1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and unacknowledged. Twenty-three year old Riley Purefoy lost half his jaw in the war; the artificial replacement helps hold his face together and is healing well, but he can't chew food or speak clearly. Still, Riley considers himself one of the lucky ones, and not just because all his limbs are in working order and his brain isn't muddled. He's just got married to Nadine, his fiancée from before the war, who served as a nurse on the front. While Riley comes from a working-class background, Nadine's parents are upper class, and as much as they've always liked Riley, they don't much care for the idea of their only child marrying a disabled veteran with no work skills or prospects.
Riley tries to find work, but he's just one of many unemployed young man missing body parts. Yet his determination not to live off Nadine's parents drives him to persevere, and make his own path.
In contrast, his commanding officer from the war, Peter Locke, returns from the war haunted by the overwhelming loss of life, all the men under his command who didn't make it. The list of names feels immense, and Peter soon turns to alcohol in order to endure. His wife is no help: Julia was raised by a domineering monster of a woman who made her understand that her only value was in her looks, so in order to be what she thought Peter wanted, she underwent a facial treatment that's left her face looking like a mask: white, immobile, false. Julia is ill-equipped to live with this new version of Peter, or their three-year-old son, Tom, who was whisked away by Julia's mother after his birth. Not knowing how to be a mother to Tom, or a wife or even friend to Peter, her plaintive, melodramatic behaviour quickly drives them both away. And now that Nadine and Riley are married and off on their honeymoon, the household only has Peter's cousin Rose to keep it sane.
Rose, however, has the opportunity to train as a doctor, an opportunity she wants with heart and soul. Never married and now never likely to be, medicine is the one thing she cares about - aside from her cousin and his family. Now she must make a decision, to put her own life ahead of someone else's and sacrifice her dream, or to stay and help.
From March to December, 1919, The Heroes' Welcome follows the paths of these five men and women as they struggle to build a life and a future while they mourn for all that's been lost.
There is always a "right" time to read a book, when your mind and emotions are aligned with a book's mood and tone and content, when your own mind is receptive and open to the story that wants to be heard. As interested as I am in World War One stories - stories about the first half of the twentieth-century interest me greatly - this was not, unfortunately, as it turned out, the right time for me to read this book. I kept picking it up, telling myself, Now, now, now I will start it; reading the first few paragraphs that describe Riley's injury, his face and what he's had to adapt to, I had to keep putting it down. The trouble way, I'd just finished reading Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man - a heavy non-fiction expository book - and was reading another about a man with mental health problems who abducts a girl, plus I'd just watched Sophie Scholl, a World War II story that made me cry buckets, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and in need of something light and fun. The Heroes' Welcome felt like the last nail in the coffin of my emotional well-being (that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there are other things going on at the time that were making me feel this way).
All of that aside, I did find this to be a very readable novel, and certainly a very memorable one. Not enough stories get written about life after the war - we tend to skip a few years and go straight to the heady, exciting, liberating Twenties. No one received counselling or support after the First World War; likewise, no one seemed to want to hear about the struggles of the survivors through fiction. This story felt raw and true and honest, just one story among many possibles that could have been told but no less real for that. It is a sequel to a novel I haven't read, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, but it didn't make a difference: anything you need to know in order to understand these characters and their stories is provided. And aside from the sense that they have considerable shared history that I wasn't privy to, it didn't really feel like I was missing out for not having read the first book.
This is a depressing tale, though: the story of Julia affected me deeply and on top of all the sad stories I'd been reading and watching at the time, it felt like one sad story too many. Perhaps its that element of realism, but this didn't read like a story of hope to me, but one of struggle. Riley's industry, pro-activeness and pragmatic outlook help considerably in balancing out Peter's self-indulgent (yet still understandable) melancholy, depression, and general stubbornness to move on with his life. The two are opposite ends of a pendulum with a narrow swing. Their wives - and Rose - also present drastically different perspectives. Julia is the wife who stayed behind, who has no idea how to do anything let alone look after a small child and a mentally ill husband who shuns her. Yet of all of them, Julia goes through the most in terms of metamorphosis, which is why what happens is all the more heartbreaking. You come to care for her, shifting from scornful pity to sympathy and then to empathy. Of them all, Nadine was the least well-developed, and a little too perfect, but it was Tom, the child, who, while being thinly sketched, hit the hardest: my own son is three, nearly four, as I write this, and the neglect that Tom experiences was painful to read.
At times, the prose style felt too static, too constrained. The omniscient narrator describes almost endlessly, and left too little for me to but endure. The writing flowed, the story flowed, and you certainly get swept along - almost, slightly, with that 'train wreck' sensation, that fascination with the macabre that continues to appeal to us - but at the same time it never relaxes into the telling, never relinquishes control or trusts the reader to understand these characters on their own.
This was an emotional read, an intense and often upsetting story that I can't imagine myself ever forgetting. That's something I always want from fiction, that evidence of a connection and a good story told well. These people felt real, their stories like true reflections of real ones. For all that, though, it lacked that organic touch: the third-person omniscient narrator was just too intrusive for me. That's an element of the story that I don't think I would have reacted to any differently, had I read this at a different time.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours...more
According to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The subAccording to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The sub-genre is described thus: "Although it deals with the themes of horror, mystery and the uncanny, Tasmanian Gothic literature and art differs from traditional European Gothic Literature, which is rooted in medieval imagery, crumbling Gothic architecture and religious ritual. Instead, the Tasmanian gothic tradition centres on the natural landscape of Tasmania and its colonial architecture and history." This is the first time I've heard the term 'Tasmanian Gothic' but it clicked instantly - it's the perfect way to neatly capture the atmosphere and essence of Danielle Wood's haunting and beautiful first novel.
The present-day portions of the novel are set largely on Bruny Island, in the south of Tasmania, in 1999. Essie Lewis, only child of a university professor who's gone 'walkabout' on a global scale, and a mother who died of cancer when Essie was young, was brought up between her father, an environmentalist, and her grandfather, a successful businessman in hydro-electricity who began life in poverty. From her grandfather, Charlie, she learns stories from the past, pieces of her ancestors and others. When Charlie dies, in 1999, Essie puts her life as a marine scientist in Perth on hold, takes Charlie's ute and drives to Bruny Island, where she rents one of the shacks by the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather was superintendent in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
She has a key to the lighthouse, now disused in favour of a more modern version nearby, and during the next several cold months, she spends a lot of time up by the light, with the postcard photo of a young Alva, a girl - her great-great-grandparents' daughter - who was born here. Alva looks just like Essie, and ever since Essie saw the picture when she was a child, she's been drawn to her long-dead relative. Now, using the bits and pieces of stories from her grandfather, her great-great-grandfather's log books, and some random things bequeathed to her by Charlie - among them a carved coconut; a tiny coin; a stone seamed in bright quartz and mica and bits of garnet; and a coiled plait of pale hair - Essie writes Alva's story, a story that Essie starts to recognise is really her own.
Also on the island is Pete Shelverton, a man also trying to find a measure of peace within himself. A chance meeting between Pete and Essie rekindles an old friendship that goes back to when they were children, but some history seems too hard to surmount, or escape.
At its heart, this is a story about belonging, and place, and time. As such, it's a deeply moving, beautiful, haunting book, a story that artfully, even subtly, bridges the gaps of time. Essie is uprooted, aimless, un-anchored. While she has an apartment in Perth, she has recently broken up with her boyfriend, David, and has no real attachment to the city. She likes things clean, sterile almost, and minimalist. She likes things to match, and colours to complement. She's organised, and introspective, and hard to reach, emotionally. She misses her mother, but it's as if her father doesn't like to share his grief over her passing; for several years after her mother died, Essie didn't speak. At the lighthouse on Bruny Island, she becomes hermit-like and absorbed in the past, and the act of creation, of bringing Alva to life. In the process, she feels close to truths her grandfather wouldn't have told her.
Likewise, Peter is a loner, a man who is content in his own company and solitude, who has spent months at a time on Macquarie Island, south of Tasmania, hunting the feral cats that live there and decimate the wildlife. After one such stint, he came home to discover his girlfriend couldn't, and didn't, wait for him. He waits eagerly, impatiently and with a sense of anxiety for word to come from the department, to hear he will be going back in September. Once he encounters Essie, though, things slowly start to shift inside him. Both Essie and Pete subconsciously recognise that it is through our relationships with others, especially real, deep and intimate relationships, that we find our sense of place and belonging.
The Cape Bruny lighthouse is one I've visited, incidentally, many many years ago: it's not something you're likely to forget any time, because it's at the edge of a promontory, perched above jagged, black, precipitous cliffs against which the sea violently hurls itself. I remember looking down at those thundering waves and feeling so incredibly insignificant, so incredibly mortal and fragile. It wasn't a particularly cold or overcast day, but this spot seemed to hold its own, stormier weather. This is my memory, at least, but aside from a mention of cliffs, this image doesn't feature in The Alphabet of Light and Dark. (I actually started to wonder whether I'd confused it with some other lighthouse, somewhere else in the state, but after a quick search online I found this picture that somewhat confirmed it, though it's probably that my memory has bridged gaps and isn't wholly accurate. That in itself is quite fascinating, though, and ties into the concept of the Gothic nicely: that I would associate such turbulent waters and cliffs with a colonial lighthouse.)
The lighthouse itself acts like a touchstone, a solid colonial object of mystery and romance, of light and dark (the 'alphabet of light and dark' is, literally, explained as the spaces between flashes - each lighthouse is different, so you can identify, at night, which lighthouse you're near [p.128]). I 'waxed lyrical' on lighthouses and what they symbolise in my recent review of The Light Between Oceans, so I'll point you in that direction rather than repeat myself here - suffice it to say, that the lighthouse serves much the same purpose here. Now with the added perspective of the 'Tasmanian gothic', the lighthouse takes on another layer - or really, everything about lighthouses can be summed up by the term. For Essie, it's a place of comfort, too. A true anchor in her mourning and sense of floating. Pete is the one who keeps it clean, coming every couple of weeks to keep the dust away; for him, too, it's an emblem of stability, routine, predictability. A lighthouse is a sign of civilisation, both literally and symbolically.
The novel touches upon the original Aboriginal inhabitants, and the idea that 'they walk no more upon this isle'. Now and again Pete - a descendent himself - hears typical racist comments, usually along the lines of Aboriginals getting government handouts once they claim ancestry. It isn't a central topic, more of a complimentary theme: the Aboriginals too, like Essie, have been displaced, dispossessed, no longer - often - have a place they can properly 'belong' to. Here in Tasmania, we have been taught for so long that all the Tasmanian Aboriginals were wiped out, that Truganini was the last Aboriginal, full stop. And so, when we started rewriting that 'fact', acknowledging all the descendants, many people refused to shift their thinking and view these people with great suspicion. We're no less racist here in Tassie than on the mainland, when it comes to the Indigenous population. It was a soft, complementary touch on the part of Wood, a lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, to include them - part of me wanted it to be more prominent, to matter more, because I love stories about Indigenous issues etc. and learning from them - but I have to also acknowledge that having it as a shadow (again, that 'light and dark' theme) worked quite beautifully. After all, it is Essie's story, a colonial story, first and foremost. The Aboriginal story is part of it, a dark part, but not the whole of it.
The theme of place, and belonging, was strong here. When Essie goes to Scotland with David, prior to the 'present day' events of the novel, she has a moment I could completely identify with:
Essie is separated from [Alva] by time, but in space, she is intimately close, patrolling her walls, stepping through them like a ghost. It makes her feel giddy. She has to sit down on the cold stone, drop her head between her knees to stop herself from fainting. [...] She had felt it another time, too. In Scotland. She had gone with David to a conference in Glasgow. On the way, they had stopped in the city of Edinburgh and walked the steep streets up out of the cavity of the railway station into the city, dense and blackened with age. She looked down and there, carved squarely into the paving stone beneath her feet, was the inscription:
This is my own, my native land. --Walter Scott
Essie had needed to reach out to David to stop herself from falling in the Alice-hole that opened up there in the pavement, a core cut through centuries of Picts, Celts, Angles, Norsemen, all the way to infinity. Imagine that kind of belonging, she had said to David, breathless. He had not understood. [p.72]
I have felt that, and you have to love it when some surprising little detail in a novel leaps out at you like that and instantly connects you to a character. I tried to articulate it in a post I wrote late last year, on Tassie's colonial past and our persevering connection to it - why we love our old heritage buildings, etc. I think Essie captured it well. It's based around a shared culture, which is also why there's a disconnect between us (speaking as a white descendent of British settlers etc.), and the Aboriginals. I have lately been looking at prominent landmarks (since so much else has been changed, disfigured or removed altogether), like mountains and rivers, and trying to imagine Aboriginals there, back before we arrived. It is hard, though. It is so much easier to feel connected - to feel the absence of time within a place - when visiting a colonial heritage site, for instance.
The one thing I disliked, or that irked me, with The Alphabet..., was the use of present tense in the Essie and Pete chapters. It didn't seem like a good fit, it felt a bit stilted and awkward, even when the actual phrases, imagery and language was beautiful, and resonated. But then, the use of present tense has become a real fad in the last, oh, five or so years? and I'm completely and thoroughly sick of it. It's also not a very good tense to use - it's limiting, it's tricky to get right, and it often has the opposite effect from the intended one (it's primary use in fiction is to remove a sense of time, to make the story feel present and the ending unpredictable - for example, theoretically, if you have a first-person narrator and you use present tense, you could kill the character off, something that is illogical when using past tense). Past tense is a stronger, more versatile tense to use, and can achieve the same effect of timelessness and being 'in the now' that present tense should. This book pre-dates the fad, and uses it in a literary sense, but it's an ambitious tense for a first novel. It altered the tone, kept me at a distance I didn't feel was necessary, and, to me anyway, didn't achieve the desired effect.
That is my only real complaint. Otherwise, this is a truly beautiful book, full of rich description, a vivid sense of the past, and characters who felt alive. The atmosphere is imbued with this sense of a Tasmanian Gothic - a sense I'm grateful to have a name for, now. It is a story in which characters 'find themselves' by facing the past: a classic formula, because there's so much truth in it. As Charlie, Essie's grandfather, insists, 'the way things are now rested on the way things were.' [p.55] In order to understand what is, you have to understand what was. Essie's obsession with Alva provides her with a way to handle her own feelings about her parents and grandparents, the animosity between her father and Charlie, her mother's death. And Pete.
As I write this, I'm almost overcome with an urge to re-read the novel, right now. That doesn't happen very often. This is a story about stories, a story about connections across place and time, a story about finding your place in the world - and how you never really stop looking for it. A wonderful glimpse into the colonial past within the natural beauty of the Tasmanian coast, I highly recommend The Alphabet of Light and Dark....more
There is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. IThere is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. It is of immense importance to keep the past alive through personal, human stories, in the hopes that we will be better prepared, better able to spot such atrocities today and in the future. Sadly we've seen that this is a nice theory that doesn't play out; however it's important to keep trying.
One area of WWII that is less explored but equally important are stories from the non-Jewish perspective, stories about Nazi soldiers or ordinary German civilians, stories about others who also experienced the war but in different ways. The Paris Architect adds to this meagre slice of historical fiction pie with its story of a French gentile and architect, Lucien Bernard, who has no particular feelings either way about the Jews - though when pressed, he's no "Jew-lover" - but seeks to get by under German occupation.
In a strained and childless marriage to Celeste, and a social-climber mistress, Adele, on the side, Lucien's big ambition in life is to have one of his designs built in Paris for all to see. The occupation has made much of life and work in the city stall, but there are also surprising opportunities as well. The Germans are building infrastructure - factories to make the weapons used against the Allies - on French soil, working with well-established French businessmen and unpaid forced labour to get their projects built fast. Lucien is approached by one such businessman, an old man called Manet, who has a frightening proposal. Flattering Lucien's skills and vanity and appealing to a sense of moral rightness that Lucien doesn't feel he possesses, Manet dangles the promise of hiring Lucien to build a big munitions factory if he will also design an ingenious hiding place for a wealthy Jew being hunted by the Gestapo.
It isn't a sense of empathy for the Jews that leads Lucien to take on the task, one that could see him tortured and killed. It's the challenge, the vanity, of besting others that leads Lucien to agree to Manet's terms despite his incredible fear. Lucien isn't interested in dying for a cause. He wants to live, survive the war, and prosper too. Architecture is more important to him than anything else in his life.
But as Manet continues to ask Lucien to design more hiding places for terrified Jews, and Lucien even meets one of the men he's helping, something in him begins to change. The Jews become human beings, and the matter of hiding them, helping them survive and escape, becomes deeply personal. But as the Gestapo cotton on to the hiding places and begin torturing builders and craftsmen for information, the net starts to tighten around Lucien and Manet. How much longer before connections are made, and their time is up?
The Paris Architect is a wonderful story, a fresh take on the story of German occupation in France, the plight of Jews and life for non-Jews under the occupation. Lucien is one of those flawed characters who is undeniably, realistically human - the kind of person you can relate to because his concerns, his fears, his sense of morality are, lets be honest, the norm. Whether it's World War II or today, most of us would be just like Lucien, regardless of how much we'd like to think we'd do better, be better. Human nature trumps in survival cases. If we already ignore people who are suffering in times of peace, why would we think we'd be any better in times of war and terror?
Yet Lucien also shows that you can make choices and change. You can decide what you want to stand for, what's worth fighting for - and dying for. The tension in this novel is palpable, aided by gruesome scenes of torture by the Gestapo on French civilians. From a craftsmanship angle, a more subtle technique ("less is more") would have been just as affective, if not more so. The problem with Belfoure's scenes of torture is that it's hard to write such scenes, especially in a readable novel like this (as opposed to a more "literary" style, as much as I hate using that term), without sliding into cheese. I'm not sure that Belfoure was quite successful in getting into the minds of Gestapo officers - can't really fault him for that - but in the absence of true insight or understanding, the tension and genuine fear can be created in other, more convincing ways. The Gestapo officers began to sound like clichéd film villains in silly action movies - a Stallone cheesefest from the 80s, that kind of thing.
Belfoure was clearly more comfortable with the civilian characters, and developed Lucien into a believable, sympathetic character even when he's not all that likeable. The fact that he matures and becomes, for want of a less corny expression, a "better person", absolves him of his earlier vanity and ego. Not to mention that he's quite honest with himself about his vanity and ego.
There's a lot to learn from The Paris Architect - about daily life under occupation, about architecture and, especially, about human nature. Not always predictable, the tension and drama propels the story forwards to a fitting climax. At its heart, The Paris Architect is about the small deeds of courage and conscience that people are capable of in times of oppression and fear. While the self-policing conducted by French citizens on each other - spying on their neighbours, reporting people to the police to protect themselves - is unflattering, it serves to make those smaller, sometimes barely visible deeds all the more important. If I can bastardise a quote from Othello for a moment here, I would say that people like Lucien and Bette lived "not wisely, but too well." The point being, they lived, and they lived a life they could be proud of by making choices that weren't wise in the circumstances, but were worth it.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that thIt is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal - first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won't be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy's mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn't quite make up for her mother's absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn't until she starts a new school year at her small town's middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn't want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn't beside Melissa's anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she's sick - cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy's life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it's a shock when her father moves on with his life - and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy's mother isn't someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It's clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It's hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he's both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn't want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a "broken home" with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father's decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don't talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What's interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father's genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it's not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn't make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn't have a mother for so long, she doesn't know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa's vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It's hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her - since she listened to her so much - and might have ended up even less likeable. It's an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can't read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy's voice - she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I'm coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child's voice, rather than an adult's voice reliving a child's perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you're reading about someone who's development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How's that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves - I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can't resist any story with "bees" in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa's youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia - as these things do - I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That's always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it's that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I'm always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I'm left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
1974, Bittercreek, Alberta. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami is the youngest of three children born to Japanese-Canadian parents who have an ostrich farm i1974, Bittercreek, Alberta. Eight-year-old Egg Murakami is the youngest of three children born to Japanese-Canadian parents who have an ostrich farm in outside this small prairie town. Her older sister, seventeen-year-old Kathy, is a star basketball player and often impatient with Egg, but she is also Egg's de facto mother figure now that their older brother, Albert, is dead. Their mother remains gentle and kind, but loses herself in poorly-hidden alcohol, while their taciturn father never leaves the barn where the ostrich's live. He eats there, and sleeps on a camp bed, while their mother sends food over.
Egg doesn't know why or how Albert died. She understands that it was a tragedy, but she doesn't really understand why it seems shrouded in shame. It's September, and a new school year is starting. Kathy is itching to get out of the town, but is torn by her responsibilities to her family, especially Egg. Egg is full of curiosity, bursting with interesting facts about ostriches, and excited about her new Six Million Dollar Man lunch tin. But living in a small country town, and looking the way she does, with onigiri in her lunch tin, Egg is bullied at school, especially by Martin Fisken. She finds peace and a measure of safety in the school library, where Miss Evangeline Granger offers some welcome kindness.
Full of curiosity, wonder and loneliness, Egg struggles to make sense of her small but complicated world. As certain pivotal details come to light, Egg tries to make things right in the only way she can think of.
Prairie Ostrich is easily one of the best books I've read this year. Kobayashi has deftly captured Egg's unique, eight-year-old voice and brought the girl to life with a mother's tender touch. There is both a sense of Egg as a heart-breakingly isolated, fragile and lonely child, emotionally neglected by her parents and essentially left to fend for herself, and also one of a resilient, curious, thoughtful being full of wonder for the world. In the year after Albert's death, Egg's parents have lost themselves to their sorrow, and the resulting neglect - there and yet not there - is heartbreaking and tragic, and also horrible.
Mama cries, Mama cries but Egg cannot go to her. Egg is frozen, like the Vast Open Plains of the Northern Tundra. First day of school and Albert was not with them. Albert will never be with them. He has been dead for three months, two weeks, and five days - such a long, long time. Now they are all broken apart and Mama's lost and drifting and all the king's horses and all the king's men will never be able to put them back together again.
Egg runs back to her room, to her bed. She pulls the covers over her head. She does not want to see, she does not want to hear. She feels her heart shrivel up in her chest, a small, hard thing, not like the blue whale at all. The blue whale will not help her; not even the speed of light will bring Albert back. She curls and tucks her knees up to her chin and thinks of the stolen mints from the drawer, the matches from her Papa's tool box. She cannot be good. And if she is not good, then she is damned.
Egg knows that Mama wants Albert. But Egg is alive and Albert isn't. [pp.40-1]
Prairie Ostrich deals with the Murakami family's sorrow in the same subtle, wrenching way it deals with all the other serious issues in the book: homophobia, xenophobia, love, friendship, bullying, fear. Egg has Kathy to look out for her, but Kathy has her own life to lead too, and can't always be there. Nor does Egg want Kathy to sacrifice her dreams for Egg's sake. Egg is such a self-contained little soul, full of interesting facts and perceptive insights into the people around her. The reader understands what's going on better than Egg, yet there is plenty that is obscured from the reader as well, so that you are on a journey of discovery along with her.
In the Greek myths, sometimes the monster was once a mortal who became horrible through a punishment. But that didn't solve the evil. It just made it huge. Maybe that's where all the bad comes from, Egg things, a bad so big that it bursts out of nowhere. And then she thinks of Papa, his exile in the ostrich barn. What bad did he do? [p.132]
I was left gutted by this beautiful novel, the prose poetic and so precise. Full of imagery and quiet, tender moments punctuated by tension, the threat of discovery, the fear of being hurt. So subtle, yet so vivid.
Egg looks back at her sister, at Stacey, who waits on the sidelines. The late autumn light blazes behind them, two silhouettes made smaller by the crush of the sky. Kathy holds the ball in her hands, standing in the free throw circle. Egg watches, waits for her sister to take that shot. But the shot never comes. Why, Egg wonders, why is Kathy just standing here? Egg feels a sudden sense of things beyond her grasp. She wants to call out to her sister, to shout some warning, for Kathy seems so lost and alone. But Kathy is not alone. Stacey slowly walks onto the court. It seems to Egg that it takes Stacey a long time to reach her sister. Kathy, head down, stares at the ground, her body small, as if she has folded something precious, tucked it up inside herself and hidden it away. She stands so still. But Stacey just walks out to Kathy and places her hands on Kathy's face, brings her chin up. Egg sees the ball fall away, bump bump bump bump bump. It rolls unevenly across the court.
The afternoon light, the shift and flare. Egg can't tell exactly what she has seen. [pp.46-7]
Egg questions, philosophises, observes, tries to make logic out of human nature. She's in a harsh world, a small and small-minded world, set in a vast, open landscape. It is not hard to see how small these characters are, against such a backdrop. Full of pop culture references that draw upon the things that interest Egg, she tries to make sense of her world in the only way she can, and in the process I saw some things in a new and interesting light.
Superman works alone. He has a cape and everything. His only weakness is kryptonite, from his home planet of Krypton. Superman, exiled, saved from his dying world by his mother and father, who loved him, loved him more than anything, loved him and sacrificed themselves so that he could be saved. Egg puzzles this over. What does it mean when your greatest vulnerability comes from those you love the best? His fortress is called Solitude. The strongest man alive and he is still lonely.
Egg thinks Rumpelstiltskin wanted to be found. It must be lonely sometimes, spinning straw into gold, in the middle of a dark forest. He didn't want to hide anymore. She thinks he just wanted a family and maybe if someone knew him by his true name, they would love him. It's like hide-and-seek and you wait and wait and if no one comes, that is sad. If someone comes, your stomach squishes, and then - ta-da! - what a relief! But if you hide and hide and then finally someone sees you as you really are and they don't love you, that is the worst thing. That is the worst. [p.179]
This short novel is, in a way, a coming-of-age story for the whole Murakami family - what a shame you can't say the same thing about the townspeople. Recapturing the 70s with wonderful detail, Kobayashi writes with skill and perception, so much so that the story feels faintly autobiographical - I can certainly imagine the author drawing heavily on her own experiences, but I don't know much about her so I could just be reading into it. Egg certainly feels like one of the most alive characters I've read in a long time, and it's that quality of realism that makes her story punch so hard. It feels so true, you can touch the sharp jagged edges of her life, hear the whisper of air on the prairie, see the ostrich feathers ruffle, and feel the ostracism Egg experiences. It's hard to get my head around how people could treat a child so dismissively, or harshly, simply based on how she looks. Yet it happens all the time, and with ease. In this, Kobayashi's novel is a timeless portrait of small-town fear, the confusion of childhood, the pain of discovering your sexuality can be used against you, as a teenager.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
In 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A lonIn 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A long-time theatre appreciator who's never seen a play, it takes a chance encounter with two people about his own age, Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley, to motivate him into quitting his clerk job and leaving his parents behind to embark on his own life. His mother has been locked up in the mental asylum in Seston since Luke was five; he visits her often and resents his father, a Polish migrant who once flew fighter planes in World War II, for never seeing her or talking to her. He takes the train to London and calls the one person he knows there: Paul.
Paul is not much past twenty but doesn't want to be the engineer his father pushed him to be. He wants to be a producer. Now with Luke on side, a plan begins to take shape and a fledgling theatre company arises. With several others, they form Graft, a small, artsy theatre above a pub. When handsome, charming Luke sleeps with the stage manager and then doesn't talk to her again, she leaves and they hire Leigh. The same spark of familiarity, connection and desire that was there when they first met is still alive, but Luke is taking the admonishment of not sleeping with the stage manager to heart, and steps back. Paul fills the gap, and after a while of dating him Leigh moves in to their flat and the three settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Also in London is Nina, a young actress trying to break in. Raised mostly by her absent (and unknown) father's sister, her mother has been the dominant presence in her life. An actress who didn't want the burden of raising a child she didn't want, Marianne is selfish and egotistical. All Nina has ever wanted is her mother's love and approval; she'll do anything and become anything to make her mother happy. That's how she finds herself going to drama school, even though she's so shy, and how she became a shell of a person easily sculpted by anyone dominant and confident enough to take on the task. Which is what happens when she meets Tony Moore, a producer and one of her mother's young ex-lovers. Tony arranges her, dresses her and trains her like something between a doll and a pet. Nina hides so deeply behind a blank - appeasing and pleasing - mask that it's not long before any vestige of an individual person able to break free and create a life for herself is gone.
It's at the performance of In Custody, a heavy play in which Nina stars, that Luke first really sees her. Barefoot, blind-folded and gagged, she comes onto the stage after an intense, dark opening in which the sounds of heavy doors opening and slamming shut can be heard. The experienced is terrifying for Luke, whose mother has been locked up for so long; when he sees vulnerable Nina, when her face is bared to him, he sees a frightened young woman who needs to be freed.
It is Luke's all-consuming love for Nina, and the affair they embark upon, that ruins old friendships and nearly scuttles his just-blooming career as a playwright. Fallout is a coming-of-age novel for both Luke and Nina, a vividly-real, intimate look into what drives us, what shapes us and what love can cost us.
This might very well be my favourite Sadie Jones novel to date, although I can't really say that because I really do like all her novels quite a lot and the ones I've read so far have all been quite different (I haven't yet read Small Wars; really must!). There is something holding me back from full-out loving her books, but for the first half-ish of Fallout I was definitely in the "love" zone. My copy is an uncorrected proof (an ARC), which meant it had lots of typos, nothing major, but it did also have a slightly unpolished feel to it. The prose was, at times, a bit awkward or unclear, the punctuation so technically incorrect that the emphasis or meaning of a sentence was distorted or lost, rendering some parts unnecessarily clumsy, like you've stumbled on an uneven floor. Again, hard to know if the punctuation was going to be fixed or whether this is the style she's developed, but the control over commas versus semicolons or even periods was sloppy. The comma isn't the "new" semicolon; they affect a sentence quite differently. Misuse either one and you ruin the rhythm of your words and disrupt the flow. You can be "experimental" with punctuation, but you can also create an annoyingly disjointed mess if you don't do it well.
This is a story about people, about Luke and Nina, Paul and Leigh, about relationships, love, the battle scars in our relationships and the mistakes we make - and sometimes learn from. The characters are real, believable, familiar. The most interesting and confronting of them all was Nina, someone you pity and feel infinitely sorry for, but whom you can't respect. She lacks will, she lacks grit, she lacks perspective. She is a product of her mother's critique and Tony's homoerotic desires (for instance, her mother keeps her skinny because chunky girls don't get hired; Tony keeps her skinny because he likes her to look like a boy). The arrival of Luke in her life, someone she feels instantly drawn and attracted to in the same way he does with her, presents an opportunity: a chance to take control of her life, figure out who she is and what she wants, and be fulfilled and happy.
But Nina has a diseased soul. Theirs is a love affair that begins with such hope and promise - you truly, truly want them both to be happy, and free, and together - that soon becomes something poisonous and even destructive. I sometimes hear, in movies maybe, people say that they're with the right person for the wrong reasons, or the wrong person for the right reasons, or some variation on that theme. There was a touch of that here. What I loved about it was how truthful, honest and messy it all was. Jones has a real knack for capturing ordinary, middle-class people in all their glorious strengths and flaws, and letting events play out naturally. While I did find that there was a slight sense of an author-creator (god-figure) manoeuvring pieces into place (it's the way she writes), once there the characters took over, their personalities guiding events and their ultimate fallout.
The star of the story was the setting and era itself: the backdrop for the fallout of relationships. London in the late 60s and early 70s is a place on the cusp, a place discovering love and life and excitement. A place still being held back by the tight grip of tradition and society but increasingly stretching its wings. Theatre is prominent, and popular. New bands and music rock the airwaves - which people actually listen to. It incorporates women's lib but nothing overtly political or radical. This is a story set in the hearts of its characters, rather than their heads. While there, I felt like I was there. I could picture things quite well thanks to all the British telly I've watched over my lifetime, and the flavour of their speech really helps catapult you there. Eminently readable but not exactly pleasurable, Fallout had me wrapped up in the characters so that I was going to bed thinking about them, however disquieting and somehow off the story and the writing was at times.
In December 1969, Rahel and her twin brother Estha accompany their mother, Ammu, their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, and their uncle, Chacko, in Chacko'sIn December 1969, Rahel and her twin brother Estha accompany their mother, Ammu, their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, and their uncle, Chacko, in Chacko's skyblue Plymouth to Cochin. They're going to see The Sound of Music for the third time, but also - more importantly to the adults - to collect Chacko's ex-wife and daughter from the airport. Margaret Kochamma is English, and mourning for her second husband, Joe, who died earlier that year. It is the first time Rahel and Estha have met their cousin, Sophie Mol, but it will prove to be disastrous. This is the December that Sophie Mol drowns, Ammu is ostracised, and an Untouchable is beaten to death for breaching the laws that spell out who can be loved. The connection between these three events is not simply the twins, it is India's culture, caste system, and the fragility of the mother-child bond. It is miscommunication, a child's need to play, a woman's need to be loved, and a man's need to be touched.
With some books, when it comes time for me to review them, I find myself reliving the best bits, focussed on the story's strengths, and end up bumping up my rating because the things that I had thought were holding me back from enjoying it more turn out to be insignificant, or just simply vanish. Sometimes it's good to let a little time go by between finishing a book and reviewing it; other times, it's detrimental. This may be one of those cases. I finished reading this in early August and am only now, two months later, writing this review. I had given the book a "I really liked it" ranking on Goodreads, but now I don't know why. I think, at the time, I was letting the writing and all the nifty literary stuff hold sway. Now, I mostly think of it as a story, and all the things that made this a slow read for me, all the things that bored me a bit or made it hard to follow are rising to the surface like oil in a broth, and the meaty stuff has sunk out of sight. Still there, but it's a cloudy view.
In truth, I have left it too late to write this review and do the book justice. Details are slipping away from me, but what remains is a messy jumble of the big truths that this story deals with - which it does not in a gentle way, but in a firm-gripped, wrestled-to-the-ground kind of way. It is both subtle and obvious, sometimes vacillating between the two states, sometimes being both at the same time. It is full of fine details, details that become relevant personas through repetition, like Rahel's "Love-in-Tokyo" hair band and Estha's "puff" hairdo. The Love-in-Tokyo is a rubber band with two beads on it, "two beads on a rubber band". Possibly a metaphor for Rahel and Estha - and it's this that preoccupies your reading, constantly wondering about the importance of things. You could read into the details, characters and themes almost endlessly, and that makes it an exhausting book to read.
Roy has her own unique, distinctive style, and it's not one that I find easy to read. It took concentration and mental effort, something that might ease with repeated readings. It really makes you aware of that vast pool of consciousness that a culture creates with a shared language, so that when you are speaking the same language you are sharing more than just grammar, you are sharing deeper connotations. But for The God of Small Things, there is no shared or borrowed cultural understanding between the Western reader and the Indian author: the flow of words isn't familiar and soothing, you can't predict the end of the a sentence, or what direction you'll go in next. Roy writes in perfect English, but with an unfamiliar, exotic and artistic handle on the words and grammar that is both fascinating and confounding. She breathes new life into the language, but it is so constant that I found it exhausting just as much as I found it beautiful, exciting, invigorating, insightful.
Airport garbage in their baby bins.
The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste. Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot eht ecipS tsaoC fo aidnI.
Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and co-Ambassador.
Estha look! Look Estha, look!
Ambassador Estha wouldn't. Didn't want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On the banks of the Meenchal.
Ammu watched with her handbag.
Chacko with his roses.
Baby Kochamma with her sticking out neckmole. [p.139-140]
That's just a random passage to use as an example, which also shows the curious narrator who speaks both with Rahel and Estha's perspective and voice, and something else too. It is another mark of strangeness that is this writing: written in third person omniscient from, often, the perspective of the children, it yet manages to convey the sense that there is no narrator. Even when the "narrator" makes direct comments, they just seem to Be. It's quite intriguing. Even so, the language, the perspective, the voice, they are like the different tools in an artist's hands, each given just as much weight and attention. Through the twins' obsessions over certain words, phrases, games, misunderstandings, through repetition and a non-linear structure, you are constantly aware that a real artist is at work here.
But as I said, the real strengths of this novel are the story itself, and the characters, which of course wouldn't have been the same if the writing had been more conventional. The two main parts of the novel that will really dig into your heart and squeeze, are those in which Rahel feels she has lost her mother's love - a grey moth resides on her heart when her mother tells her that when she's bad, she makes people "love her a little less" - and Estha is sexually molested by the "Orangedrink Lemondrink Man" at the theatre and lives in fear that the man will turn up in their village; and Velutha, the Untouchable, a character who naturally resonates with the Western reader because the very concept of his lowly status and the way people treat him for no reason other than a seemingly arbitrary caste system is abhorrent, and has tragic consequences. Or rather, characters ignoring the caste system results in tragedy. There is a distinction.
There is, throughout the novel, a sense of being trapped, of being restricted by caste, gender, wealth, poverty, expectations and custom in absolutely everything, for everyone. No one is exempt, and, it seems, no one is happy either. Time is fluid, the story shifting back and forth willy-nilly, moving sometimes into the "present" when Rahel and Estha are adults - still young, but damaged, moving about like ghosts. It is a damaged country, Roy seems to say, trying to maintain some semblance of order and control by obeying senseless traditions. It is a story, ultimately, about "the tragic fate of a family which ;tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how'." (I can't find that quote just now so I'm borrowing from Christina Patterson's review for the Observer, quoted on the back cover.) In today's Western culture, such a story would be futuristic science fiction, probably labelled "dystopian" in the Young Adult market; but for India, it's a very real and very turgid past and present. With strains of political machinations and Communist manoeuvrings, life in India after the British left sees a slight shuffle as the high-status families jockey to maintain their position, which necessitates keeping the low-born, low. You can't mix, love and marry, you just can't. But Rahel and Estha see just what happens, when you try....more
Australians have an interesting relationship with our colonial history: part pride, part shame, part love, part wince. Until fairly recently, we wereAustralians have an interesting relationship with our colonial history: part pride, part shame, part love, part wince. Until fairly recently, we were taught little about "Australian history" (meaning, always, white colonial history, not Indigenous-Australian history), and what we were taught was mostly the myths. James Cook was a captain (he wasn't, not at the time) and a Great Man (he was okay, but no different from anyone else of his era in his attitude towards indigenous peoples), and that he "discovered" Australia (he didn't); Joseph Banks was an intelligent, avid botanist who made meticulous records of his findings, and who we have to thank for the first settlement (he was a young, wealthy, egotistical man who shoved specimens willy-nilly into his bag and made some very ignorant observations of the east coast of Australia). That's just the 80s - go back further and people were taught some pretty offensive "facts" about the Aborigines.
When I was in primary school, I distinctly remember being taught the history of colonial Australia - settlement - from the perspective that the whites came, the soldiers incited violence with the Aboriginals and killed as many as they could, and our ancestors are all rough-made thieves. That's what stuck, anyway. I thought, for the longest time, that being taught about the bad calls made by the British in the early decades of colonialism meant that I hadn't received a pro-white Australia (i.e. biased) teaching. And perhaps I didn't. What's really worrying, though, is that - until university - that was all I was properly taught about Australian history.
In an interview with Kate Grenville on ABC radio after the release of The Secret River in 2005, the interviewer, Ramona Koval, links the title of the novel to a line in WEH Stanner's 1968 Boyer Lecture, "After the Dreaming". 'There is a secret river of blood in Australian history,' which is the history of our relationship with the Aboriginal people, the river of blood." The 'secret river' carries several meanings in connection with the novel, but this is the key one: the unspoken history, the history we're just not taught, the history we all think we know and therefore don't need to hear more about. We spend more time teaching about the bravery and horror of Gallipoli than we do our broader, more complex history - and without an understanding of our history, how are we supposed to truly understand what's happening now?
There is a river of blood in Australian history, or as Grenville put it, "cupboards" that we have "drawn a curtain over", and The Secret River aims to pull back a curtain on one such cupboard. In telling the story of Will Thornhill, a young man who was born into the extreme poverty of London in 1777, Grenville's larger story is one of miscommunication and misunderstanding - with tragic and long-reaching consequences. The Secret River does what other stories of the time don't quite manage: to remind us that the early settlers of Australia were largely uneducated, illiterate, terrified petty crooks and opportunists, people who knew nothing of the world or life beyond their area of grey, stony and rat-infested London (in Will's case: Southwark). It's not that we don't know that, but that we don't understand the implications. Between the large number of convicts and soldiers - who weren't particularly educated themselves - the Aboriginal peoples were confronted with an influx of people who were unhealthy, with little knowledge of how to grow food, who were frightened and downright struggling. They were also coming from a land where the values of hierarchy, misogyny, religion and profiteering were deeply embedded.
Will Thornhill begins life in a harsh environment, a place where every day is a struggle to survive. Just one more mouth to feed in a large family, they often resort to petty theft in order to stay alive. Will gets an unlooked-for break, though, when Mr Middleton takes him on as an apprentice waterman, a proper trade. But disaster strikes after Will becomes a full waterman and marries Mr Middleton's daughter, Sal, his best friend since childhood, and Will and Sal are reduced to petty crime in order to keep themselves and their new baby alive. In taking the time to establish Will's background and the context for his crime as well as the kind of person he is, Grenville helps us realise that quite often, we have unreasonable expectations for our white convict ancestors. We are quick to point a finger at them and lay blame at their feet for the things that happened, for their England-oriented farming style that we are still suffering the side-effects of, but really, we have to put it into context and acknowledge that, while it doesn't excuse it or make up for it, they really "didn't know any better." It's not a nice pill to swallow, because it makes us feel better to lay the blame squarely at the feet of convicts and free settlers alike, alongside Governors and other upper-class officials. But we have hindsight, and they had British imperialism.
The story follows Will and his growing family through several years of early Australian settlement in what is now New South Wales. Arriving in Sydney in 1806, Will is made prisoner of his wife - a common thing to do at the time - and works for his ticket of leave. He encounters Blackwood, a man he knew in London who has been here longer and has his own boat, plying a lucrative trade on the River Hawkesbury where ex-convict settlers are growing food but are otherwise cut-off from the main settlement at Sydney, and begins working for him on the Hawkesbury. It is on his first trip up the river that Will sees a piece of land that captures his heart and imagination. Suddenly, he has dreams - dreams of a future, of the kind of life he could never have in London, with a home of his own.
Land is easy enough to acquire here. After all, no one else has claimed it. There was a simple process: "All a person need do was find a place no one had already taken. Plant a crop, build a hut, call the place Smith's or Flanagan's, and out-stare anyone who said otherwise." (p.121) Will achieves his full pardon several years after arriving, but convincing Sal to move to what he calls Thornhill's Point is harder. Sal wants to return to London; London is the place that has her heart. The one thing she brought from London was "a broken piece of clay roof-tile that she had found in the sand by Pickle Herring Stairs the morning of her last day in London." (p.88-9) Sal cherishes this piece of tile, which acts like a talisman and an anchor to her past. She plans to take it back one day, back where she found it. "The thing was like a promise, that London was still there, on the other side of the world, and she would be there too one day." (p.89) Sal can't, or won't, let go, but she agrees to move to Thornhill's Point and gives Will five years to save enough money to move back to London.
It's when they move to this piece of land that Will's fallen in love with, that trouble starts. Or rather, that Will becomes involved in trouble that's already started. The land may not have fences, houses or neat rows of planted vegetables, but it is still part of the Darug tribe's land. Conflict arises, but Will is not prone to violence and is more terrified of them than anything else. Over time, he comes to realise that they too are farmers and landowners, just with different methods. Still, he's not about to give up his piece of land to them, and his neighbours - among them a lowlife called Smasher Sullivan who keeps an Aboriginal woman chained up in his hut and who has brutal ideas of how to react to Aboriginal thievery - have stronger wills (ha ha) than he can stand up to. The resulting night of violence, terror, cruelty and death is one Will never fully recovers from.
While Grenville doesn't present a Aboriginal perspective in this novel - the story is told fully from Will's point-of-view, in third person, so that we see things in the way he understands them with a shade of omniscient depth overlapping it - it is a story that sympathises, and empathises, with the Aboriginal peoples. It doesn't glamorous or mythologise them (not as far as I can see, anyway), but considering how many times previously the British had "colonised" other lands with equally disastrous consequences, it's pretty hard to fault the Aborigines for their own struggles to understand or welcome the newcomers. People on both sides reached out and sought understanding, but at its heart, The Secret River is about what happens when people don't take the trouble to understand each other, or wilfully shut their minds to learning from others. We see this still in effect today, not just between "white Australia" and the Aboriginals - whose knowledge and wisdom about this great and complex land we continue to ignore while we blindly wreck havoc - but between Palestinians and Israelis, between the religious extreme and the moderates, between upper and lower classes, between management and the people who actually do the work on the "shop floor". The Secret River speaks volumes in more ways than one precisely because we haven't learned anything, we haven't moved on, we haven't found the peace that we all crave.
If my review today seems abnormally long and rambling, even for me, I must apologise: I've been teaching this novel and getting into some of the issues and ideas in it at depth. There's a lot more going on here than I've mentioned, of course, but hopefully I've given you the right kind of encouragement needed to pick up this book. Intelligent, well-written in a rather beautiful, poetic way that manages to maintain Will's simplistic, childlike naiveté, The Secret River opens one of those "secret cupboards" of Australian history and gives a voice to those caught up in things they barely comprehend, in an insightful, engaging way. I loved this book, in which violence comes out of gentleness with a dreamlike haze, as if those early settlers like Will can't quite believe in the magic, the mystery and the mayhem that surrounds them. A must-read for all.
In 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-siIn 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-siblings for her children, Simon, Alex and Annie. None of them are used to having their snobby, social-climbing mother at home, but her affair with Gerrard Washburn, Earl of Thorncliffe, has caused King George III - a well-known prude and quite different from his son, Prince George - to expel her from court with the decree that they marry.
The upset to the Broughton children's daily life is soon forgotten - it's hard not to like Lord Thorncliffe, and when baby Meg arrives they're all smitten (except her mother, who lacks motherly love). It's the arrival of Gerrard's two children from his previous marriage, Patrick and Maeve, that change everything for Alex. Maeve is a happy, enthusiastic, loving girl of the same age as Annie - who shares her mother's sense of vanity and ambition - but Patrick is Alex's beloved brother Simon's age, and the two quickly become friends. Stuck in the middle, Alex puts her efforts into being childishly petulant and difficult, resentful that Patrick has come between her and handsome, popular Simon.
Yet she's also drawn to Patrick in ways she barely understands. As Alex matures she puts aside her dislike and resentment towards Patrick and the two become friends, but the friendship is strained by Alex's unrequited feelings for Patrick. Once both Simon and Patrick are of age, they both decide to sign up for the war against Napoleon, despite their family's protestations. Simon uses his medical pre-training from university to help the wounded, while Patrick buys an officer's rank and sees real battle. With the two men she loves most in such danger zones, Alex struggles to sit quietly at home and wait.
Meanwhile, her mother has arranged a marriage for her with a young Scottish lord, Hamish, a preening, vain man who, it readily becomes apparent to the reader, has more of an eye towards pretty young men than he does his affianced bride. Alex was resigning herself to marrying Hamish - a contract that doesn't seem breakable - when Patrick returns from war and everything changes.
Torn was a refreshing change from either your typical "Regency Romance" or the many historical fiction novels set in the era that strive to mimic Pride and Prejudice. Turner has focusses on the historical period by going to historical sources rather than fictional ones, which gives a fresh perspective on the early 19th century (pre-Regency). She also turned the lens of the story onto the Napoleonic War, which I appreciated - Austen never focussed on that, her characters just bought a shiny red uniform and everything was tickety-boo. The descriptions of the hell's of war will resonate with readers because they sound just like the descriptions of the World Wars that we've absorbed, because despite the changes in weaponry, tactics or political context, war is war and what soldiers endure doesn't change all that much.
This is a coming-of-age novel set over the course of several years while Alex is a teenager. While Turner has made efforts to use diction and syntax appropriate to the period, Alex's first-person voice is often a bit contemporary, a bit too modern. It's not that people didn't swear or speak in more relaxed ways, just that some of Alex's phrasing sounded a bit too late-20th-century, and jarred. That aside, it's clear that while certain expectations of young women have changed drastically, the struggles and inner turmoils of adolescence and young love remain unchanged over the centuries. We can change our costumes, our expectations and perspectives as much as we like, but at heart we're no different from people living in any other age.
The novel was a bit slow and uneventful, which I wouldn't have minded except that for much of the book it lacked the tension it needed to propel the narrative - and the reader - forward. The story doesn't pick up until after Simon and Patrick join the war. Much of the first half is made up with establishing Alex's rude behaviour towards Patrick, and their prickly understanding. It's just hard, following the exploits of a not-very-likeable girl going through the pains of adolescence. Perhaps it's that fact, that in the first half of the book, Alex isn't a very sympathetic character - you can sympathise with her resentment and understand her behaviour all too well, but it goes on for too long. Patrick has the charisma to carry the story and keep you reading - there's just something about him, from his moments of casual cruelty to his raw sex appeal, his sense of humour and moments of loving tenderness. He keeps you on your toes, that's for sure, though it's one of my personal hang-ups that I don't like hearing men calling women "bitch", especially when they're in love with them.
This isn't a standalone novel but the start of a series, and the ending, while no cliffhanger, is a prelude to the second book, Inviolate. In fact, I would say that the entire novel (Torn) is a bit of a prelude. It establishes the characters, who drive the story forward, and their dramas, as set-up for where the story will go from here. There is a definite feeling that the second book will have more of a dramatic punch than this one, as the stakes are all out on the table and the way things ended in Torn definitely leave you reeling a bit. (I think we'd all agree by the end that Annie is despicable, shallow and lacking in character.) Alex does make me want to shake her though, especially at the end where she lets Patrick's past mistakes and reputation over-rule everything she knows about him, and instead takes the side of the sister she never respected. What's with that? I could understand Alex's emotions but after the initial shock, where's her head? She's an intelligent girl who shows, time and again, a lack of maturity and understanding of others. I guess she's inherited a bit of her mother's superficial outlook, but it was disappointing and slightly contrived for the sake of drama and tension. I'm on the fence a bit over the ending, and I'm not sure where the prologue and epilogue, told by an elderly Meg who has something important she needs to commit to paper, is going. She's not telling the story, that's for sure, so she must know some painful secret.
Overall, a solid first novel that will appeal to those readers who like a slowly evolving historical fiction story set pre-Regency, populated by familiar characters and narrated by a young, torn heroine who feels all-too human.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book....more
1894. Matilda is just twelve, pretending to be fourteen so she can work in the nearby jam factory while her mother is ill and bedridden. She continues1894. Matilda is just twelve, pretending to be fourteen so she can work in the nearby jam factory while her mother is ill and bedridden. She continues to write to the father she's never met, who is building a home for them in the country and getting established before they move - or so her mother has always told her, and she's never doubted it.
When her mother dies, leaving her alone in the world, Matilda is left with few choices. Their landlady, Mrs Dawkins, is willing to let her stay if she works for her board, but Matilda has no intention of becoming a maid. Instead, she takes her few meagre possessions, learns which train to catch from her friend Tommy, a young boy with a knack for machinery and inventing, and heads off to find her father.
All she really knows is the name of her father's farm - Moura - and the nearest town, Gibber's Creek. When the train stops for Gibber's Creek, she finds no station or town, but the faint demarcation of a road which she might not have spotted if a wagon wasn't stopped at it. Three men are there to pick up a union speaker who rode the train with her; also waiting to be picked up are a well-dressed woman and her daughter, who's about Matilda's age. Matilda throws in her lot with the working men, who give her a lift into town where her father will be - it's a big night for the union, and her dad is the man who began it in Gibber's Creek.
When she does finally meet her father, it's a happy reunion. Her dad is full of plans, and Matilda learns a new version of the truth as to why she'd never met him before. But all too soon, a shocking and tragic event unfolds and Matilda must once again turn to her own abilities to survive in this harsh, drought-afflicted land. With the assistance of a local Aboriginal woman called Auntie Love and Auntie's nephew, Mr Sampson, and her dog, Hey You, Matilda turns her energy and willingness to learn to making her dad's dream for Moura come true. But it's not only the land she has to struggle against: her neighbour, the wealthy and powerful squatter Mr Drinkwater, presents a challenge of his own.
Jackie French is a prolific writer and the Australian Children’s Laureate; she was also, this year (2015), declared the "Senior Australian of the Year". Both are well deserved, and I hope she receives even more recognition. I was first introduced to French through her priceless picture book, Diary of a Wombat. But I had to wait till I'd moved back to Australia, in late 2013, before I could start reading her novels. The Road to Gundagai, the third book in the Matilda Saga, was one of my favourite novels of 2013 - it reads as a standalone, but I knew I had to go back to the beginning with this volume, A Waltz for Matilda.
A Waltz for Matilda deserves to be better known and more widely read than it currently is. It's a Young Adult historical fiction novel that is accessible to children and just as satisfying and wonderful a read for adults - it's not many authors who have such breadth in their style. French effortlessly captures the tone and feel of the era, both through period details and characterisation as well as through the way she writes. It's not that it's written in a faux "olde worlde" style - that would be naff to the highest degree - but that the articulate, intelligent, smoothly-flowing prose instantly grounds the reader in another era. French manages to incorporate the information her readers need to picture scenes and understand events, without the usual clunky exposition or conversations that sound manufactured and contrived. For instance, Matilda - a polite, considerate, well-mannered girl who knows how to write a letter and say 'thank you' - begins a correspondence with the lady she met at the Gibber's Creek 'station', Mrs Ellsmore, after Mrs Ellsmore discovers a shared tie with Matilda through her now-deceased Aunt Ann. Aunt Ann, a spinster of small income (especially compared to Mrs Ellsmore, who's upper class), is a member of the Women's Temperance League. Through these letters we get a sense of what's happening in Australia over the course of the next few decades, as Australia heads to Federation and then women get the vote.
This is a novel in which a lot is happening within a very simple, straight-forward narrative structure. It's a coming-of-age novel for Matilda, who grows into adulthood over the course of the book, from 1894 to 1915. It's also a treasure trove of insight into the history of the period, the dynamics of small rural towns, conflicts between class, gender and race, the rise of unions in Australia, the conditions of Aborigines, and of course the land. The land is one of French's main themes, throughout all her work - I recognised many details, beautifully rendered and incorporated into this story from 2010, from her 2013 nonfiction work, Let the Land Speak. This novel is educational while at the same time entertaining and engrossing.
A key scene towards the beginning of the novel is used as the fictional inspiration of the famous song, "Waltzing Matilda" (in real life, this was written by Banjo Patterson in 1895. There is a note at the beginning of the book that outlines the origins - both known and dodgy - of the song, but I did love the way it was woven into the story. It fitted perfectly. Needless to say, this is a book that made me cry as much as it made me smile. It connected with me from the opening lines, effortlessly, like that moment at the birth of your child when you hold in your arms a being that is a part of you, yet separate. (You know you're struggling to articulate a sense when you have to resort to such an intense, mind-blowing yet traumatic and over-represented event!) Perhaps it is better to say, simply, that whenever you find an author whose writing just fits perfectly with you, that you're so comfortable with and that ticks all your boxes (personally, I want stories that engage, entertain, challenge and confront me and make me feel), you know you'll never be disappointed.
One of the things I really loved about this story (and there were many) was the juxtaposition of Matilda actively listening and learning from Auntie Love, who taught her women's business, including how to find food where white people see dirt and dust, with that of Mr Drinkwater, whose character, early on at least, represents your typical white squatter. An authoritarian figure, like a local lord, who owns great swathes of land and controls pretty much everything, he too loves the land, but he also is too stubborn to learn a non-white way of farming it. The character arc for Mr Drinkwater was wonderful, and really enriches the story. Matilda is, of course, a real heroine. I can't imagine any twelve year old today doing what she did, none of it - this is another aspect of the story that makes you feel grounded in the 1890s, when children worked and often died on factory floors.
The Australian landscape is brought vividly to life, and whether you're Australian or not, it is both familiar and new. Familiar because it is the dry, drought-afflicted land so often talked about and photographed, and new because there's more to it than that. I loved that moment, early on, when Matilda puts aside her pre-conceived idea of beautiful, based on pictures in books - the pretty, neat English green fields and fluffy white sheep - for the glorious gold of her new land. It is, almost literally, a transfiguring moment, when she steps away from the English ideal into the Australian reality, and learns to appreciate it and see it. This helps to enable her to learn how to care for it, rather than mould it to fit an inappropriate ideal (something people still try and do today - if you're interested in learning more about that, I recommend you read Let the Land Speak).
I could go, but I'd rather let you read it for yourself and discover the joy within its pages. As for me, I've got books 2 and 4 (The Girl from Snowy River and To Love A Sunburnt Country) ready to go, and I can't wait to visit the next generations of The Matilda Saga....more