In 1994, thirteen-year-old Daniel Kelly begins his first year at one of the swankiest boy's private schools in Victoria - a place he and his best frieIn 1994, thirteen-year-old Daniel Kelly begins his first year at one of the swankiest boy's private schools in Victoria - a place he and his best friend, Demet, nickname Cunts College. His mother's a hairdresser and his dad's a long-distance truck driver, but after he wins a local swimming competition and is spotted by Coach Torma, he's offered a scholarship and a place on the swim team. Coach Torma is a large, obese man who dishes out praise sparingly, but he's a great coach even though he hasn't yet turned out an Olympic swimmer.
Danny doesn't want to go to Cunts College, where he feels like an impostor, but he loves to swim. And he's good at it, he's the best on the team. Over time, he rises above the taunts and ostracising of the other boys and becomes friends with a popular rich boy, Martin Taylor. Through Taylor, Danny gets a taste of what it's like to live with affluence, posh holiday houses, private swimming pools and crotchety old grandmothers who rule over the whole family. Danny wants to be successful, he wants to win, he wants to be an Olympic champion and provide for his family.
So when he competes at the Pan-Pacific in Japan and his dreams come crashing down, he doesn't bounce back with renewed determination. He sinks, fast and hard, and lets his feelings of failure consume him until everything culminates on the night of the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony, when Danny's dreams and failures collide in tragic, violent way.
Tsiolkas's new novel begins in the present, when we meet an older, more grounded Dan still trying to piece his life together after a spell in prison. He's in Scotland with his partner, Clyde, but the two are at a breaking point since Danny wants to live in Australia and Clyde wants to stay in Glasgow. As older Daniel's first-person, present-tense narrative slips slowly back in time, young Danny's experiences at the private school, in training and competitions, at home and with friends, travels slowly forward in third-person, past tense. In the second part of the book, post-jail Dan takes up more of the narrative, filling in the gaps of the story to build a comprehensive understanding of the character and how the past has shaped him, while child-Danny comes in shorter and ever younger sequences, until we arrive back at the day when he's five and his dad is teaching him to swim at the beach.
This richly layered and grittily realistic novel explores themes of class, race, nationality and identity, what it means to be a success or a failure, and our preoccupation with sport and sporting heroes. Tsiolkas has an astute eye and brilliantly captures class warfare, hypocrisy and snobbery; beautifully brings to life both Danny's working class family and his peer's upper-crust, moneyed and totally alien home lives with wit and flair; and creates in Danny a young, idealistic boy who lacks perspective as much as he lacks a proper father figure. Because he's at odds with his own father, he has no male role model to turn to in his own home. He fills this gap with Coach Torma, but he's only a boy and he doesn't have the experience or the empathy to really understand adult dynamics, or what the coach might really be thinking. His relationships with others, especially adults, are tarnished with adolescent arrogance and selfishness.
Even so, Danny is a sympathetic and even likeable character, partly because we can all relate - and none of us were particularly lovely as teenagers, that would be something of an oxymoron - and partly because we can see where the adults in Danny's life stuffed up, or at the very least didn't help. They, too, are plagued and hobbled by their own shortcomings and insecurities. Danny is on a rocky coming-of-age journey, one where his own ego is his worst enemy, and his determination to hold onto his own failure takes over.
There is a strong sense of urban Australia in Barracuda, in all its nuances and vagaries, its good points and flaws. I am always happy to read a book that embraces and explores Australia and what it means to be Australia, without the cultural cringe. Maybe it's my generation, or the fact that I've lived in other countries, but I'm all for embracing the virtues and flaws of my native country, and I think we're long past the stage of feeling like we don't have anything real to add to the international world of art and literature. We do, and we are. Writers like Christos Tsiolkas, by focussing on Australia rather than writing about Britain, or Europe or the Americas, is leading the way. And he's not doing it in some contrived, overly-nostalgic way either. There's no sentimentality to Barracuda, no smugness, no pretension.
The writing is strong, extremely readable with lovely flow, and brimming with intelligence and wit. It's not that Barracuda is a funny book, but it has black humour moments, and the descriptions of certain characters will trigger in Australians certain understandings and some chuckles. The idea being that nothing in Australia is sacred, but that doesn't mean you can't be proud of something you're taking the piss of. However, I did find that the last, oh, hundred pages were a bit slow and uneventful after the strong surge of the previous four hundred pages. It lost its wind, lacked direction and felt almost like padding. Granted, it rounds out Danny's story and finishes filling in the gaps, but it doesn't feel as well tied-in to the rest of the story. Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that it feels a bit depressing, too, those last hundred pages. No longer on a forward momentum, the story seems to slowly sink into a muddy swamp, not going anywhere, not really adding much, accompanied by a feeling of apathy. That's always the problem with ending with the beginning: you know where it goes, how it ends, and the sense of optimism you began with is completely gone. Rather like looking at the Christmas tree on Boxing Day: bereft of cheery presents, ignored and forgotten, beginning to go brown and sad looking.
Barracuda touches on a lot of secondary themes, and several of them really connected with me. Dan's discovery of books and reading while in prison was one of these, captured in this passage:
Dan had discovered that he had been mistaken, that books did not exist outside of the body and only in mind, but that words were breath, that they were experienced and understood through the inseparability of mind and body, that words were the water and reading was swimming. Just as he had in water, he could lose himself in reading: mind and body became one. He had taken the Chekhov story with him on release ... That story was a song: in reading it he believed he was opening his lungs and singing. [p.341]
Another, rather more entertaining theme was Australian national identity and our relationship with Britain, captured so unerringly in scenes between Demet and Clyde:
Dan had heard the mantras before; Clyde's dissection of Australia had become both more bitter and more resigned the more his frustration with the country grew.
So Dan sat and listened while Clyde listed all the things he found perplexing and annoying about Australia. 'You all think you're so egalitarian, but you're the most status-seeking people I've met. You call yourselves laid-back but you're angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you're terrified of the poor, and you say you're anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don't climb there, don't go here, don't smoke and don't drink here and don't play there and don't drink and drive and don't go over the speed limit and don't do anything fucken human. You're all so scared of dying you can't let yourselves live - fuck that: we're human, we die, that's part of life. That's just life.'
And Demet was his chorus; Demet answered every insult, every jibe with her own litany of complaints that Dan knew off by heart - he could have recited it along with her. We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we're toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks; it was an antiphony between Demet and Clyde. [p.401-2]
There's a lot going on here, and it all brings into sharp relief the fact that a kid like Danny, an adult like Daniel, isn't shaped in a vacuum. He isn't even an isolated "case", if I can call him that for a moment. He's a pretty normal human being, flawed and insecure and afraid but also generous at heart, yearning to love and be loved, to succeed and make his loved ones proud of him. He's a child, and he's an adult suffering from the after-effects of a child's decisions. This was almost one of my favourite books of the year, if not for the lacklustre final lap - ha! How indicative. Definitely a book worth reading, and while I haven't (yet) read Tsiolkas's previous novel, The Slap, which established him as a powerhouse writer, Barracuda is a strong novel and puts Tsiolkas squarely in the forefront of contemporary Australian literature - a writer accessible to the world, too....more
Sarah Avery has returned home to Tasmania in secret, silent disgrace. She's broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job at a fish farm in QueenslandSarah Avery has returned home to Tasmania in secret, silent disgrace. She's broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job at a fish farm in Queensland, and is back in time for Christmas. Her family has a beach shack in the isolated Bay of Fires national park and head there every year for Christmas and New Year's. Her parents are there: Philippa, or "Flip" as she's known, a pharmacist; and Dr John Avery, a history professor at the university. Her younger sister Erica as well - a flight attendant, pretty and a bit vapid. The Bay of Fires village is a small one, consisting of a guest house made from a converted Nissen hut; three beach shacks and a shop; the Shelley's holiday house; and a campground. The Avery's own one shack; the one closer to the guest house belongs to Flip's best friend, Pam, and her husband Don; while the blue one farther away belongs to Roger Coker, a strange fisherman who lives there year-round with his cats.
On the day after Boxing Day, Roger discovers the body of a dead woman on the beach: topless, wearing a red polka-dot bikini, her body covered in gashes and partially eaten by sea creatures. Sarah, going to see, recognises the woman: a Swiss tourist called Anja who was staying at the guest house. It's clear to everyone in the community that Anja must have been murdered, probably by the same psycho who is behind the earlier disappearance of Chloe Crawford, a teenager who was holidaying with her family. Almost instantly many of the assorted holidayers and campers point their fingers at Roger, the oddball, the freak, as the guilty party. Personal, small-minded judgements against each other begin to fly as the community starts to turn on itself out of suspicion and fear.
The day after the discovery, a journalist from a local paper arrives for an extended stay. Hall Flynn is in his forties and single, a bad driver who can only sleep with a woman when he's drunk. He takes a shine to Sarah, who is the first woman he's slept with, drunk, in a long time who he'd like to spend more time with. Sarah becomes slightly obsessed with the mystery, and shares her theories with Hall, but she's prickly and hard to get to know.
Sarah has her own issues to contend with. There's the ugly truth of her breakup with Jake, her heavy drinking and her growing fear that she's a violent person. Her opinion of herself is sinking, especially after she wakes up on Boxing Day morning in the sand, lying in a pool of vomit with her fly undone and the last thing she can remember is picking up seventeen-year-old Sam Shelley and letting him have a drink. She doesn't know what happened but she fears the worst, and she fears the others in the bay finding out - especially his clingy mother, Simone, an American woman who runs a successful furniture business and has the only posh, new beach "shack" in the area.
There aren't many suspects in such a small area, but both Hall and Sarah contemplate them all while the community turns on itself, tensions run high and Roger is targeted. These are people Sarah's known all her life; what will she do with the truth when she learns it?
Mystery novels are not my usual fare - it's one of the few genres I don't generally read, with the exception of a few literary mysteries like this one, from time to time - so I can't really compare this to anything else. However, I absolutely love reading books set in my home state, and Poppy Gee hasn't written some bland generic novel here. Her debut is intelligent, literary, nuanced and deeply embedded in the local scenery. It touches on a range of issues, prominent among them the environment and environmental practices, fishing infringements, sensationalising media, scapegoating (especially of defenceless, vulnerable individuals who perhaps suffer from an intellectual disability of some kind), the appropriation of Aboriginal lands by white graziers, the ethics and morals around sound reporting, alcoholism, violence, marital woes, sexism, feminism and judgemental women. That might seem like a long list, but it all comes out through the narrative with natural ease.
I really enjoyed Sarah as a character. She was a woman in her thirties struggling with the decisions she'd made, struggling to understand what kind of person she was and whether she even liked herself. She was intelligent but moody, a bit of a hard-arse who really, secretly, wanted to be loved and cared for by a man she could respect and be an equal to, but she doesn't know how to open up. So used is she to working with - and being the boss of - all-male crews, and absorbing the sexism and crude opinions that come with them, that she's quite the opposite of girly-girl Erica. Sarah is athletic and very strong, and because she doesn't dress up or wear make-up or make her hair pretty, she's been mistaken as a lesbian more than once.
Hall seems an unlikely partner for Sarah, at first. He's no alpha-male, no macho Aussie bloke. He's a good reporter saddled with a bad editor, he's smart and not unattractive, but after his girlfriend of many years left him for his best friend, he's been unable to have meaningful relationships with any woman - and not interested in it either. He drinks, too, and smokes, and his driving made me cringe, but I really liked him. He seemed so down-to-earth, honest, not pretentious or posturing. Both Hall and Sarah are misfits in their small universes, suffering from insecurities and a lack of confidence, and I couldn't help think that they'd be great together - if they could give up their silly insecurities.
The mystery side of the story played out nicely, albeit slowly. This is a mystery narrative that revolves around the characters, getting to know them, learning and then unlearning them as new evidence comes to light. It's the kind of mystery that is designed to make you suspect almost all the characters at one point or other. The actual truth would have been anti-climactic but was made more interesting by the ethical and moral dilemma it threw up at Hall and Sarah.
Because I don't generally read mystery or crime or thriller novels, I can't really give you a sense for how successful it was as a mystery-suspense novel, only as a literary novel. I can say that there were a few scenes that were nicely creepy, some that were full of tension that would come out of nowhere and unsettle you nicely. While I did find that the plot was at times a little slow and uneventful, for a literary mystery-suspense story, it worked quite well and at a more intellectual level. Gee unwound the story of Sarah's Queensland disgrace slowly, letting readers balance the new information with a growing sense of Sarah as a person, which enables her to remain a sympathetic character.
The landscape itself was the strongest element to the whole book. The descriptions of the location where vivid and realistic, and peopled as it was with distinctly Australian characters, the world of Bay of Fires came vibrantly to life - which is what you want when your mystery novel depends on the interactions between the characters to maintain both the mystery and the suspense. While at times Gee's language was a little awkward and slowed me down, there were also some really beautiful lines as well, like "At the bar, a flannelette row of farm workers peered from beneath caps." [p.158] Gee's love for the real Bay of Fires Conservation Area (which does not, in reality, have a campground or guest house or shop as it does in the novel, only some shacks) comes across strongly, and the novel carries with it a real sense of place.
The mystery of the two missing women is loosely based (inspired, but not a recreation of) two real-life cases: the disappearance of German woman Nancy Grundwaldt in 1993 and the death of Italian Victoria Cafasso in 1995, tourists to the Bay of Fires whose cases were never solved - though in 2011 a retired police officer came out publicly with information on the Grundwaldt case. In a place like Tasmania, with its peaceful, beautiful scenery and small, half-a-million population, the two cases gripped everyone's imaginations and are yet to be forgotten. In this way, too, Poppy Gee's novel will resonate with Australian readers at a more personal level.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, which I read as a literary novel more than a mystery - the mystery propels the story forward but it is the stylistic writing and the incredibly well-captured characters that keep you reading. It's gritty and realistic, and any time you add sinister tensions to a scenic landscape, you're going to get a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. There aren't many stories set in Tasmania, and in general, Australian authors seem overly conscious of the "cultural cringe" and avoid that sense of familiarity with location that, conversely, American authors embrace so whole-heartedly. Personally, I love reading stories set in places I recognise, and have lived in. Gee incorporated plenty of local sites and landmarks and places, without a trace of the dreaded cultural cringe, and for that I thank her. I'm very interested in what Poppy Gee writes next, because she's a talent to watch out for.
On a side note, I was a bit put-off by something about this book: this is an Australian writer, the story is set here, my edition was published in the UK, and yet the spelling is American. It was very jarring to read "color", "harbor", "tire" and so on, when everything else was so distinctly Australian. A pet peeve of mine....more
Sarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and,Sarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and, sometimes, death, but growing up in the 80s, Sarah knows it's home and doesn't think of the future much. Her older brother Cameron will inherit, according to the family patriarch, her grandfather Angus Gordon. Angus has inherited his own father's determination and arrogance, and doesn't see his own son, Sarah's father Ronald, a worthy successor. But Angus is a meddler, and when he hires Anthony - first as a jackaroo and later as station manager - he already plans for him and Sarah to marry, to keep it all in the family.
And then tragedy strikes: young Cameron is killed while riding his horse, and Sarah learns he was only her half-brother. Her mother, Sue, had an affair with a wool grader. It doesn't change her love for Cameron, but her mother seems to hate her and she feels like even her grandfather considers her second-best and not worthy of Wangallon. Angus is determined to pass the station down to a Gordon, and her brother wasn't even a real Gordon! Having finished high school, Sarah leaves Wangallon for life in Sydney as a photographer, where she meets Jeremy, a yuppy accountant who offers her a very different way of life.
But her grandfather calls her back to the station time and again, even after her parents pack up and move to the Gold Coast. It's just Angus and Anthony on Wangallon now, and Angus lays out his plans for Sarah: she can inherit Wangallon, but she has to move back to the land and marry Anthony. His heavy-handed, dictatorial approach only alienates her further, and Sarah's convinced Anthony knows all about it and doesn't trust her attraction to him, or his to her. She doesn't know her own heart, and baulks at the idea of moving back to Wangallon if only because her grandfather demands it. It will take more than a directive from Angus to clear up the doubt and anguish in Sarah's heart.
Alongside Sarah's story, which takes place between the years 1982 and 1987, is the story of Wangallon Homestead itself, which is the story of her great-grandfather, Hamish Gordon. Having left Scotland in anger with his younger brother Charlie following in 1854, he ends up in the gold fields of Victoria, struggling to strike it rich. After his brother dies, Hamish embarks on a new plan: to steal a lot of sheep (a common enough occurrence), establish his own farm and become a big landowner. His plan includes marrying Rose, a young woman in the nearby small town in New South Wales, but their marriage is a cold, unfriendly one and they never see eye-to-eye. It is a hard life, in rural Australia in the mid-1800s, and it takes its toll on Rose, while Hamish has his eye on a girl he saw once in Sydney.
It is Rose's story as much as it is Hamish's and Sarah's, a story about the deep connections forged between individuals and the unique Australian land, shaped by humans but never conquered. It is a story about love and loyalty, about belonging, identity, and following the heart.
It is partly my own fault that I struggled with this novel, and partly the novel's fault for being a bit sluggish. I had just arrived back in Australia after nearly eight years overseas, and was eager to try a Rural Romance. I'd seen plenty of them reviewed on other blogs, and they have very distinctive covers - covers just like this one. And when I read the blurb, I read it through a "rural romance" lens, and ended up misinterpreting it. This is a case of a book misrepresenting itself, and it all comes down to the cover. Covers not only serve to catch the eye; they also give browsers a quick, instant genre label. Every genre has its own style, and while the styles change over the decades, and there's room for movement within a style, they still scream "ROMANCE!" or "FANTASY!" or "YA!" or "MYSTERY-THRILLER!" and so on. Even literary, or general fiction, books abide by this, and you'll have noticed that books that publishers think will appeal more to women readers have covers that they think will appeal more to women (the downside being that men will never pick up the book). So this book has a Rural Romance cover, and that's what I thought I was getting: a romance, set in rural Australia.
The setting is correct, but this isn't a romance. It's fiction, a blend of contemporary and historical. It's also long - too long - and rather slow. While Alexander successfully conjures up the setting, especially Australia in the 1860s, the 1980s was too often a messy, vague picture in my head. I found the writing to be a bit weak at times, especially in Sarah's chapters. The story was much stronger in the 1860s setting, for some reason. I was much more invested in Hamish and Rose's story than I was in Sarah's. Hamish was a bit of a scary character, and I totally felt for Rose, who was separated from her daughter Elizabeth and who struggled with loneliness and depression on Wangallon Homestead. Hers is a tragic story, but while Hamish's side of the story helped explain Angus, the son he had when he was rather old, Rose's story doesn't really add anything to Sarah's.
I never came to like Sarah very much. In fact, I never really understood her. She was one of those frustratingly stubborn heroines who would get the bit between the teeth and that was it. There was no chemistry between her and Jeremy, and none between her and Anthony. Anthony was one of the most likeable characters in the whole story, if perhaps the only likeable character. But he's not very well developed, there isn't much to his character aside from being a good station manager.
There's quite a lot going on in this story, which concentrates around family dynamics, the mistakes of the past and lost love. Sue, Sarah's grumpy mother, has a fair bit in common with Rose, but aside from the characters feeling reasonably realistic and true to life, I never felt particularly empathetic with any of them. I even had trouble remembering some of their names - and there aren't many characters to remember. Sarah's trip to Scotland towards the end of the novel was a bit messy and slipped into cliché-land, and didn't add much to Sarah's character at all. I found her hollow and confusing. I never understood what her problem was, really, because she was never able to reflect on it, articulate it or show it. It was all rather frustrating.
Where the story is strongest is, as I mentioned, in the chapters set in the 1800s, Rose and Hamish's story. It's quite dark at times, and there's a palpable sense of tension and even a brooding kind of threat in the air. Hamish is rather merciless and ruthless and doesn't stop at having people killed to serve his own ends. The period settling is recreated convincingly and realistically. I found it a bit implausible that Angus would be Hamish's son, not because Hamish would be incapable of having a kid in, what, 1901? when he was in his 70s perhaps? But because his wife would have been too old, especially in those days. The dates and ages didn't quite add up, a niggling detail that bothered me throughout. Maybe, instead of the 1980s, Sarah should have been growing up a couple of decades earlier, and Angus born earlier.
While the history of Wangallon and Hamish's story added a bit of depth to Sarah's story, Sarah's story added nothing to Hamish and Rose's story. I found Sarah's story to be slow, long-winded, and rather dull. She's a self-indulgent sort of character, and that's a big put-off for me. For a debut novel, The Bark Cutters is rather ambitious and only half-successful; it doesn't make me inclined to read the next book in the Gordon family saga, A Changing Land - the story of Wangallon is quite interesting, but I've had enough of Sarah. ...more
A contemporary retelling of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I Take You introduces readers to blonde waif Connie Carven, once a model and now thA contemporary retelling of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I Take You introduces readers to blonde waif Connie Carven, once a model and now the dutiful trophy wife to an aggressively successful American banker, Cliff. After a youth of unsatisfying sexual encounters with men who never tried to awaken her, Connie finds herself married to a man she can't even stand kissing. But after his horrific skiing accident leaves him paralysed from the waist down, Connie submits herself further to the role of submissive wife by sharing her dormant desires with Cliff, opening the door to a new and more sexually exciting relationship - as long as Connie believes in her role in it.
Yet her newfound love for her husband is a façade that begins to crumble after he pushes their dominant-submissive relationship a step too far, and emptiness fills Connie. It isn't until she sees the new gardener in the communal garden of her home in London's Notting Hill that something comes alive in her. Mel is a seemingly taciturn, aloof man, separated from his wife and wishing nothing more than to be left alone. His first impression of Connie is replaced by one of concern and growing love after he sees what her husband has done to her, and their illicit relationship sets Connie free.
Or does it? She is still the wife of a dominant, domineering man who, now more than ever, needs to retain control over everything in his sphere of influence - especially his wife. Connie's presence by his side is not something he's willing to lose; and Connie has little experience fending for herself or living a life of low income. Can she find the courage to make a new life for herself? Can she find the courage to realise what she really wants in life, and give herself permission to grab hold of it?
Forbidden love. Repressed desire. A coming-of-age fairy-tale. The interesting thing about this retelling of Lawrence's classic novel is how it starts. Gemmell turns the current popularity for dominant-submissive, sexual-awakening stories on its head by presenting a couple who have already established such a relationship, and then drawing the heroine away from it. Unlike other erotic-based novels, in which the female narrators discover their own latent desires and then find the courage to explore them and express themselves in positive ways, we meet Connie in what seems like such a relationship, but which slowly dissolves into a different kind of repression.
Instead of Connie suppressing her submissive desires, she has embraced them for the sake of her relationship with her husband, Cliff. She has unconsciously recognised in him the need for control, for keeping up a particular appearance that will benefit him in his work; and in herself, a self-sacrificing element to her personality that ensures she will martyr herself - both to prove his family wrong in their judgement of her as a gold-digger, and to prove to herself that she made the right decision in marrying him.
Her cage and she has constructed it, of course. With her obedience, her compliance, her truth. Cliff continues reading the paper, lost in his mergers. Connie now gazing out the window, thinking of Picasso, how he said that all women were goddesses or doormats and if they weren't doormats at the start of the relationship then he'd do his level best to crack them into it. Herself? She's never been any threat. It's why his tight, moneyed family likes her, she knows that. One of those sweet ones who will not rock the boat; a pleaser, primed for a rubbing out; instinctively his family of strong women recognized it despite the slight niggle of a gold-digger, she can sense it; but she's sure they're like that with anyone who comes into their fold. [p.75]
She's allowed herself to be subsumed by Cliff and is torn between the genuine excitement and thrill and sensual pleasure she gets from their new sexual relationship - not to mention the first orgasms she's ever had - and a new feeling of coldness, rawness, of being "skinned by her husband." She's lost herself and is only now realising it.
Cliff wants to participate with an observer's coolness, wants others to admire, covet. Draws power from envy and adulation; is smooth with it, silvery with his thatch of greying hair, buoyant. Has always seen his hedge fund clients as objects rather than people - fools, sops, muppets - and Connie wonders how far this extends into other areas of his life.
To her it means almost nothing except that she gives herself to him, as the good wife. It is a kind of love, what he allows her to do now; no, it is love, she tells herself. Generosity of spirit, finally, yes; to be fulfilled by other men. The small price to pay: that he be allowed to watch. Control, yes, always that, for he is a controlling man. Pure head, no belly, no heart. And she is his adornment, his most beautiful trinket, her pliancy and servitude his triumph. [p.81]
It's been many years since I read Lady Chatterley's Lover - a class at university, though I can't remember which one - and I wasn't terribly impressed at the time. A bit obvious, I found it; can't help that dose of presentism sometimes. But I really don't remember it well, so I can't give any kind of proper comparison or analysis in that respect. Yet, the symbolism is present and correct, and still obvious. Cliff: moneyed, controlling, abhorring of nature, children, all things untamed and out of his control. Tight, heartless, cold, all those adjectives that position him clearly in the mechanical spectrum.
Contrast Cliff with Mel, the gardener, who is posited as "a real man". Not afraid to get his hands dirty, lives amongst the plants and trees and weather, understands the true patterns of life and death. Has no money, possibly not much education, but is everything Cliff is not. He represents nature. Connie, meanwhile, has been dazzled by wealth and glitz, comfort and ease, but has lost her soul in the process. Her shift back to reality, to the natural world and the path to discovering her real self, is a journey akin to many other fables that position the modern, industrial world as the antithesis, or enemy even, to the natural one. It's not original, no; it's as old as industry itself. So where does Gemmell break free of the tropes and make her own mark?
Possibly, it's in the language. Gemmell's prose - written in third-person present tense (and we all know that the use of present tense is a pet peeve of mine these days) - is both lyrical and poetic, but also oddly awkward and at times even jarring. You could say it is reflective of Connie's life and journey itself, but I'm never convinced that it's all that consciously done (in the past I've been impressed by McCarthy's The Road and Saramago's Blindness, applauding their prose as artistically creative and reflective of the nature of the stories themselves, only to discover afterwards that those authors always write like that - so I've learned not to give authors too much credit, sadly).
There were passages that I loved, lines that spoke volumes and that grasped the heart of the matter. At other times the prose style seemed almost an obstacle to real understanding, character development and a kind of integrity that stories like this need in order to feel grounded. I Take You never quite planted its feet firmly on the ground; it always seemed to float in way that gave it a daydreaming quality, a lack of realism even. But there were also great insights, not just into human nature but into the wider worlds of art, storytelling and truth. This one gave me pause for thought:
Are all female narratives of empowerment narratives of escape? [p.197]
I Take You began strongly, with a great sense of atmosphere, suspense and that thrill of uncertainty that invigorates the reading experience: you assume things that turn out not to be true, and you have to reassess quite often in the first, oh, hundred pages. But the drawn-out ending lacked a sense of oomph. The mystery was gone, the thrill and eroticism completely vanished, and it ends up a simple narrative of "will she won't she" leave Cliff. My interest in Connie - as a person, as a woman trying to write her own narrative after years of living someone else's - waned. In truth, she reminded me rather vividly of a Christine Feehan-esque insipid romantic heroine. She is bland, not just lacking in strength of character but in personality as well. She ended up Cliff's beautiful but simple wife because she really is simple. She comes across as frighteningly naïve, and while it's true that the story wouldn't quite work if she wasn't, it still makes it a little, well, dull.
There are strong, important and interesting themes in this novel, but for me their impact was overshadowed by the plot, the under-developed characters, even the prose, which was hit-and-miss for me. Each short chapter is prefaced by a quote from Virginia Woolf, and the one thing Gemmell did succeed with here, was to make me want to tackle Woolf again and see if age, experience, maturity and so on, would give me a better experience with her work than I had at university. The fact that my final thoughts on this novel centre around a completely different author will tell you that I didn't find I Take You as satisfying as I'd hoped, but I did find it thought-provoking and while I didn't love it, it has its merits....more
I love Rainbow Rowell's books and highly recommend them any chance I get. Loving an author, it does tend to set the bar high, and so going into FangirI love Rainbow Rowell's books and highly recommend them any chance I get. Loving an author, it does tend to set the bar high, and so going into Fangirl I was expecting to love this, no matter what. Well, I don't quite love it. It is a much longer story than her previous two, which made me gleeful: more pages of Rowell! But I think she actually writes better, stronger, when she keeps the page count down. Fangirl was a little too long. But it was enjoyable, and the longer page count allowed for well-developed characters and a natural, realistic feel to the gentle-moving plot.
The story is mostly a coming-of-age story for Cath, who, in her first year of university, is struggling to find space in her life for fanfiction - space, appreciation and forgiveness. It's about reaching the cusp of adulthood and our struggle to abandon our childhood, about reconciling two halves of our selves, and giving ourselves permission to hold on to the things that give us joy. Entangled in every coming-of-age story (in real life) is the expectation that we must give up what we enjoyed as kids and teens, that we should "grow out of it" and move on - as if it's something to be ashamed of, or things that will hold us back and prevent us from maturing. Genre fiction, especially Fantasy fiction, suffers greatly from this common, often subconscious social expectation, and we spend years of our adult lives apologising or justifying our appreciation of fantasy stories (and, often, romance, but that's another story). Really, it's not the fans of Fantasy that must change, but society's understanding of what being an adult is.
Using Simon Snow fanfiction - a deliberately clear parallel to Harry Potter and the wealth of fanfiction (and passionate followers) it spawned - provides the perfect vehicle for exploring Cath's conflicted maturity. Or rather, she is always true and honest to herself, but is pained and upset watching her twin sister Wren ditch it in favour of more socially-acceptable (or expected) young adult behaviour. Namely, going to parties, getting drunk and having sex. I could relate much more to Cath than to Wren, and it's easy to see that in reality, it's Wren who has the biggest maturity learning-curve to figure out. She stuffs up and makes big mistakes, and enters that tenuous period where young adults either continue to stuff up or decide to try a different path.
There is romance for Cath, and for me that was a driving force in the story. There were many elements to this that I loved; it was perhaps the fanfiction itself that dulled it a little for me. I'm not a big fan of fanfiction (ha ha), and could never write it myself. I'm very different from Cath in that regard, but it was great seeing it from a real fanfiction writer's perspective. Looking forward to reading Rowell's newest, Landline, next.
At twenty-six, Emily Crossley considers herself pretty lucky to have a well-paying job with a small non-profit environmental action organisation calleAt twenty-six, Emily Crossley considers herself pretty lucky to have a well-paying job with a small non-profit environmental action organisation called GeoForce. She's passionate about the cause in a deeply personal way, is organised and resourceful, and has been practically running the place since she joined five years ago. Her boss, Andy Hill, is relaxed, egalitarian and a bit forgetful. Her colleague, Carson, is proudly gay and shares her sense of humour. And twenty-one-year-old Rachel, the daughter of a local rich businessman, handles the tasks Emily and Carson don't like doing. It's a cosy place to work, Emily finds, one where she is paid attention to and gets to shine. More to the point, she believes passionately in the cause: reducing pollution to prevent climate change.
At her annual rally against the inefficient and excessively-polluting SUV, "Give Up Your SUV For A Day," where she and her colleagues at GeoForce try to convince the local working class population that they really don't need an SUV and the cars really aren't as safe as people think, Emily encounters Robert Drake. Robert is a PR man for Bell Motors, a big American car company with headquarters nearby, a company that produces some of the worst-offending SUVs, as far as Emily is concerned. Emily notices him for the way he's dressed - he's not wearing sneakers, for a start - and his beautiful eyes. But when she finds out he works for Bell Motors, she becomes antagonistic.
Robert, despite being a conservative Republican to Emily's liberal Democrat, is all for being challenged in life. He enjoys Emily's feisty passion, her intelligence and her sense of humour, and nothing she says seems to put him off, but he believes in being challenged in life and your opinions, lest you become entrenched and belligerent. He begins by emailing her, and she's provoked enough to respond. Soon, she can't wait for the little ping on her computer, telling her there's a new message from him. One date - just to see, because Emily's curious and he does have such lovely eyes and he seems to be intelligent - leads to another, though she can't bring herself to tell Carson she's "dating the enemy"; after all, it might not last long enough for her to have to come clean. But can this really go anywhere, when they disagree on politics and the environment? Is it possible to love, respect and admire someone when their opinions are ones you've always scorned and argued against?
The Drake Equation is a modern-day love story about two very different people struggling not against the barriers of class or wealth, as in so many romances, but against the more basic barriers of opinion and belief. It's a love story that ditches the conventional formula in favour of creating realistic characters, believable conversations and a romance that rings true. Without the formula, you're not quite sure where it's going or how it's going to play out, and that too was refreshing. Walsh's writing is excellent, and provides so much more than what you'd expect from a story billed as a romance - and the story, too, is so much more than a romance. There were many humorous details that captured my attention and made me smile, like this one:
She waited until Thursday after work to call him, figuring that was the latest she could call to ensure a date for the weekend without looking too eager.
Here was a new medium. Now she would get to hear his voice again. And yet she appreciated that they had relied solely on the written word over [the] past two weeks. It struck her as something quaint and Romantic, especially because they had avoided the choppy, casual style of writing so often seen in emails and texts. They had used complete sentences and semicolons. If a noun deserved a capital, it was granted that honor.
The novel's strengths lie in Walsh's ability to so accurately capture the subtle workings of Emily's mind and emotions - I could relate well to Emily, not because we had a great deal in common but because her reactions and thought-processes felt so familiar, so realistic. She felt like a real person, full of confidence and insecurities, blind to her own flaws. The way she interacts with Robert, especially at first, rang true. As a study of human nature, human character, Walsh has nailed it.
So this was what it had come to. Annoying him, annoying herself, just so she could make it unambiguously clear what she thought, and then say it once more for good measure. And it was not for his benefit - it was for her own. Lately the mere thought of him would suddenly engender a dizzying fear of loss. The loss of her beliefs, her opinions, her identity. This was the only way she could reconcile her feelings toward him. For every positive feeling he elicited in her, she had to counter it with something that felt true to herself. She had to purge the pleasure she took in his smile with SUV crash statistics and fuel economy projections.
But there was another possibility that she considered as she sat there in the wake of those words. They might not be simply a reminder of her political views. Those sentences could very well be barriers that she was throwing down, like someone strewing any available object - a chair, a wastebasket - in their path, hoping at least one of those items would trip the pursuer.
Would she ever stop with the blockades? If she could never let down her guard, then what exactly was the point of continuing this?
Emily is a nicely representative character, a strong, intelligent, witty 21st-century woman. She reminded me of women I've known, women who don't know how to find the middle ground between being strong and independent, and admitting a (male) partner into their lives, and learning to compromise. They often come across as intimidating and overbearing, and very much fixed in their ways, their preferences. Emily's only twenty-six, so she's not so very frightening or rigid, but she's still in that phase of thinking she's figured herself all out and must protect that façade at all costs.
His lifting her up like that - scooping her up like the proverbial bride. She was not supposed to take such pleasure in that. Nor was she supposed to enjoy it so much when he put his arm around her and pulled her into the nook of his shoulder, and she became a small part of him under there, hiding. And being his little one - that was the most shameful one of all. It was her new guilty pleasure. How distraught she would be if he stopped calling her that. Don't betray yourself, Emily. Don't forget who you were before you met him. She could tell herself that all she wanted, but the truth was, if he asked her to live with him and be his dutiful wife, not that he would but if he did ask her to change her name and settle down and learn how to make a good pot roast, she suspected she would not react with immediate outrage. The battle would come eventually - she knew she would never be able to do it. But he dulled the outrage, and that scared her half to death.
A prevalent, relevant theme in the novel is the environment, or rather, the clash of opinions regarding the environment. Walsh deftly captures the black-and-white nature of such discourse, in the way Robert and Emily sound each other out and debate it. I was a little disappointed in Emily's inability to come up with counter-arguments to a couple of Robert's points, which were rather classic points you'll have heard often and easily rebutted. (I would have loved to see Robert lose his cool for once and get emotional, but that wasn't his character.) Emily and Robert are of the same class - white middle class - and are more alike than they, at first, realise, but their different opinions on the environment are a sticking point, for Emily at least.
What's interesting about this is that the whole thing - the romance, the story, their arguments - is more about the black-and-white labelling that goes on in the United States. It's about the rigid, inflexible juxtaposition of opinion and how that blinds people. You're either a Republican, or a Democrat. You're either Conservative, or Liberal. You either support anti-gun policies or you're against. You either believe in Climate Change or you don't. You're either this or that, there's no grey in-between. Emily, who believes herself to be an open-minded liberal, is arguably more fixed in her opinions and viewpoints - and perceptions of other people - than Robert, the supposedly narrow-minded conservative, is. In that sense, this is a coming-of-age novel for Emily, as she realises this about herself and learns not to feel threatened by "the other side", that people don't just come in red or blue, they come in every possible colour and shade.
But the environment isn't just a useful tool for character development. There are real, relevant issues on debate here, as well as the all-too-real sense of uselessness and hopelessness. I very much agree with Emily that if we don't look after the planet, we won't have a planet to call home ("look after your house and it will look after you", right?), and I personally believe that humans are not the superior species on Earth, as in, we do not have a basic right to do what we like with the planet. But I have never been actively involved in any kind of movement - I try to live like a decent, considerate human being and I like to think that the most important thing we can do is alter our attitudes and way of thinking, because our attitudes are the real sticking point when it comes to change and our expectations regarding standard of living. But I could completely empathise with Emily and her "moment of crisis", the faltering of her conviction.
"Carson, have you ever though we could just be wasting our time? Do you really think that my scooter is going to counteract all of those North Prospect housewives in their Hurons? Or that my lonely little boycott of Dynamo Burger is going to save the rainforest? Rachel's stupid prank basically convinced the whole town to donate their own money to buy another Hummer. And even Andy's grants and GeoForce's efforts are drops in the bucket. Compare my rally to 8.8 million acres of land ruined with a signature. We can't win that fight. We could probably make more of a difference if we sold out and took high-paying corporate jobs and then used our money to make big changes, like Bill Gates does. Maybe we only work at a nonprofit because it makes us feel better. There is a very good chance that what we're doing is not making any difference and we're just wasting our time. Think globally, act locally may just be a big scam, and we've all been duped."
(On a side note, I felt more than a small measure of satisfaction, at every mention of the town's police Hummer, to know that they stopped producing the Hummer several years ago, as it really was a completely ridiculous and needlessly-expensive vehicle to run.)
This is a deeply human story, a story that deftly captures a particular slice of American population and ideology and presents it to readers in an entertaining way. The banter between Emily and Robert is rather addictive, the issues raised are thought-provoking, and the characters will be relatable to many readers. Walsh writes with skill, empathy and intelligence. The pacing might be a little slow for some readers, especially if you're expecting a generic romance (this is "fiction" first and foremost), but it is consistent and smooth and gives you time to engage with the story in thoughtful ways. Most of all, I appreciated the skill with which Walsh captured the nuances of human nature, our often contradictory thoughts, and our feeling of safety which we get from choosing a box and staying in it (and, as a result, how threatened we feel when someone doesn't conform to a box we've already received the instructions for).
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book. ...more
On the 21st of August, 1978, Isabelle Nieto arrives from California to the coastal town of Mazatlán, Mexico, after her grandfather's death. Arriving aOn the 21st of August, 1978, Isabelle Nieto arrives from California to the coastal town of Mazatlán, Mexico, after her grandfather's death. Arriving at the family's 19th-century French mansion, Isabelle learns that she's inherited her grandfather's tuna cannery, Consolation Tuna, since her older sister, Lorena, also died recently at the age of sixty-seven. That's not all she's inherited, though. There is also the matter of the "Thing" that lives in the house, along with Gorda, the housekeeper. The Thing is a wild girl of indeterminate age, with a mat of tangled hair, filthy and scarred from her mother's beatings, who in times of stress eats sand off the beach. She's a ghost in the house who has been living beneath it, on the ground by a water hole.
Isabelle takes both the cannery and her newly discovered niece under her care. She cleans and dresses the girl, names her Karen, and proceeds to teach her to speak, read and write, to eat properly, to dress and many other things. The first word she later remembers learning was "me", and the concept that Karen is the one and only "Me" forever sticks with her.
The cannery, though, is in trouble. An American embargo on Mexican tuna due to the slaughter of dolphins means that they can't export the cans of tuna to the States. While Isabelle downsizes the company and its fleet of twenty ships by half, she sends Karen to America to earn a degree at university. Karen is an autistic savant: considered an idiot in some areas, a genius in others. She's already mastered English, but she struggles in her classes, the names of which she finds bizarre: Animal Industry Economy (all about how to make money off killing and selling animals); Scientific Experimentation (where they taught you to torture live animals); and Human Intelligence (a class that "justified our license to kill animals). In Karen's autistic, black-and-white literal mind, she prefers Charles Darwin over Descartes, and relates better to animals than to people.
While Karen doesn't earn a degree, she's learned a lot and had a few ideas of her own, which she uses to turn Consolation Tuna into the first dolphin-friendly, low-stress tuna cannery in the world. Unfortunately, not all their problems are solved, and it isn't until a strange man with incredible wealth turns up at the family mansion with a proposal that things really change. Though, everyone underestimates Karen and her affinity for animals over humans, with unexpected results.
This profound novel gripped me from the very beginning and held me close right to the end. A smooth blend of animal rights, philosophical thought and what it means to be human, Berman has written a powerful novel that explores our place in the world and the values we give things. In the creation of Karen Nieto, autistic savant, she has created the perfect character, narrator and protagonist to shine a light on certain things we take for granted, assume is our right, and never question - such as our sense of our own superiority on this planet and how we abuse this self-given right.
Karen narrates her own story, looking back from the age of forty-one over the course of her strange life. She writes in her own distinct voice, and her story is full of her unique perceptions and growing understandings. There is a clear sense of self-awareness, especially of her own place in human society, but in her honest, literal-minded way, she doesn't disguise or inflate or lie about her own qualities. She knows who she is better than anyone else, except her aunt.
I don't feel those 101 things that are somewhere between pain, fear, and happiness, or between hunger and sleepiness. Which, the way I see it, is to my advantage. I mean, I know that I am dimwitted, at least compared to standard humans. I know that on standard IQ tests I score somewhere between idiot and imbecile. But I have 3 virtues, and they are big ones. 1. I don't know how to lie. 2. I don't fantasize, so things that don't exist don't worry Me or hurt Me. 3. I know that I only know what I know, and that what I don't know - which is a lot more - I am sure I don't know. And that, like I said, over the long run has given Me a big advantage over standard humans. [p.25]
I haven't read very many books that are told from the perspective of someone on the autism spectrum - I did get a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, back in 2007 I think it was, and I still haven't read it, whoops! I have read the memoir of John Elder Robison, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and, just last year, Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, which features a narrator who has some form of Asperger's. While Karen Nieto seems to have been modelled on real-life animal rights autistic, Temple Grandin, whom I know of only in general terms (I haven't yet read any of her books or watched the biopic of her life, starring Claire Dane), so I think my love of this book comes from its freshness and uniqueness: I don't have much to compare it to, therefore there isn't much that can detract from it.
The world as seen through Karen's eyes is a black-and-white world: she sees things the way they are, in simple terms, and without metaphor or euphemism or romantic rosy glasses. And she sees the position of animals on the planet and in this human world in the same way, starkly free of religious symbolism, historical precedent, economic greed or social norms. As such, she doesn't agree with the way most humans see their place in the world, or that animals are there simply for us to use and abuse.
The standard human world: a bubble where nothing that isn't human is really seen or heard, where only what's human matters and everything else is either background, or merchandise, or food. [p.30]
I loved Karen's frank appraisal of Descarte's famous philosophy, the one where he sums up our sense of our own superiority and justifies it: I think, therefore I am. I loved it partly because the same ideas that Karen responds to it with, occurred to me also when I had to study it in first year philosophy at uni (I was disillusioned, to put it mildly, to discover that in the study of philosophy we were meant to simply absorb the philosophies of dead white men and what they mean, not argue or analyse or critique them, so I didn't take any more classes in it after first year). It is in the same vein as that rather lame idea of the tree falling in the forest making no sound because no person is around to hear it. I can't remember where that was from originally, but I remember studying a bit of Berkley who said much the same: that this chair only exists if I am here to see it, therefore I know that God exists because He "sees" the chair when I am not in the room (thus ensuring its continued existence). I'm paraphrasing (and bastardising) but that's the general gist of it.
Karen strips it all back, and by seeing things in more simple, less esoteric and egoistic ways, sees more truth in the world than we allow ourselves to.
Descartes didn't write only about human thought. He also wrote, at the end of his life, a very short book on happiness, which I did read and which, unfortunately, is less famous than the others.
After many words and 24 pages, Descartes wrote that happiness is a matter of the senses. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting: that is happiness. Then Descartes wrote many other pages full of words, which is a shame because he'd reached the truth on page 25.
Yes, the most basic, most happy form of happiness is simply feeling with your senses. Thinking with your eyes and skin and tongue and nose and ears. [p.107]
Aside from Karen's introspective thoughts, this also a novel of action. Smoothly paced and executed, we follow Karen (mostly chronologically) through her life with its strange quirks - such as how she likes to put on her wetsuit and hang from the wall in a harness; the feeling of floating while being encased is freeing and relaxing to her - as she travels the world and gets caught up with animal rights activists in France. She has interesting and often funny experiences, like her attempts to figure out how to use a modern Japanese toilet results in her first-ever orgasm!
In fact, the story is often very humorous through the way Karen describes and relates things. She has no sense of humour or irony herself, but because we have a greater understanding of the undercurrents and misunderstandings, for example, many scenes are humorous to us. Karen is not presented as a comedic, or clown, figure, by any means. She's a deeply sympathetic character, though she retains that sense of the alien Other because we can never see the world quite like she does. She lets us in and shares it with us, but we can't stay. What comes across clearly and emphatically, though, is just how human Karen is, the depth and richness of her own unique human experience and emotions.
She may be autistic and many of the people she meets in the course of her life dismiss her or ridicule her, but readers of her story will come away from it with the understanding that Karen isn't all that different, really - that the things we measure her on and judge her on, aren't as important as we like to make out in the grand scheme of things. She notes her three core values, the things she's realised about herself that she sees as strengths. I noted also, that in her inability to grasp economic principles or agree with human superiority, she is more humane than most of her fellow humans. She can't fit into "normal" society, she will also be odd and unusual and need things to be explained differently, but what Karen shows us is that how we treat many of our fellow humans is not much different from how we treat our fellow animals: with a lack of understanding, empathy, dignity even, and with a clear view to drawing a line in the sand so we can maintain the upper hand.
For a thought-provoking, insightful and vivid look into the heart and mind of an autistic savant as well as a sharp critique on animal husbandry and industry as well as the environment and our place as a species within it, Sabina Berman has written a stellar novel. If you read nothing else this year, read Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World....more
She is nineteen, half black, daughter to successful but divorced parents. At Yale University she meets Miriam, a vivacious, confident twenty-one-year-She is nineteen, half black, daughter to successful but divorced parents. At Yale University she meets Miriam, a vivacious, confident twenty-one-year-old woman who, with her forceful, lively nature, takes her younger friend under her wing and introduces her to the wider world - both at home and abroad. Together, they take a year off and travel, thanks to their moneyed parents. In Africa, she begins to feel a sense of homecoming, no longer standing out with her copper colouring but "one in a great mass of long lost reflections of myself. The language was different but the skin, the way we looked moving in the colors and contours of the world, was the same."
As the two women travel across north-eastern Africa, they eventually find themselves on the island of Luma, off the coast of Kenya. Predominately Muslim to Nairobi's Christian, they settle in quickly, effortlessly. On her first night there, she meets Adé, a handsome young man who "radiated an honesty that was unfamiliar, a blend of humility and self-awareness, confidence and modesty all at once, and when he turned to face me, I gasped a little at his unselfconscious beauty." With a mouthful of sweetened spaghetti, their love affair begins, an honest bonding of two souls who find themselves in each other - as well as a new and dangerous world.
It is Adé who names her Farida. She needs an Arabic name, he tells her, and chooses this one which means "the woman who is exceptional, a jewel. There is no other like her. She stands alone." He introduces her to his family - his mother, Nuru, and her other children, his cousins and even, eventually, his father who lives on the mainland in a village of rundown huts with his four wives and their many children. Farida continues to learn the language, Swahili, and adapt to the customs of the island, but it is for Adé that she stays, while Miriam leaves for more travel.
After Farida agrees to marry Adé, there is much discussion among the women of his family and the imams in the town about how to get the permission of her parents. It is a custom and one they must respect, even though Farida knows her parents won't care. So it is decided that they must travel to America before they can marry. To do so, Adé needs a passport: no easy matter in a country run by a dictator and divided along tribal lines. It is while in mainland Kenya that disaster strikes the happy, carefree couple. Farida succumbs to a rare form of meningitis and cerebral malaria. After weeks at a local hospital, it becomes clear that she must return to America for more treatment.
Only, it's August 1990. Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait, and America launches the Gulf War in retaliation. All flights are cancelled. The only way Farida can leave is on a specially chartered plane picking up foreign nationals with connections in the right places. Her father has arranged a seat for her on the plane. But there is only one seat.
This well-written novella is a tidy homage to love and identity as it explores the all-too-human barriers between race, class, religion and nationalism. The telling is simple but rather beautiful, never overdone or portentous or flowery. Walker, a poet, brings Farida's first-person voice to life in an understated way, capturing her sense of smallness and her quiet search for a place to belong.
The West's penchant for romanticising Africa is one of the themes at the heart of this book. Farida and Miriam experience Africa differently, with different eyes and different expectations. For Farida, whose mother was born in Africa and made sure her daughter grew up with a love for all things African, it is a place that allows her to seek a sense of identity that had before been elusive.
I know for many reasons that it is unfair, exploitive, and blasphemous to think this, but I began to feel at home there, walking between the palms, looking at the pink and purple, turquoise and orange clothes, faded but clean, fluttering on gray clotheslines above me. Some might say it was only first world romanticism causing me to see myself reflected in the faces of those to whom I could not speak. And yet at each house, even though I had no words to tie us together, a recognition between me and my hosts rose up and hung in the air, roping us together long after I had walked away. [pp. 9-10]
The powerful feeling of "fitting in" is new to Farida, and blissful. She is already slipping over the line from first-world to third even before they arrive in Luma and she meets Adé. In Adé, Walker has created a true gentleman, a man respectful of his culture, his people's traditions, his religion and Farida herself. He is loving, tender, passionate, thoughtful and loyal. He's a sweetheart, and it's not hard to see how someone like Farida could fall in love with him and be so willing to give up everything she knows, the lifestyle she grew up in - electricity and washing machines and so on. At the same time, she is young and idealistic, yet she doesn't come across as impressionable. She lacks the experience that comes with age as well as the jaded cynicism, but she sees clearly and is telling her story some two decades later, with the gift of hindsight. The voice of Farida as a young woman is the voice that comes across strongly in the story, not that of her present self.
It is a long time before Farida loses her rosy glasses. The trip to Nairobi for a passport for Adé is the beginning of the end of paradise for her. First, soldiers board their bus, ransack the passengers' belongings to steal anything of value, and Farida - in her Western, American pride and arrogance - demands that they stop, she finds the nozzle of a gun pressed to her cheek. Adé has to talk them out of killing her. Later, when tanks roll through town and the streets are deserted but for one young boy whom Farida sees get shot simply for running away, the last of her innocence is stripped away. The sound of the gunshot haunts her.
I could not imagine a day when Adé would turn against me, but I could, for the first time, imagine something far worse: death, imprisonment, or cruelty at the hands of a foreign government. Dictatorship and secreted civil wars created a terrible isolation for the people who lived within their unfolding. I saw a hideous and surreal picture of reality with no escape. Adé would not mistreat me, but I had not considered the state. And suddenly I felt less than I had yesterday, and far less than I had the week before. I was losing something. I was going dark. [p.84]
It is her sense of "white privilege" that Farida loses - a privilege that she absorbed by dint of being half-white and affluent and living in America. Here in Africa, she is one of them by skin colour alone. It takes the rude awakening on the bus to make her realise that while she may subconsciously believe she possesses white privilege, it's not visible to anyone else there. It won't protect her. The one thing that lingers is the buried knowledge that if the going gets too tough, she can still leave. This, too, is part of white privilege, of being a tourist to the harsh realities of life in a place like Africa. It is something that Farida comes face-to-face with and acknowledge.
I looked at Adé, extending the fork again and again, whispering encouragements, and I saw, for the first time, not a stranger, but a person from another place, another world. I saw someone I loved but could never really know. Adé knew how to talk murderers out of pulling the trigger. His father had abandoned him and his mother for four other wives and twice as many children. His island did not have a hospital. He made his living with precise movements of his hands and knowledge of the sky, chiseling flowers into wood for the rich, and knowing the direction of the wind as he steered his dhow. He lived in a house with no electricity and no running water, and shoveled feces from the bathroom - the hole in the ground at the back of his mother's house - every month. Five times a day Adé washed his hands and arms, knelt on a beautiful rug, and prayed to an invisible God.
But it was more than this. Yes, I could see it now. It wasn't him it was me. I had done what I swore I would not do: I had romanticized the truths of Africa. I had accepted Adé's life before I realized what it might mean for my own. [pp.94-5]
Adé is a classic story of trying to find your place in the world, of being from neither here nor there, of wanting to connect with your roots only to find that, no matter how much you want it to be otherwise, your upbringing has already shaped you. It is a simple story but rich, honest, full of feeling and the stripping away of innocence, naiveté, arrogance. After the clear flow of events throughout, I did find the ending a little vague, requiring more reading between the lines than anything that came before, which made it a bit disjointed and abrupt. The ending also seemed to strengthen the romanticisation of Africa and Farida's relationship with Adé, preserving it in the memories of youth - almost as if Farida made the decision she made not because of the actual difficulties but because the truth of those difficulties, of reality itself, was too much, the sacrifice on her part too great. I don't quite know what to make of it yet, it's something that will stew in my head for a while and would be clearer after a re-read. Overall, though, Walker's debut novel is strong and relevant, told in loving detail and narrated by a woman whose journey will resonate.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. Please note that quotes in this review are from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the final copy....more
In the summer of 1992, thirty-six year old Georgia Quillian packs up the island cottage in Illinois and drives down to Miami, Florida, with her husbanIn the summer of 1992, thirty-six year old Georgia Quillian packs up the island cottage in Illinois and drives down to Miami, Florida, with her husband Graham and their two-year-old son, Frankie. Graham has a rare sleep disorder called parasomnia - in fact, their trouble sleeping was how Georgia and Graham met, at a sleep clinic they dubbed Detention - and during the rare times he does sleep at night, he sleepwalks and does strange things. After he crashed through a glass window at a hotel, he lost his position at the university and the neighbours spoke of how creepy the family was in the media. It was time to leave, and Graham had been offered a position at the university in Miami which seemed fortuitous, using his IT skills as part of a team researching hurricanes.
Georgia had grown up in Miami, and her father lives there still, with his second wife, Lidia. Lidia's house backs onto a canal, and with his usual tendency towards recklessness, Graham proposes they buy a houseboat. They rename it Lullaby, and tether it to Lidia's dock. While Graham is busy at the lab, Georgia busies herself pruning Lidia's plants and looking after Frankie, who hasn't spoken or made little more than slight sounds since he was eighteen months old. They've taken him to several paediatricians and specialists, but still don't have a diagnosis or much of a plan to help him start speaking again.
In an effort to help and keep Georgia busy, Lidia recommends she take up a part-time job as an assistant to Charlie Hicks, a man her father's age who lives in one of the fourteen houses built on stilts in the Bay of Biscayne, called Stiltsville. Georgia remembers Charlie only vaguely; his wife Vivian had been a friend of her mother's, who often had parties at the house when Georgia's father, a musician, was away for months at a time. But everyone knows the story, how they lost their daughter, how Charlie left to live in Stiltsville like a regular old hermit while Vivian's health deteriorated and she ended up in a nursing home. Charlie is a quiet man who prefers solitude, but with the help of Frankie, whom Charlie makes time for, Georgia develops a warm friendship with "the hermit", and greatly admires the painstaking artwork he creates.
When Graham leaves for what was meant to be five weeks on board a ship with the rest of the scientific team in Hurricane Alley, to test their work, things change in subtle ways. Frankie starts to speak, and Georgia draws closer to Charlie and begins to see that there may be a connection between Frankie's selective mutism and his father's disturbing nocturnal wanderings. As news of a big hurricane - Hurricane Andrew - approaches, Georgia's decisions lead to the same recklessness she sees in her husband, and with an outcome just as terrifying.
For the first half or so of this book, I was full of admiration and praise for Sea Creatures. The prose was clean and smooth and unpretentious, the story simple and equally unpretentious, with a focus on Georgia as a mother and wife, trying to find her way and get some firm footing. Yet towards the end, it became more eventful, and the events that occur were not, I felt, in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book. It all got surprisingly melodramatic, and this drama - or we could call it "Georgia's decisions and their predictable fallout" - overshadowed and let down the strength of the book as a whole.
Perhaps if there had been less foreshadowing from Georgia herself, who narrates from the perspective of, I think it was, eight years into the future, it would have read more naturally. And perhaps if Georgia were less aloof from the reader, someone I could understand and relate to better, her choices wouldn't have seemed so ... tacky. Because I did find that the big drama around the time of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992 was almost cheesy in the way it was presented.
Georgia narrates in an omniscient, carefully-crafted storytelling style. She shares inside information about Graham and his childhood, for example, as if she were an author writing a story. It's a bit odd at first, but her ability to shed light on others adds a great deal to the depth of the story, which focuses on the characters and their connections to each other, their secrets and their desire to live a life of their choosing. Each character has the feel of a carefully crafted doll or game piece, each from a different game but occupying the same playing board, moving around like little islands, sometimes gently bumping into each other, sometimes connecting and sticking, like magnets, until something should pull them apart. I don't know how else to describe it, but that was how the characters move through this book. And for the most part, I really enjoyed it.
The dynamic between Georgia and Graham and Frankie is at the heart of the story, and Georgia's increasingly unflinching analysis of her marriage and the relationship between Frankie and his father is the main point of the whole novel. Everything that happens is a catalyst or an influence or a bump in the road on this journey of Georgia's. I could relate to Georgia in some ways, as we did have a few things in common - mostly a toddler - but Georgia is an over-protective, second-guessing, hovering sort of mother, so afraid that she's a bad mother or the reason Frankie won't talk that her ability to clearly reflect on her own parenting style or her decisions is clouded by this anxiety.
There was no real sense of chemistry between Georgia and Graham, not in how Georgia relates their relationship's early years, though I found Graham to be one of the most interesting characters in the whole novel. Far from black-and-white, Graham both loved his son and was impatient with his speech problem. He was considerate towards him but never really wanted to spend the quality time with him. Likewise, Frankie both adored his father - as all small children do - and feared him. It was Graham I pitied the most, though, when all was said and done. He came out the victim, in the end, I suppose, considering there was nothing he could do about his sleep disorder or what it made him do, the rare times he actually slept.
There is another character in this novel, one that Daniel clearly has a keen interest in: Stiltsville itself. Her first novel, Stiltsville, was set there as well, and it features prominently in Sea Creatures. In fact, the setting of Miami - which comes across as a small, somewhat sleepy town - as well as Stiltsville comes across strongly, and was one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel. I've never been to Florida, but the area in all its heat and reptilian glory came vividly to life.
The theme of sea creatures, too, was a rather beautiful one, and nicely incorporated. The obvious representation was in the artwork that Charlie Hicks creates, but it radiates out into Frankie's delight with snorkeling and the little sea creature toys Charlie gives him and the paper mobile he makes for him, as well as the scene in which Graham rescues a giant turtle from a lobster net (sharks had already bitten off one flipper). There's the woman who lives across the canal from Lidia who often dives into the alligator-infested waters for a swim (in fact, "recklessness" could be another theme of the novel), and the sense that the human characters on land are their own kind of creature, the way they're presented. (Coming back to that analogy from before, of the pieces from different games - different species - all occupying the same game board, in the way of sea creatures occupying the same sea.) There's something poignant and tender and genuinely heartfelt about the sea creatures, and it's also a way into understanding Charlie and humanising him.
I have a lot more to say about this book - it would be ideal for a book club discussion! - but my reviews are always too long so I need to wrap things up. Overall, I did like this book, I liked it a lot, it was atmospheric and felt authentic, realistic, without ever being dull. It was easy to become emotionally invested, as a silent, unobtrusive observer, and it was a story I was interested in. But the drama of the ending (not the actual end of the book, but the climactic events that signal major shifts and an ending to the story of that summer) was like an off, jarring note in an otherwise lovely musical performance. I was amazingly disappointed in how things went, because up until then this had been a wonderfully captivating, well-written story.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
Sonya Schoenberg is the adopted, half-black daughter of a rich Jewish couple who soon after taking the girl of unknown parentage in, had their own chiSonya Schoenberg is the adopted, half-black daughter of a rich Jewish couple who soon after taking the girl of unknown parentage in, had their own child, a boy. Beautiful but entitled and resentful, prone to milking her parents for money rather than take a loving interest in them as people, Sonya dreamed of making it big on the stage or screen but never managed it - instead she had a one-night stand with a Kuwaiti man called Aziz and ended up with a fatherless daughter of her own, Razia. Sonya loves her daughter, but she's determined that Razia will succeed where she failed, and insists on Razia attending a private arts school in San Francisco with a focus on acting, even though Razia prefers to draw.
Razia, now twelve, wants to find out about her father. Sonya has never spoken well of him but Razia has learnt that he owns several yoga studios and it's not hard for her to track him down. Meeting him brings both Sonya and Aziz together but not in a friendly or peaceful way: Sonya wants nothing to do with him and feels threatened by him, while Aziz makes sly comments about Sonya's parenting and the prospect of getting lawyers involved, and wants to convert Razia to Islam - though he hasn't yet told his wife or two children about her yet.
In the months leading up to the attack on New York's twin towers in September 2001, tensions rise, prejudices and assumptions are cast, and everyone in this family drama starts to look a bit ugly - well-meaning at heart, but blinded by bitterness and bigotry. Can they work things out and get along or will the abrasive clashes continue, with Razia caught in the middle?
This is the second book by Sorrentino that I've read, after enjoying The Floater a year ago; it's a very different story but told with the same skill in depicting realistic, earthy and interesting characters and complex, emotional issues. In some ways I enjoyed it more - it explores issues that have always interested me, namely religious, ethnic and cultural differences and how people get along together (or don't), as well as parenting and coming-of-age (for Sonya as well as Razia) - but I did weary of Sonya's bitter, stringent ranting, as true to her character as it was. I couldn't help but agree with some of the other characters: she really needed to get laid.
There are some really insightful passages in the novel, astute glimpses into what it's like living as an ethnic, religious or cultural minority (or all three, really) in contemporary United States. Sonya epitomises the ignorant citizen who's picked up some laughable stereotypes and is too arrogant to bother checking their veracity. But she does at least apologise and seems open to being corrected. It's not just Sonya's flaws that are sure to get you emotionally and intellectually engaged: Aziz, too, is going to push your buttons. Many of Sonya's criticisms of him are right on the mark, though she doesn't care about seeing things from his perspective. He is high-handed and a bit pompous, and Sorrentino does a deft and convincing job of presenting a man born to a very different way of living, trying to find a middle ground in America where he can stay true to the values he upholds and believes in.
Razia is the most sympathetic character, if you don't count the boy at her school who likes her enough to help her find her father but later becomes a scapegoat for Razia's inability to tell the truth over which of her peers tried to strangle her at school (apparently this is the new thing in attempting a "high"). She doesn't make it easy to like her, being in that delicate, vulnerable, troubled cusp age, but her yearning for a father - her need for a father, for a man to fill that role of authority, guidance and love - is a very human and necessary one and since she is the child in the situation, the blameless one in Sonya and Aziz's cock-up, she got my sympathy quite easily. And like with many young teens, her mistakes are overblown until no one can see her good qualities or the nice things she does or just how vulnerable and yearning she really is.
There's no doubt that Sorrentino succeeded admirably in her aims with Stage Daughter, bringing to life a clash of cultures and the prejudices of modern America - and we didn't even go into class or socio-economic issues, among other things, that are also explored here in more subtle ways - with realism, honesty and respect. Sorrentino isn't interested in reenforcing the divisions she sees in her own society, maintaining that "black and white" dichotomy America is so well known for; she's interested in giving troubled characters the chance to tell their story, warts and all. It's a story told with empathy, affection, humour and an appreciation for the things that make us different and unique. It's a coming-of-age story that delves into the heart of contemporary issues, from what makes a family a family to the perception of foreign religion as a threat. A fine achievement.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book....more