As I read Tsiolkas' first published collection of short stories, I couldn't help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all iAs I read Tsiolkas' first published collection of short stories, I couldn't help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all its glorious and tawdry flaws. He strips away the veneers we use so constantly - veneers of civilisation and humanity and tolerance - and puts our real selves up on display. You don't have to identify with any of his characters to connect with them, or recognise them. It's not about you, the reader, in a narcissistic way; it's about humanity and all its bullshit. Ironically, once stripped of the façade of gentility, what's left is yet another layer of bullshit.
Take Vince in the title story, "Merciless Gods". This is a story about stories, as a group of friends share anecdotes of when they took revenge. Vince's story leaves the others shocked and sickened, and it's hard to tell whether he's even telling the truth or not. If he is, he's a bastard. If he isn't, he's still a bastard. In "Petals", we are deep within the twisted consciousness of a prison inmate, homesick for Greece, who brings us right into his hell of a life with authentically bad grammar. He is a character who is instantly believable, deeply flawed, full of 'greys' and ultimately more than a bit scary. There's the story of a young man with a girlfriend who lets himself get pulled into a relationship with another man who uses him for sex, money and to enable his drinking habit, who is violent and a rapist, in "Jessica Lange in Frances".
Life is a journey, the old cliché says, but what's missing are the adjectives: violent, brutal, dirty, rich, textured, unpleasant, joyous, disgusting, frightening, paralysing. Merciless Gods has its high moments, but mostly it descends into the underbelly of humanity, laying it all bare without shame, apology or censorship. A few stories touch upon Indigenous issues, like "Civil War" which, scarily, tells us that there are people in Australia stockpiling weapons for some fantastical war against the Aborigines (who are, of course, simply living off welfare etc. etc.), in which they will be wiped out, once and for all.
"There's gonna have to be a war soon in this country." I look up at him and he's glancing over at me. "People are getting ready," he continues, "arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away." He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying. "Do you know those bastards get money to send their kids to school? And what do the parents do with all that money? Drink it or spend it on drugs. The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars." He is animated now, anger and passion softening the hard surfaces of his skin, making him seem younger. "It's our money that pays for all those gifts to the bloody blackfella while he sits on his lazy arse and sells his kids and wife for extra cash. They're cunning bastards. No natural intelligence at all, just animal cunning." He spits out this last insult. "They know how to use the system. But the bastards are making use of my taxes to live the good life." [pp.232-3]
What's especially frightening about this is just how prevalent this attitude is in Australian society. In certain parts of the country - Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia especially, where "Civil War" is set - this is the common, mainstream attitude and perspective. You'll find it in other places, too, including my own state, Tasmania. We live in a deeply racist land and have done little about it. Most people don't even bother to hide it.
It would be a shame to be turned off by the strong language, the gruesome scenes of rape, pornography and other sexual acts, as well as the subject matter explored here. Personally, I like confronting stories: I like to have my world shaken up by fiction and non-fiction, along with documentaries, though in order to live my life I have to read the fun stuff too. It's important not to shy away from the truths of our world, or the realistic flaws of human nature. It's also important to, in a way, 'bear witness', to hear and listen and think about and feel, because while Merciless Gods may be fiction, it carries that stamp of 'gritty realism' and the bone-deep knowledge that people have lived this, and more, all the time. These are stories that can deliver a punch to the gut, have you chewing your fingernails in suspense, and even bring out a tissue or two.
Tsiolkas isn't shy of bringing you into this world, far from a cozy middle-class existence. His ability to create scenes, characters and explore, with subtlety, hard-hitting contemporary issues is his greatest strength. I saw that in Barracuda and I see it even more here, in these stories. What saves it from being downright depressing is that sense of his character's fragile, vulnerable quest for beauty in this grim world, that even a wart on a toad can be loveable because it's your toad - like the mother in "The Hair of the Dog", or the father-son relationship in "Genetic Material". Not all the stories are in-your-face or contain vulgarity, or are about homosexuality, violence, pornography. The married couple in "Tourists" feel so familiar because they are so vividly, realistically drawn, and the tense mother-son relationship in "Sticks, Stones" makes me wonder what my own little boy will put me through when he's a teenager - and how I'll react. (On a side note, my son, three years old, found the cover of this book quite scary.)
You never know what one of these stories will bring you, or where it will take you. Each is a surprise, and each is subtle, full of nuance and shades of grey. Tsiolkas' raw and insightful examination of our flawed psyches and troubled relationships is, strangely, a joy to read, not least because of the skill and craftsmanship he brings to each tale. Truly Tsiolkas has become one of Australia's truly great writers for the 21st century....more
After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leaveAfter more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has 'run its course'.
Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he's ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.
Despite Connie's announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie's mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas's inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.
Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home - thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie's eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won't leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.
But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man's quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn't be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic - if not entirely likeable - man facing a major upheaval in his life.
In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don't always work out how you planned. It's a story about personalities, and making room for other people's characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.
The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas's voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements - voice, style, plot etc. - that, together, either work for you or don't. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.
Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow - Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) - and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There's a quote from John Updike's Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:
He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.
As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable - and often unpleasant - in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you've experienced them or not. There's skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn't be dismissed.
But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas's mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I - who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes 'partying' and finds socialising exhausting - could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we've remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it's just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas's relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That's never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can't apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn't necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it's better that it doesn't. I like to think I'm not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference - our own perspective - to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people's choices, and not just get irritated that they didn't do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
Amira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boyAmira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boys) are fourteen and the four women see much less of each other. Amira, a teacher and single mother, has taken Tess with her on a year-long teaching exchange in Kalangalla, a remote Indigenous community outside Broome, Western Australia. With only a few months left and a big decision to make, Amira invites her old friends - and Tess's old friends, Bronte and Janey - to stay with them for a few weeks. What should be a relaxing and enjoyable holiday is strained by the changed personalities of the girls as they enter womanhood, and the pressures and stresses of approaching middle age for their mothers. When Morag's sixteen-year-old stepdaughter Macy joins them, having been suspended from school, the dynamic changes yet again and tensions come to a head.
Delving into the heart of mother-daughter relationships and the fraught friendships between adolescent girls, Mothers and Daughters also touches upon some of the issues faced by our Aboriginal population and the inherent racism in the country, as well as bullying, envy, growing up and figuring out what you really want in life. Ladd writes with intelligence and wit, and the novel resonates with warmth, humour and realism.
From the opening scene at the airport in Melbourne, at the opposite end of the country, the friction as well as the love between the characters is apparent. Fiona is acerbic and sharp, witty but tired, with a husband who doesn't seem to respect her - or any women - and an older son who is following suit. She drinks a lot and is loud with her opinions. Fiona captures the views of mainstream white Australia towards the Aborigines, and doesn't care who overhears. Her daughter, Bronte, has had a growth spurt and feels ungainly and enormous. When a modelling agency scout approached her, Fiona scoffed at the idea that her daughter could be a model. Bronte hasn't started her period yet and is shy; she lets her mother browbeat and criticise her and she hasn't yet learned to stand up for herself. For a long time she was friends with Janey and Tess, though on the outside, but Janey has moved to a private school and Tess left for remote WA, leaving Bronte struggling to fill the gaps.
Janey is a self-absorbed, unlikeable girl who loves her own body and spends her time glued to her mobile phone - when she's not swimming. Her mother, Caro, has put in hours of her own time, driving Janey to practice and meets - and driving Janey to be the best. Yet it always feels like her two girls love their Italian father more, who travels so much and comes home with presents, leaving Caro to do most of the active parenting. Or maybe it's that she's jealous of how much he loves them. Caro is a bit obsessed with appearance, and looking neat and attractive, and has led a largely protected life.
Morag, an aged-care nurse, left Scotland for Australia in order to be with Andrew, a man she'd met and fallen in love with while young, but who went on to marry someone else and have a daughter. He later divorced and tracked Morag down, and they had twin boys, Callum and Finn, and later a third boy, Torran. Morag left behind her ageing mother in Edinburgh, who she visits infrequently, and after years of living in Australia, it finally catches up with her:
She wasn't hungover, Morag suddenly realised. She was homesick. For years she'd lived quite happily in Australia. She'd made her peace with it, she thought - this was where her husband was, her children, her future. Coming north, though, had shifted something. Broome and Kalangalla were so different, so foreign to her, that they magnified the strangeness of this continent, made it all seem new again. New and overwhelming and completely alien. Her mind went back to a home visit she'd done one winter's day over a decade earlier - Newhaven, she thought, or maybe North Leith. There was a hostel next door to the flat she was visiting. It was snowing, and a black-skinned family - refugees, she'd guessed, asylum seekers from North Africa - were standing in the garden with their pink-palmed hands out, catching the dirty flakes, a look of total bewilderment on each of their faces. That was her, she thought. That was how she was feeling right now. [pp.249-250]
Unlike the other three women, Amira is less urban, more open-minded and adaptable. She and her daughter, Tess, fit in well among the Aborigines at Kalangalla, a community free of alcohol that has kept up the more traditional lifestyle of the local tribe. Tess runs around barefoot with her new best friend, an Aboriginal girl called Tia. Amira is reluctant to leave for the city again after her year is up, but it's not a decision she'll make without Tess. Tess has started exchanging romantic correspondence with Callum, Morag's son, but when Janey finds the letter Tess learns just how mean Janey can be, and how different their paths now are.
As you come to know the women and their girls, you definitely come to care for them, too. Ladd has captured four women representative of our mainstream, middle-class, white society, and four girls similarly representative. They feel and sound like real people, as do the Aboriginal characters they meet and interact with. As much as I found the novel entertaining, well-written and absorbing, it also felt just a bit contrived. It is far too easy to conjure up a similar scenario of four women with representative personalities (though much less realistic): Sex and the City. Caro was definitely reminiscent of Charlotte, for instance. And the girls, too, were fairly standard characters. While it did work, it also required me to put aside certain niggles like this, when I'd rather not have them in the first place. Fiona and Morag were perhaps the best characters in the sense that they felt quite natural and normal (even if you don't agree with Fiona's opinions - and I rather hope you don't - she's still a natural, identifiable character, whereas Caro seemed like a caricature to me). The issue isn't with realism, it's with putting a bit to much into the one book. Trying to capture too many perspectives. Trying to connect with all readers and their varied personalities. It didn't need to be quite so representative in order to work. You can still have conflict when the characters are less dissimilar.
But time, and how things change with it, how our relationships - all kinds - can fall fallow or fade, and how nostalgic we can be for the past is at the forefront of this novel, and how the characters interact. Societal issues and pressures form the details that create conflict or force people to face up to things, but at heart this is a story about four women hitting middle-age and not quite handling it all that well, and their daughters who are hitting puberty, wanting to exert their independence and embark on the start of their own lives - something that is often in conflict with their parents' wishes, which stem largely from nostalgia.
Despite the niggling feeling that Mothers and Daughters was trying to capture too much, I loved this book. I especially loved the inclusion of issues surrounding Indigenous populations here in Australia, as well as the classic urban-rural divide. Most of the characters are sympathetic and likeable (the exception is Janey), and their time in the remote Aboriginal community of Kalangalla provides a wonderful backdrop to the playing-out of their relationships. This is a story of contemporary life for Australian women of this demographic, warts and all. It's about what it means to grow up - how we must go through a "coming of age" process more than once, and how we transition from impatience in adolescence, to resistance in our forties. A heartening and, at times, heart-breaking tale of love, friendship and resilience, Mothers and Daughters is a wonderful story....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
The question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it iThe question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it is not the answer that matters, but the fact that there is a question at all. For Shandi Pierce, she has spent the last four years in denial, so fiercely omitting the truth of the night she got pregnant that she's convinced herself she had a virgin birth. The illusion comes crashing down on the day she moves from her mother's mountain home to Atlanta, where her father lives, to continue her degree closer to campus. En route with her best friend, Walcott, and her three year old son, Natty, they pull over at a little petrol station because Natty is car sick. Going inside to get a drink, Shandi spies a handsome older man, who she pins as being divorced. Her parents divorced when she was very young due to arguments about how to raise their daughter (her mother is Catholic, her father is Jewish), and Shandi has had a few boyfriends since Natty was born who are all much older men.
The suspected divorcee is William Ashe, and he isn't divorced. He is in mourning, though, so when a drug-addled man enters the Circle K with an old gun and proceeds to rob the place, William sees it as destiny. Here is a way to end it all. Shandi reads William's reaction differently: she sees the way he moves between the gunman and her son, and thinks he is deeply protective - the quality all women want in their male partners when children are involved. She's sexually attracted to him, and being in a hostage situation, adrenalin pumping, only seems to heighten it. When William says "Destiny," she thinks he means them. She falls in love.
But William is deep in his own love story, the love he has - or had - for his wife, Bridget, and their two year old daughter, Twyla, who died in a tragic car accident exactly one year to the day of the robbery. William is autistic, though as his best friend Paula points out, he "learned how to pass." A genetic scientist, he's built like a football player and makes origami animals to keep his fingers busy while he thinks. When Shandi turns up at the hospital after the robbery, Natty in tow, she asks for his help in finding the boy's real father. Things changed for both of them that day at the Circle K; for Shandi, she killed a miracle. Now she has to find the truth, and hopes to find love along the way.
Someone Else's Love Story is a snappy, intelligent, engaging read, fast-paced enough to swing you along with it as it explores the characters' neuroses and conflicted states of being. For "conflicted" they are, and if it weren't for Shandi's slightly sarcastic, slightly ironic observations, it would slip into melodrama. The other thing that saves it from self-indulgence (that quality I can't stand) is Jackson's ability to see and explore the ways in which faith works for us as individuals, without ever coming across as having picked a side. William is, frankly, incapable of believing in God or anything else, and so the character presents a balance in that way. Shandi is seemingly neutral, or undecided, while Bridget was in training to be a nun. It's the push-and-pull between faith and everything (and everyone) else that matters, the way the characters work their way to an understanding that allows them to love and be loved. It's not just the concept of "religious faith" that the book deals with: more prominently, it explores the idea of faith in a non-religious context, too. Faith as in trust and understanding.
One of the things I liked about this book was its blend of cliché and originality. There are the characters: slightly-unlikeable yet oddly-likeable heroine, Shandi, caustic Paula and too-good-to-be-true Bridget, and distant, hard-to-reach but honourable William, plus gangly bean-pole Walcott who is so clearly in love with Shandi before either of them realise it (not to mention he's already pretty much Natty's father), and Shandi's Hollywood-esque rich dad and evil stepmother, Bethany. William does, of course, bring to mind Don Tillman from Graeme Simsion's highly entertaining 2013 novel, The Rosie Project; Don has Asperger's (though doesn't believe he does) and is a geneticist who helps a younger, attractive woman (Rosie) find her father via DNA sampling. In Rosie, there is romance between the two; in Love Story, there is Shandi's desperate attempts at romance that largely go unnoticed.
This isn't a story of new love, but of new beginnings to old stories. Often, they are other people's love stories, and Shandi has stumbled into them rather blindly. This includes her own parents and the truth of their unhappy marriage, which provides such an important lesson for their daughter. At its hearts, it's a story about being a parent, and the love parents have for their children - and what they sacrifice, or destroy, when love becomes a weapon. Jackson strikes true on many fronts, and what held me back from loving it is purely a subjective, personality thing. That magical relationship between reader and writer via the prose style, which no one can control. That magic relationship wasn't quite there for me with this book, though it's a successful story in so many ways. It also didn't help that I find the cover off-putting: too pinky-purple, too ugly-pretty with its loud, obvious daisy, too trite and commercial. I don't even like to look at it, but I hope it doesn't put anyone else off from reading this.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
If you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of HowIf you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here - the young, working generation's struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks - at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she's ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, "But what are you going to do? You're in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can't make cookies your entire life." Yet that's exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend's wise words, despite her mother's theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she's done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she'll need, and followed a connection from Dez's husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love - of which he has plenty of experience - and lets Becca know that he's available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca's Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected - and unpleasant - surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren't for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what's going on between Jennifer and another of the firm's lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can't see is the truth in front of her: that there's a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who's perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking - I don't seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don't they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That's not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca's ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it's true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn't experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I'm also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day - making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I'm not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it's described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca's focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer - which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly - was an interesting plot tactic, not something I'd read before, and used as justification for Becca's personal interest in Jennifer's life. Not sure I'm entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story - the one character you can't help but love and appreciate from the beginning - is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca's mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones's Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca's perspective, are that he's a womaniser (which is just an impression she's picked up) and that he doesn't have a "real job" - and when you're white and middle class, that's important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he's reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal's none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it's just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It's not original, but it's a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. - you'll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It's a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and 'let's be serious for a minute here folks', though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca's couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too - or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
The word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (argThe word 'circus' has many uses in today's English: aside from the regular, traditional circus, featuring clowns and elephants, there is also the (arguably) metaphorical circus of the media, or politics. Coupled with the concept of a circus as a performance for the sake of entertainment, is entangled the concept of a feeding frenzy, a loud, seemingly chaotic ambush of a multitude of gazes. The freak shows of the 19th century may have officially ended, but our rapt attention to 'reality TV' shows - featuring people at their worst as well as their best - is testament to our ongoing love, obsession and fascination with the strange, the flawed, the bizarre or simply anyone who makes us feel better about ourselves. Paddy O'Reilly's latest book, The Wonders, does a superb job of shining a light on the blurred lines between what is normal and what is not, as well as our own rabid interest in creating the 'Other' as a way to position and understand who we are, collectively and individually.
I absolutely loved O'Reilly's previous novel, The Fine Colour of Rust; while The Wonders is written with the same light touch, and there are some moments of humour, these are two very different books. The Wonders is a more serious, more issues-based examination of society and its foibles, as well as our insecurities, fears and obsessive natures.
The story centres around Leon, whose heart began to give out when he was twenty-six; a year after his first (of many) heart attacks, he's given a new heart, but his body begins to reject the transplant. Living with his mother again while he waits to die, at the bottom of the heart transplant list because it would be his second transplant, Leon is contacted by a surgeon offering a possible chance at life - a highly illegal, unauthorised chance. The doctor, Susan Nowinski, and her husband, Howard, an engineer, have a radical plan to install a mechanical heart in Leon's chest. An excruciating procedure over the course of a year is followed by a recovery in isolation, until a local GP spills the beans after a routine check-up. Leon is contacted by many in the media (the expression 'media circus' comes to mind early on in the book, in the sense of a noisy, persistent menagerie), offering him money in exchange for his story, or from scientists and doctors wanting to study him, but it is a call from an American woman that draws him down to Melbourne to hear a more unique offer.
Rhona is a wealthy entrepreneur behind many successful shows, and her new idea is a winner - if she convince Leon to sign up for it. Not a conventional circus, to be sure, but it would require him to be on display, to be looked at. Rhona already has two others in the show: Kathryn Damon, an Irish woman "whose gene therapy for Huntington's had cured the Huntington's but left her covered in wool" [p.15]; and Christos Petridis, a performance artist from Greece who had special implants put into his back that enable him to bear - and flex - metal wings. After a few months of training and working out at Rhona's large home, called Overington, which is also home to rescued and ex-circus animals, they are introduced to the world as 'the Wonders', appearing at private dinners for exorbitant prices.
But fame always comes at a cost, not least for these three who are so different. They are both highly visible figures, and hidden, secluded ones, enveloped in a façade of disguise and illusion. Yet, that, too, is an illusion. Just as they cannot take off the very identities which have made their names - Lady Lamb, Seraphiel (which later changed to the more simple Angel), and Clockwork Man (later, Valentino) - neither can they be protected from the craziness in humanity that responds to difference.
Where The Wonders really delivers is on the themes and issues at its heart. The novel is deceptively light and easy to read: much like what we see on TV, on the surface at least it doesn't require effort to 'watch' what unfolds. But unlike with TV, O'Reilly constantly (and gently) encourages us to think, and question, and wonder. The wondrousness of life, the sparkling beauty of an individual and an appreciation of our differences is present, but juxtaposed against an encroaching darkness, a manic edge of fear, insecurity, greed and fetishistic obsessiveness. There are a few places where humanity's complex nature is explored overtly, such as when a group of disabled people - veterans, victims, unfortunates - ambush the Wonders after a show and declare their anger at what they see as shameless exploitation, calling the Wonders 'whores in a peep show' [p.136] and not contributing to society in a meaningful way. Kathryn, never one to back down or keep her own thoughts quiet, responds just as aggressively, but being faced with 'real' disability makes Leon feel empathetic.
Rhona tugged at Leon's sleeve and pulled him further into the passage. The gesture made Leon think about how no one would dare touch the empty sleeve or the hard gnarly stub of the man who waited below. If the man was not married, he probably felt the same loneliness Leon had been experiencing since he was implanted with his brass heart. It was more than sexual frustration. It was a deep ache of physical loneliness. A hunger. Wanting to be gripped by the wrist when a friend was making a point, or to have a hand pressed against his back as he was guided through a doorway. Leon was nervous of being touched and yet he craved it. And he knew from experience how disfigurement caused such discomfit and, at the same time, such fascination in most people that they were afraid to touch you even though it was the one thing they longed to do. [pp.136-7]
[caption id="attachment_20618" align="alignleft" width="193"] I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out in February 2015.)[/caption]Lingering at the periphery of such scenes - encouraged by the circus parallels - is the constant question of what is real and what is fake, what is illusion, disguise, and what is the 'real deal'. Christos, a self-absorbed artiste, changed his body for art - willingly, and with intent. Leon allowed others to experiment on his body on the slim chance of a second life. Kathryn, though, has become a true freak through no fault of her own, and has a truly horrible pre-Wonders past: her husband took advantage of her, taking demeaning photos of her, subjecting her to scrutiny in an attempt to make money, and even now that they're divorced, continues to harass her and Rhona, demanding a share of her income from the Wonders. What they each show, individually, and together, collectively, is just how complex humans are, how complex our lives are: the more we try to define, categorise and label in an attempt to understand and, ultimately, judge, the more difficult it becomes to do just that without distorting perception.
The characters are tangible, memorable and interesting, helping to propel the story forward. There is only minimal foreshadowing, and some backtracking into Leon's ground-breaking surgery, to break up the chronological flow. It is a coming-of-age story for Leon, who must grow as a person, let fame get to his head and then become grounded once more, but he must also learn how to let himself feel. For the man without a beating heart (it really would be freaky, not having a pulse!), Leon realises he can still feel, but more than that: that it is necessary to let others know that you feel, especially if they're to accept you as human.
While the idea of what it means to be human - or who is human - is at the heart of The Wonders and is brilliantly handled, I found that the style and structure of the novel itself was where I was slightly, ever-so-slightly, disappointed. Perhaps it is testament to O'Reilly's ability in crafting generous, fascinating and believable characters, but I felt cheated at the story's narrative style: it skims along the surface, dipping down into a scene and then coasting along the surface again, covering weeks and months in the space of a breath. It was partly because of this that I felt confused and not very convinced by Leon's relationship with Minh (and perhaps because of the context in which she's introduced into the story, I was suspicious of her too, which didn't help). I never really got to know Kathryn and Christos to an extent that would have satisfied - they remained displays, figures made up of their personas, people you couldn't touch. Maybe that's the point, and maybe it's a point too far, if it is.
Quite likely it will improve for me with further readings; I've learned from previous experience that those novels written in a deceptively simple way hold onto their secrets and their wonders - pun intended - for longer than those written in fancier language. Despite the unevenness of my initial reading experience, this is a subtle, layered tale, combining classic circus stories of showmanship, subterfuge and illusion (I couldn't help but be reminded of Angela Carter's excellent, and mind-bending, Nights at the Circus), as well as family, loyalty and generosity of spirit, with a perceptive social commentary on 21st-century attitudes, obsessions and prejudice. I heartily recommend The Wonders, which is a book that will satisfy in many ways, even if it didn't quite satisfy me, personally, in all of them. ...more