Parenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm dParenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm deftly explores the consequences of youthful decisions, the effect of silence on love, and how a parent can represent home to a child.
Thirteen-year-old Silver Landes is used to moving around between ashram and commune with her young, single mother Ishtar, but that doesn't stop her from yearning to have her mother to herself, and a place of their own - to just stop for long enough to have a real home. The move to Hope Farm in central Gippsland, Victoria is just the most recent dislocation in young Silver's life, another grand idea that Ishtar has bought into, another new man that Ishtar is following. This time it's a man Silver only knows as Miller: thirty-six, bearded and large, he sweeps her mother up in his plans for the hippie 'commune' of Hope Farm, a run-down property rented by an odd mix of ageing hippies who have become increasingly jaded. Ishtar hands over her savings to Miller to buy a car, which he registers in his own name, and then Silver accompanies her mother on the train while Miller uses the car to get new supplies for the farm.
While Ishtar disappears into Miller's possessive, intense and narcissistic embrace, Silver is - as always - left to fend for herself. She befriends fourteen-year-old Ian, a neighbour, though the constant bullying he receives at school creates a darkness in him that Silver begins to glimpse, and is scared by. She is also scared of Miller, with his complete possession of her mother and his pornographic and violent drawing hanging over the bed that clearly show his fatherhood aim. With the arrival of a surprise guest on the farm, this temporary home is further shaken and Silver is drawn along in the adults' wake, heading towards disaster.
Silver's narration of this period in her life comes from decades later, as a middle-aged woman still haunted by events and the emptiness and loneliness left by her mother. Her silent, pent-up rage and impotent hopes are clearly drawn, sharper-edged by time and honestly come by. Ishtar - as we learn from her own poorly-spelt journal writings that intersperse Silver's narration - was only sixteen when she fell pregnant, and completely ignorant of how it happened. Living in an ordinary suburb in Queensland with religious parents in the 70s, her mother's reaction is predictable and acutely heart-breaking: she is furious, and keenly aware of the shame that Ishtar will bring to her family. Ishtar has seen what happened to another girl who was in the same situation, around whom judgements and opinions still collect, and is passively swept up in her mother's plan. She is taken to Brisbane, to a home for girls like her; after the baby is born she will sign it away for adoption and return home, all in secret. But at the home she learns from another girl who has been there before that she has a choice, and Ishtar takes it.
The repercussions of Ishtar's choice are just as hard on her as they are on Silver, in the long term. Her mother refuses to see her again, leaving Ishtar to live without support or guidance in an ashram, with the people who helped her. At such a young age, Ishtar - who took that name to replace her own when she started living there - has to give up the remains of her childhood and work for no personal gain. She loves her baby dearly, but feels increasingly guilty for the noise the baby makes, and for loving her so much. Soon, depression takes hold of her and she grows colder towards her child.
Finally when I went to bed she was still awake she must have been feeling better because she laughed and reached out her arms but all I wanted was sleep. I looked in to her face and no warm feeling came. I lay down with my back to her. She cuddled up to me and touched my hair but I lay like a block of concrete, there was this heavy sadness and some where deep under everything I wanted to break the spell and turn over and face her, it felt like an important thing to do but I just couldnt. I didnt move or make a sound and after a while she left me alone. And after that it was like some thing had broken and I couldnt fix it, I seemed to feel more and more tired like the love had been buried under the tiredness and every night I turned my back on her I lay there but I could never fall asleep because of the sad feeling I just lay listening to her breathing until she fell asleep. [p.146]
The moves begin: she finds a man and moves to his commune, then moves to another ashram to escape, and so on. Her relationship with Silver becomes rote and silent, and while there are things about Ishtar that Silver has always known - like what her real name is - there are bigger things that Ishtar never speaks about, and Silver has no words for her mother's moods, and no one to turn to.
The consequences of shaming girls and women about their bodies, the secretiveness associated with sex and pregnancy and the judgemental attitudes of others all play their part in ruining Silver's relationship with her mother. I'm not sure that we've come all that far since, though at least we don't pack girls off to wait out their pregnancy in hiding, away from the neighbours' eyes. This happened to my own mother, who wasn't in a position to marry when she accidentally got pregnant, and who was sent off to a home run by nuns in Melbourne, and treated like she wasn't even human. Unlike Ishtar, though, my mother's story had a happy ending: she and the father - my father - did marry and start a family, and the baby they had to give up for adoption came back to us and is just as much part of the family, and loved, as the rest of us. The point remains, though, of what we do to each other in the process, and the unnecessary pain and feelings of being unloved it brings. For Silver, love for her mother is the emotion she has long buried. She feels like a burden, and the silence between the two only exacerbates this.
The irony in the name 'Hope Farm' is inescapable, and encompasses not only the dead dreams of the hippies who hoped to live self-sufficiently but who now work in factories in the nearby towns, smoking pot and aimlessly strumming the guitar when at home. It also highlights the hope that fills Ishtar, temporarily, with energy, and the hope that has long been suppressed within Silver but that surges up when the two find themselves living in a decrepit old miner's cottage that, at best, resembles a cubby-house with its shabby, makeshift furniture and lack of amenities (like a toilet). It is there that Silver's dream, her one real desire to live with Ishtar, just the two of them, in a place of their own is finally, but partly, realised. Ishtar falls into her worst depression yet, and the only upside is that she turns away Miller.
Miller is the character who wasn't quite realised for me, or not in the way that he was for Silver. It wasn't until towards the end of the book that I even realised that Silver saw him as a monster - this just didn't quite come across to me. I certainly didn't like him, and his brutishness - captured in the descriptions of his hair and size, the way he 'claims' Ishtar in a physical way - was exceptionally unappealing, but I didn't fear him. I didn't realise that Silver feared him. It could partly be because, as engaging and readable as this is, I had a lot of interruptions and took about two weeks to read it; those interruptions can make it hard to feel the tension and threat. Tension was another aspect that I didn't genuinely feel: Silver directly foreshadows the impending disaster when she tells us that they were all on a "collision course", but the only tension I felt was when Ian showed her the abandoned mine shaft and she was, rightly, spooked, and things were never quite so easy between them again. The tension was in wondering what role the mine shaft would play in the story, and knowing that it would. But that tension didn't grip me, certainly not in the way I want it to, or the way the novel implies I should have been. Still, his effect is made clear:
I glanced at Ishtar's one suitcase and duffel bag sitting in the corner. They looked their usual compact, neat selves, but even they were being encroached on by the huge, looming tide that was Miller's mess - and her bedspread, crumpled down at the foot of the mattress, appeared more worn that I remembered, and smaller. I turned slowly in the small central clearing. So much stuff. As if he conjured it with his hands, brought it bouncing and skittering into his orbit, to then fly along in his wake like iron filings following a magnet. Into my mind came the twin images of Miller lifting Ishtar and putting her into the car, and then lifting and carrying her into the room at the ashram - her yielding body, her transformed face. Then I saw him raising Jindi towards the night sky. The power in those arms, and the speed with which they snatched something up - a body, a whole person - and then just as quickly let it go again. [p.90]
This is, undoubtedly, a sad novel. The sadness is in the sense of nostalgia that is vividly and realistically imagined, and in the disconnect between Silver and her mother, between a young girl desperately wanting to love her mother, and a mother trying to live life as if she weren't one. There is sadness in the dinginess and squalour of Hope Farm, in the painful, lonely and unloved nature of Silver's coming-of-age story. I came close to loving this novel, and in many ways I do love it: it is superbly written, even if the hoped-for tension wasn't quite there for me; it is memorable in its realism; and it is easy to connect to and empathise with, from the rural living 'out bush', which reminded me of where I grew up in central-north Tasmania, to the painful school bus rides and, most especially, the simple, unfulfilled hopes of Silver Landes, whose past - and especially her time at Hope Farm in 1985 - shaped her just as Ishtar's did, and not for the better.
This story will stay with me, as all well-written novels do that work on multiple levels, rich with symbolism and hidden layers just waiting to be unpacked. Above it all, I am left with this strong sense of familiarity, almost as if I had read this novel before, heard this story told another, earlier time - and I think this is not because it's a cliché, or Frew has ripped off some other book, but because it is such a human story, one that can speak to me and the girl that still lives inside me, suppressed maybe, but who - despite having had the loving family and stable home that Silver so yearns for - can still empathise with that hope and desire precisely because it is so vital. And because that sense of isolation and loneliness that Silver feels is so reminiscent of that period of our lives when we straddle childhood and adolescence. Frew writes with an openness that leaves me feeling vulnerable as I read, which directly relates to my ability to empathise with Silver. Mistakes are made on both sides, life is messy, and love is fragile and easily smothered....more
Joan London's The Golden Age came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it's a short, quick read at aJoan London's The Golden Age came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it's a short, quick read at a mere 240 pages, but I think it's a book that needs to be read in just a sitting or two; with my constant interruptions, The Golden Age failed to connect with me. I loved the premise, about children struggling to recover from polio in Perth in the 1950s - a sense of time and place is something I always look for, and found it here. But I think the author's way of chopping up the story into small pieces and shifting the perspective from thirteen-year-old Frank Gold and twelve-year-old Elsa to Frank's parents and a nurse at the Golden Age Children's Polio Convalescent Home was somehow disruptive for me. While the parallels between the children's stories and that of their parents and other adults helped structure the novel and develop some of the ideas here, it made it increasingly hard for me to build up a sense of flow and momentum, and to really care for any of them.
The fate of migrants in Australia, of the drift between children and their parents, of class divides and ethnic divides, of misunderstandings small yet profound, and the suffering felt by all during the polio epidemic makes this a rich and heartfelt historical novel. Poetry plays a role, and the ability of art - be it words or music - to convey emotion and help people connect to others. So it is possibly ironic that London's own art, her own words here, didn't quite manage to connect with me. Sometimes, that third-person omniscient narrator has an alienating effect on me, in which you are both told too much and not enough. I've always been turned off by stories told this way, in which my own engagement is an unnecessary thing, superfluous to the story. London writes mostly in this style, telling me what is deemed important, what characters are thinking and feeling, but she does at times drift into a more poetic style, holding back on the omniscience. This uneven quality didn't help matters, and at the end of it I was left feeling only mildly sad at the outcome of Frank and Elsa's lives.
A sense of nostalgia helped, and the most strongly written part for me was the dip into the past, in Poland during the Nazi occupation, and how Frank lived for a time with his mother's piano teacher, hiding in the ceiling when a client came. I think I might have loved this had it been longer, more drawn-out - not to make it self-indulgent, I do hate that with a passion, but just to make the characters more alive, more human, and less like sketches of people....more
When term break rolled around (today marks the last day - back to work tomorrow!) I thought about how nice it would be to go and see a film, somethingWhen term break rolled around (today marks the last day - back to work tomorrow!) I thought about how nice it would be to go and see a film, something entertaining, a no-brain-required affair, and saw that the adaptation of The Girl on the Train was about to be released. It's always best to read the book first, and since I already had a copy, it was just a matter of finding it (which, on my densely packed shelves, took about half an hour!) and then making the time to read it. The novel, a psychological thriller set in and around London, reminded me somewhat of SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep, both in terms of tone, setting and cheesy denouement. And as with Watson's debut novel, after reading this I had zero interest in seeing the film.
The Girl on the Train is an okay read, but I can't give it much more than that. I quite liked having a protagonist who is an alcoholic with a failed marriage, who has lost her job and is, in general (and by most people's terms), a bit of a loser. Hawkins takes the idea of the flawed sleuth to new heights, as with Camille in Sharp Objects, but Rachel does wear your patience down a bit. She's not the only narrator in this novel, though: Megan, the missing-then-found-dead woman narrates, beginning a year earlier up until her death, and Anna, the woman Rachel's husband Tom left her for, also increasingly gets her voice heard. What's interesting about this book and these three women is the idea, captured in the dominant male characters, of women's voices being silence in a patriarchal society - and not just silenced, but redefined. It is the men who decide what the women are, and the women who absorb that and take it on as fact, before turning on each other. That aspect of the book makes it worth reading, but as a psychological thriller there was virtually no tension, absolutely no twist - the truth is so gradually revealed and carefully constructed that you see it a mile before Rachel does - and the 'thrills' are completely absent.
The crime - the disappearance which, later, turns into a murder investigation - begins on a Saturday night, a night when Rachel, drunk, returns to Whitney where she lived with Tom in the house by the train tracks, on a ridiculous errand. Megan and her husband, Scott, lived just a few doors down. Rachel wakes up on Sunday in a sorry state and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It's this absence of memory that drives her to involve herself in the case, making her an amateur sleuth. As an alcoholic, the police consider her to be an unreliable witness and this, coupled with Anna's vehement hatred and fear of her, pushes Rachel into the fringes: with a stable place to live (renting a room at a friend's house), she's only one step up from a homeless person. The memory lapse is the only thing that kept me reading what is, essentially, a rather slow and uneventful book - wondering, for a while, not what she saw, but what she did. I think a previous review I had read led me to think that Rachel was the real villain, some kind of disturbed character - and the idea of a psychological thriller told from the perspective of the stalker intrigued me. Well, that's not it at all. I must have misread that review entirely. The Girl on the Train is simple, rather straightforward and, after about the halfway mark, fairly predictable....more
This adult psychological mind-f**k is both clever and creepy. The Engagement is about a woman, Liese, who moves to the city to work for her uncle's reThis adult psychological mind-f**k is both clever and creepy. The Engagement is about a woman, Liese, who moves to the city to work for her uncle's real estate agency and ends up using listed properties to have an affair with a man. Sounds sordid and ordinary, doesn't it - well add this: he's from the country, an old farming estate, and she may have said or done something to make him think she was a prostitute (second job, perhaps). She thought it was a joke, that he always knew she wasn't actually a prostitute - that they were role-playing. But the money did help, and she went along with it and never broke the charade with ordinary conversation. Now, having almost saved up enough money to go overseas, he - Alexander - has requested her for a whole weekend, at his home in the country, and offered her a lot of money for her trouble.
In his world, though, things are noticeably different from the outset. This man whom she barely knows is strange and even intimidating, and the old family home is unpleasantly gothic and unrenovated, with closed-off wings and relics from the past. Alexander has taken over the farm and seems out-of-touch, to say the least, while his sister appears to be sane to Liese. Alexander's understanding of Liese as a prostitute has gone so deep that he tries to save her, to rescue her from that life: he asks her to marry him, and has her whole future planned for her. Liese feels increasingly trapped in this tacky, rambling house, in the child's bedroom - all pink and white and frills - that he's put her in (and locked her in?). The whole weekend begins to turn into a nightmare, and no matter what Liese now says, her words get twisted.
I have a weird relationship with this novel - I don't know what else to call it other than 'weird'. I love psychological thrillers, and this is one of the creepiest. Liese's sense of entrapment and isolation, that feeling of being gagged because whatever you say isn't really heard, it all adds to a very tense, uncomfortable reading experience that I normally love. But there was something off here, for me. Something about Liese, I think, that made her an unlikeable narrator who created the mess she was in - which I resented thinking, because it smacked of the whole 'blaming the victim' mentality that still pervades so strongly in Australia and other countries across the world. I can't even decide if I like this book or not - which I think is a successful outcome for the author! (Incidentally, I have read Chloe Hooper's expository non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island - another book I haven't reviewed yet!) She's certainly a good writer, I'll say that much.
In terms of landscape and setting and character development, it's all there, all so real and vivid and, even, a bit too real. From Alexander and that loping farmer's stride to the dry paddocks and beaten dogs, the ageing furniture and cheap extensions, it wasn't such a leap from rural Victoria to the more familiar rural Tasmania, for me. Even the attitudes and values of rural and farming people spoke true to me, not to mention Alexander's own attitudes towards women, which is perhaps at the crux and core of this novel. I think I would need to read it again, yet knowing how it ends might spoil the whole thing, I'm not sure. Hooper is certainly a talented writer, and it's not often that a book is too uncomfortable a read for me - maybe that's also the stage of life that I'm in, and what I bring to my reading of it. The more stressed and anxious you are in your own life, the more you want to read fluffy, fun things. But I hope I've intrigued you enough to make you want to check this out for yourself. ...more
The Tribe trilogy has to be one of the best Young Adult fantasy series I've read in a long time - beginning with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf anThe Tribe trilogy has to be one of the best Young Adult fantasy series I've read in a long time - beginning with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and then The Disappearance of Ember Crow, the trilogy is fresh and original, very well-written and peopled with characters I quickly came to love and care for. Not only that, but it interweaves Aboriginal culture and philosophy to present a less westernised view of the world, and as flawed and tragic as this post-apocalyptic world is, I actually want to live there, in this place where the trees and the spiders are just as valued as human life.
In The Foretelling of Georgie Spider the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. Georgie is Ashala's friend from her old life; the two fled rather than be captured and held forever in a detention centre. Yes, this series goes straight to the heart of a cruel and inhumane government policy of Australia's: holding refugees and asylum seekers in awful detention centres both on-shore and off-shore, where they are subjected to abuse and fall into severe depression. Here, the "mutated" children of this world are treated in this way, because they are different and declared "unlawful", again speaking so clearly to the ease with which white people decide who is worthy and who is not (I say "white people" deliberately, because this is an Australian series and speaks so empathetically to this cultural practice, and because the Aboriginal author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, is also directly addressing past government policy in which Aboriginal peoples were classed among the flora and fauna, not as human beings).
As political and philosophical as the story truly is, it is also the compelling story of human determinism, love and courage, trust and an appreciation for life in all its forms. Having finished the trilogy, I feel both bereft and impatient to re-read it (Which, sadly, will have to wait). If I could endlessly recommend any book or series to you, it would be this one. It has all the things I love in fiction, and the only negative is that Kwaymullina took it down from an original four-book series to a trilogy. But it was a good call; no drawn-out, padded and over-bloated story here! I'm eager for what she writes next, though, that's for sure!...more
A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is the first volume in Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh series. This detective novel, more in the 'classic' or 'goldenA Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is the first volume in Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh series. This detective novel, more in the 'classic' or 'golden age' British style than the American hard-boiled one, delivered the good stuff: while the majority of my teenaged students reported that they found the book slow and boring, and the many characters hard to keep track of, it has proved to be very effective for the particular English course that I teach, where we study the representations of cultural values in texts and how these 'versions of reality' position (the new term is: "invites") readers to endorse or challenge particular ideas, values and attitudes, and what prevailing ideologies are ultimately privileged.
Inspector Singh is a fat, sweaty, 'fleshy' Sikh man from Singapore who is sent to Kuala Lumpur to ensure that 'justice is seen to be done' in the case of a high-profile Singaporean ex-model, Chelsea, who married a wealthy Malaysian businessman, Alan Lee, now murdered outside the family home. The couple had divorced and were in the midst of a bitter custody battle over their three young sons, when Alan suddenly converts to Islam. According to the law - which in Malaysia is both secular and Islamic (they have a two-court system), this conversion automatically made the children Islamic as well, and case would move to the Shariyah court which would rule in favour of the Muslim parent. Chelsea reacted violently to this news in court, attacking Alan and threatening to kill him. Not long after, he was shot and Chelsea immediately arrested as the prime suspect. However, Singh - using the hunches or instinct that separate the protagonist-sleuth from other police officers - just knows she is innocent. Here, in this novel and this world, the Malaysian justice system is the antagonist, a system that cannot truly protect the innocent or the disadvantaged. It is a story of wealth against poverty, the powerful against the lower classes, capitalism against conservationism. This aspect is captured in the other, parallel (and related) storyline which concerns Alan's two brothers, Jasper and Kian Min, his timber company and what the company is doing - illegally - in the Borneo rainforest.
I don't want to give too much away, and I can't, unfortunately, discuss the denouement, but for once the sleuth character seems not to be the real protagonist - there are two other characters who are equally important, but it is telling that the sleuth, Inspector Singh, is only directly involved in one of the two parallel denouements - in order to maintain the integrity of the sleuth, he remains with the Chelsea storyline, doing something noble but not all that illegal. It's a very interesting resolution, one that speaks of the grey areas in morality, of the idea that some bad deeds are worse than others, some murders more evil than others. Really interesting book to discuss....more
Maria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crimMaria Lewis's debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crime-mystery sleuthing prevalent in the genre. The story introduces blue-haired, fun-loving, smart-mouthed Tommi Grayson, born in Scotland after her pregnant mother left her native New Zealand in a hurry. Eight months after her mother's accidental death, Tommi is finally ready to head off to her mother's homeland to try and find her father - not to meet him, just to see. After all, her mother had once confessed that her pregnancy was the product of a rape, so she hardly wanted to sit down to a cup of tea with the man.
Armed with a possible name, Tommi's search leads her to a large house on a quiet street at the end of town, where she learns a lot more about her father and his family than she ever wished for - and about herself.
The strength of this story is without a doubt Tommi herself, who narrates with humour, intelligence, compassion and strength. Due to her werewolf heritage, she has a temper and so was directed into martial arts, and her post-New Zealand training builds on that. But the other key character whom you can't help but love is Lorcan, the ex-Praetorian Guard turned Custodian for the Trieze, the 'rulers', if you will, of this new paranormal world Tommi finds herself well and truly caught up in. Lorcan reminded me of Joscelin from the Phèdre series by Jacqueline Carey - a bit of a romantic dream, to be honest, but such a good one! If you're not familiar with the series, think beautiful, noble (and rather sweet) man who is also a fierce and highly skilled warrior and, to top it off, devoted and protective but not domineering (that's it, right there, the romantic dream!). Lorcan is in that vein, and Tommi's relationship with him builds slowly and believably, adding that extra layer of tension that keeps you invested.
That isn't to say, though, that this is a romance, only that it is romantic with guts - the ideal kind for an Urban Fantasy. Speaking of, I was so relieved that Who's Afraid? didn't follow the usual pattern of Urban Fantasy novels: that of the mystery, detective kind. While dead bodies do turn up, it's always clear who is behind it, and Tommi is on no quest beyond mastering her werewolf self and training before the next full moon. Tension and suspense is maintained because you know something's going to happen, and it's also maintained by showing Tommi's normal days - normalcy always raises the stakes.
While the plot has its formulaic moments, especially in regards to the showdown climax with her insane young relative, Steven, it also surprises. Lewis takes the time to develop Tommi's character, to let you experience what 'normal' looked like for her, to meet her friends and come to love them too, so that your emotional investment is well and truly secured. And with Tommi narrating, I flew through my reading of this, easily glued to the page, and made a nice pile of soggy tissues at the end (really, Lewis holds no punches). Things have been set up for a clean sequel with a fresh new story, and Tommi is the kind of character you want to accompany for the long haul.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Moving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mMoving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mass-produced newspapers in the mid-19th century, to today's situation in which we are saturated with readily-accessible, constantly updated news 24/7, cannot fail to have its repercussions. And not only because of the constant access, but because of what constitutes 'the news'.
Alain de Botton, populist modern philosopher, here scrutinises six different sections of the news - Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster and Consumption - delving into its impact on our lives and also offering up a utopian ideal of what the news could look like, if it was developed into a healthier version of itself. He asks the question, why does the news matter, and how can it be made to matter more, in a better way?
Journalism has been too modest and too mean in defining its purpose merely as the monitoring of certain kinds of power; a definition that has harmfully restricted its conception of itself and its role in society. It is not just a de facto branch of the police or the tax office; it is, or should be, a government in exile that works through all issues of national life with a view to suggesting ways to build a better country. (p.65)
This is an interesting idea, and, it seems to me, one that completely changes how we think of the news today. One thing that de Botton doesn't touch upon, but which my cynical mind can't help but throw up, is trust: while the news and journalists occupy a position of authority and reliability because of what it and they are meant to stand for, the reality is that we just don't trust them, not anymore. Granted, we believe what we read and hear in the news - we're not just well-trained, we're also well-positioned by the techniques journalists and editors use - but they have a long road to walk if they ever wanted to achieve the kind of position in society that de Botton hopes for, without them being accused of propaganda etc. - this because, as de Botton points out, the news and journalists believe in objectivity, which isn't really possible.
The self-help element aside (which doesn't sit well with me; I can't help but cringe at anything that slips into that category, as this book did), de Botton raises some pertinent and important points, and makes some interesting connections - and explains a few things. His note, in the preface, that analysing the news should be a core part of children's education stood out to me, a teacher, precisely because - in my state at least - we do teach this, albeit not as a compulsory subject. His observation of why the news is so boring was especially interesting to me:
What we colloquially call 'feeling bored' is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place. We might, for example, struggle to know what to do with information that a group of Chinese officials was paying a visit to Afghanistan to discuss boarder security in the province of Badakhshan or that a left-wing think tank was agitating to reduce levels of tax in the pharmaceutical industry. [...] It is for news organisations to take on some of this librarian's work. It is for them to give us a sense of the larger headings under which minor incidents belong. An item on a case of petty vandalism one Saturday night in a provincial town ('Bus Shelter Graffitied by Young Vandals in Bedford') might come to life if it was viewed as a minuscule moment within a lengthier drama titled 'The Difficulties Faced by Liberal Secular Societies Trying to Instil Moral Behaviour without the Help of Religion'. (p.27)
This leads de Botton into an interesting discussion on bias and how important it is, especially acknowledged bias. It reminded me of an article I read last year about bias in news media and how important it is, and how The Australian refuses to acknowledge its own bias (it's clearly right-leaning and conservative, but they deny having any bias at all). At times de Botton engages in proper analysis, but this was scarcer than I would have liked: it's analysis that my brain thrives on, not the waffle about being a better society 'if only' the news could do this or that. We won't make better journalists or news stations until we better understand what we're doing now, and that's where analysis comes in.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from The News: A User's Manual, because this is my first de Botton book and I didn't know what a philosopher's take on the news media might look like. In some ways, it was engrossing, informative, interesting, enlightening. In other ways, it was maddeningly frustrating because it kept veering off into what the news could be, when I really wanted to focus on what it is now. (That said, without this futuristic, utopian ideal, it could have been too shallow and pointless a book.) It was at its best when it delved into the role of tragedy and why we are riveted by news stories of horrible things (just the other day I sat down and read a heap of articles about the 33 year old father in South Australia who drove his car off a wharf with his two young sons, ages 4 and 10 months, in a murder-suicide. I sat there and cried and cried and cried. But I keep coming back to those articles each day. What's the deal? De Botton explains, and it makes sense); or explaining the behind-the-scenes action (or lack thereof) of a news outlet; or why we don't care about what happens in foreign lands; or the effect consumer goods 'news' has on our psychology. There was much more here to love and appreciate than to whinge about, but the some sections were definitely more powerful than others. In particular, I found the chapter on Economics disappointing - I got much more out of a lead essay in The Monthly last year ("Of Clowns and Treasurers" by Richard Denniss, July 2015).
He has some interesting things to say about celebrity news, and why individuals are driven to want to be famous. Contrary to what I would have expected, de Botton doesn't denounce celebrity news, which he views as "a pity", partly because he would prefer "serious people" to anoint celebrities rather than organisations "entirely untroubled by the prospect of appealing to the lowest appetites." (p.159) My instant thought, though, was: but they already do - there are a lot of mass-market-produced 'stars' out there. De Botton's call for intelligent, interesting people who can contribute to our lives in helpful, meaningful and insightful ways is one of the rare times when he sounds naive as well as dismissive, because there are already a wide range of "worthy" individuals. This is one of the times, also, where he slips into self-help mode: "What underlies both the Christian and the Athenian approaches to celebrity is a commitment to the idea of self-improvement, as well as the belief that it is via immersion in the lives of great exemplars that we stand the richest chance of learning how to become better versions of ourselves." (p.163) It's certainly true - it'd be a rare individual who was made 'better' by someone like Kim Kardashian, say - and I love learning about facets to ancient cultures and diverse religions. But he goes on:
We should cease to treat the better celebrities like magical apparitions fit only for passive wonder or sneaky curiosity. They are ordinary humans who have achieved extraordinary feats through hard work and strategic thinking. We should treat them as case studies to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: 'What can I absorb from this person?' The interest that currently latches on to details of celebrities' clothes or diet should be channelled towards a project of growth. In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself. (p.165)
I don't disagree, yet I cringe at the idea of 'dissecting' someone in order to become a better person - maybe it's his language, but I can't help but picture scavengers picking all the meat off the bones of a once-elegant, 'worthy' beast. But then, I've never been interested in celebrity 'news' (comparisons to vultures have already been made) and it's one element of the human psyche I struggle to understand, that obsessive adoration of another. (There's definitely a similarity there between celebrities and religion, which de Botton skirts around with his own comparison.) But I definitely love to learn from others, and there are plenty of 'worthies' in the arts. I don't disagree with de Botton's encouragement to ask, in our own heads, 'what can I learn from this person?' It certainly leads to greater self-reflection and self-awareness, which wouldn't be a bad thing in general. I suppose I am well-taught in the school of scepticism, unfortunately, that I don't see his ideas taking root in modern, mainstream society. It was exactly this 'self-help' element that had me baulking at times, and makes it hard for me to write a coherent review.
A mixed bag of a book, but definitely worth reading....more
This slender book is only 180 pages, but achieves a lot in that space. It's the story of Harry Morgan who 'runs' (smuggles) rum out of Cuba and into FThis slender book is only 180 pages, but achieves a lot in that space. It's the story of Harry Morgan who 'runs' (smuggles) rum out of Cuba and into Florida, where he lives with his wife and kids. The opening sequence is a graphic and violent story, showing Harry in action in Cuba where he and his boat have been hired by an American to take fishing. On his way to meeting the man, he stops at a cafe where there's a shooting; when the man doesn't pay Morgan for the fishing trip, he's forced to take on illegal Chinese passengers to make up his losses.
In true Hemingway fashion, there's no introspective thoughts or reflection going on, only finely-detailed descriptions and a lot of dialogue. There are several more escapades that Harry is involved in, and the ending was a surprise to me because I'm so accustomed to the main characters 'winning' in the end. The story also switches from first-person narration, in the beginning (told in an anecdotal style, almost) to third-person, watching Harry from outside. The book is also very much a product of its time: if you're sensitive to the 'N' word (for African Americans), you'll have trouble here - personally, being Australian (where the N-word isn't as relevant), I did find it hard to hear the way the African Americans - young men hired by Harry to help on the boat, mostly - were referred to and talked about. They rarely had names, and a general sense of them as dexterous but unreliable animals came across strongly. But I often read with my English teacher's hat on, and on another level I find it fascinating how words so clearly convey - and betray - our attitudes, and how these have changed over time.
Towards the end, Hemingway went speculative and thoughtful, dipping into the minds and lives of several other characters on board their moored boats: again, my interest in them was focussed mostly on what they revealed about Hemingway's values and attitudes towards women, class, sexuality - there's never any point being offended, I tend to think, but you can learn a lot simply by having such attitudes rendered stark and plain.
While I've read Fiesta (or, The Sun Also Rises) twice, the only other book of his that I've read to date is one of his memoirs, True at First Light, which I really enjoyed. I think when you read Hemingway, not only can you delight in a distinctly 30s voice and style (truly, reading one of his books is like being immersed in an architectural style), but you are immersed in Hemingway, himself. There is a sense of sadness and fatalism here that surprised me, and a world-weary cynicism. Hidden beneath the laconic dialogue and unreliable characters is a more biting commentary on class, wealth, power and the effects of war. The fact that it's not very obvious makes his work more appealing to me, and reminds me that I really must read more Hemingway....more
Well, it's done. It's over. Finito. I think, after all this time, there was a part of me that never expected this series to actually end, and a part oWell, it's done. It's over. Finito. I think, after all this time, there was a part of me that never expected this series to actually end, and a part of me is in shock that it finally has. This is, after all, my absolute favourite series, a series that I have been reading since I was in primary school (the first book came out in 1988, and I read it two or three years later). Each book has required a lengthy, patient wait (George R R Martin fans think they have to wait a long time - he's got nothing on Carmody!!), and each time I have been well-rewarded for it. Because I began this series as a story-hungry, imaginative child, Carmody's words and ideas have had a long-lasting impact on me. Such is the way with childhood favourites, against which nothing negative can be said. Others I have talked to have Tolkien, To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women or some other novel that they read as a child and absorbed into their soul. For me, it was Obernewtyn and Jane Eyre. Such stories stay with you as formative parts of your childhood, woven into your DNA, there to stay.
I don't know that it's possible to write a summary of this book or discuss it without spoilers, so I will simply say that I won't give out any spoilers for this final volume, but if you haven't read the first six books, there may be spoilers.
The sixth book, The Sending, ended with Elspeth Gordie and her companions finding the Beforetime city in the desert, and being rendered unconscious by a man in a silver suit. The Red Queen begins with Elspeth rising to consciousness, and discovering that someone - the man - is trying to put her into a cryopod, for a frozen sleep. Her Talent enables her to resist it, as she is deemed an anomaly. When next she wakes, it is to find herself reunited with four of her companions inside a place called Habitat, a strange, inescapable place inhabited by a passive, highly-regulated population of people who believe everything beyond its walls is gone. They speak to God, who grants wishes, and have a unique punishment for transgressions, of which there are few.
What seems at first to be a dangerous delay in the fulfilment of Elspeth's quest, turns out to be an important step: Habitat was begun by Hannah Seraphim, one of the two women from the Beforetime who left messages, clues and artefacts that Elspeth needs in order to find and destroy Sentinel, the computermachine that controls the Balance of Terror weaponmachines that caused the first Cataclysm - or Great White as it's known. A second one, triggered by Sentinel, would destroy absolutely everything and everyone, with no chance of recovery. Elspeth was tasked with this quest at the end of the second book, The Farseekers, by the giant Agyllian birds that saved her and healed her, and have since been watching over her. Her nemesis is Ariel, a mad boy from she knew when she first arrived at Obernewtyn, now a man hungry for power working closely with anyone who can further it.
While Elspeth's quest as the Seeker is the ultimate goal, she has been closely involved in other plots along the way; in The Red Queen, it is the return of the rightful queen of the Redport, a city far from Elspeth's Land which has long been ruled by Gadfian slavetraders. As with Habitat, Elspeth isn't sure if getting involved in an uprising in Redport is a distraction, a delay or a necessary part of her quest, but as everything seems to converge there - Ariel's presence, the location of Sentinel, the final message or clue left for her by the other Beforetime woman, Cassandra - helping her friend Dragon reclaim her throne is yet another piece of the puzzle.
I was worried about the gap between this book and the previous one which, while not as lengthy as such gaps usually are in this series, was still long enough for me to feel like I'd forgotten too many details. But even though I couldn't recall every character mentioned in The Red Queen, or every plot detail in full, Elspeth provides her usual introspection and exposition, as she strives to piece things together and come to understand all the new things she's learned about her world and its past, so that I was soon refreshed and caught up. The story might be slow for some, but I find the discussion and mulling necessary - it contributes to the solid and deep world-building and adds realism, for Elspeth is truly from a place and time in which everything from Before is gone, especially knowledge, yet she is dealing with things from the past which require understanding. The divide between her and the time of the Great White is so vast, she would never be able to succeed as the Seeker without puzzling everything out. And she is the Seeker, after all. It makes the story feel less like a fast-paced action film and more like a true story, putting you right there in her head, figuring things out with her - because her Beforetime is our future, or a possible one, and certainly a plausible one.
One of the things I absolutely love about Carmody's writing is her skilful way of incorporating philosophical insights regarding humanity, our place in the world, and human interactions. In The Red Queen, the slow buildup and intensely vivid world-building takes its next and final stage in some philosophical musings on the nature of humanity's dependence on technology, and the concept of intelligent, and even feeling, technology. For the most part, Elspeth is wary of the Beforetime technology they encounter, such as God, the impressive computermachine that runs Habitat, and its two 'andrones', the silver men. (Maybe that's a slight spoiler, but this is where the reader is a step ahead of the Misfits in figuring things out - it was an easy guess that God and the 'tumen' were artificial lifeforms from the Beforetime.) With their post-apocalyptic perspective, Elspeth and her companions discuss and raise questions around the seemingly infallible nature of computer programs - never more relevant than now, it seems, as computers become such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives. As Elspeth cynically but rightly points out (and I've lost the quote, sorry), computer programs are only as good as the humans that write them - mistakes and flaws can be written in, and since humans are inherently flawed, it's to be expected. The naming of the computer 'God' at Midland seems deeply ironic. The story is not a treatise against technology, but a cautionary one reminding us that the true nature of humanity is one rich in flaws.
Another element of this story that I love is the embracing of other and diverse life forms, from the Misfits strange and wonderful Talents - including empathy, farseeking (telepathy), coercion, beastspeeking, futuretelling and healing - to the range of intelligent and feeling beasts they work alongside. Animals are drawn to Elspeth not because she's also a beastspeaker, but because she is the Elspeth Innle of a beastlegend in which she leads them to freedom from humans. A deep sense of compassion and respect for animals and the land pervades the Obernewtyn Chronicles, weaving in animal characters into the story who become just as important as the human ones.
And really, ultimately, nothing beats the sheer pleasure of watching it all come together. It's an impressive weave of story threads, as small details, foretellings, dreams, characters, chance comments and all come together and are woven in. It rather boggles my mind, the amount of planning that must go into it! It's an exciting adventure, at its heart, and an utter joy to discover how it plays out. Especially with a heroine like Elspeth, who doesn't recognise her own charisma or charm, but comes across as quite serious and blind to the deeper emotions of those around her. She is without affectation or pretension, and has the right characteristics to be able to put her own desires aside in order to save the world. She's a lonely girl/woman, and I think that's another quality that drew me to her from a young age, as an introvert myself. For the longest time, Elspeth has been like a larger-than-life figure for me, a mythological heroine, a close relative about whose exploits you hear, wide-eyed and in awe. Reaching the end of this series is harder than finishing Harry Potter, say, because of how young I was when I began, and how long it's taken to write the series. But the best thing? I can keep re-reading. I've re-read earlier books in the series several times, and they never grow old. There's so much detail in them, and the writing is so riveting, for me, that it's always like reading them fresh, even when my mind can picture where it's going next. The tension is still there, the revelations, the excitement, the joy.
If there's one series you should start that you have yet to, it's this one. It might technically be a Young Adult series, but it's only a marketing technicality. There's plenty here for all ages. Read, enjoy, and tell me what you think. Mostly I just sharing the stories I love!...more
Charlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natureCharlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, "an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and '70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men's prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence." (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years - far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated - and hated.
In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood's alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn't clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they're served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of - Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg - and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy - and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope - are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.
This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn't help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood's delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn't even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That's how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood's ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.
I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn't necessary, isn't important - that plenty of women not only don't consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. "Women are their own worst enemy" is a common enough saying - I say it myself - and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being - not just taken seriously, but treated equally.
This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood's characters, from the two main female narrators - Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense - to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she's different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn't tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other's bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, "the cardinal's girl" (and doesn't that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.
Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we're all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I'd like to think, "Oh this could never happen", a part of me doesn't really believe that.
I read this - in a day - just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs' unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from "His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze" to "this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far". That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs' case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It's telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.
But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren't for Wood's writing. While I thought her control wasn't consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla's narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:
One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer's shoulders, said irritably, 'What? We can't hear you,' and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn't see the man's swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty and light across the gravel - and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]
The contrast of Boncer's 'swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty' with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.
At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood's prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:
Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]
It is a theme I've been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women's bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women's bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I'm very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I'm resistant to Yolanda's view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman's ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:
When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]
A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control - through language more than anything else - the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus 'natural' way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation - relevant to Yolanda's increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla's ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the 'civilised' world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become 'primitive'. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.
Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you'll want to read it all the way through in one sitting - and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, but 'comparison' is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence....more
The four friends in A Little Life are JB, a black, gay artist; Malcolm, a part-black, well-off architect; Willem, a handsome actor; and Jude, a lawyerThe four friends in A Little Life are JB, a black, gay artist; Malcolm, a part-black, well-off architect; Willem, a handsome actor; and Jude, a lawyer with a tortured past. While the story follows their friendship from the time after graduating from university through to their middle years, the novel is really about Jude: his past, his secrets, his deep friendship with Willem, the scars on his psyche. I loved the first few hundred pages, which are full of detail and the characters' neuroses (it has a distinctly New York flavour to it, this book). After a while, though, it started to get a monotonous tone to it - the characters never seem to change or develop all that much, and I think the subtleties of individuals as they traverse the decades was somewhat lost. Interspersed with their story are scenes from Jude's past, and finally, finally, we learn the whole sordid, twisted, cruel details of what he has endured. Yanagihara gives no quarter and does not spare her readers' feelings. It's not easy reading, and with it comes that bigger truth: there are kids everywhere going through things like this, all the time, invisible.
There's nothing invisible about Jude, though. While he has injuries to his legs that makes him almost crippled, he draws the love and respect of others around him with his quiet intelligence. I can imagine him quite well, and what captivates others, but after a while it is hard to believe that they would stick by him as they do, with such utter love and strength of will. But that's ultimately what the novel is, a story of love and loyalty. The love between men, especially, is celebrated here, enlarged and engorged as it is. After learning the full truth of Jude's past, however, the last two hundred pages were a real slog. I have trouble reading about characters who are, for want of a better term, self-indulgent, and it's a shameful truth that Jude's wallowing self-hate became tiresome to read. For the whole of the novel he's on a path to self-annihilation, and while he becomes a respected and hugely successful lawyer and finds some happiness, you always know it's just a matter of time: his past has so permanently shaped him, scarred him, that there can be no real recovery.
This emotional and confronting book is worth reading, even if I do think it could have been shorter. It is certainly memorable in its deeply tragic nature, and at times, a real page-turner. I do love an intense book that leaves me conflicted and engages so deeply with my emotions; I just wish the characters weren't quite so two-dimensional and so full of unconditional love. But that's just me. ...more
Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy by Pat Barker, first published in 1991 (my edition: 2008) but set during World War One and featuring charaRegeneration is the first book in a trilogy by Pat Barker, first published in 1991 (my edition: 2008) but set during World War One and featuring characters based on real historical figures. That is to say, I would hope you've heard of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, well-known war poets. This historical fiction novel is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917; this is the hospital for convalescing soldiers suffering from a range of physical and mental ailments go to recover. The final line of the blurb sums it up well: "Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men." The story is told from the perspectives of Sassoon, an officer and recipient of medals who has become a pacifist - being sent to Craiglockhart was a favour done by a friend; the alternative was a court martial; and Dr William Rivers, a psychiatrist who, officially, must always support the war effort and the government's propaganda, but who is finding it increasingly hard to send these men back to the front.
One of the delights of this book - and for a book about the tragedy and hypocrisy of war, there are many delights to be found - is the subtle exploration of people's attitudes about the war, the propaganda associated with it, and the idea of silence. In a way, these men were sent to this hospital to silence them - they were neither seen nor heard, a perfect place for someone like Sassoon. Barker has written it in a voice distinctive to the time and place, and the sense of a 'boys' club' comes across clearly - and of boys playing at war (I'm referring to the men in charge, here, too). What really drew me in, though, is the characters: a diverse, eclectic mix of men, some of them suffering from terrible post-traumatic stress disorders, who are brought vividly alive and given that otherwise-silenced voice by Barker. This is a powerful novel, both sad and uplifting, that fascinates and captivates while, ultimately, stripping the glory used to sell war and presenting us with the human side of conflict. A must-read, and one I'd love to re-read already....more
I picked this up because of the Tasmanian setting, but it didn't hurt that chocolate was in the title!
The main character is Christmas Livingstone whoI picked this up because of the Tasmanian setting, but it didn't hurt that chocolate was in the title!
The main character is Christmas Livingstone who runs a chocolate shop in Evandale (Evandale is an old, historic colonial town outside Launceston - a delight if you haven't visited). Her life is rigidly ruled by ten commandments, the last of which is "Absolutely no romantic relationships". Christmas has been burned in the past: she had an affair with a tennis pro, got pregnant and was ditched; then she lost the baby. Now she takes solace in The Chocolate Apothecary, and has a strong belief in the medicinal value of chocolate. All's well until she meets Lincoln van Luc, a botanist who has worked for cacao companies in South America and is writing a book on the plant. His publisher wants him to make it more readable and suggests a ghost writer; he teams up with Christmas who incorporates her own perspective on chocolate into the manuscript. Their meetings show their ease with each other, as well as reveal some sexual tension: could Christmas break one of her rules? The story takes a turn when Christmas goes to Paris for several weeks, mostly to take part in a famous chocolate workshop, which gives her the time to mull things over a bit and think about her priorities.
I enjoyed the first third of this novel more than the last third, when it seemed to lose steam. I loved the descriptions of Evandale and the quirky characters who come into her shop. I loved being able to recognise references to localities that I'm familiar with. Moon doesn't live here but she did a relatively good job of faking it. I loved Lincoln's grandmother and her match-making attempts, and the conflicts with another old biddy at the home. There are nice moments of humour and ridiculousness - including the master chocolate maker and chocolatier in France - and even the poor dog Lincoln ends up adopting. There are issues with Lincoln's dad and Christmas's mum, and other little details that really bring the characters to life.
Perhaps my slight struggle was partly due to the writing, or the pacing, or the plotting. The construction of the story waxed and waned, and while it wasn't a slow or arduous read by any means, it wasn't always engaging. That might also be to do with Christmas - I tend to struggle with these characters who live by a list of rules, which seems an all-too-common trope of chick-lit. I can't really relate, and Christmas struck me as rather uptight. I'd also like to know how her 'fairy godmother' thing worked - sounded like a full-time job to me, and one of the only unrealistic notes in the book. Still, I don't really have any complaints, it's more that it didn't have enough spice to keep me wholly engaged....more
Jimmy Flick is a special boy, both deeply observant and astute, yet slow to grasp the world in the terms everyone else uses. At times he can be too muJimmy Flick is a special boy, both deeply observant and astute, yet slow to grasp the world in the terms everyone else uses. At times he can be too much, and only his mother - his obese, deeply loving mother Paula who suffers from severe asthma - can stop the spinning and make his 'network' slow down. They live in the suburb of Altona in Melbourne's west. His father, Gavin, works at the oil refinery, cleaning the rust from inside the pipes; at home he drinks whisky, which turns him sour. His older brother Robby - his mother's first miracle - is barely present and, as soon as he can, gone. Through Jimmy's eyes and in his voice this small world of troubled love and violence, alcohol and silence becomes one too big for Jimmy. With his unique way of seeing the world, Jimmy discovers that everything comes back to his dad, that the lines of love that connect and tether Jimmy start with his father - if only he can reach him.
Quite possibly, there are readers who are turned off a book when they hear it's narrated in a child's voice, and one on the spectrum especially; perhaps leery of a developing fad in fiction, or that it might wear thin. I haven't read many such novels - maybe I am unconsciously leery, myself - but I found Jimmy's voice so nicely pitched, accessible and 'real', and Jimmy's experiences so heartfelt in their simplicity and realism, that I felt instantly drawn to him and so exquisitely - even painfully - present in his life. The setting was starkly drawn, and perhaps dependent on a reader's sense of 1980s Australian suburbia, but it was the Flick family who filled the pages with life.
Paula Flick is the heart of the family, a large woman with a great deal of patience and a tonne of love, who soldiers on and tries to support her husband, even when he hits her. Gav is your typical working man, and one of the things Laguna did so well in The Eye of the Sheep was in depicting Gav as a man you can't help but feel sympathetic towards. They are all victims here, of their own upbringing, of their working-class state and low education attainment, so that when Gav loses his job he has nothing. Laguna, through Jimmy's beautiful, innocent voice, shows the depths to Gavin, his struggles, his capacity for love and his fears. You can despise him for his weakness, which manifests in drinking and domestic abuse, but you can also see the damage done by his own father, by silence, by the working class culture even. There's a dignity to Gav that comes through, at times of peace, and there's nobility too. Most importantly is that need, in Jimmy, to have his father's love.
'Take a breath, son.' Dad took hold of my hands and pulled me down under where it was quiet and the movement slow. I opened my eyes and he looked soft, made of water, like me. We were one thing, connected by our hands to our arms leading to the rest of our bodies. I had begun with him and he ended with me. Waves couldn't break it, Cutty Sark [whisky] couldn't, Merle couldn't, Mum couldn't; nothing could. I felt the wave passing over the top give us one quick pull, then we burst up into the sun. Dad let go of my hands, and the world above the water was shining and foaming with light and change. [pp.133-4]
This is a novel that I can to my list of books written in past tense that reads like present tense - just to remind people that past tense is, truly, the better tense to write in, the most versatile. I'm still waiting for the fad of present tense to end, and for people to realise that, like brown shag carpet and orange floral wallpaper, some things are best forgotten.
The blurb implied a tragedy, with the words "when Jimmy's life falls apart", so for much of the book I was tensely waiting for something truly awful to happen, as something always does in these kinds of stories. Yet when the 'something awful' finally did happen, it slipped in with a gentle quietness that made it both unbearably sad and inevitable. That was only the first time I cried while reading this novel; it wasn't the last. Laguna has done great things with pitch, pacing and tone, with Jimmy's distinctive (and not at all annoying) voice, as she accompanies him from the age of six to eleven. She brings us along, right there in his head, seeing the world as he sees it, seeing people with incredibly yet naive insight, and it's a beautiful piece of work, worthy of the prize it has won this year....more