in a car accident, a number of carefully concealed–or perhaps sThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com
When Peter Hansome dies in a car accident, a number of carefully concealed–or perhaps simply wilfully ignored–truths bubble to the surface. Bridget Hansome, Peter’s widow, is contacted shortly after by Frances Slater, Peter’s long-time mistress, who asks whether she might attend his funeral.
If the authorial pen for this narrative were being wielded by anyone else, this story would veer into flagrant tumult, but in the hands of acclaimed writer Salley Vickers things proceed rather differently from how one might expect. Bridget and Frances, rather than locking horns over who is the rightful possessor of Peter’s heart, embark instead on a mutual journey of self-discovery, delving quietly and inexorably into Peter’s past, which is a dark and problematic area about which each has her own suspicions, but has continued thus far quite happily without airing them to the world. The two develop an acquaintance that teeters between friendship and adversary, and it’s this unlikely relationship, along with that of the mysterious Zahin, a handsome Iranian boy whose relationship with Peter remains ambiguous until the end, that takes up much of the rest of the book.
I suspect that American readers might be put off almost immediately by this development, but that British readers or those from rather more conservative societies might well be sympathetic to each woman’s quiet acceptance of the other’s existence. Both women wish to maintain face by avoiding explicitly addressing the subject in public, but what’s perhaps most curious about this is that the status quo that has extended for the past seven years has been maintained. Peter, after all, made little secret about the fact that he took mistresses, and both Bridget and Frances were aware, to at least some degree, of the existence of the other.
This may seem horribly anti-feminist, but I’m not entirely sure that it is. As the book unfolds, the reader sees that while Peter sees himself as playing a major role in the lives of his wife and mistress, neither woman considers him in such a light. Both are independent and successful in their own right, and while they partake of his company, there is little sense of their giving themselves over to him. Peter fills a gap or sorts, but whether this gap is one that needs filling is questionable. Indeed, the complex relationship that the two women develop is less about wishing to keep Peter alive in some sense, but more about examining their own selves through the lens of the other–something that is possible largely because Bridget and Frances are so curiously different.
Peter, then, despite being to some degree the theme of the novel, is rather less of a character (although he does crop up, Hamlet-like, in ghostly form every now and then). While the reader is guided to look towards trilogies, triptychs, and triads throughout the novel–at the levels of character, symbol, and theme–I found personally that Bridget and Frances are rather more of a binary, and that while Peter is omnipresent, his role is certainly not that of a third party within their relationship. Peter, indeed, fades as the others move on with their lives, and additional binaries take over instead: Frances’s pregnancy, for example, linking her to her child, but curiously helping to break her bond with Peter; and Bridget’s relationship with unsubtly named and alarmingly well-read chimney sweep Stanley Godwit, which of course has a severing force. Of course, love triangles abound throughout the book almost to the point of absurdity, but in my mind rather than highlighting the famous strength of the three-sided bond, there’s a certain unevenness in these relationships: two parts of the three unfailingly dominate the third.
Vickers’s work famously draws on literary and artistic allusion, and Instances of the Number 3 is no different, although its approach is slightly less heavy-handed than those in works such as The Other Side of You, which uses a Caravaggio painting as an anchor point, and Miss Garnet’s Angel, which rather heavy-handedly integrates an historic, Biblical narrative into the main story. Poetry and performance are caught up in the novel (and indeed, are quoted at length, which is not an approach that quite works for me), and we are given myriad works against which to consider Peter’s ethical self, and indeed those of his surviving lovers. Dante gets a nod, and so does Shakespeare–and let’s not forget Yeats, whose When You Are Old gets more than a look-in. The issue of godly punishment and religious self-flagellation is also raised: Peter, a closet Catholic, after all, dies on his way to visit another lover, and it is his mistress, not his wife, who ends up carrying his child.
As always, Vickers provides enough food for thought to feed the metaphysical souls of an army, and while Instances of the Number 3 does occasionally overstep the mark in the coincidences and twists it throws up, for the most part it’s a fascinating, absorbing read–perhaps in part because of the author’s sober, uninvolved style, which allows these characters to indulge their flights of fancy without it coming across as such.
There are many kinds of bad novels. There are those that are simply bad for me, thoseThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
There are many kinds of bad novels. There are those that are simply bad for me, those that are deliciously terrible, and those that are merely dull and purposeless, warranting a "why bother?" response. But perhaps the very worst of these is the novel that is disappointing, the novel that has that potential to be so brilliant, but simply is not.
Anne Giardini's The Sad Truth About Happiness, I'm afraid, falls into this final category. It's a literary fall from grace, a book that opens with elegant language and a thoughtful premise, and then madly leaps from the narrative cliff, hurling the bungee cord of its plot off into an abyss. Oh, little book, if I were your parent, I would be very disappointed in you for failing to live up to your potential.
Our protagonist Maggie is a thirty-something woman whose personal claim to fame has been her "contentedness", her rock-like mildness against the blustering whims of her sisters Janet and Lucy and her vague and owlish parents. But when her flatmate has her undertake a magazine quiz to determine Maggie's projected life expectancy, Maggie is astonished to find that it's unlikely that she'll live out the year. The reason being that contentment and happiness are not the same thing, and it's the latter that is apparently linked to mortality.
It's at this point that the book begins to crumble away beneath the weight of its identity crisis. Though its initial chapters seem to set it up as a quiet literary novel, this quiz business adds a sense of whimsy, or perhaps even magic realism, that feels utterly at odds with the tone thus far. Perhaps if the quiz and its mortality projections had been dealt with by Maggie and her flatmate with rather less credulity, the book might have regained its feet. As it is, however, it continues to descend into an awkward literary pubescence, courting many different identities in turn, and never finding one that quite suits.
Maggie's quiz-predicted death apparently makes her irresistible to the opposite sex, and she finds herself courted by several suitors in a way that's almost reminiscent of a fairytale--and indeed, it's almost possible that there is some sort of odd Goldilocks framework at play here. These interactions are intriguing in and of themselves, but fail to integrate properly into the main plot arc, which transforms into an utterly bizarre account of Maggie's sister's affair with a married Italian man, and then Maggie's decision to kidnap the baby born from this union in order to prevent him from being taken back to Italy.
This truly strange turn of events takes up the remainder of the book, throwing a spanner of nonsensicality into the already rusty works, and we're treated to odd missives about homeless girls, church windows, and the wonders of breastfeeding, all of which feel so out of place that you could can't help but wonder whether halfway through writing this Giardini started mainlining old episodes of Gumby, along with Murakami's back catalogue.
The writing, too, suffers along the way, and I'm quite sure that I could put together an equation correlating page count with the quality of writing. What begins as a somewhat self-conscious but still finely written prose style devolves into a mess of em-dashes, off-kilter reportage and needlessly repeated motifs. Take, for example, this ill-conceived reported speech: "Soon after the move to Rome, however, the bello Corrado took up with one of his models, a long-limbed young man from Palermo with skin, Lucy reported, the colour of burnt oatmeal and a dark head of fat, oiled curls." Without the insertion of "Lucy reported" this sentence might have worked, but as it stands it feels painfully contrived and warrants questioning from the reader. Who on earth reports that someone has skin the colour of burnt oatmeal?
There are awkward introductions and re-introductions that should have been picked up in the editing stage, such as the several times that Maggie mentions her parents' lack of religiosity, each time doing so as though it's a novel concept to the reader; in addition, she twice introduces us to a former boyfriend called Chris Tolnoy with no acknowledgement of the first instance of his gracing the book's pages. Towards the end of the book, too, we begin to see repeated phrases, such as the doubled-up description of a cat as being bird-like and downy. Perhaps it's a mark of Maggie's increasingly unhinged outlook, but I suspect that it's more to do with the fact that this novel has leapt out of the author's grasp.
I was profoundly disappointed by this novel, not simply because it wasn't particularly good, but because it had the potential to be so very good. Perhaps Giardini's sophomore effort will bring the goods. ...more
Ten year old Jama, protagonist of Nadifa Mohamed’s Orange Prize short listed Black Mamba Boy, is a boy of multiple stories, multiple lives, and multipTen year old Jama, protagonist of Nadifa Mohamed’s Orange Prize short listed Black Mamba Boy, is a boy of multiple stories, multiple lives, and multiple names. All of these are significant, but the last, with its wink towards a potential prophetic learning: in addition to his given name, Jama also goes by the nickname Goode, or black mamba, for the time when one such deadly snake slithered over his mother’s pregnant belly, but with benign consequences. The name is indicative of Jama’s luck, his verve, his ability to survive in the most pressing, abject circumstances, and it’s a name that over time he internalises, gradually allowing it to inform the decisions he makes in this astonishing narrative, a fictionalised account of the early years of the life of Mohamed’s father. Read the rest of this review here...more
The sixth novel by celebrated Egyptian author Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis has already garnered accolades far and wide, with the Booker-esque Arabic FictThe sixth novel by celebrated Egyptian author Bahaa Taher, Sunset Oasis has already garnered accolades far and wide, with the Booker-esque Arabic Fiction award amongst its more notable achievements. It’s not difficult to see why: this volume may be slim, but it’s deceptively so, making masterful use of setting and character to address themes such as colonialism, identity, exile and love. Read the rest of this review here...more
I have a friend who's a former chef. The only thing he loathes more than poor-qualityThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
I have a friend who's a former chef. The only thing he loathes more than poor-quality coffee is the current trend of amateur food photography.
"Wouldn't you rather enjoy the food that someone's prepared for you, and spend some time hanging out with your friends rather than fiddling around with the filters on Instagram?" he said one day.
This obsessive need to document and share our lives isn't just limited to food, however. Just as our phones have become an extension of our memories as far as contact details, maps and schedules are involved, photo-sharing sites have become the way that we engage with the narratives of our lives. Retrospectively, and with rose-tinted lenses that are no longer just metaphorical.
Rather than experiencing a moment, embracing its temporal ephemerality, letting it shape us in its own subtle way...and then allowing it to slip into memory until dredged up into consciousness by some conversational or olfactory mnemonic, we've become obsessive documentary-makers. But one of the things about being able to outsource the recording of these experiences is that we don't necessarily engage with them with the depth that we might otherwise.
My in-laws are a case in point: after putting together a precarious, overpopulated itinerary, they'll hurtle their way through their trip, sitting back to relax and reflect on the experience only on the plane afterwards, digital cameras at the ready. Oohs and aahs will ensue as they try to piece together their holiday from the photographic artefacts beeping along in a slideshow in their hands.
I'm not sure that these sorts of pictures are each worth a thousand words.
But we're all guilty of this. Digital cameras mean that we don't need to be discerning in what we photograph--every moment, then, is given an equal weight. But not all moments are created equal, and being able to differentiate what ought to be retained, not to mention the way that we choose to document it, is somewhat of an art. One, I can't help but feel, that's fading away with the need to internalise travel directions (I will be forever glad that I'm young enough that thanks to GPS systems whatever part of my brain in charge of this can be put to use doing other things. Coming up with meme extensions, perhaps.)
I can't help but wonder what W Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen might have looked like had he been travelling through China today, rather than a century ago. A slim edition of just under sixty vignettes written during his travels through China in 1919, the book is described not as a novel, but rather as material for a novel. There's not a photograph nor a FourSquare check-in in sight.
Rather, with only one or two exceptions, the book comprises lengthy character sketches of the people, largely western foreigners living in China, Maugham met as he made his way along the Yangtze. It's wry, devastating, and infuriating in turn, and it presents a shame-inducing picture of western attitudes towards the Chinese in the early twentieth century. Though he gives only a couple of pages to each character, slipping from merchant to philosopher to cabinet minister with the staccato induced by a page-turn, a story--or at least, a perspective--arises from these observations, and it's a damning one.
For the most part these are people who disdain, resent or reject China, and who are clinging to their past lives in the west, no matter how distant they might be.
In "My Lady's Parlour" we read of a woman who has turned a temple into a dwelling house, carefully papering over its history with western tapestries and accoutrements. And let's not forget the kitchen: "Here generations of believers had burned their tapers and prayed, some for this temporal benefit or that, some for release from the returning burden of early existence; and this seemed to her the very place for an American stove." There are missionaries who hold nothing but loathing towards the Chinese, and gadabouts who treat the country and its people as some sort of personal carnival.
We read of people bored and disengaged with what they see as a purgatorial stretch in a culture they perceive as so far beneath them that they see it as either a playground or a prison. The tall man in charge of the BAT, for example: "He is bored. It has never occurred to him that he lives a life in which the possibility of adventure is at his doors. He can only recognise it through the printed page; and it needs a story of derring-do in Texas or Nevada, of hairbreadth escape in the South Seas, to stir his blood." Even the Chinese scholar we encounter seems to be undertaking his studies less out of an interest in the culture than he is in satisfying a grudge against a fellow scholar.
And then there are the displaced, the people live between cultures, or long to become a part of a culture they see as being elevated above their own--a snobbery and cultural relativism that becomes only more pronounced against the Chinese backdrop. In "Dinner Parties" we read of a young Russian woman who experiences deep ennui "when you [speak] to her of Tolstoy or Chekov; but [grows] animated when she [talks] of Jack London. 'Why,' she [asks], 'do you English write such silly books about Russia?'. Then there's the First Secretary of the British Legation, who speaks "French more like any Frenchman who had ever lived" and who "you [wish] with all your heart...would confess to a liking for something just a little bit vulgar". Or Her Britannic Majesty's Representative, who while fixing his pince-nez more firmly on his nose, argues that it is monstrously untrue to accuse him of putting on airs of superiority.
Then there are the confessional moments, the ones that are so perfectly familiar...but which, I realise as I write this, probably won't be for much longer:
"How precious then is the inordinate length of your book (for you are travelling light and you have limited yourself to three) and how jealously you read every word of every page so that you may delay as long as possible the dreaded moment when you must reach the end! You are mightily thankful then to the authors of long books and when you turn over their pages, reckoning how long you can make them last, you wish they were half as long again."
On a Chinese Screen is a magnificent read, capturing in so few words entire people and a painful, lingering sense of cultural superiority, and I found myself wishing that I'd spent more time engaging and reflecting during my past trips abroad, rather than letting so much slip through my fingers as I watched the shutter click again and again.
Until I read this paragraph referring to the work of Jonathan Swift: "the words," writes Maugham, "are the same as those we use to-day and there is hardly a sentence in which they are not placed in the simplest order; and yet there is a dignity, a spaciousness, an aroma, which all our modern effort fails to attain: in short there is style."
A familiar sentiment.
Perhaps, after all, food photography isn't to blame. Perhaps it's perfectly normal not to be able to appreciate something until we have enough distance from it that our perspective is sufficiently undistorted by time and emotion. Now excuse me while I upload some photos of my afternoon coffee to my Instagram account....more
Melbourne is a city of serendipity and chance meetings, and I rather suspect that if Kevin Bacon lived in Melbourne I suspect that he would know everyone. I met my husband by chance–twice in one night at two different venues, in fact, but that’s a story for a forthcoming review–but continue to be astonished by just how much our social circles overlap. We went to brother and sister high schools; his sister was the year ahead of me at my school; his high school friend is the brother of one of my friends; his cousin is a close friend of one of my uni friends, who’s also a friend of another of my husband’s friends. This sort of thing is bizarrely the norm for Melbourne.
And if Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is anything to go by, it’s the same in San Francisco. This delightfully zany novel, first published as an ongoing serial, comprises a series of short and sweet vignettes about a half dozen or so people whose lives intersect through all manner of ways: work, housing, sex, the laundrette and many more besides. It’s the sort of thing that perhaps to people living in a place unlike Melbourne (and presumably unlike San Francisco) might feel contrived, like the forcible bashing together of atoms, but to some whose entire social life is a veritable cross-hatch of chance encounters and mysterious acquaintance, it feels oh so comically familiar.
Our catalogue of characters is fascinating and eccentric, running the gamut from the joint-gifting landlady Anna Madrigal to the fish-out-of-water Mary Anne (whose story this seems as though it will be, but isn’t, really) to Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a kind-natured gay man who easily steals the show. Everyone is connected in some way, and though it’s not always immediately apparent how, I enjoyed watching these connections slowly unfold as the book progressed, as well as watching Maupin juxtapose characters with entirely different outlooks on life.
I think in large part what’s contributed so much to the success of the series is its format. The vignette/serial approach serves to sharpen the delivery of these pointedly mundania-with-a-twist tales while also adding a comic veneer that makes it all, for the most part, work: the result is what feels like a series of pithy yarns. Each is carefully set up, progresses into the realm of the hilariously melodramatic via a page or so of cracking dialogue, and is then rounded off with a zingy one-liner or staccato-like final paragraph that brings it all home. The imposed word-count limitations of the serial format means that there’s little flab here: Maupin relies heavily on dialogue to drive things along, with any exposition having to work hard to justify its presence on the page.
That said, the dialogue-heavy approach does occasionally result in a sense that the stories are sort of floating about on the page, and I did find myself feeling disconnected from the text at certain points. (I do also wonder whether the fact that I’m reading this book as a twenty-something Australian in 2013 has something to do with it given that I suspect that a large part of what makes this book such a cult classic is its keen eye for 70s living and the various individuals and brands, many of which are unfamiliar to me, that are lampooned.)
Still, even though I’m a bit late to the party I had a ball reading about people prowling supermarkets looking to pick up; the dangers of macrame ceiling art; and the problems with injectable melatonin (bizarrely I read a newspaper article about this very thing just yesterday). Give it a shot, and if you happen to bump into me down the street one day, as you no doubt will, let me know what you think....more
“Finishing is the way [a] book presents itself to the world and gets noticed; the forwThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
“Finishing is the way [a] book presents itself to the world and gets noticed; the forward is more like women’s work, for one never notices it unless it has been shoddily done,” muses Dora Damage of Damage Bindings. It’s mid-eighteenth century London, and Dora speaks from experience: her role in the business is little more than nominal. Dora is the invisible brownie of the household, taking care of the thankless, repetitive tasks that her book-binder husband Peter tells her are so properly suited to women.
Indeed, Dora is kept so firmly behind the scenes caring for her epileptic daughter Lucinda and managing the day-to-day affairs of the household that she only realises that the business is trouble when the debt collectors come calling–and for a substantial sum. Even then, Peter, whose ailing health has effectively prevented him from continuing his work, insists that things are not as bad as they seem. By not as bad, he means that they’re far worse. With that off his chest, Peter, bitter at the apparent emasculation caused by his inability to work, effectively settles in to wait out the end, leaving Dora to try to manage the family’s finances and keep the bindery running.
But if Dora’s role within the home is limited, it’s painfully so when she ventures beyond her front door. With every step she’s reminded of her position as a second-class citizen, of how few opportunities are available to women, and of the potential consequences of looking sidelong at the way things are presently done. Unsurprisingly, when Dora makes the decision to take over the operations at the bindery, she is met with opposition from all sides–the few exceptions are those who are deviant in their own ways. Her husband viciously upbraids her for her insolence and vulgarity, resentful of the idea that she might succeed where he has not; her trips to select binding materials must be undertaken on the sly; her initial commissions have to be passed off as the work of Peter, never mind that he is presently drowning beneath the weight of a prolonged opium stupor (which Dora is apparently not too fussed about).
For those living in Dora’s era, being female is form of captivity. It’s a method of living that’s largely silent and voiceless, and this is echoed throughout the book. There’s always the threat of being deemed mad, something that carried terrible consequences for women of the time, who could be promptly put away purely on the say-so of a male figure: it’s a threat that encourages silence and obedience. “Madness is a female word,” she says. “‘It’s a madness’ they say, like it’s a governess or a seamstress, or a murderess. There’s no male equivalent, no such word as ‘madner’.”
Although Dora eventually is accepted into a particular, and peculiar, book binding circle, this idea remains. Dora merely handles books rather than creating or even consuming them. (Even the book itself, which is apparently epistolary, has only a single page to indicate that our narrator has had a hand in its creation.) Rather, Dora is to be concerned with the superficial, and only the superficial. This is highlighted by the fact that what Dora’s clients most love about her work is its clear female touch, the use of fabrics and non-linear designs that mark the work as a woman’s. She is told at one point: ”Your bindings are as beautiful, as sensual, as arousing, as full of vigour as…well…as you are.”
Though Dora is initially proud of her work, which provides her with “a result, an object that I could hold, and of which I could be proud,” as she becomes acquainted with the material that she’s binding, she becomes increasingly ambivalent. Her daughter’s words are prescient: “But Mam, what if they’re goblins disguised as books? And when we got to bed they leap up off the workbench and go to the goblin ball?”
Goblins indeed. For poor Dora has found herself the preferred bookbinder of a group of the pornographically inclined. And to say that the work is bacchanal is a euphemism to say the least. “While Bacchus danced amongst them on the table, Priapus, I knew all too well, pranced beneath,” she says. Of course, as Dora shows herself as able to be trusted, her commissions become more and more questionable. “My shame would protect me, I believed. At least, it always had done; we women wear it like a veil,” she says early on. Then later: ”My amusement was my protection, for in truth I was deeply discomfited by some of what I was confronting…I had to convince myself I was fashioning…the pearl around the grit in the oyster; I was making something beautiful out of something ugly.” The more she works, the greater she finds the disconnect between the subject matter of these texts and her own personal experience.
Until, that is, the book hits its mid point and all sorts of rambunctious plot threads proliferate, and Dora finds herself on a curious and transgressive learning curve.
Unfortunately, though there’s plenty of interest to be found in these shenanigans, it doesn’t all quite come together. The first half of the book is wonderful, all precise wit and incisive observation and elegant style, and centres largely around Dora’s efforts to break out of the restrictive role of the female while managing the expectations of her family. The second half, on the other hand, is about as high octane as a book set in the 1850s can be. We have escaped slaves from America, kidnappings, a ye olde fight club, noblewomen ejected from their homes, possible bastard children, arrests, protests, political plots and a final narrative coup that will have you vowing off leather forever more. I, no doubt like Dora, couldn’t shake the feeling that I was getting something quite different from what I signed up for.
Still, Belinda Starling, in what is sadly her first and only book, has created something lush and memorable here. Her London setting and the bookbinding trade are evocatively and minutely depicted, and the theme of female emancipation–both sexual and professional–is thoughtfully and lucidly drawn. Though there’s a bit too much going on here for my taste, it’s for the most part an enjoyable read....more
I used to run a blog called Misapostrophication. In large part it was a catalogue of tThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
I used to run a blog called Misapostrophication. In large part it was a catalogue of the terrible ways in which apostrophes were misused, mostly by cafe owners who laboured under some sort of egalitarian punctuation ideal where every word had a right to an apostrophe. Now, having trudged through Rebecca Harrington's Penelope I'm of a mind to propose a systemic redistribution of apostrophes. I doubt very much that something like "fresh salad's" really has need for an apostrophe, after all. Such a piece of punctuation would be better off being inserted into the dialogue of this book. Because, seriously, this thing is more stilted than a circus clown walking around on eight foot tall barge poles. Listening to William Shatner recite haikus in Morse Code would be easier on the ear than this.
"Why are you attracted to this guy again?" said Ted. "I don't really get it. I am going to be honest."
"Really?" said Penelope.
"Yeah," said Ted. "He seems like such a weirdo. But I am not a girl, I guess."
"Maybe that is why," said Penelope.
(Maybe, thinks this reader, it's because that guy bloody uses contractions in his speech!)
Though pitched as a "quirky" coming-of-age novel in the vein of Curtis Sittenfeld's excellent Prep, Rebecca Harrington's Penelope is as awkward and inept as its protagonist, and bar a few moments here and there the book is an excruciating read. Even more so than your typical cafe menu. It's a frustrating, underdeveloped book that from its leaden prose to its robotic dialogue to its emaciatedly drawn characters feels horribly like a first draft.
I think what's supposed to be going on here is that we're meant to be tightly knotted up in the perspective of Penelope, a girl whose social observations are so superficial and without nuance that they're meant to give us caricatures and misreadings to which we're supposed to shake my head and say, "oh, Penelope, you quirky, gormless thing you." I think I was meant to delight in the satire of it all. I don't think that I was meant to put down the book several times to check whether my edition was an unedited manuscript. (I'm still not certain about this.)
The book follows bumbling Penelope throughout her first year at Harvard University and touches on all the usual stuff: dorm room dramas, unrequited love (okay, unrequited attraction), bad parties, and pretentious tutors and even more pretentious drama types. Penelope navigates all of this using her internal compass of apathy and gauche agreeableness, monosyllabically charming those she doesn't mean to and getting offside those she wishes to ingratiate. But unlike Prep's Lee Curtis, who though utterly unlikeable is insightful and socially observant, Penelope offers us nothing. She's the lens through which we're meant to see the complexities and inanities of college life, but she doesn't actually show us anything. Everything here is flat caricature and lame, tired pisstake: it lampoons all the usual suspects. Imagine Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot described to you by a surly teenager who's only read the Wikipedia entry for it, and you've basically got this book.
The frustrating thing is that there's real potential in Penelope. From the theatre of the uber-absurd through to the regurgitative clashing of the minds in the tutes of ridiculously named classes, Harrington is on to something, if not something especially innovative or new, here. There are oh-so-true scenes about fighting with Microsoft Excel's graphing tools and some zingy narratorial observations--the high points of the book are those bits not delivered through Penelope's point of view--and deadpan humour that would be hilarious if it worked ("I am afraid I will get allergies," says Penelope upon being offered a line of cocaine), but on the whole doesn't.
And it's not just because Penelope's humour fails to float (that's kind of the whole point), but that for me this book as a whole doesn't. I feel like it wants to be a book that is about the blandness and mediocrity of university life, something that's so at odds with the "best time of your life" stuff that's usually levelled at these year, but instead it's a book that itself is bland and mediocre. And desperately short of dialogic contractions. Honestly, the key point of interest here is what on earth Penelope wrote/enclosed in her application essay in order to get accepted to Harvard in the first place. In all, not for me.
(Postscript: Just a hunch, but I'm going to guess that if you liked Vernon God Little, which I hated with a fiery passion, you'll like this.)...more
My primary school was a tiny place, one so small that it had no play area to speak of.This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
My primary school was a tiny place, one so small that it had no play area to speak of. It did, however, look on to a vast park that was–and still is–a favourite landing place for the city’s hot air balloons. If I’m up early enough, I often see them scudding along overhead before sinking into slumber in the park. But as much as I associate that park with the homecoming of balloons, I do remember an event that was quite the opposite. When I was perhaps four or five, my school held a balloon release event (this seemed marvellous at the time, when I had not yet been conditioned by years of eco-friendly children’s television programming to consider things like the environment). We attached messages to our balloons, and then released our colourful galleons, letting them drift away to conquer new lands (and perhaps meet their doom around a power line or two). There is something so very evocative about balloons. To me, at least, they represent a journey of sorts. Perhaps one of loss; perhaps one of escape; perhaps one of letting go. All of these are evident in Ciara Geraghty’s Lifesaving for Beginners, a rich and nuanced novel of grief and self-discovery.
The book opens with a literal collision of past and present: a car accident involving Kat, a reclusive and pseudonymous bestselling author, and a woman who, though tragically killed at the scene, proves to be an integral link to a past that Kat has been avoiding since her teen years. Kat, in what everyone around her dubs as a miracle, walks away unscathed, but finds herself sinking into an existential malaise: she finds herself pushing away her partner Thomas as he tries to draw closer to her, is unable to commit to work on her contracted novel, and experiences nothing short of terror at the thought of her impending fortieth birthday.
Each of these concerns has something in common: they all represent change and growth, things of which Kat is desperately afraid. As the book progresses and we learn of how she is connected with the woman who dies in the car crash, we realise that Kat still has past demons with which she has not yet come to terms. It’s little wonder that she’s struggling to deal with the idea of those around her moving on to new stages in their lives when she’s still dealing with the issues brought about by an event that occurred during her teenage years. For example, her brother Ed, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, now has a job and a girlfriend, both of which Kat, who is used to playing a sort of carer role towards her brother, continually attempts to undermine: she begs for Ed to come and visit her, asking him over for teen sleepover-style nights of movie watching and junk food bingeing. When her partner Thomas suggests that they move in together, Kat rebuffs him, petulantly complaining that she likes her house and the way that things are. Her editor’s conviction that it’s time for Kat to reveal her true identity is also a source of terror: there’s something safe and escapable about remaining pseudonymous and isolated.
But there’s one change in particular that seems to trigger the greatest reaction in Kat, and that’s her best friend Minnie’s newly announced pregnancy. The dynamics between Kat and Minnie are heartbreaking at best: Minnie is a high-achieving, charismatic woman who has recently married and is now expecting a baby. Kat, meanwhile, continues to cling to her friend in a way that’s desperately unhealthy, and continues to try to insert herself into a relationship where she is no longer plays the same role. When we learn about Kat’s past and how Minnie is one of the few who knows of it, we begin to understand just why Kat is the way that she is.
Although Kat is the true protagonist of the novel, the book is told through dual viewpoints: Kat’s, and that of Milo, a young boy whose mother was killed in the same crash from which Kat was lucky enough to walk away. Milo’s voice provides a warm, honest counterpoint to Kat’s, which is steeped in self-deception and evasiveness, and his viewpoint helps to round out Kat’s character as the novel unfolds and we see how these seemingly unrelated characters are connected. The two viewpoints complement each other beautifully, with Milo’s grief highlighting the way in which Kat has repressed her own grief; and his own growth and maturity highlighting Kat’s lack of the same.
When the two do meet, Milo is in a way a catalyst for Kat’s development and finally realised ability to let go of the past and to move on with her life; curiously, Kat also provides Milo with renewed hope for his own relationships and a new perspective regarding the way that life continues to move on even after the death of a loved one. Between Milo’s Lifesaving for Beginners classes and his wide-eyed reaction as he watches a balloon slip from the hand of a young boy, we see just how important it is to find a balance between holding on and letting go.
At turns moving and humorous, and full of beautifully drawn and complex characters, Lifesaving for Beginners is a delightful read, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with Ciara Geraghty’s work. I suspect that Kat and Milo’s stories will continue to resonate with me each time I watch the balloons drift past my window in the pastel light of the early morning....more
My father is a small man. He is small in stature. He is small in emotions. And he is aThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
My father is a small man. He is small in stature. He is small in emotions. And he is also small in achievement. My father’s greatest achievement is the PhD he obtained just after I was born. When I turned eighteen, he gave me a copy of his PhD. When I turned twenty-one, he asked when I would be obtaining a PhD of my own. My father is a scientist. He thinks in terms of formulae and processes. I am a writer. I think in terms of people. Sometimes I think that his PhD is a proxy for the love that he is unable to give. It is also a love that I am unable to understand. * At over five hundred pounds, Big Ray is a large man. He is so morbidly obese that he can scarcely drive, that the parts of his body below his gut are uncharted territory. He is a man whose stature is matched by a personality so enormously overwhelming that although you want to look away, you can’t. Big Ray does not necessarily enjoy being obese, but he does enjoy being larger than everyone else. * My father has never forgiven my mother for leaving him. I don’t think he ever believed that she would. When she tried to suggest marriage counselling, he told her that there was nothing wrong. When she finally took us and moved out, he still did not believe that there was anything wrong. Sometimes his car would drive up our street. Once, the lights were out in his house and the neighbours called the police. There are things here that I want to say, but that I can’t. * It is possibly five days since Big Ray has died. No one is sure, because no one was there to see it happen. When he is found, it is not by his family. When his family learn of his death, they are conflicted. Because Big Ray looms just as large and dangerous in death as he ever did in life. Perhaps more so. Because in death he has finally escaped the body that has trapped him for so long. Big Ray’s body is a sort of punishment. It is his family’s fault that he is obese. It is his family’s fault if he is not taken care of. But Big Ray guzzles soft drink, gorges on junk food, lets his diabetes run rampant. He punishes his family by punishing himself. * At my sister’s engagement party my father took us aside to tell us that he has high blood sugar and high blood pressure. As everyone else drank and danced he told us about how our great-grandmother had both legs amputated. My father says that he does not have time to exercise or eat properly. He also does not have time for his family. He would rather work. This has always been the case. The only time he would call would be on my birthday. Each time he would call he would tell me about his health woes, his relationship woes. He made me cry three birthdays in a row. I don’t answer the phone on my birthday any more. * Big Ray’s story unfolds over five hundred brief entries rather like this one. That’s one entry per pound. Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh as payment seems trifling in comparison. But Big Ray is a brutal, abusive man, and this payment seems strangely fair.
* My husband tells me that we can never be objective about our relationships. Or our lives. That what we remember is what fits with the narratives that we create. The evidence we use to reconstruct our pasts. I want to believe that this is true. I want to believe that my father loves me, that I am worth being loved. I’m not sure why I care. When I look at photographs of my father I am always struck by the fact that he is not smiling in any of them. I smile too much. I have a lovely smile. Except those times when I remind myself of him. * Big Ray’s son cannot escape his father. But it is only in death, when Big Ray is only a spectre, that he has the courage to try to understand him. Big Ray was, once, a handsome man. He was, once, a happy man. The high point of Big Ray’s life was his entry into the army. Everything after that was a disappointment. He never even saw battle. * It has been a year since my wedding day. It has also been a year since I last spoke to my father. A year since he gave a speech about how much a wedding that my husband and I paid for cost him. A year since he and his girlfriend refused to speak to any of my relatives, colleagues, friends. A year since he commented that a wedding arising from a five-year relationship was a surprise. A year since a friend mentioned that my father doesn’t really know me at all. He doesn’t. I’m not sure how I feel about this. * Big Ray’s son calls Big Ray his father in his reflections. He called him “Dad” in real life. * When I was a kid I used to call my father by his given name. I still feel that this is ap * Big Ray’s son is terrified about having children. * So am I....more
I've always had qualms about the "if you like X you'll like Y!" comparison trick thatThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
I've always had qualms about the "if you like X you'll like Y!" comparison trick that seems to be our Twitter-era shortcut for actually saying anything meaningful about a book. And with good reason, apparently: I've been burnt so many times now that I'm experiencing a sort of Pavlovian response to being told, with a marketer's certainty, that I'm going to love something. Particularly if that something is compared, by means of a peppy little design element on the front cover, with a recent blockbuster film. Often, these comparisons are a sort of critical effervescence: fizzy and alluring, but disappointingly empty. Sometimes, they're so far off base that they're not even playing baseball any more.
From the outset, Niki Valentine's Possessed is an insecure teen desperate for attention and validation. There's the "if you loved Black Swan you'll love this!" exhortation on the front cover. There's the bizarre intro explaining that the Valentine is, under another name, actually an award-winning, best-selling author. But neither of these succeed in their efforts of misdirection. Frankly, Possessed is a scrappy, mediocre work at best, and I'm a bit baffled by its very existence.
Set in a music academy in England, the novel follows musical prodigy Emma, a scholarship student from Manchester who's distinctly out of place amongst the moneyed, upper-class set. Fortunately, Emma immediately meets the charismatic twins Sophie and Matilde, who become her close friends. It doesn't take long, however, for Emma to realise that there's something strangely possessive about the twins' attitudes towards each other, with Sophie in particular becoming almost vicious when it seems that someone might intrude upon her relationship with Matilde. The dynamics between the trio are eerie and unbalanced, becoming more so when Matilde begins dating Henry, introducing further change into their already complex network.
There's also the external pressure of daily life at the academy, and shy Matilde seems to be buckling under the weight of it, with the crux of it occurring when she breaks down during a masterclass. Not long after, she's found dead, apparently having committed suicide. Emma is distraught at the loss of her friend, and between her grief and the demands of her coursework, she finds that her grip on reality seems to be slipping. The line between dream and memory becomes blurred for her, and she seems to be losing time as well. But throughout it all there's one constant: the possessive, immensely charismatic Sophie, who just might be at the root of it all.
Possessed seeks to bring us an unreliable narrator as well as an unreliable narrative, striving to have us wonder whether Emma's experiences are real or imagined, supernatural or explicable. But though the concept is compelling, the execution is lacking enough that if you were lining up for the guillotine you wouldn't need to be too worried about your head coming off.
The prose reads like a sledgehammer to the brain, with every sentence so short and choppy that you have to wonder whether, unbeknownst to the rest of us, there was at some point last year a recent urgent recall of every form of punctuation other than a full-stop. Take, for example: "She knew she might have imagined it but she felt like she'd seen a ghost. She didn't believe in that kind of thing but it was how it felt." Or this: "Emma stared at the space where Henry had been. It was for the best. She would have liked a boyfriend like Henry, but how could she with what was going on in her life?" Or this (spoiler alert--skip on to the next paragraph if you're sensitive to that sort of thing): "Emma was mostly happy and she didn't feel that someone else was in control of her now. She no longer believed that she had been possessed....She had been stressed and who wouldn't have been under the circumstances?"
The foreshadowing is not shaded so much as it is blocked in with the narrative equivalent of bolding and all-caps, and I'm slightly offended that the author thought it necessary to repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly (REPEATEDLY. REPEATEDLY. Get it? Are you sure? Because I have plenty of text colours and font options at my disposal here) highlight the behavioural distinction between the twins in order to set up an ambiguity of identity. Had I marked every occasion that Matilde's nail biting and Sophie's self-assuredness was mentioned my copy would have been more bristly than value pack of toothbrushes.
The hamfistedness of the writing infects the characterisation, too, and there's a sense of these characters being little more than chunks of ectoplasm drifting around on the bookish version of the Hollywood blue screen. Because of the utter lack of depth given to Emma or any of those around her, it's impossible to respond to her bizarre actions with anything more than a bewildered "what?" (thus I exclaimed many times while reading this book.) It's not that there's an ambiguity of reality going on here, it's that this book makes absolutely no sense on any level unless one is to assume that the entirety of the narration exists in Emma's head and this is all a retelling of Robert Cormier's I am the Cheese or something by Philip K Dick. Unfortunately I am quite certain that this is not the case.
Since it's still January, it's not too late to add another New Year's resolution to my current one of never reading comments on the internet. And that's to never, ever read a book that's compared with a current blockbuster film unless it's for schadenfreudian purposes....more
Venice is the only place in Italy I’ve been to–unless the countryside scudding along oThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
Venice is the only place in Italy I’ve been to–unless the countryside scudding along outside the train window counts–and it’s a city that straddles so many realities. With a foot on land and one in the ocean, it’s physically an in-between city; with its car-less streets and ancient architecture, it’s a place that allows you to forget for periods of time just what year it is.
Venice is also a place of surprises. I remember spending an afternoon browsing the museum above the Piazza San Marco only to step outside to find that the piazza had silently flooded while I had been poring over sketches and garments. I remember waiting patiently, along with a growing crowd of pedestrians, at the foot of a bridge for a local boy to take a photo of another…only to realise that they were deliberately holding us up as part of some simple, beautifully pointed prank. I remember becoming utterly lost in the messy capillaries of the city many times before finally finding the well-worn pedestrian artery that would take me from one end to the other without happening upon the architectural equivalent of a blood clot.
Sadly, while I, having time on my side, always had the option to turn back, things were very different for Ruth Cracknell and her husband Eric. Having arrived in Venice with the expectation of spending a lengthy, languid holiday together, the two find themselves very quickly in a devastating in-between place of their own. Eric suffers from nosebleed that shows no sign of abating; his condition worsens, and he suffers a stroke. What follows is Ruth’s moving, harried journal of attempting to come to terms with the sudden shift in her husband’s health, an account that is a painful mix of personal reflection and clear-minded logistics. Serious illness is difficult enough to navigate in a familiar context–it brings with it demands of time, and emotions, and language–but illness in a foreign city, and especially one like Venice, is an experience of endless unknowns.
Eric is stoic, doge-like throughout the ordeal, as Ruth and the others attempt to do what is necessary to stabilise him enough that he can be returned home to Australia. But the journey of the title is twofold: it doesn’t just refer to the escape from Venice, but also the journey that Ruth and Eric and their family face upon their return to Australia, when Eric is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
The following account is tremendously moving, a blend of scrappy, ellipsis-filled journal entries that read almost like gasps for breath between tears, and latterly inserted vignettes that bring with them the quiet ache that comes with time, and the book unfolds as we know it will, a slow, surprisingly beautiful journal of Eric’s last days. Like the city of Venice, it keeps a foot in both past and present, travelling back to the early days of the couple’s relationship and contrasting these with the present.
But unlike Venice, the story of Ruth and Eric slowly emerges from its sense of between-ness, shifting out of the marshy mists and continuing onwards…embarking, perhaps, with the guiding rudder of Ruth’s good-natured, warm, prose, across the sparkling sea…...more
Preincarnate is not so much a novella as it is a whorl of ideas fashioned into a jauntily tipped hat, with said hat draped over a grassy barrow of anachronisms, with said anachronistic barrow then dug up by a French avante garde film director, given the cut-up treatment, and the subsequently marinated in a brine of whimsy. If none of that made any sense but you enjoyed reading it anyway, then welcome to Preincarnate, a fiendishly bizarre, unapologetically irreverent time travel story that makes Primer look comprehensible. Still, just like I did with Primer, I'm going to pretend that I had some idea what was going on.
(Well, not that it matters, really, since with the whole time travel conundrum business, we can argue what did or didn't happen until the cows come home [actually, just about the only thing that Micallef hasn't included in this novella is cows, although there are plenty of badgers].)
As near as I can tell, Preincarnate is (mostly) about young Alexander Pruitt, who is killed by his dastardly family doctor, and whose spirit then jerks back several hundred years in time and takes up residence in the body of Oliver Cromwell's son. Pruitt's pause button is then hit for a good while so that enough time can pass that he can be woken up, and travel back in time to prevent himself from being killed. All of this is going on (and on and on and on given the whole time travel conundrum thing) while a good ol' boy style part-time-PI-part-time-writer-with-Hollywood-connections is flailing about with mysterious notes written hundreds of years earlier and attempting to endure time spent with a karate-kicking, intellectually disjointed Tom Cruise. (Fortunately Cruise only reads L Ron Hubbard books, or else there might be a lawsuit pending.)
Preincarnate has a narrative in the sense that The Micallef Programme or Monty Python might have a narrative: there's some sort of spine keeping the whole thing from crumbling apart like a cuttlefish with osteoporosis, but really it's a sort of a comedic quilt of pieced-together skits. There are editorial battles in the footnotes; whimsical appendices of faux recommended reading items (eg Highlights in Australian Comedy by Balthazard Reed [pamphlet]) and some fabricated Micalleffian books, each blurbed by The Age as being "a tour de force"; a sledgehammer destruction of the fourth wall ("a smugness that made you want to reach into the book and slap him"); some not-so-gentle ribbing of Dan Brown and Matthew Reilly; and a generous sprinkling of anachronistic absurdity and Holy Grail-esque zaniness. Sometimes it reaches sublime heights; at others it has that desperate-to-please feel of a later episode of the Simpsons, sort of like a dog that's about to be put down but has taken to doing circus tricks to stave off the inevitable.
Although Tom Cruise is jumping the shark/couch the whole way through (and yes, he does indeed bring up that incident), I have to admit that the loopiness of the book for me did that in the last couple of chapters, although this weirdness does fit with Micallef's tendency to stretch the chewing gum of a joke as far as it can before watching it snap back to hilarious, unhygienic effect. Temporal randomness and extrapolation aside, in all I had a bloody lot of fun reading this. And this line made me laugh and laugh and laugh:
"While I could stand on his shoulders and easily reach the top of the fence, then pull myself over, Gaff could not. If he stood on my shoulders, he'd kill me; and standing on his own shoulders, while not impossible given that he could remove his legs, would only get him halfway up."...more
I picked up Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better from the shelves of the Little LibrarThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
I picked up Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better from the shelves of the Little Library, a literary free-for-all thanks to which I’ve stumbled across all manner of elderly, fusty little books. The sorts of books that are faded to a jaundiced hue, their pages seeking respite from the glue of their bindings, their text cramped and tiny, set, in variably in Linotype Pilgrim.
It’s perhaps fitting that I chanced upon this sagging, menopausal book, giving it an opportunity to embark on an excursion away from its familiar surroundings for a while, because the volume deals in large part with the encroaching invisibility and narrowing of opportunity that comes with middle-age. That, and the tyranny of inescapable familial relationships–it’s probably unsurprising that overall it’s quite an intimidating read.
When I say intimidating, I don’t mean that it’s a big or a grand volume, but rather that because reading it is comparable to being stuck in a room alone with some hideous older relation for whom you, despite yourself, hold a sort of grudging respect. It’s not an enjoyable read at all (with the possible exception of the very end, where my inner schadenfreudian had a good old workout), but it’s biting and wicked and dreadfully incisive.
The novel follows three main threads, which are set up in such a way that they are thematically interlinked and contrastable, and to devastating effect. Probably most integral is the mother-daughter duo Deirdre Fount and Mrs Oddicott, who work together in stiflingly close quarters, their resentment towards each other and their disdain for each other’s life choices barely contained. Mrs Oddicott is a cruel bully who channels her own sense of failure and loneliness into endless passive-aggressive bullying, cutting the already cowed Deirdre down whenever possible in order to keep her at close quarters. Deirdre, meanwhile, is bit by bit attempting to break away from her mother’s clutches. She fears (and fair enough!) becoming her mother, and has begun seeking to improve her already ailing relationship with her young son James–who is on the cusp of adolescence and is himself trying to forge his own identity.
Things are further complicated by the reappearance of Deirdre’s womanising ex-husband and his vague efforts to establish some sort of relationship with James, and also by the appearance of the Carpenters, an embattled husband and wife team whose overtures towards Deirdre only further poison things between Deirdre and her mother. The dynamics between the Carpenters are not unlike those between Deirdre and Mrs Oddicott: snideness, intransigence and thanklessness colour their every interaction.
Everyone in this book, with the possible exception of James’s music teacher, is brutal beyond belief, and often knowingly so. The pettiness and mean-spiritedness is breathtaking, but Hill’s ability to get into her characters’ minds is such that we can almost forgive them their derelictions. I think it’s that there are so many layers created here, and beneath the strychnine-laced buttercream icing of these individuals is a pervasive sense of loneliness, desperation and fear.
It’s the classic balancing of the concepts of positive and negative face: wanting to be appreciated and shown attention while also wanting to be left to one’s own devices. But it’s the way that the characters in this book go about this that’s so cruel and startling. They’re manipulative and petty to a grimace-inducing degree, and yet the others in their relationship binaries are unable to escape their orbit.
(I’m presently searching through the book for an illustrative quote, but my blood’s boiling at every interaction!)
Here’s a choice snippet between Deirdre and her mother, after Deirdre has returned from going up the street to post a letter:
“Ah, there is James’s flute case – so he has come home?’ … Mrs Oddicott lifted the lid of a saucepan and peered inside. “He is gone out,” she said shortly. “Out? Out where? He did not tell me of any plan he had to go out again.” “And is that not only to be expected? He is taking after you in that respect, surely?” “Mother, do not be ridiculous. Where has he gone?” “Now I suppose I am to be blamed for giving permission. But what else was I supposed to do? You were not here, and I made it very clear that I was no longer thought to be responsible for him, I said all that there was to say on that score. James knows all that has happened.”
This continues over several pages, with Mrs Oddicott slowly circling around her daughter, her tongue a punitive force that makes the cat o’ nine tails look like an appealing option. But it’s not only Mrs Oddicott who punishes Deirdre: broader social forces conspire against her. For me, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book was this one, where Deirdre decides to venture out for some personal time:
“Good evening,” Mrs Carmichael,” said Deirdre Fount, walking confidently past, “What a cold evening! So pleasant beside the fire!” I shall do this again some day, she thought, I have enjoyed my little treat, my rest and my glass of sherry, a quiet time to order my thoughts, it has all done me a great deal of good. Mrs Carmichael sat reading her library book and waiting for a friend, and when the friend arrived she said at once to her, “Poor Mrs Fount has just been in here, sitting alone over a glass of sherry.”
Poor Deirdre’s efforts to at long last step out from beneath the foul umbra of her mother are constructed entirely differently from the outside, applying to her a narrative that is not at all how she saw the turn of events. It’s a sad look at the degree of agency we really do have over our own lives, and how others can so readily influence the way that we live–whether we are aware of it or not....more
“Sixteen years on the streets and you can learn a lot. But all the wrong things, not tThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
“Sixteen years on the streets and you can learn a lot. But all the wrong things, not the things you want to learn. Sixteen years on the streets and you see a lot. But all the wrong sights, not the sights you want to see.”
One of the things I feel that I don’t see enough of in today’s YA is unpolished rawness. Instead there’s this strange facsimile of “voice”, which all too often comes across as a transcribed telephone conversation: colloquial and snarky, but airy and empty. I expect that this demographic homogeneity is in part why we’ve seen a huge shift towards the paranormal and the dystopian genres: authors seem to think that there’s not enough to the average teenager’s existence to get a book out of it. Today’s YA is suffering for its over-reliance on plot; its vapid, patronising attempts to render the teenage voice; its suggestion that everyday life isn’t worth writing about.
It’s kind of odd, isn’t it, given that SE Hinton’s The Outsiders is held up as a novel that changed the face of young adult literature, as a book that made YA what it is today. But this isn’t, as you might expect given this, a book with a twisty plot, scope-creeping ambitions, or zingy humour. It’s a book that feels as though it’s written to teens rather than for teens. It’s messy and rough and all over the place, but that’s the point: it feels real. The writing in this is by no means beautiful, but it’s so achingly honest, a parabolic mix of yearning and fear and frustration and hope.
Ponyboy Curtis might only be fourteen, but he has an impressively incisive–and heartbreakingly matter-of-fact–awareness of the stratification of our world. A “Greaser” from the tough side of town, he runs with small crew of self-described delinquents who are constantly facing off against the “Socs”, the rich kids. But through Ponyboy’s narrative we see that despite the divisiveness of their appearances, the two groups aren’t so different. The Socs might be well-dressed and well-spoken, but they’re no strangers to the possibility of brutality; the Greasers, on the other hand, encourage deficit thinking, but amongst them are kids who have serious potential. In both cases environmental and social forces have guided them to become who they are. But curiously, a large part of the groups’ unhappiness comes not from the fact that they are who they are, but rather the antagonism from the other group.
Through his friendship with the Soc Cherry, Ponyboy begins to find common ground between the two groups, and we see the beginnings of a white flag being stitched together before a horrific turn of events divides the groups entirely. It’s tragic to see how these entrenched norms and values can so vehemently come between groups of people whose members might be tentatively seeking a way beyond what’s really a pretty arbitrary opposition. But even so, there’s a thread of hope: Ponyboy’s belief in the beauty of the world and in small kindnesses–he picks up a handful of broken glass to prevent someone from ruining a tyre on it, for example–is both enduring and catching, and these resonate throughout the narrative even as everything else goes to hell.
There’s something so true to life and familiar about The Outsiders: it grabs you and doesn’t let go. Perhaps it’s because it’s thick with the energy of a young writer whose roughshod approach hasn’t been scrubbed away by the tempering file of adulthood–or by the same-iness that comes from trying to appeal to a mass market. You feel as though you’re there, breathless, beside the characters, and perhaps, too, right there with the author....more
Like many readers probably are, I'm fascinated by recursion: by sentences that can carThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com.
Like many readers probably are, I'm fascinated by recursion: by sentences that can carry on forever through the syntactic links of subordination, and by narratives that fold in and over themselves, a literary homunculus. In particular there's something about books about books and authors writing about authors that I find utterly compelling. Perhaps it's that it's still a novelty to see an author take centre stage rather than being some sort of amorphous force cuckolded by their own work.
As is quite obvious from its title, a reference to the James Joyce book (caveat: which I've not read), Heller's Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man incorporates all of the above, while quite firmly taking the piss the entire way. It's not always successful, and sometimes you feel a bit as though you're sitting through an extended dinner-table yarn where a single-line quip would do--or perhaps an article in the Sunday extra rather than an entire novel--but it's a rewarding, sometimes moving read, if only because it's hard to see anything but Heller himself in this book.
My husband has always joked that writing is like tango or golf: it's one of the few things at which you can get better at as you get older. Writing is considered by the wider public to be a part of a writer's identity; if someone stops writing, then they are no longer a writer. But given the recent press about Philip Roth's decision to retire and the subsequent retaliatory articles about older authors who have decided to press on regardless of age, it seems as though this is something that just isn't done. There's a perception of writers as being artists driven by some sort of manic, hypergraphic inner muse; an expectation that writers should be pen-in-hand until the very end.
However, the circumstances of today's writers are different from those of writers of generations ago, as Heller points out in this wry volume. Writers, he opines, of past generations had the sense to die early, earning themselves posthumous glory and avoiding having to read their own poor press. Not only that, but by truncating their lives by virtually embalming themselves with alcohol, challenging everyone around to duels, and generally throwing themselves in harm's way, they ensured that they wouldn't dilute their oeuvre with mediocre work. Nor would they peak too early, living the rest of their lives pallid and tragic beneath the shadow of their own literary behemoth:
"What next, then? The artificer who lives long enough, particularly the writer of fictions for page and stage, may come to a time in his life when he feels he has nothing new to write about but wishes to continue anyway. Musicians joke in belittlement about the last compositions of Mozart, who died young, that he did not die soon enough."
Heller, whose Catch 22 remains the pinnacle of his work, can no doubt relate. In Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, we see Heller himself grappling with this very problem: what he should write about when he has nothing left to write, but yet wants to keep writing. (Think Beckett:"I must go on. I can't go on. I will go on.") He turns, of course, to the old adage of "write what you know", writing about a washed-up ageing author (Eugene Pota) who, too, is attempting to write something worthy while also turning to the familiar. The book skittles in and out of these points of view with innumerable detours into Pota's proposed novel ideas, all of them hilariously terrible and appallingly derivative. We cringe through an achingly long riff on Kafka's The Metamorphosis and an equally bizarre effort involving Tom Sawyer as an author. But these are nothing compared with Pota's eye-gougingly awful attempts to write an explicit sexual history of his wife or to reclaim ancient mythology. Oh, Heller, if only you'd lived to see today's bestseller lists...
The stories within the story, although forming its bulk, are probably the weakest part of the volume, being as they are little more than extended jokes. The meat of the volume is in the narrator/Pota's pained awareness of their increasing irrelevance as artists and of the indifferent responses received to their pitches: their editors have a remarkable knowledge of their past works, but show little inclination to spend time on anything new. What I found particularly interesting here is the relevance not only to the careers of older authors, but just to today's authors generally. There are times when Heller or Pota sit down to write something only to find that someone else has got there before them ("That impish Nabokov had already written it, damn him!"), and I couldn't help but wonder whether this is increasingly a problem for today's authors given just how much has already been written, and the extraordinarily multiplicative way in which our global library is expanding.
There are times, too, when the narrator/Pota's new ideas turn out to be a reprise of their own previous work--perhaps not surprising given not only that their editors are encouraging them to write something similar, just not too similar, to what they've come up with in the past. It's a difficult ask when not only do we live in a world that's more and more demanding when it comes to content, but also when authors' careers (presuming they don't bow out and go into some better-paying industry) are far longer.
The book's conclusion, which incidentally reminded me somewhat of Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, is at once predictable and anarchic, and I suspect it will have readers divided. It's a conclusion that's less about the narrative than it is about making a point: Heller's frustration about perceptions around artistic novelty and how these are so often tied to and potentially stifled by the creator's identity. The book that he/Pota has written is one that comprises all of the break-out efforts that have struck him--Kafka and Tom Sawyer and so on--but which in its final form contains all of these efforts within a wider narrative of semi-autobiography, which is exactly what the narrator/Pota's editors have expected all along. It's pointedly a narrative of failure, but one that's a failure within a set of carefully delineated, editor-approved boundaries. Ah, publishing. ...more
Holidaying south of Perth last year, I visited a lighthouse that had once run on whale oil, a clean and bright burning oil that was a popular choice fHolidaying south of Perth last year, I visited a lighthouse that had once run on whale oil, a clean and bright burning oil that was a popular choice for illumination at the time. While such lamps clearly no longer rely on animal sources for fuel, it's surprising to realise for just how long whaling persevered in Australia. Western Australia is known for its remote towns and cities, and perhaps it's this very remoteness that led to the general lack of awareness among Australians that whaling was still alive and well in the small portside town of Albany until the late 1970s. The last whale killed by Australians, in fact, was in 1978, many years after other western countries desisted from such approaches, and it's a sad fact that our tardiness in taking a stand is echoed throughout many other social and environmental issues. Unlawful whaling, however, remains an issue in and near Australian waters, and Chris Pash's The Last Whale is a timely reminder of the issues and constructed norms surrounding such an occupation.
Pash was a young reporter in working in Albany in the mid-to-late 1970s, a time during which Australian and international activists took interest in the whaling that continued to take place off Australia's western coast and began sustained and comprehensive efforts to raise awareness about these practices on both a social and political level. Curiously, Australia's laissez faire perspective towards whaling was apparently less to do with general public attitudes and more to do with the fact that few people were aware that whaling was still taking place at all in Australia. As such, the activists, who together formed what was to become Greenpeace's first direct action, met with a fairly receptive audience in doing so. Receptive, of course, except for those whose livelihoods depended upon continuing current whaling practices.
Pash recounts the events that led from sudden piqued activist interest in whaling in 1977 to its eventual outlawing in 1978 from multiple perspectives, weaving together a narrative that takes into account a vast number of actors and participants in this scenario. It's a surprisingly balanced approach given what is ultimately quite an emotional issue, and Pash elucidates the key perspectives with unemotional matter-of-factness. We hear of how the various activists came to trek across Australia to Albany, collecting in the sleepy town and raising media and political awareness; we are also taken on board the whaling boats to face the day-to-day lives of men struggling to earn a living in the face of Soviet poachers, watching them battle the elements and the gruelling existence that can comprise life at sea. We shift from time to time to bit players, such as Malcolm Frazer's then young daughter Phoebe, whose avid interest in whaling due to a school project helped shift the slowly snowballing awareness of whaling into the public sphere.
This isn't, though, an attack on whalers and whaling. Pash rather spends time examining the motives and the lives of those on both sides of the battle, and rather movingly addresses the issue of unemployment and loss of personal identity that occurred amongst the whalers of Albany once whaling operations were shut down. Interestingly, we're given an activist's words to explain the feelings of the whalers, and these words highlight the need to not simply make something verboten and shift direction without warning, but rather the need to put in place a series of checks, balances, and alternatives. Albany, as a result of this sudden shift in industry, was left to flounder and flail, and while some efforts were made to provide the newly unemployed residents with work alternatives, these were typically undesirable positions that were frequently turned down.
The Last Whale is a moving and thoughtful account of the history and context of wailing in Australia, but readers should note that Pash's background as a journalist is clearly evident in its pages, and that the prose is subsequently rather flat and workmanlike. The book itself also feels rather like a series of stitched together feature articles, with one from each major perspective, and progresses a little unevenly as a result. If you're after astonishing prose and a beautifully wrought anthropological and ecological account of a similar issue, you may wish to try John Vaillant's stunning book The Tiger instead, but if you're likely to be satisfied with a thoughtful, factual account of whaling in Australia, The Last Whale will be more than adequate for most readers. ...more
Over the years, Peter and Helen Radley have invested so heavily in the bank of middle-class conformity that the recent financial crisis ought likely hOver the years, Peter and Helen Radley have invested so heavily in the bank of middle-class conformity that the recent financial crisis ought likely had them quaking in their boots. For many years, Peter has maintained the dully admirable position of the town GP, while Helen spends her days forcing her way through dirge-like book club tomes and painting numbingly bland watercolours. Even their children impressively fit the suburban family mould, with their meagre efforts at rebellion manifesting as vehement vegetarianism and mawkish infatuations with the works of Byron. But while this conformity-investment should be reaping them all manner of interest in the form of social capital, the only type of interest it’s resulting in is that of the neighbours.
The Radleys live in the sort of small town where everyone is an acquaintance, but not necessarily a friend, and where gossip and tension are essential social lubricants. And unfortunately the Radleys, for all their efforts to affect a perfectly boring middle-class existence, have long been whisperingly perceived as, well, a little odd.
Why, wonder the neighbours, does Peter Radley refuse to join that essential emblem of masculinity, the local cricket club? Why does Helen Radley delight in cooking such bloodily carnivorous meals, but consistently neglect to include such indispensible ingredients as garlic? Why, despite her stringently vegan ways and her clearly fragile state, do animals react so poorly to young Clara? And while the benefits of sunscreen are certainly indisputable, is it really necessary that young Rowan slather it on so indulgently in dreary old England? And the strange waking hours he keeps, goodness…
What novelist Matt Haig has created here is something akin to Desperate Housewives meets Angel. The Radleys are, as you have no doubt been tipped off by my immensely subtle introduction, a family of vampires who have taken the moral high-road and live as abstainers, avoiding taking sustenance from human blood. Living as they do comes in no way naturally to them, as evidenced by Peter’s slightly-too-overjoyed reaction at receiving blood tests from his patients, or Helen’s urges to paint something a little more controversial than wan watercolours of apple trees, but as Helen keeps reminding her husband, their efforts are worth it if it means that they, and their children, are able to live a decent life. (Even if it means giving up trashy vampire romance novels and music records, laments Peter.)
It is this perspective, rather than the vampire angle itself, that makes The Radleys such an interesting read: these notions of fitting in, of doing what’s right, of protecting others. Wanting their children to lead a normal, safe life, Peter and Helen Radley have carefully avoided discussing their condition with their children. However, pointed evasion doesn’t necessarily have the outcome intended, as many parents have no doubt found out after failing to participate in a touchy conversation or two about the birds and the bees. While Peter and Helen have thus far not had to engage in their own familial chitchat about the bats and the Vs, Clara and Rowan are aware, in that way that teenagers are, that something about them is different, perhaps even wrong.
These differences are rather dramatically underscored when Clara responds to the advances of a loutish classmate in exactly the way that Peter and Helen would prefer that she would not. Clara’s reaction, although certainly passionate, is not the type that results in swollen bellies and belated chats about safe sex. Rather, it results in a rather ghoulishly torn up corpse—something that does not gel well with the Radleys’ carefully crafted turgidity. Haig works with this, however, in a fascinating way. Rather than Clara regretting her actions, and suffering the consequences of indulging her passions, she is deeply empowered by them instead. She is bolstered both physically and mentally, and sees little transgression in what she has done. Interestingly, it is not Clara who attempts to atone for her actions, but rather her parents, who work together to ditch the dead body and conceal any evidence of wrongdoing. Clara, when interviewed by the police, is sloppy and apathetic, while her parents continue to try to protect her, fearful of what may become of her, and of them.
The theme of protection and keeping up appearances is rife throughout the rest of the book, and we watch as the various characters contort themselves to fulfil the roles they feel are expected of them. While the Radleys themselves are the very epitome of societal repression, a number of other characters struggle with the same issues. The woman in Helen’s bookclub, for example, who is drawn, wistful, lost–perhaps, thinks Helen, one of them? There is young Eve, juggling all manner of carefully constructed facades, and even Lorna, who plays the suburban housewife so well (complete with Thai chicken salads and tragic flirting) that one feels a tug of lament towards her.
Don’t get me wrong. The Radleys is, first and foremost, a gloriously fun novel about a family of vampires, and Haig has a lot of fun playing with and subverting the canonical vampire myth. However, Haig is an incisive writer with impressive social nous, and he makes the most of this in The Radleys, which all up is also a smart little book that works on a number of levels. The novel touches not only on issues of conformity and repression, but also illustrates the utter meaninglessness of abnegating one’s true, passionate self purely to bow to certain norms. Perhaps the odd neck-munch really is good for everyone.
(One final note: The Radleys is being marketed as a YA/crossover novel, which is a label I’m not entirely sure I agree with. While it will certainly appeal to teen readers, the book isn’t a YA at heart. The story being told is largely that of Helen and Peter, of the lull of middle age, of how one came to be in a certain place in life, and what one can, or should, do about it.)
You can't tell a story forward, not really, says Mischa Reese in Emily Maguire's recently released Fishing for Tigers. It's a statement that's as true as it is telling, particularly when you learn the context of the quote: Mischa's stroll through a temple with the teenage son of one of her friends.
I was content in his company, and I was innocent.
The answers someone might give to the question what is happening? as opposed to what was happening? are bound to be utterly divergent. It's not just the distance afforded by hindsight that's at work here, but also the changes in who we are as individuals, and the weird and scrappy way that we piece together our memories.
Memory, after all, is both a narrative and an argument, and recollection requires analysis (and allows subterfuge at that) in a way that reportage doesn't. Perhaps this is part of the reason why I'm drawn to novels written in a reflective manner: the added temporal distance provides not just an interesting lens of narrative depth, but also of the character growth and change that has occurred because of the events depicted in the book, and also after those events.
However, this same temporal distance can also be stunningly misleading. When there's a gap between the then and now, it's inevitable that the question will arise regarding what is actually true and what is merely perceived to be true--and whether there's really much of a difference between the two. And this is where things become fascinating for me as a reader: I get to become a sleuth as I read.
Two of my favourite novels this year, The Glamour by Christopher Priest and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, take this long-term recollective approach to their storytelling process; both also give us unreliable narrators. So too does Fishing for Tigers, and it's difficult to tell what, if anything, of the book can be taken as truth.
Mischa has lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since fleeing an abusive marriage some five years ago, and since then has existed in that strange purgatorial way of expats. With the length of her stay indefinite, she doesn't see the point of truly settling in in any part of her life. She has a job, not a career, and one that could be readily exchanged for something else; she doesn't speak the language beyond a few basic niceties; and despite the constant pressure from her friends she's resisted buying a motorbike, getting around instead like a tourist might.
“I had become a woman without a self. For years I had spoken in sentences that weren't. In work and food and housing I'd got not what I wanted but what I could ask for. My opinions and insights became as childish as the fragments of language I had to express them. My foreigner's defence of smiling blandness bled into my English-speaking interactions. The thing I got that I didn't ask for would do and the thing I wanted but didn't get I could do without. The friends I had were those easily kept. They could have been anyone. I could have been anyone...”
Mischa seems to want to lose herself in the anonymity of a foreign city, and yet the affair she embarks on with 18-year-old Cal is at odds with this. The way, too, that the affair unfolds, and her justifications for becoming caught up in it, strike the reader as not necessarily veracious. Mischa paints herself as a wide-eyed Bambi at the beginning of the narrative, but this isn't the case—but truly, what of it, particularly given that her male friends are doing exactly the same thing with young Vietnamese girls? As an oldie in my late twenties, the thought of having it off with a teenager is a touch excruciating, but the affair is consensual, and it's legal at that.
So what is the problem? I think it's two-fold. First, Mischa is an older woman having an affair with a young man rather than the typical older man, younger woman scenario; and that Cal, who's half Vietnamese, identifies and is identified by others as an Australian, not a local. As Mischa's expat friends have made patently clear, there's a vast gap in the value placed on a westerner and that placed upon a native Vietnamese: the latter are seen as a commodity to be exploited, a faceless group who are scarcely human to this group of self-styled royalty who have determined to live on the fringes of a society such that they can make of it, and take from it, whatever they will without any thought for the consequences. Her relationship is the human embodiment of the way that westerners treat a country such as Vietnam.
There's certainly a truth to Mischa's explanation of the relationship narrative, and yet there's a neatness to Mischa's styling of it as well, one that suggests that perhaps there's a touch of revisionism at work here. Despite her professions of innocence, Mischa seems to revel in the verboten nature of the relationship, in part because Cal's passionate, questioning ways force her to connect with the world at long last and to ponder her place and her purpose. And yet, there's another event later on in the book involving her family that does exactly the same thing—but interestingly enough, Mischa remains removed from this, life-changing and potentially devastating though it is. Perhaps she is not quite the innocent she would paint herself as.
With its hedonism and excess, its richly depicted locale and its depiction of a relationship featuring a shifting power balance, the book as a whole is redolent of F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, although it lacks the brutally precise dialogue and the cutting narrative: Fishing for Tigers often falls into didactic finger-wagging, and has a tendency to explain and reiterate what is already strikingly obvious.
Still, it's easy enough to imagine Fitzgerald's Divers drinking up with Mischa and her friends as they engage as superficially as they can with their environment, celebrating their irrelevance and their purposelessness. Even though Mischa is a part of this, towards the end of the book she skewers her friends, and brings into question the truth of her own narrative with the following:
“My Hanoi friends thought that what I did with Cal was out of character, but how would they know? How would I? It may have been the first in-character thing I had done in my life.”
It's a line that contrasts quite strongly with her assertion that she was content in his company, and she was innocent....more
For someone whose background involves copious amounts of Jungian psychoanalysis, it's nThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com
For someone whose background involves copious amounts of Jungian psychoanalysis, it's no surprise that Salley Vickers in her work so frequently touches on notions of the development of self, and on individual narrative journeys in order to reach a greater sense of consciousness and agency. While Vickers has in some of her work, such as the tremendously erudite The Other Side of You (see our review), done this by means of the presentation of a character whose main role is to act as a facilitator, other novels, such as her most recent, Dancing Backwards (see our review), have relied on more internally precipitative forces in order to do so. For Vickers, it seems as though such progressions can be afforded through the offerings of art, music, literature, and spiritual considerations, all of which have in common the fact that they require substantial intellectual and emotional engagement on behalf of a given individual. As such, Vickers's novels tend to be those of emotional and spiritual renaissance, in which an individual, or indeed several individuals, epiphanously unfurl into a degree of personal enlightenment, rather in the manner of a fern unrolling towards the touch of the sun. Miss Garnet's Angel, Vickers's accomplished debut, epitomises perfectly this particular authorial proclivity.
When her long time friend Harriet passes away without warning, the abstemious Miss Garnet finds herself facing a void whose substance or raison de etre she is unable, perhaps on some level willingly, to fathom. As a torrent of existential torment threatens (albeit done away with with pragmatic huff), Miss Garnet finds herself fleeing to Venice, where she takes up residence in a homely apartment whose amenities scarcely extend beyond a battered pan for coffee and which is decorated in the tragic remains of her landlady's glory box. But despite her efforts to the sort of anonymity she has so long enjoyed in London, Miss Garnet finds that her quiet, English ways serve only to make her conspicuous amongst the warm Venetian community and amidst the cultural richness of the famously romantic city. Miss Garnet, an individual whose worldview is cripplingly narrow and which relies upon vicariousness rather than personal experience, and who prefers to rely on the expounded theories and perceptions of others rather than engage with her own, finds that her newly public persona is a facilitating force when it comes to developing quaint and curious friendships, and to finding herself the subject of a series of curiously circumspect encounters. Despite her naturally retiring ways, Miss Garnet, or Julia (meaning "young"), as we come to know her, begins to find that her most deeply, intransigently held conceptions in relation to herself and her place in life are perhaps resting on rather shaky foundations. Through a multi-pronged plot that intertwines with the ancient biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel, Vickers traces Miss Garnet's slow but inevitable efforts towards personal realisation as she finds herself nested within a series of complex, ambiguous relationships and curious, inexplicable occurrences.
Miss Garnet's Angel sits beautifully within Vickers's oeuvre, and the more of her work I read the better I'm able to discern how her novels form a thematic (if not a narrative) series. Fortunately, given the fact that the continuity here is thematic, there's no issue with reading her work out of order, which is of course the path I've apparently taken to her work.
Vickers delights in working with those characters who are so often overlooked both within fiction and within society: the quiet, the shy, the introverted, and given this, her choice of Miss Garnet as a protagonist is unsurprising. However, what is surprising is that while many others will conflate introversion and introspection, Vickers sidesteps this trope, giving us a character who is not only cut off from the world, but from herself, too. Her frugality of self is almost total, and she struggles to engage with anything that might have meaning or that may pose a threat to the face that she has so carefully established. Curiously, her lack of identity is so absolute that when pressed, she names herself by her (former) occupation as a history teacher rather than as an historian, the latter being, at least to Miss Garnet, far more intertwined with one's sense of self. Indeed, Miss Garnet's sense of personal isolation is such that she even perceives of herself in the third person; it is some time until she becomes comfortable using her given (or perhaps "Christian", given the themes of the book, and Miss Garnet's self-professed agnosticism) name.
This inability to self-reflect or to challenge one's personal assumptions and conceptions of course extends through to Miss Garnet's necessarily narrow social life: despite having considered the late Harriet a close friend, it is really only in death that Harriet begins to exert any great influence on Miss Garnet's life. Miss Garnet, despite herself, travels with a giddily ostentatious hat that was once Harriet's, and this prop becomes a substitute for her friend, offering Miss Garnet both comfort and a safe and unchallenging means by which she might at last engage with her erstwhile friend. The notion of a post-mortem friendship is curious, and speaks to the degree to which a person or a relationship can be so completely created or moulded by the mind of another. To me, the relationship between Miss Garnet and Harriet is perhaps the strongest element of the book, and Miss Garnet's own realisations about the nature of the relationship--such as the magnanimity Harriet kept from her friend to avoid being seen as frivolous--are often deeply moving.
Miss Garnet's spiritual renaissance, of course, is also alluded to by the way in which her bigotry is slowly uncovered and dealt with: gender, class, and racial constructs come to the fore time and time again and are steadily dealt with as the narrative, and thus Miss Garnet, progresses. I do have some qualms about the way in which issues such as Miss Garnet's virginal, love-less past and her cautious, frugal nature are dealt with through this spiritual awakening, and do find it somewhat confronting that it is, largely, spirituality that is highlighted as the key transformative force for Miss Garnet. Still, Vickers does not require of her character a transmutation from lead to gold or the like: rather, for the most part Miss Garnet largely remains herself, but simply a more weathered, self-assessing version of the same.
Perhaps the element of Miss Garnet's Angel that worked least well for me was the counterpoint narrative, an account of the spiritual recovery of Tobit and Tobias that limns Miss Garnet's own journey. While I appreciate the conceit, I felt that this secondary narrative devolved into confusion at some points, and at others was simply too neat and coincidental; the result of which was that these chapters felt rather smug and knowing, and detracted from the quiet beauty of the rest of the narrative.
As a debut outing, Miss Garnet's Angel is beautifully accomplished, revealing the wit and perspicacity that is a hallmark of Vickers's fiction. Her depiction of Venice is outstanding, and her characters equally so, both of which together lends the book a sense of sincerity and groundedness that is needed given the pervasive themes of religion, spiritualism, and self-discovery. It's my feeling that the narrative would have benefited from a better integration (or excision) of the Tobit/Tobias secondary narrative, but I do appreciate Vickers's efforts in working with such a story.