Parenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm dParenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm deftly explores the consequences of youthful decisions, the effect of silence on love, and how a parent can represent home to a child.
Thirteen-year-old Silver Landes is used to moving around between ashram and commune with her young, single mother Ishtar, but that doesn't stop her from yearning to have her mother to herself, and a place of their own - to just stop for long enough to have a real home. The move to Hope Farm in central Gippsland, Victoria is just the most recent dislocation in young Silver's life, another grand idea that Ishtar has bought into, another new man that Ishtar is following. This time it's a man Silver only knows as Miller: thirty-six, bearded and large, he sweeps her mother up in his plans for the hippie 'commune' of Hope Farm, a run-down property rented by an odd mix of ageing hippies who have become increasingly jaded. Ishtar hands over her savings to Miller to buy a car, which he registers in his own name, and then Silver accompanies her mother on the train while Miller uses the car to get new supplies for the farm.
While Ishtar disappears into Miller's possessive, intense and narcissistic embrace, Silver is - as always - left to fend for herself. She befriends fourteen-year-old Ian, a neighbour, though the constant bullying he receives at school creates a darkness in him that Silver begins to glimpse, and is scared by. She is also scared of Miller, with his complete possession of her mother and his pornographic and violent drawing hanging over the bed that clearly show his fatherhood aim. With the arrival of a surprise guest on the farm, this temporary home is further shaken and Silver is drawn along in the adults' wake, heading towards disaster.
Silver's narration of this period in her life comes from decades later, as a middle-aged woman still haunted by events and the emptiness and loneliness left by her mother. Her silent, pent-up rage and impotent hopes are clearly drawn, sharper-edged by time and honestly come by. Ishtar - as we learn from her own poorly-spelt journal writings that intersperse Silver's narration - was only sixteen when she fell pregnant, and completely ignorant of how it happened. Living in an ordinary suburb in Queensland with religious parents in the 70s, her mother's reaction is predictable and acutely heart-breaking: she is furious, and keenly aware of the shame that Ishtar will bring to her family. Ishtar has seen what happened to another girl who was in the same situation, around whom judgements and opinions still collect, and is passively swept up in her mother's plan. She is taken to Brisbane, to a home for girls like her; after the baby is born she will sign it away for adoption and return home, all in secret. But at the home she learns from another girl who has been there before that she has a choice, and Ishtar takes it.
The repercussions of Ishtar's choice are just as hard on her as they are on Silver, in the long term. Her mother refuses to see her again, leaving Ishtar to live without support or guidance in an ashram, with the people who helped her. At such a young age, Ishtar - who took that name to replace her own when she started living there - has to give up the remains of her childhood and work for no personal gain. She loves her baby dearly, but feels increasingly guilty for the noise the baby makes, and for loving her so much. Soon, depression takes hold of her and she grows colder towards her child.
Finally when I went to bed she was still awake she must have been feeling better because she laughed and reached out her arms but all I wanted was sleep. I looked in to her face and no warm feeling came. I lay down with my back to her. She cuddled up to me and touched my hair but I lay like a block of concrete, there was this heavy sadness and some where deep under everything I wanted to break the spell and turn over and face her, it felt like an important thing to do but I just couldnt. I didnt move or make a sound and after a while she left me alone. And after that it was like some thing had broken and I couldnt fix it, I seemed to feel more and more tired like the love had been buried under the tiredness and every night I turned my back on her I lay there but I could never fall asleep because of the sad feeling I just lay listening to her breathing until she fell asleep. [p.146]
The moves begin: she finds a man and moves to his commune, then moves to another ashram to escape, and so on. Her relationship with Silver becomes rote and silent, and while there are things about Ishtar that Silver has always known - like what her real name is - there are bigger things that Ishtar never speaks about, and Silver has no words for her mother's moods, and no one to turn to.
The consequences of shaming girls and women about their bodies, the secretiveness associated with sex and pregnancy and the judgemental attitudes of others all play their part in ruining Silver's relationship with her mother. I'm not sure that we've come all that far since, though at least we don't pack girls off to wait out their pregnancy in hiding, away from the neighbours' eyes. This happened to my own mother, who wasn't in a position to marry when she accidentally got pregnant, and who was sent off to a home run by nuns in Melbourne, and treated like she wasn't even human. Unlike Ishtar, though, my mother's story had a happy ending: she and the father - my father - did marry and start a family, and the baby they had to give up for adoption came back to us and is just as much part of the family, and loved, as the rest of us. The point remains, though, of what we do to each other in the process, and the unnecessary pain and feelings of being unloved it brings. For Silver, love for her mother is the emotion she has long buried. She feels like a burden, and the silence between the two only exacerbates this.
The irony in the name 'Hope Farm' is inescapable, and encompasses not only the dead dreams of the hippies who hoped to live self-sufficiently but who now work in factories in the nearby towns, smoking pot and aimlessly strumming the guitar when at home. It also highlights the hope that fills Ishtar, temporarily, with energy, and the hope that has long been suppressed within Silver but that surges up when the two find themselves living in a decrepit old miner's cottage that, at best, resembles a cubby-house with its shabby, makeshift furniture and lack of amenities (like a toilet). It is there that Silver's dream, her one real desire to live with Ishtar, just the two of them, in a place of their own is finally, but partly, realised. Ishtar falls into her worst depression yet, and the only upside is that she turns away Miller.
Miller is the character who wasn't quite realised for me, or not in the way that he was for Silver. It wasn't until towards the end of the book that I even realised that Silver saw him as a monster - this just didn't quite come across to me. I certainly didn't like him, and his brutishness - captured in the descriptions of his hair and size, the way he 'claims' Ishtar in a physical way - was exceptionally unappealing, but I didn't fear him. I didn't realise that Silver feared him. It could partly be because, as engaging and readable as this is, I had a lot of interruptions and took about two weeks to read it; those interruptions can make it hard to feel the tension and threat. Tension was another aspect that I didn't genuinely feel: Silver directly foreshadows the impending disaster when she tells us that they were all on a "collision course", but the only tension I felt was when Ian showed her the abandoned mine shaft and she was, rightly, spooked, and things were never quite so easy between them again. The tension was in wondering what role the mine shaft would play in the story, and knowing that it would. But that tension didn't grip me, certainly not in the way I want it to, or the way the novel implies I should have been. Still, his effect is made clear:
I glanced at Ishtar's one suitcase and duffel bag sitting in the corner. They looked their usual compact, neat selves, but even they were being encroached on by the huge, looming tide that was Miller's mess - and her bedspread, crumpled down at the foot of the mattress, appeared more worn that I remembered, and smaller. I turned slowly in the small central clearing. So much stuff. As if he conjured it with his hands, brought it bouncing and skittering into his orbit, to then fly along in his wake like iron filings following a magnet. Into my mind came the twin images of Miller lifting Ishtar and putting her into the car, and then lifting and carrying her into the room at the ashram - her yielding body, her transformed face. Then I saw him raising Jindi towards the night sky. The power in those arms, and the speed with which they snatched something up - a body, a whole person - and then just as quickly let it go again. [p.90]
This is, undoubtedly, a sad novel. The sadness is in the sense of nostalgia that is vividly and realistically imagined, and in the disconnect between Silver and her mother, between a young girl desperately wanting to love her mother, and a mother trying to live life as if she weren't one. There is sadness in the dinginess and squalour of Hope Farm, in the painful, lonely and unloved nature of Silver's coming-of-age story. I came close to loving this novel, and in many ways I do love it: it is superbly written, even if the hoped-for tension wasn't quite there for me; it is memorable in its realism; and it is easy to connect to and empathise with, from the rural living 'out bush', which reminded me of where I grew up in central-north Tasmania, to the painful school bus rides and, most especially, the simple, unfulfilled hopes of Silver Landes, whose past - and especially her time at Hope Farm in 1985 - shaped her just as Ishtar's did, and not for the better.
This story will stay with me, as all well-written novels do that work on multiple levels, rich with symbolism and hidden layers just waiting to be unpacked. Above it all, I am left with this strong sense of familiarity, almost as if I had read this novel before, heard this story told another, earlier time - and I think this is not because it's a cliché, or Frew has ripped off some other book, but because it is such a human story, one that can speak to me and the girl that still lives inside me, suppressed maybe, but who - despite having had the loving family and stable home that Silver so yearns for - can still empathise with that hope and desire precisely because it is so vital. And because that sense of isolation and loneliness that Silver feels is so reminiscent of that period of our lives when we straddle childhood and adolescence. Frew writes with an openness that leaves me feeling vulnerable as I read, which directly relates to my ability to empathise with Silver. Mistakes are made on both sides, life is messy, and love is fragile and easily smothered....more
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that thIt is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal - first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won't be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy's mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn't quite make up for her mother's absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn't until she starts a new school year at her small town's middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn't want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn't beside Melissa's anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she's sick - cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy's life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it's a shock when her father moves on with his life - and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy's mother isn't someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It's clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It's hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he's both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn't want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a "broken home" with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father's decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don't talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What's interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father's genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it's not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn't make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn't have a mother for so long, she doesn't know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa's vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It's hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her - since she listened to her so much - and might have ended up even less likeable. It's an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can't read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy's voice - she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I'm coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child's voice, rather than an adult's voice reliving a child's perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you're reading about someone who's development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How's that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves - I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can't resist any story with "bees" in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa's youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia - as these things do - I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That's always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it's that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I'm always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I'm left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
In 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A lonIn 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A long-time theatre appreciator who's never seen a play, it takes a chance encounter with two people about his own age, Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley, to motivate him into quitting his clerk job and leaving his parents behind to embark on his own life. His mother has been locked up in the mental asylum in Seston since Luke was five; he visits her often and resents his father, a Polish migrant who once flew fighter planes in World War II, for never seeing her or talking to her. He takes the train to London and calls the one person he knows there: Paul.
Paul is not much past twenty but doesn't want to be the engineer his father pushed him to be. He wants to be a producer. Now with Luke on side, a plan begins to take shape and a fledgling theatre company arises. With several others, they form Graft, a small, artsy theatre above a pub. When handsome, charming Luke sleeps with the stage manager and then doesn't talk to her again, she leaves and they hire Leigh. The same spark of familiarity, connection and desire that was there when they first met is still alive, but Luke is taking the admonishment of not sleeping with the stage manager to heart, and steps back. Paul fills the gap, and after a while of dating him Leigh moves in to their flat and the three settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Also in London is Nina, a young actress trying to break in. Raised mostly by her absent (and unknown) father's sister, her mother has been the dominant presence in her life. An actress who didn't want the burden of raising a child she didn't want, Marianne is selfish and egotistical. All Nina has ever wanted is her mother's love and approval; she'll do anything and become anything to make her mother happy. That's how she finds herself going to drama school, even though she's so shy, and how she became a shell of a person easily sculpted by anyone dominant and confident enough to take on the task. Which is what happens when she meets Tony Moore, a producer and one of her mother's young ex-lovers. Tony arranges her, dresses her and trains her like something between a doll and a pet. Nina hides so deeply behind a blank - appeasing and pleasing - mask that it's not long before any vestige of an individual person able to break free and create a life for herself is gone.
It's at the performance of In Custody, a heavy play in which Nina stars, that Luke first really sees her. Barefoot, blind-folded and gagged, she comes onto the stage after an intense, dark opening in which the sounds of heavy doors opening and slamming shut can be heard. The experienced is terrifying for Luke, whose mother has been locked up for so long; when he sees vulnerable Nina, when her face is bared to him, he sees a frightened young woman who needs to be freed.
It is Luke's all-consuming love for Nina, and the affair they embark upon, that ruins old friendships and nearly scuttles his just-blooming career as a playwright. Fallout is a coming-of-age novel for both Luke and Nina, a vividly-real, intimate look into what drives us, what shapes us and what love can cost us.
This might very well be my favourite Sadie Jones novel to date, although I can't really say that because I really do like all her novels quite a lot and the ones I've read so far have all been quite different (I haven't yet read Small Wars; really must!). There is something holding me back from full-out loving her books, but for the first half-ish of Fallout I was definitely in the "love" zone. My copy is an uncorrected proof (an ARC), which meant it had lots of typos, nothing major, but it did also have a slightly unpolished feel to it. The prose was, at times, a bit awkward or unclear, the punctuation so technically incorrect that the emphasis or meaning of a sentence was distorted or lost, rendering some parts unnecessarily clumsy, like you've stumbled on an uneven floor. Again, hard to know if the punctuation was going to be fixed or whether this is the style she's developed, but the control over commas versus semicolons or even periods was sloppy. The comma isn't the "new" semicolon; they affect a sentence quite differently. Misuse either one and you ruin the rhythm of your words and disrupt the flow. You can be "experimental" with punctuation, but you can also create an annoyingly disjointed mess if you don't do it well.
This is a story about people, about Luke and Nina, Paul and Leigh, about relationships, love, the battle scars in our relationships and the mistakes we make - and sometimes learn from. The characters are real, believable, familiar. The most interesting and confronting of them all was Nina, someone you pity and feel infinitely sorry for, but whom you can't respect. She lacks will, she lacks grit, she lacks perspective. She is a product of her mother's critique and Tony's homoerotic desires (for instance, her mother keeps her skinny because chunky girls don't get hired; Tony keeps her skinny because he likes her to look like a boy). The arrival of Luke in her life, someone she feels instantly drawn and attracted to in the same way he does with her, presents an opportunity: a chance to take control of her life, figure out who she is and what she wants, and be fulfilled and happy.
But Nina has a diseased soul. Theirs is a love affair that begins with such hope and promise - you truly, truly want them both to be happy, and free, and together - that soon becomes something poisonous and even destructive. I sometimes hear, in movies maybe, people say that they're with the right person for the wrong reasons, or the wrong person for the right reasons, or some variation on that theme. There was a touch of that here. What I loved about it was how truthful, honest and messy it all was. Jones has a real knack for capturing ordinary, middle-class people in all their glorious strengths and flaws, and letting events play out naturally. While I did find that there was a slight sense of an author-creator (god-figure) manoeuvring pieces into place (it's the way she writes), once there the characters took over, their personalities guiding events and their ultimate fallout.
The star of the story was the setting and era itself: the backdrop for the fallout of relationships. London in the late 60s and early 70s is a place on the cusp, a place discovering love and life and excitement. A place still being held back by the tight grip of tradition and society but increasingly stretching its wings. Theatre is prominent, and popular. New bands and music rock the airwaves - which people actually listen to. It incorporates women's lib but nothing overtly political or radical. This is a story set in the hearts of its characters, rather than their heads. While there, I felt like I was there. I could picture things quite well thanks to all the British telly I've watched over my lifetime, and the flavour of their speech really helps catapult you there. Eminently readable but not exactly pleasurable, Fallout had me wrapped up in the characters so that I was going to bed thinking about them, however disquieting and somehow off the story and the writing was at times.
In December 1969, Rahel and her twin brother Estha accompany their mother, Ammu, their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, and their uncle, Chacko, in Chacko'sIn December 1969, Rahel and her twin brother Estha accompany their mother, Ammu, their great-aunt, Baby Kochamma, and their uncle, Chacko, in Chacko's skyblue Plymouth to Cochin. They're going to see The Sound of Music for the third time, but also - more importantly to the adults - to collect Chacko's ex-wife and daughter from the airport. Margaret Kochamma is English, and mourning for her second husband, Joe, who died earlier that year. It is the first time Rahel and Estha have met their cousin, Sophie Mol, but it will prove to be disastrous. This is the December that Sophie Mol drowns, Ammu is ostracised, and an Untouchable is beaten to death for breaching the laws that spell out who can be loved. The connection between these three events is not simply the twins, it is India's culture, caste system, and the fragility of the mother-child bond. It is miscommunication, a child's need to play, a woman's need to be loved, and a man's need to be touched.
With some books, when it comes time for me to review them, I find myself reliving the best bits, focussed on the story's strengths, and end up bumping up my rating because the things that I had thought were holding me back from enjoying it more turn out to be insignificant, or just simply vanish. Sometimes it's good to let a little time go by between finishing a book and reviewing it; other times, it's detrimental. This may be one of those cases. I finished reading this in early August and am only now, two months later, writing this review. I had given the book a "I really liked it" ranking on Goodreads, but now I don't know why. I think, at the time, I was letting the writing and all the nifty literary stuff hold sway. Now, I mostly think of it as a story, and all the things that made this a slow read for me, all the things that bored me a bit or made it hard to follow are rising to the surface like oil in a broth, and the meaty stuff has sunk out of sight. Still there, but it's a cloudy view.
In truth, I have left it too late to write this review and do the book justice. Details are slipping away from me, but what remains is a messy jumble of the big truths that this story deals with - which it does not in a gentle way, but in a firm-gripped, wrestled-to-the-ground kind of way. It is both subtle and obvious, sometimes vacillating between the two states, sometimes being both at the same time. It is full of fine details, details that become relevant personas through repetition, like Rahel's "Love-in-Tokyo" hair band and Estha's "puff" hairdo. The Love-in-Tokyo is a rubber band with two beads on it, "two beads on a rubber band". Possibly a metaphor for Rahel and Estha - and it's this that preoccupies your reading, constantly wondering about the importance of things. You could read into the details, characters and themes almost endlessly, and that makes it an exhausting book to read.
Roy has her own unique, distinctive style, and it's not one that I find easy to read. It took concentration and mental effort, something that might ease with repeated readings. It really makes you aware of that vast pool of consciousness that a culture creates with a shared language, so that when you are speaking the same language you are sharing more than just grammar, you are sharing deeper connotations. But for The God of Small Things, there is no shared or borrowed cultural understanding between the Western reader and the Indian author: the flow of words isn't familiar and soothing, you can't predict the end of the a sentence, or what direction you'll go in next. Roy writes in perfect English, but with an unfamiliar, exotic and artistic handle on the words and grammar that is both fascinating and confounding. She breathes new life into the language, but it is so constant that I found it exhausting just as much as I found it beautiful, exciting, invigorating, insightful.
Airport garbage in their baby bins.
The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste. Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot eht ecipS tsaoC fo aidnI.
Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and co-Ambassador.
Estha look! Look Estha, look!
Ambassador Estha wouldn't. Didn't want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On the banks of the Meenchal.
Ammu watched with her handbag.
Chacko with his roses.
Baby Kochamma with her sticking out neckmole. [p.139-140]
That's just a random passage to use as an example, which also shows the curious narrator who speaks both with Rahel and Estha's perspective and voice, and something else too. It is another mark of strangeness that is this writing: written in third person omniscient from, often, the perspective of the children, it yet manages to convey the sense that there is no narrator. Even when the "narrator" makes direct comments, they just seem to Be. It's quite intriguing. Even so, the language, the perspective, the voice, they are like the different tools in an artist's hands, each given just as much weight and attention. Through the twins' obsessions over certain words, phrases, games, misunderstandings, through repetition and a non-linear structure, you are constantly aware that a real artist is at work here.
But as I said, the real strengths of this novel are the story itself, and the characters, which of course wouldn't have been the same if the writing had been more conventional. The two main parts of the novel that will really dig into your heart and squeeze, are those in which Rahel feels she has lost her mother's love - a grey moth resides on her heart when her mother tells her that when she's bad, she makes people "love her a little less" - and Estha is sexually molested by the "Orangedrink Lemondrink Man" at the theatre and lives in fear that the man will turn up in their village; and Velutha, the Untouchable, a character who naturally resonates with the Western reader because the very concept of his lowly status and the way people treat him for no reason other than a seemingly arbitrary caste system is abhorrent, and has tragic consequences. Or rather, characters ignoring the caste system results in tragedy. There is a distinction.
There is, throughout the novel, a sense of being trapped, of being restricted by caste, gender, wealth, poverty, expectations and custom in absolutely everything, for everyone. No one is exempt, and, it seems, no one is happy either. Time is fluid, the story shifting back and forth willy-nilly, moving sometimes into the "present" when Rahel and Estha are adults - still young, but damaged, moving about like ghosts. It is a damaged country, Roy seems to say, trying to maintain some semblance of order and control by obeying senseless traditions. It is a story, ultimately, about "the tragic fate of a family which ;tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how'." (I can't find that quote just now so I'm borrowing from Christina Patterson's review for the Observer, quoted on the back cover.) In today's Western culture, such a story would be futuristic science fiction, probably labelled "dystopian" in the Young Adult market; but for India, it's a very real and very turgid past and present. With strains of political machinations and Communist manoeuvrings, life in India after the British left sees a slight shuffle as the high-status families jockey to maintain their position, which necessitates keeping the low-born, low. You can't mix, love and marry, you just can't. But Rahel and Estha see just what happens, when you try....more
It has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror wriIt has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror writer who died young, and Ophelia, her older sister Alice and their father, Malcolm Whittard, are still grieving.
In an effort to help them recover and give them a chance of scenery, Ophelia's father accepts a last-minute posting to a museum in another country to finish setting up the greatest-ever exhibition of swords. Malcolm Whittard is, according to his business card, the "leading international expert on swords", but with only three days to go before the opening of the exhibition on Christmas Eve, it's a demanding job that takes up all his time.
Alice seems content to sit and brood, but Ophelia spends the time exploring the museum. It is a cold place, in a city caught up in a perpetual winter, and the museum is a weird and wonderful place. The guards in each room are old ladies with black handbags who spend most of their time knitting or sleeping, so Ophelia is free to wander into parts of the museum she isn't allowed to be in. It is during her exploration that she encounters a peculiar room, with a little door and a big keyhole through which is the eye of a boy, staring back at her.
The boy, who was dubbed "the marvellous boy", has been alive for over three hundred years. He was sent here on a mission by the wizards of east, west and middle, who took his name to keep him safe. He no longer remembers it. They gave him a sword, a relatively plain and heavy sword with a carving of a closed eye near the hilt, and certain instructions. He was to find the "One Other" and give them the sword, with which they would defeat the evil Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen was unable to kill him because of the protective spell on him which also prevents him from ageing and dying, and so she had him locked up here in the museum, and the sword taken away. She need only wait out the time of his protection spell, then she can kill him and be free to take over more of the world, as she did to his homeland and this place, where she has reigned ever since.
Ophelia, unlike her mother, is not prone to fantastical flights of the imagination. She is a member of the Children's Science Society of Greater London and believes in logic and reason and science. But little by little, she finds herself on small but dangerous missions to find the key to his room, to set him free and find his sword before the Wintertide Clock strikes on Christmas Eve and the Snow Queen's plan comes to fruition. But Ophelia is only eleven, she's not courageous and relies heavily on her asthma inhaler. She's a little girl up against a frightening woman, with only the whispered words of comfort from her mother for encouragement.
In her search for the hidden key and the missing sword, Ophelia might just find her hidden courage, and save her sister, her father and the world.
I don't read enough of stories like this one; or rather, I don't make enough time to read stories like this one, which is a sad mistake. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was utterly wonderful, a delightful story of adventure, danger, loss, grief, wizards who think a lot, deception, sibling love, resilience, courage and the classic fight between good and evil. It is fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia and similar works, a children's story that will engage and entertain readers of all ages, an old-fashioned tale given new life.
Ophelia is a timid and sensible girl, and the request made of her by the Marvellous Boy requires her to not just be brave, but to put aside all things rational, suspend disbelief and trust the word of a strange boy who claims to be several centuries old. The more involved she becomes, the more danger she is placed in, and the more her old certainties come crumbling down. She doesn't become a new person, or a vastly different person, she simply becomes her full potential as Ophelia. She's a great protagonist, suffering through the classic coming-of-age trial-by-fire that fantasy stories are best known for.
Wizards, [Ophelia] thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.
If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.
The Marvellous Boy himself remains something of an enigma, and a sad one at that. He tells Ophelia his story in segments, and the vivid rendering of his life before being locked in the little room really brings him to life. He is quite clearly something of a sacrificial lamb, a boy hand-picked by the wizards who must sacrifice everything with little say in the matter. As such, he is an infinitely sympathetic character, a little boy lost who stays calm and friendly and positive in the wake of dire circumstances. I felt so sad for him, but also proud. Foxlee deftly captures the characters and their motivations within the confines of the fantasy formula, a fantasy that is none too clear about place and time. Any apparent plot holes - a never-ending winter somehow sustaining a human population, never mind the trees, is hardly believable - simply don't get in the way of the story. Such is the strength of Foxlee's writing, that it all comes together and works, much like a fairy tale still carries the strength of its own conviction despite the fact that the details don't really make sense.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy oozes atmosphere and tension, suspense and the thrilling bite of danger. Among it lies the fragile workings of family dynamics and confused love, vulnerable to the atmosphere, which makes it all the more precious. While Ophelia is off exploring and adventuring, fifteen-year-old Alice is being lured in by the museum curator, Miss Kaminski, who gives her princess dresses and flattery and helps drive a wedge between the two sisters while also flirting with their father. Miss Kaminski - and it's no spoiler to say this - is the true enemy. Beautiful and elegant but infinitely cold, Ophelia sees glimpses of the woman's true self but is too young to understand it.
While the overall plot is as predictable as any fairy tale-fantasy story - whether or not you have ever read "The Snow Queen" fairy tale (which I have not, strange to say, though I don't think there are all that many similarities really), this story does follow a fairly standard fantasy formula - the story is brimming with imagination and you never really know what's going to happen next, or how things will play out. The writing is strong and near-perfect, the pacing fluid and smooth and not too fast, and the characters fleshed-out nicely. I grew quite attached to Ophelia, and the Marvellous Boy, and welcomed the satisfying conclusion. With such rich detail and atmosphere and action, the story played out like a movie in my head, and I can easily see this being adapted to film one day. It would be a costume- and set-designer's dream come true, to bring this magical story visually to life. As it was, my humble imagination did a pretty good job of it!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that passages quoted here may appear differently in the finished book. ...more
This novel came highly recommended by other bloggers, and I sincerely wanted to like it more than I did in the end. It is a coming-of-age story aboutThis novel came highly recommended by other bloggers, and I sincerely wanted to like it more than I did in the end. It is a coming-of-age story about seventeen-year-old Sophie who comes from a Lebanese-Australian family, living in Sydney. She attends a private Lebanese Catholic school which is so insular, when a half-Australian Lebanese boy joins at the start of Sophie's final year, he is ostracised and harrassed as an outsider, his mother insulted.
At home, Sophie too experiences oppression: as the oldest of four girls and one boy, Sophie is often responsible for looking after them, and her father refuses to allow her to go out, socialise or befriend people whose families he doesn't know. They live amongst other Lebanese families who all come from the same village in Lebanon, and her parents like that they know everything about them. The one black sheep in the family is her father's much-younger sister, Leila, a rebel by his standards with a sketchy history and - shock horror - a tattoo. Leila is the only one Sophie can talk to, and she helps her niece get a job at a Big W, where, it happens, the new boy from school, Shehadie Goldsmith, also works.
Sophie's tentative friendship with Shehadie confuses and scares her - she's not one to want to stand out, and while she disagrees with the way everyone treats Shehadie, she doesn't stand by him by openly being his friend. There are a lot of things in life that Sophie hates, and trying to find a balance between her Lebanese culture and her Australian identity creates an internal conflict for her. Ultimately, she feels that she would be betraying one or the other, that she couldn't have both. In this coming-of-age journey, Sophie must face up to her fears, and face up to the discrimination she sees around her, from both Lebanese and non-Lebanese Australians.
I found I learnt a lot about life in Australia for Lebanese migrants and their families, and it gave a good, compassionate insight into those, like Sophie, who struggle with the gender roles assigned by her parents' culture, and what she experiences outside the family home. But her narrative voice became somewhat grating, a bit whiny, and frustrating. Her slowness in standing up for herself and others was the cause of frustration, mostly because it was so obvious.
Ayoub's debut novel is a promising start to what I hope is a long career, writing novels, but it lacked subtlety for me, as well as an engaging, sympathetic protagonist who endeared herself to me. While I could sympathise with Sophie, and recognise that many of her experiences were irrespective of culture (being more to do with being a teenage girl in a western country), I couldn't connect as well as I'd like. Since the novel doesn't have a whole lot of plot, the strength of it rests almost entirely on the main character, and for me, Sophie just didn't quite engage me....more
Layla is fourteen and living with her mother, Margot, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Her dad, Geoff, is gay and a professional chef livingLayla is fourteen and living with her mother, Margot, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Her dad, Geoff, is gay and a professional chef living in Queensland. Using the alias, just_a_girl, Layla cruises online chatrooms meeting grown men and arranging hookups. She has a boyfriend, Davo, until she discovers he's been seeing her best friend, Sarah, behind her back. She picks up a job at the local supermarket where one of the owners, a butcher, molests the female staff. But his son, Marco, catches her eye.
At home, Margot suffers from depression and is deep in her evangelical church, run by a charismatic pastor, Bevan, and his wife, Chelsea. She struggles with the perceived knowledge that she turned her husband gay, and she struggles with her memories of the past: of her alcoholic mother especially, and the family's long history of abuse and hate. She watches Dr Phil and prays and is trying to wean herself off her medication. She worries about Layla but the two don't talk. They operate in cocoons of silence or antagonism or pre-judgement.
On the train, Lalya likes to sit opposite men and unwrap a Chupa Chup, then slowly, erotically, lick and suck on it. Just to see them squirm. One passenger she notices is different from the others: he always sits with a suitcase and reads Haruki Murakami. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. He is Tadashi. He's been alone since his mother died and his search for love and companionship has led him to order an Asian-looking Love Doll from America. For six thousand dollars, he has the perfect woman, whom he names Mika. He dresses her and talks to her, feeds her and makes love to her. Takes her on trips up the mountain by carefully placing her inside his suitcase. And she looks almost exactly like Layla.
As the year rolls by and Layla turns fifteen, she finds herself deep in an affair with a married man while juggling her other relationships - with parents, friends and boys. Always searching, looking, yearning, but too young to really understand what she's doing, Layla is a modern-day Lolita, internet-savvy and precocious, wise to the world but also dangerously naïve and vulnerable.
Kirsten Krauth's debut novel is an excellent book. Both powerful and subtle, it hits you hard then softly, tenderly rubs the blow. It's this heady mix of violence and tenderness that permeates the novel and your own reading experience, but never tips it over into melodrama. Part of the magic is Layla's voice. Krauth has nailed Layla, with her acerbic humour, her intelligence and her inexperience - I didn't have much in common with Layla, as a teenager, but I could still relate, could still see elements of people I knew, peers, who did have a lot in common with her. She's realistic and believable and all too human.
This isn't a predictable story. I was never sure where it was going or how it would end, and it has one of those lovely open endings where certain things come to a head but aren't neatly tied off. Just like real life. This is, of course, a story about several things all at once. One of the most prominent themes is that of the precocious young girl discovering her sexuality and the power her sexuality has over men. Layla never really comes out and says why she pursues older men, but then, she doesn't really understand it herself. She's not especially self-reflective, any more than most teens are - she has moments of great insight and raw perception, but without experience (which comes with age and living), she can't really analyse her own actions. She rather dismissively refers to a psychologist's take that she's looking for a male role model, since her dad left when she was five. She's cynical enough to find that too simplistic.
I remember that time, that age, though unlike Layla I didn't take advantage of it - but I do remember what it was like, becoming sexually aware and not really knowing what to do with it. Being on the cusp of womanhood and wanting something, wanting more. Wanting to feel. Unlike Layla, though, I was all too aware that I would just be taken advantage of, abused even, that indulging in the feelings would lead to the kind of mistakes that you would always regret. I've always had super-effective impulse control - too much so, at times, makes me less adventurous than I might otherwise be. I also remember the girls I went to school with, who were exploring their newfound sexual power, and often revelling in it. (If nothing else, their experiences taught me that I didn't need to copy them.) They lacked the sophistication of Layla, and in the mid-90s we didn't have the internet either, but the thought-processes were much the same.
Layla gives voice to the compulsions and feelings experience by many teen girls, and while this is written for adults, it's a book that gives great insight into what's going on in their heads, without trying to supply the answers - since the issue is so complex, so individualistic, and a symptom of many varying causes. Layla's story is just one of many.
And yet it's not just Layla's story. It's also Margot's, and Tadashi's. Their stories take a back seat to Layla's, but not because they're unimportant. All three are voices of loneliness, and this comes across strongly in the style of writing itself. Each character has their own distinct voice, even Tadashi whose chapters are told in third-person. Margot is captured so well. Here is a woman caught up in herself and her own flawed nature, who recognises her problems but doesn't know how to solve them or deal with them. And so she turns to self-help, from Dr Phil to the church. It's clear to the reader that these things aren't really helping, certainly not in any practical way. It's easy to sympathise with, or feel sympathetic for, Margot, whose loneliness sinks its teeth into you. Even Layla, eventually, comes to realise the truth about her mother.
As we look out into the food court the fluorescent light settles on her. And I see her wrinkles. Just the beginnings of them. Dancing at her eyes. And the way she hesitates before asking for the bill.
And it hits me for the first time. She's not just my mother. She's a woman living alone. She's uncertain of the future. She's waiting for something to happen. She doesn't have any friends. She's shy. She's beyond lonely.
I let her have the last mouthful of cake. [p.171]
This is a story where you're constantly re-jigging your own perceptions and understanding, ditching those judgements and assumptions we all tend to make in a blink as we get to know these characters further. I absolutely love that kind of connection with fiction: the sense of being an active reader, not a passive receptacle for information someone else has decided you should have. It's not that Krauth isn't guiding things in her artful way, or creating a very specific story that she wants you to hear and learn from. It's that the way she's crafted this story, you're not being constantly told what to think. You're shown things, and from these things you actively participate, as a reader, in creating your own understanding. When the subject matter is like this, only a weak novel would try to give the reader all the answers, and this is no weak novel.
In some ways, this book reminded me of another I read this year: Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon. It's not that the stories are similar, but that they both tackle what it is to grow up young and without guidance in today's world - and it's a truism to say that this isn't the same world as our grandparents'. It's gritty realism at its best, laced with the kind of humour that comes from living on the edge: on the edge of understanding, the edge of adulthood, the edge of innocence. Interestingly, Layla is - if we are to believe her - a virgin. She thinks having sex before she's sixteen would be too "skanky". But it's clear she's doing everything bar actual penetration, and so she's very much a sexually active teenager - especially so because she actually, actively, searches for sexual encounters, encourages them, pursues them.
The question of who seduced who in her relationship with a much older married man (I won't name him, it would spoil things, though that is one detail that you will be able to predict) is an interesting one. Of course, it's illegal - and with good reason. While certainly many adults make poor decisions all the time, I think we'd all agree that underage teenagers are just too young for certain things. Somehow, it bothers me less to think of teenage girls "experimenting" sexually with boys their own age, than with older males. This is quite simply because "they know better." It's an over-simplification, perhaps, but oh so true: men, as opposed to adolescent boys, know that they're taking advantage of teenaged girls. Girls think they have all the power, and in some ways they do.
But it reminds me of this newspaper article I read a few backs, I can't remember which country or area it was from but it was about some orthodox Jewish men upset that a woman sat in front of them on the bus. Another article - and this one I do remember was from Montreal - was about a Jewish boys' school situated opposite a women's gym, complaining to the gym and insisting they blacken their windows because the sight of women in workout clothes was too tempting for their students. In both cases, the one thing that came to mind was the shifting of responsibility for men's sexual urges, appetites, whatever you want to call them, onto women, who are simply going about their business. It's the same thing with that ridiculous argument (that some women repeat, too) that women are to blame for being raped if they wear skimpy clothing, short skirts, high heels. There is the onus of responsibility at play here. Whether teenaged girls are acting the temptress or not, we need to shake the idea that men can take what's offered (or what's in front of them) from our society. Because it's one thing to take advantage of a young girl who's learning about sexual power, and another not-very-different thing to simply abuse a girl or woman. The two start to blur in your head.
just_a_girl skilfully walks the fine line between childhood and adulthood, loneliness and unhealthy ways of finding companionship - without being judgemental or censorious. Layla won me over with her distinctive voice, her vulnerability tucked away beneath her modern sophistication. She's misguided, certainly, but not the bad girl she might appear to be, hiding behind her fringe and black eyeliner and provocative manners. There is a gentle blossoming of her relationship with her mother, the possibility of a reconnecting between them that shows all too clearly that it requires both parent and child to mend a damaged bond. At its heart, there are all the signs of love and a sense of belonging, if only the characters realise it's there and acknowledge the active effort it takes to grasp it.
There is so much to explore in this well-crafted novel; I've barely scratched the surface. It's been a couple of weeks since I read it and it still lives strong in my mind. This was one of those beautifully gritty novels, a real peon for the modern age. It gives girls like Layla a realistic voice, raises some very painful and ugly issues that are, no matter what we'd like, prevalent in our society, and it does so with compassion, empathy and intelligence. I absolutely loved just_a_girl, and hold it up for all to see as an excellent example of stellar writing, characterisation and overall story-telling.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Fifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how toFifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how to fish. His mum is worn out raising seven kids and doing the laundry; she's got no teeth left and her one pleasure is reading Mills & Boon novels and smoking. The second oldest, Blacky's only talent seems to be coming up with nicknames, including his own. He's the second ruckman in the Port's under-18 football team and almost never touches the ball, which is alright by him. But in the lead-up to the much-anticipated yearly Premiership, it's discovered that the first ruckman, an Aborigine called Carol, is really Carol's older brother Colin and is thus disqualified from playing. Their coach, Mr Robinson - whom Blacky calls "Arks" because that's how he says "asks" and it gives Blacky a thrill to hear it - has no choice but to make Blacky the lead ruckman.
The effect this has on Blacky is immediate. He feels like a sinking ship. The whole town wants the footy team to win and it all comes down to the ruckman - to Blacky. He can only watch with admiration the true stars of the team, the Aboriginal kids from the Nunga reserve at the Point. The Aborigine players are the best on the field, only they don't really play by the rules - they don't play to win so much as play for the sheer joy of it. Blacky watches one player in particular: Dumby Red. A handsome kid with perfect white teeth, Dumby is vain but immensely talented. Despite the fact that playing on the footy team is the only thing they have in common, the two become friends.
But Blacky is at a crossroads. He's old enough to notice and recognise the inherent racism and bigotry he sees and hears all around him, but he's not yet old enough or educated enough to really understand it. He still has a childlike innocence to his worldview, one that both shelters him from the worst of it and makes him a vulnerable target. When Dumby makes a deadly choice and the repercussions resonate throughout the Port, Blacky comes face-to-face with the blasé racism Australia is notorious for, and has to decide for himself whether he'll accept the status quo, or follow his heart.
Phillip Gwynne's 1998 novel, which was made into the 2002 movie Australian Rules (a nice play-on-words there), pops up on school reading lists across the country - and for good reason. The book is not only a classic coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in a small town experiencing financial downturn and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it; it also gently explores Australia's inherent racism towards the first inhabitants, the Aborigines. It doesn't explicitly pass judgement, though it certainly takes a side; and it doesn't exactly explain anything, only provokes emotion and thought in readers - which is ideal.
For a people as "relaxed" and "down-to-earth" and "fun-loving" and "carefree" as Australians are portrayed and known as across the globe, it is frightening to witness and experience the kind of blasé racism - notably that towards the Aborigines - that exists here. You will hear people make derogatory, stereotypical comments and statements that are highly offensive, but they are made with a kind of "you know what I mean" offhandedness, a matter-of-fact "everyone understands this" evenness that appals. It is the dismissive casual attitude with which the comments are made that truly offend and dismay because it makes it clear just how inherent and thoughtless such attitudes are. Non-Aboriginal Australians (can't say "white Australians" anymore because the irony is that it's a country of immigrants and it's only in outlying rural areas that you see a majority race - white - in effect) have inherited an attitude of complete contempt towards the Aborigines, a ridiculous "I wash my hands of them" dismissiveness that implies that we tried in the first place.
The inhabitants of Gary Black's small town on the coast of South Australia are very typical of Australians at large. At times it's subtle; other times, blatant; but always casual. No one wastes much energy in doing anything about it. Everyone seems to think the same way, and anyone who disagrees - like possibly Blacky's mum - keeps their opinions to themselves. The idea that someone would speak up and denounce a person for making a racist comment is laughable. And of course, the kinds of things said about the Aborigines are things that white Australians are just as guilty of: alcoholism, laziness, theft etc. When the white kids - Blacky and his friends - hear that a group of young Nungas are heading into town, they get all tense and antagonistic - a kind of inherited rivalry exists between them, something they've picked up on from their parents and other adults in the community, and imitate without really understanding just what they're perpetuating.
"There's some Nungas heading this way," he said. "A big mob of 'em." Everybody looked up. Usually the Nungas came into town, got their supplies and left again. But sometimes a mob would walk all the way from the Point. I'd heard them talking in the front bar about the good old days, about huge brawls down the jetty, Nungas against Goonyas. But I'd never been in one. I wouldn't want to, either. Those Nungas were tough, much tougher than us. "Where are they?" "They're coming down the main street." "How many?" "Dunno. Fifteen, twenty, a lot." "What is it?" said Cathy, sitting up. "Boongs," said Pickles. "Abos," said one of the Maccas. "Coming up here. A tribe of 'em." "Are they allowed up here?" said Cathy. "Yeah, of course they are," I said. "They shouldn't be, said Pickles. "It's our jetty, not theirs." "Bloody oath," said Deano. I could see them now, at the start of the jetty. They were mucking around with the ropes that went out to the dinghies. "If they touch our dinghy," said Pickles, "I'm gunna go get the old man." [pp.190-191]
Of course, the Nungas just muck about, go swimming, have a laugh and leave. Perhaps part of the fun for them was putting the white kids on edge. What's noticeable is the vast disconnect between them. Not only are the two groups on opposing sides, not only are the locals distrustful of the Nungas, but no one ever makes any attempt to actually learn if any of it's true or not. No one wants to befriend an Aboriginal, to learn about them, understand them, see another perspective. That's what makes Blacky unusual, and that's what makes his position in the town somewhat precarious. As anyone who's ever been caught up in schoolyard bullying knows, it's pretty difficult to go against the status quo without making yourself a really vulnerable target. Easier - and often safer - to go with the flow, keep your head down and your mouth shut at best, or join in.
When Blacky takes the unprecedented step of walking all the way to the Point, his first impression is one of confusion.
The Point was not a big chance in the Tidy Towns competition, I can assure you of that. Not even in Section B. The streets weren't sealed and there were hardly any trees. Most of the houses were fibro, but there were a few brick ones as well. I kept thinking. But that's not right, something's wrong. Then I realised what it was. The houses all had doors and windows. And according to the front bar the first thing Nungas do when they move into a new house is rip the doors off their hinges and smash all the windows. So that was the image I had in my head. No doors. No windows. Well, not any more. [p.222]
It's such a crappy equation, though: either the Aborigines do things they're way and the way they're comfortable with, which earns them everyone else's disapprobation and scorn and contempt, or they assimilate and do things in ways that are familiar to us, which make us feel safe, and abandon their own culture in the process. Because here's the thing: Australians won't respect the Aborigines unless they make an effort to look and behave like us, but in actuality it doesn't matter what they do, we will always look down on them. They can't win, in this equation. And the second thing is: they don't want to. They don't want to assimilate, and become "Australian" according to our (white) definition. Why should they have to? The problem lies in the sad fact that colonial Australia not only degraded them, but made sure there would be no place for them, regardless. They're stuck in a kind of racist Catch-22, and honestly, I can't blame them for being royally pissed about it.
The title Deadly Unna? refers to an expression Dumby Red often uses. "Deadly" meaning "cool" or something similar, and "unna?" akin to "isn't it?" or "right?" or, in Canadian, "eh?" (It doesn't say so in the book, but you can get the gist from the context.) The story is a quiet, fairly understated kind of tale, carried by Blacky's endearing and humorous narration. It has just the right amount of plot balanced by just the right amount of characterisation and character development to please me and keep me engaged. Truly I found it to be very well written and beautifully told. Blacky's voice is convincing for his age, his demographic and his environment. I found the publisher's blurb to be rather misleading, in that it implies much more drama than actually happens and much more interplay between Blacky and Dumby. It does make your expectations go off in rather the wrong direction, sadly. As long as you take the story as it's told, you will get a lot out of it.
There's a lot of subtlety and depth to this novel, tucked away within and without Blacky's observations. Much of it is sad and poignant, like Blacky's mum's life and marriage to his rather horrible father; the town's poverty; Mr Robinson's dead-end career; the way the "blacks" are ignored and treated like second-class citizens (or barely citizens); the poor state of the town library; the sense that this town and its people are largely forgotten - noticeable in the state of its community buildings, like the footy oval, and the local member's grandiose speech cataloguing his own achievements, none of which have any relevance to these people. Yet Blacky's voice remains largely upbeat and optimistic, in an adolescent way, and his observations of other people and his world overall are both insightful and humorous, epitomising that other stereotypical quality Australians are known for: the ability to avoid self-indulgence. No one wants to be a "bloody whinger", right?
With its understated approach to a sensitive, contentious issue nicely balanced with a humorous yet intense coming-of-age story, Deadly Unna? is unforgettable and thought-provoking. It's a story that takes its young and generous-hearted hero on a tentative journey exploring the grey areas between black and white, boyhood and manhood, love and hate, to discover the price of not just standing up for your values, but the price of formulating said values in the first place.
Blacky's story continues in the sequel, Nukkin Ya....more
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
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
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
Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine - or as sheThis morning I wake up on the ceiling.
Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine - or as she calls them, "the Chrissies" - and her fat beagle, Cassie. Gwendolyn is already going through a rough patch: now in grade eight, she's experienced changes brought on by puberty and is still dealing with the ongoing anger management problem that she's had since her dad disappeared during a storm before the twins were born. And now, on this fateful morning, she wakes up floating on the ceiling. Several mornings in a row, Gwen wakes up bumping gently against the ceiling and then against the screen window in her bedroom.
At first, Gwen has no control over it and her body threatens to float away during class - she worries about what might happen if she floated off into the sky while walking down the street. But soon, oblique comments made to her by two unlikely adults in her small town make her realise that she's not alone; and that, in fact, her ability to fly is something she inherited. Gwendolyn's coming-of-age journey will bring her up close to the truth of her new-found skill, and the decision of a lifetime.
It's a rough age, being thirteen, fourteen years old and in the thick of all the changes that come with adolescence. Gwen has the added issue of losing her father years ago under mysterious circumstances. This detail is initially provided more as insight into understanding her anger issues, than a plot point, but as you can guess it does turn out to be very pertinent to the plot. Yet despite Gwen's habit of blowing up at small provocations at school, she narrates her story with intelligent wit and more than a dash of irony. Like many teens, the character of Gwen is a precarious and sometimes volatile balance of childlike immaturity and wisdom, naïveté and insight, adolescent foolishness and glib artfulness. Gwen is on the cusp, and this is her coming-of-age story.
What I really admired, alongside the writing itself, was Dowding's ability to maintain this fine balance. She put Gwendolyn in situations that forced her to confront her issues, thus putting her on the path to maturity, without making her grow up too fast. Gwen was able to keep hold of her childhood; it just became richer. I'm reminded of one of my favourite characters who similarly embodies this fine line between childhood and maturity: Danny from Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World.
There are times when Gwen's obstinateness and suspicious nature hold her back, but that too is something she must learn: trusting her instincts, but also how to turn to others and let herself be a child in the protection of adults. Another tricky line to straddle, in life as well as fiction. And it's not helped, in Gwen's case, by the fact that her body has taken on a life of her own. In the beginning I read Gwen's sense of alienation with her body as a figurative representation of puberty; later, I came to read it as fantasy enriched with that layer of organic human matter that makes fantasy, as a genre, so appealing to us.
As soon as my body is free, it floats lazily toward the ceiling, where it bounces around for a few minutes, then settles gently, bumping up and down against the ceiling tiles.
I realize that I'm now talking about my body like an "it," like it's no longer connected to the rest of me. But that's what it feels like. As if my body is totally in charge, and I'm just going along for the ride.
Which I guess I am.
This is very much Gwen's story, and while there are sub-plots and supporting characters who are relevant and interesting, they're not as vividly rendered as Gwen. Rather, because we see Gwen's world through her eyes, her understanding, her adolescent perspective, we get a true-to-type view of the people in her life. Gwen is fairly self-absorbed, at times judgemental, quick to react and not very curious about other people or how they're feeling. Not every teen is like that, or like that in the same way as Gwen, but it is part of Gwen's coming-of-age narration that her world view enlarges and she becomes more sympathetic and even empathetic of others. She still has a way to go, but it's a process that takes people years if not decades to learn.
I read this as a standalone novel, and while I'm not sure if it is one or not (I have since read that it's the first in a series but I don't know if that's true or not; I should just ask the author eh?), I loved it as a standalone book. It's kind of old-school, in that way, and maybe I'm traditional, but I loved the open-endedness to this story, and how Dowding created a fascinating layer to our world without removing the mystery and magic of it by explaining too much, thereby leaving plenty up to your own imagination. Dowding successfully balances humour and a touch of silliness with a dark menace that adds a macabre atmosphere to the story.
The decision that Gwen ultimately has to make can again be read metaphorically: in this pivotal time in a person's life, many decisions we make are there to stay with us the rest of our lives. To some extent, we are shaped during our adolescence. Gwen's decision is not merely about flying, but about how she will live her life. The ending can be viewed in several lights. It touches on genetics, and how these affect our lives, especially our future health and well-being. And it touches on the self: self-esteem, the creation of a personal identity, the need to be true to yourself, and the understanding that while the way others see you can deeply hurt you, you shouldn't let it shape you.
The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is the kind of coming-of-age story that resonates. Combining teen angst with magic and a dash of mystery creates a richly layered story, and Dowding presents a heroine that readers of all ages will surely be able to relate to. Humorous and touching, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is like a finely-tuned musical instrument that, when thrummed, you feel in your very bones.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. ...more
Rose Zarelli begins grade ten with a pool party that sets the tone for the year to come. The swim team - or "swim thugs" as everyone calls them - areRose Zarelli begins grade ten with a pool party that sets the tone for the year to come. The swim team - or "swim thugs" as everyone calls them - are initiating a new member, a trendily-dressed boy called Conrad, by throwing cups of beer at his face until he falls into the swimming pool while the boys yell homophobic insults at him, and blasting water from a hose into his mouth until he chokes. When Conrad is pushed into the pool he lets himself sink and isn't coming back up; only Rose seems to even notice, but when she leans over the edge to check on him she's pushed in too.
That's when Jamie Forta arrives, just in time to help Rose out of the pool. She hasn't seen him since the end of the last school year and has no idea what he's been doing over the summer or where they stand or what he is to her. Is he even her friend still? He still seems awfully close to Regina, the girl who made Rose's life hell last year, and it turns out that Conrad is Regina's younger brother - Conrad who is, he tells Rose and her best friend Tracy, actually gay, and one very angry boy who's taking out his feelings of anger and impotence on everyone around him (he also hates Rose because Jamie likes her).
Anger is in the air it seems. Only Tracy is handling adolescence well, and turning some petty bullying into something positive: her own fashion website where she profiles the looks of her peers. Suddenly Tracy is someone everyone wants to be friends with, while Rose can only think: how come she's never taken a photo of me? At home things haven't improved much: Rose is still attending counselling with her mother, who wants Rose to take down the memorial website she created in honour of her father, who died in a roadside bomb in Iraq where he was working as an engineer. Her brother, Peter, is clearly doing more drugs at uni than studying, and it's no surprise to Rose when he's kicked out and arrives home to face the wrath of their mother.
But this year Rose is determined to take control of her life in whatever way she can, and that means trying out for the school musical - or maybe even a friend's band, as lead singer. It certainly gives her a chance to channel her inner angst, all her anger at everything she can't control in her life: her dad's death, her problems with her mother and brother, the elusive Jamie Forta, and all the crap that comes with being a teenager. Rose is still angry, but she's looking for an outlet, and she's also learning how to stand up for herself when it comes to Jamie, who's still dicking around with her feelings, going hot and cold on her, and making her choose between doing the right thing by him or the right thing by her worst enemy. Grade ten is going to be one messy year.
All the things I said in my review of the first book, Confessions of an Angry Girl, is just as true for this sequel. Rozett has created, with Rose, a truly distinct, relatable, identifiable heroine who is wading through adolescence in a realistic urban American high school setting and trying to deal with everything that involves. I may not have had the same high school experiences as Rose, but I had similar ones, and there's something universal about being a white middle class teenager in a western country that makes it easy to relate and identify with Rose and her experiences.
Rose is on a noticeable character-development arc, and she's not the same girl she was in grade 9. She's already grown up since then and finding some of her inner strength. She loses her starry-eyed perspective of Jamie, for one, and that was deeply satisfying. I like Jamie, as a character and a love interest for Rose, but he too is a teenager and he's been through some crap of his own. He's far from the perfect, gentlemanly boys the heroines of so many YA books fall in love with. He's a flawed character, as is Rose, and has a lot of growing up to do himself. He does shitty things, and this time Rose calls him on it. She learns how to tease him, how to express herself better, and she faces head-on her own limits: how far would she go with Jamie?
The mess of Rose's personal life is set against a backdrop of bullying and homophobia that is depressingly relevant today. This certainly isn't the first YA book or series to tackle these issues, but the way Rozett presents them and handles them is refreshing: they're not the point of the story, rather they're ever-present alongside the school lockers and the cat-fights and the homework assignments. It's the way Rose views the world around her and her seemingly callous dithering over whether to intervene or tell the truth about something she's witnessed. This, too, makes her a very realistic teenager. Telling the truth about what happened to Conrad at the party before school started, for instance, isn't a black-and-white matter. After what happened the year before, when Rose called 911 after a girl needed medical attention at a party where there was a lot of underage drinking going on, she's learned the consequences of "ratting" on her peers the hard way, and she's also learned that sometimes its important for the person being bullied or abused etc., to make that stand themselves, that you can't do it for them.
What I'm trying to say is that, Rozett doesn't moralise or try to slip in messages for "right" behaviour or even pretend that these things don't happen, because they very much do. I love that Rozett doesn't shy away from the worst of teenage behaviour, and I appreciate that she isn't trying to under-handedly moralise, which is something I've come across in other YA novels. In fact, she doesn't even need to. Simply creating Rose, a character I'm sure many teens will be able to identify with, and showing her own conflicts and her struggles in deciding what is the right thing to do - which isn't always as obvious as adults like to think it is - is enough. Show, don't tell. Nothing could be more true of teenagers, surely; nothing can get their back up more than being told how to behave etc. But they still look for guidance, reassurance, support, in their own way. And this is the kind of series to offer that.
What was funny - in an ironic way - for me was how much anger I felt while reading this. I felt furious at Rose's mum for the way she's handling her relationship with her daughter, and the joint therapy sessions they have with her mother's therapist, and how completely ineffective she is at expressing her own true feelings - you can't fault Rose for not being honest with her about her own feelings in turn. I felt anger at the injustice of the stupid "slut list", and all the forms of bullying that go on. I felt anger at Jamie for being a dick, and for being quite lovely when he wants to be, and for what happens at the end of the book. But I also felt unbearably sad - sad for Regina and Conrad, sad for Jamie, sad for Rose who's mourning her father yet feels that she's not allowed to grieve anymore, that, what, she should have moved on? It made me angry all over again.
In part, that's intense emotional connection is what makes this book really work. That and the gritty realism. These characters - not just Rose and Jamie but the supporting characters as well - are true-to-life, flawed human beings. They make mistakes. They struggle to express themselves. They can make bad situations worse. They lash out at each other. But such is Rozett's skill at depicting these people and giving them room to breathe and grow and be, you also see all their good points, their vulnerabilities, their strengths, their pain and their sense of honour. I liked this even more than the first book: the story only gets stronger and the adolescent stakes higher, as Rose continues to grow up and figure out who she is and what she wants out of life. This is YA fiction at its best.
Also, COVER LOVE! ;)
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. ...more
It's rare that I don't finish a book - even when I'm not enjoying a book, I still aim to finish it, I just don't like to leave something unfinished inIt's rare that I don't finish a book - even when I'm not enjoying a book, I still aim to finish it, I just don't like to leave something unfinished in any facet of my life - but such is the case with Cries in the Drizzle. I picked it to read for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge in October for a few reasons, but none of them are particularly important: I simply wanted to read it for the same reason I want to read anything - to learn more, to experience someone else's life, to open up my own for a new voice, a different perspective, and the hope to be inspired or touched in some way.
Sadly, Yu Hua's fictionalised autobiography became a real slog to read, and at 186 pages (out of 304), I decided to stop trying to read it. One thing was blazingly clear: it wasn't going to improve in the last hundred pages, not for me. Not finishing a book always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, but October was a month of reading struggle in general and a book like this was proving to be a real block to recapturing my stride and making progress on other titles. But because this was for a challenge, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I did read, and why it didn't work for me.
Essentially it boils down to the writing as the primary problem; secondly, the story itself. The first is the most subjective, and plenty of readers will love the writing style and connect with it in ways that were simply impossible for me. Set in rural China in the 1960s, Cries in the Drizzle tells the story of an impoverished family through the eyes of its narrator, Sun Guanglin. Guanglin is the middle child of three boys, Sun Guangping and Sun Guangming. His father, Sun Kwangstai, is a horrible man, with a mean temper, a drinking habit and a seemingly complete inability to love others or care for anyone but himself. His mother is a bit of a nonentity, and his grandfather, Sun Youyuan, who lives with them, is self-abasing towards Sun Kwangstai, a bit of a coward and a doddery old man who sits in the corner daydreaming about his dead wife, who was once the daughter of a rich man.
Sun Guanglin was sold to a military officer when he was six, but returns to his home village of Southgate when he's twelve; compared to his real family and life in Southgate, life with Wang Liqiang and his wife was wonderful. It isn't until Part 4 that the narrator speaks with any depth about this time in his life, and I didn't read that far. Divided into sections that deal with chunks or themes in his childhood and adolescence, Sun Guanglin tells stories about his brothers, his parents, the widow his father had a lengthy affair with, his friendships with Su Yu and Su Hang at school, troubles with girls and going through puberty, and the history of his grandfather and great-grandfather, who were stone masons and bridge builders before war, famine and poverty struck.
I tend to be a fairly organised person, and Sun Guanglin's story has no real structure to it, making it hard for me to follow. Even in the midst of a story, he seemed to change direction completely from one paragraph to the next, and gave no indication that this was a relevant tangent to the story he's telling and it'll all come together just wait. It reminded me of my struggle reading John Elder Robison's memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's. The scattered, unfocused style is much the same, and Hua's storytelling style tends to come across as a bit flimsy, weakly put together, and poorly fleshed out. It is no doubt his style, and some readers will enjoy it, but it's not for me. My brain and Hua's brain just aren't compatible: we think differently, in terms of rhythm and rhyme, like we're two different musical instruments each playing a different song.
There is humour here, and plenty of farce - especially in the stories Guanglin tells of his ancestors; it's comical but not funny. The one thing that does come across strongly is the atmosphere of utter poverty, and the disconnect between the state and the working classes. One of the saddest stories is about the little boy called Lulu, whose mother is arrested and sent to a labour camp for prostitution. Lulu is left behind to fend for himself. A boy of six! There is no other family, no one to care for him or feed him, and while his mother wasn't in the slightest bit nurturing or loving, she at least provided a home for him. I loved her response to the interrogation at the Public Security Bureau: "The clothes you wear, they're issued by the state, and your paychecks too. So long as you're taking care of state business, you're doing your jobs all right. But my vagina belongs to me - it's not government issue. Who I sleep with is my affair, and I can look after my own vagina perfectly well, thank you very much." [pp.134-5]
There are quite a few mini-stories or scenes that touch of the people's alienation from their own bodies, and complete lack of understanding or education around their bodies, their sexuality, anything practical or emotional and psychological of that nature. It's quite sad, and combined with the images of poverty and the sense of these people as being quite disposable and without real value, Cries in the Drizzle paints a pretty bleak picture of communist China. It does maintain its focus on the people, not the politics; you simply glean truisms from the stories of people's lives. I just wish those stories had been easier to follow; the narration is disjointed, and Sun Guanglin's habit of omniscience robs the stories he tells of authenticity: How does he know what happened, what someone was thinking, what Su Yu was feeling as he lay dying? He wasn't there. It's all conjecture, speculation, and this undermines the credibility of his story - especially as it reads like a memoir.
With no plot, there is little direction to this coming-of-age story. There's no forward momentum or impetus. When you have a plotless novel, it's down to the characters to carry the story. In some ways, this being a story about people, the characters are well fleshed out. And yet they always remain caricatures of themselves. There's no real depth or understanding to them. Sun Guanglin's narration remains consistent in this regard: how he talks about people is the same as how he talks about events - from a distance, both all-knowing and superficial. It's perplexing, and frustrating. Annoying, even. Even when people die, when children die - something that, these days, never fails to bring on the waterworks - I was left largely untouched. Cries in the Drizzle failed to connect with me emotionally, and without that connection - on top of a lack of plot and basic structure - I had no reason to keep reading. Time to move on. ...more
On the 6th of October, the earth slows its rotation. Or rather, that's when the scientists share the news with everyone that it had slowed down. It'sOn the 6th of October, the earth slows its rotation. Or rather, that's when the scientists share the news with everyone that it had slowed down. It's a Saturday. Julia, an only child, is eleven and at home with her parents and her best friend, Hanna. They have soccer practice later in the day, but everything is abandoned, practice is cancelled, when the news hits. At first, there is panic. Supermarkets are cleaned out of tinned food, bottle water, toilet paper and candles. People pack up and leave, heading for who-knows-where, since it's not like you can hide or outrun it. Hanna's family are Mormons and head off to Utah to await Jesus, leaving Julia virtually friendless.
It takes a while for things to settle down, for people to get into a new rhythm and to adjust, and really it's an on-going adjustment. At first they still try to sleep when it's dark and go about their business when it's day, but as the days and nights lengthen and lengthen, this causes immense problems for the financial sector and the general, ordinary running of the country. So the government decides that they will stick with the 24-hour clock, and ask that everyone follow. Most people do. It is, after all, the structure that they're familiar with, and structure is comforting. But there are others, "real timers", who find this unnatural and decide to go with the sun's new schedule.
Julia continues to go to school, detailing the impact of the slowing on her small corner of California as things impact her day-to-day life, especially her family and her growing friendship, then relationship, with a boy from school, Seth. At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story, and the slowing is an impressive backdrop to the changes Julia goes through in her grade 6 year. It is also a story of human endurance, a will to survive, and a quiet documentary on ordinary people in the face of an unexpected and alien trial. Hanging over Julia's story is the understanding that things won't go back to the way they used to, ever. With such a "sword of damocles" hanging over the story, it does add a certain kind of bleakness to the drama.
A lot of people loved this book, and while there are some things I definitely liked about it, I am not one of those people. In fact, I very nearly gave it 2/5 instead of 3/5, until I remembered that I liked it a bit more than a mere "it's okay." The biggest disappointment for me is that this is exactly my kind of book. I love speculative fiction, I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I prefer these stories of ordinary people surviving in extraordinary circumstances, over blockbuster action films like Independence Day and Armageddon, though they have their fun moments (they're also horribly formulaic and huge on the propaganda). I kept my expectations reasonable, going into this - it is a debut novel, after all - but the story failed to lift itself from its initial premise into something that could really resonate with me.
The problems I had with it were small, but small doesn't mean they didn't have an impact on my reading of the novel. The main one was how anti-climactic it was. Julia, our narrator, is writing this story as a young woman in her twenties, looking back on her life at this pivotal time, and so she has hindsight, and foreknowledge, and more answers than we have. She continually makes rather melodramatic statements, sometimes in a fun way, like "How could we have known that the workings of the universe had finally made appropriate the fire of my mother's words?" in reference to her mother's penchant for calling things "hellacious" and "truly God-awful"; but most of the time Walker-as-Julia built up expectations and then failed to deliver on them. I would rather not have the expectations built up in the first place. Julia kept adding a doomsday-voice to events that didn't really fit the outcome; events, scenes would have had more power and oomph and meaning if they had come at us unawares, without an advertisement, and leaving us to discover and understand them on our own. I've never liked having my hand held, while reading a story. It was either the repetition that annoyed me, or the fact that it wasn't as interesting as Julia had let on.
Take her piano lessons at Sylvia's house. Julia says, "Maybe if I had known that this was one of the last times I would ever sit on that bench, I would have tried a little harder." [p.72] Then a few pages later, at the same piano lesson, she says "I gathered up my books and left the house, not knowing then that I would cross that threshold only a few more times in my life." [p. 79] From such dramatic pronouncements, you'd expect something equally dramatic to happen to Sylvia. But no, nothing happened at all. I think there is a term or expression for this but I can't think of it right now. All I know is that it left me feeling played. Walker was clearly trying to show how the everyday, mundane, and trivial things in our lives suddenly mean so much more to us when we are robbed of them - Julia, as an adult, seems to be filled with regret, or nostalgia. But it's heavy-handed and just feels manipulative.
The same thing occurred in reference to Hanna leaving - "Had I known how much time would pass before we'd see each other again, I would have said a different goodbye." [p.11] - and Julia's parents - "This was the first lie I ever heard my father tell - or the first time I knew that he was lying. But it would not be the last. And not the boldest, either." [p.32] and "Maybe everything that happened to me and to my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It's possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much." [p. 34] My first thought, or basic assumption, on reading that was that something pretty dramatic was going to happen to Julia's family. It's misleading, and creates a false sense of drama and made me feel like I was watching one of those boring reality TV shows or equally boring food competition shows: before an ad break, they string together brief shots of someone with a shocked look on their face, with someone yelling something and end with the voice over spelling doom for someone, along with dramatic "music". Only, after the ad break, you find that the shocked expression was related to something else entirely and there was no drama at all, and it's all just edited together like that to keep you watching. It's manipulative, and a weak gimmick. Even the title is reflective of this, if you were to take it literally.
The times when this spoken-with-hindsight (seriously, what's the term for it again? It's not "foreshadowing", because she's looking back on the past ... or maybe it is ... oh this is going to bug me!) device worked was when Julia referred to the bigger picture, the state of the Earth and how people were coping:
Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different - unimagined, unprepared for, unknown. [p.29]
These work really well, and sound profound, though I'm still not keen on the device, which starts to get repetitive pretty quickly.
Where Walker was most successful was with her natural-sounding dialogue, her depiction of children and adults at conflict, and in capturing people's reactions. This is a character-driven story, not a plot-driven one. The circumstances of The Age of Miracles make things happen, but in a passive way: it is the people in Julia's life that we are focused on, and the effect of the slowing on them. And the slowing is fascinating. I don't know how scientifically grounded it is, hypothetically, but Walker manages to include a lot of details in the background: the changes to gravity, the death of birds en masse, whales beaching themselves in the thousands, the slowing sickness, the Slow Time Cure, the difficulty growing crops and livestock, radiation... Though, where on earth does this stereotype that only hippies have solar panels come from?! That was new to me, and at odds with my understanding (hell, even my parents have solar panels and you wouldn't ever call them hippies!); not to mention that said hippies-with-solar-panels were of course growing copious amounts of pot. Really? Not saying it can't happen, just objecting to the blatant, lazy stereotype.
I also didn't really understand why such a strong divide occurred between the clock-timers and the real-timers. I mean, I can and I can't. I think it must be one of those black-and-white American things? In general, we're certainly very good at creating enemies or scapegoats when we can't confront the thing we really fear, and that I'm sure was Walker's point. It just seemed bizarre to me, the way the people on Julia's street ostracised the few households that decided not to follow the 24-hour-clock but the sun instead. They posed no threat, created no disturbance, didn't inconvenience anyone. They were interesting from a social commentary and philosophical perspective, though, in terms of human adaptability, our dislike of change, the ease with which we can delude ourselves in order to stay as comfortable as possible, and how quickly we look for enemies we can recognise when faced with the unknown.
I did like Julia though: in some aspects, she reminded me of myself as a child at that age (though in other respects we're nothing alike), especially in her attempts to fit in and her loneliness. Like Julia, I always preferred to have one best friend over having lots of friends, which makes you more vulnerable to loneliness because kids can be fickle. When Hanna comes back to the school and gives Julia the cold shoulder, that felt familiar. There's lots of these small details and quiet scenes that did resonate with me, and added to the realism.
As a work of imaginative speculative fiction, it's a good read. As a coming-of-age story, it's a good read. Does Walker achieve what she set out to do? Sure. It's her choice of writing style and the writing devices she used that spoilt it for me. I can't help but feel it would have been a more powerful novel if Julia hadn't made such overly dramatic pronouncements all the time, and foreshadowing things unnecessarily. It really did over-shadow the positives for me....more