Joan London's The Golden Age came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it's a short, quick read at aJoan London's The Golden Age came highly recommended by reviewers taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it's a short, quick read at a mere 240 pages, but I think it's a book that needs to be read in just a sitting or two; with my constant interruptions, The Golden Age failed to connect with me. I loved the premise, about children struggling to recover from polio in Perth in the 1950s - a sense of time and place is something I always look for, and found it here. But I think the author's way of chopping up the story into small pieces and shifting the perspective from thirteen-year-old Frank Gold and twelve-year-old Elsa to Frank's parents and a nurse at the Golden Age Children's Polio Convalescent Home was somehow disruptive for me. While the parallels between the children's stories and that of their parents and other adults helped structure the novel and develop some of the ideas here, it made it increasingly hard for me to build up a sense of flow and momentum, and to really care for any of them.
The fate of migrants in Australia, of the drift between children and their parents, of class divides and ethnic divides, of misunderstandings small yet profound, and the suffering felt by all during the polio epidemic makes this a rich and heartfelt historical novel. Poetry plays a role, and the ability of art - be it words or music - to convey emotion and help people connect to others. So it is possibly ironic that London's own art, her own words here, didn't quite manage to connect with me. Sometimes, that third-person omniscient narrator has an alienating effect on me, in which you are both told too much and not enough. I've always been turned off by stories told this way, in which my own engagement is an unnecessary thing, superfluous to the story. London writes mostly in this style, telling me what is deemed important, what characters are thinking and feeling, but she does at times drift into a more poetic style, holding back on the omniscience. This uneven quality didn't help matters, and at the end of it I was left feeling only mildly sad at the outcome of Frank and Elsa's lives.
A sense of nostalgia helped, and the most strongly written part for me was the dip into the past, in Poland during the Nazi occupation, and how Frank lived for a time with his mother's piano teacher, hiding in the ceiling when a client came. I think I might have loved this had it been longer, more drawn-out - not to make it self-indulgent, I do hate that with a passion, but just to make the characters more alive, more human, and less like sketches of people....more
The Beast's Garden is set in Berlin from late 1938 until just after the end of the war. A loose retelling of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, "The SingThe Beast's Garden is set in Berlin from late 1938 until just after the end of the war. A loose retelling of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, "The Singing, Springing Lark" (itself a variant of the more well-known "The Beauty and the Beast"), the combination of setting and love story makes for an often tense, harrowing reading experience. The main protagonist, Ava Falkenhorst, is a native Berliner, her father a German psychoanalyst and professor, her mother a Spanish singer who died giving birth. She has two older half-sisters, Bertha and Monika, but she was raised by her mother's best friend, Tante Thea, whose son Rupert was born within hours of Ava. Both Ava and Rupert are musicians, Rupert playing trumpet and piano, Ava singing in a low contralto. Their favourite music is jazz and blues - Billie Holiday and other American artists - and the world seems bright and full of promise, and not even the rise of Hitler is taken all that seriously in Ava's artistic, well-educated circle.
Then, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), the Night of Broken Glass, when her friend's family is harassed, their apartment destroyed, and they are forced to leave, taking shelter in Ava's family home. It seems, to Ava, like the whole world has suddenly gone mad. It is also on Crystal Night that she meets a young Nazi officer, Leo von Löwenstein, who draws her as a man but repels her as representative of all she considers wrong in Germany. But when her father is arrested for sending letters to warn influential people in other countries about what is happening in Germany, Ava's only recourse is to turn to Leo for help, no matter the cost.
This sets up the remainder of the story, and for a book that lasts the duration of World War II, there's a lot more that happens. Forsyth's Berlin is carefully, authentically recreated, from the glorious old buildings - many commandeered by the Nazis - and Tiergarten (or "Beast's Garden"), to the rubble and ruin it is all reduced to in the air raids. That juxtaposition of glory, grandeur and beauty against the destruction of war is painfully poignant and all too tragic. Knowing, as you do when you start reading, how the war ends, how Hitler survives to the end, and what happens to the political prisoners, the homosexuals, the disabled and the Jews, not to mention neighbouring nations, there were times when this knowledge aided the tense, frightening atmosphere, yet it also made me fear for an unhappy ending for Ava and Leo.
While Ava's perspective dominates, brief scenes from Rupert's point of view within Buchenwald concentration camp - and, later, a few from Leo and Rupert's sister Jutta - flesh out and enhance the narrative while also providing that harrowing, intimate view of the inside of a concentration camp. You only need these scenes to be brief - longer and the impact would be lost - but it also serves to show that side of the war within Germany. Everything in the story takes place within that nation, mostly in Berlin, and the contrasts between the abject poverty, homelessness and violence endured by the Jews, the gypsies and even many Germans, and the opulent wealth and excessive luxuries enjoyed by the upper class, particularly the Nazi elite, is sickening. So, too, is the waste of human life, the mass exterminations and the sheer cruelty shown to people the Nazis called "sub-human".
Early on, Ava reads her niece - Bertha's young daughter - the fairy tale "The Singing, Springing Lark" and remembers her father reading it to her. When he first asked her what she thought it was about, she told him it was about never giving up. Later, she told him it was about being brave, and when she was older she thought it was about true love. This captures the essence of The Beast's Garden well: it is definitely about never giving up, about being brave and about true love, and makes you ponder the idea that these must surely be some of the most important things in life. You could add, though, that it is also about being compassionate (caring for and about others) and about standing up for what is right (which, granted, looks different to different people).
That last one is tricky, because from Hitler's perspective, he was doing what was right - just as Donald Trump (who has often been compared to Hitler, including by Holocaust survivors) also believes in what he is standing up for (or, at least, his supporters do - I'm never entirely sure whether Trump believes anything he says or is just too far-gone in the well of Spin). Forsyth provides balanced insights into the ideological and psychological aspects of Germany's people at this time, presenting the different attitudes and showing just how lacking in unity they really were. A great many of the characters in the novel, according to Forsyth's very interesting Afterword, were real people involved in the underground resistance movement. I knew of the White Rose already, from using the film Sophie Scholl in one of my English classes a couple of years ago, and I have long been curious about the German perspective and what else was going on. The French Resistance is well-known, but the German one has long fallen into obscurity - which is a shame. Ava is representative of the many who helped shelter and help Jews, and wanted to stop the war, though they were indeed too few to do all that much against the well-oiled Nazi machine. The obstacles, the price of resistance, the despair and the horror are all captured by Forsyth - she has done a wonderful job of humanising the Germans (even those who supported the Nazis) as well as the Jews, and creating a true ethical and moral crisis. It's this aspect of the story that really gives it depth, clarity and realism.
While I was worried, at first, that Ava's character seemed a little too similar to cliched heroines that I've read before, and that the romance would devolve into formulaic lines, I was pleased (and relieved) when it shifted to focus more on the war, on resisting the Nazis and trying to save their loved ones. The Ava and Leo relationship becomes an anchor throughout, a smoldering, banked fire simply waiting for peace in order to shine to its fullest extent. It is this 'true love' they feel for each other - and the love and loyalty that so many other characters show for each other - that emphasises the horrors of this particular war. Towards the end, Forsyth's experience writing Fantasy novels stands her in good stead: the final scenes (before the epilogue), when Ava attempts a seemingly impossible rescue, are full of tension, brilliantly paced and carefully plotted.
The elements of romance, historical fiction, adventure (that ending) and a responsibility to honour all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis are all beautifully balanced here in Forsyth's capable hands. She mentions, at the end of her Afterword, the fear she felt at being able to do it justice, that "I was afraid to fail all those people who suffered so terribly during the seven years of my story. It felt like some kind of responsibility ... to do my best to bring their suffering and their heroism to life. To, somehow, bear witness." (p.437) This is one of the powers of literature, of art in general, and a reason why we should privilege the Arts in all its forms. I would also say that, for someone who wasn't even born at the time, Kate Forsyth has done a wonderful job at bearing witness, and allowing me the opportunity to feel like I was there, living it. I'm not sure what more I could want from this book....more
Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy by Pat Barker, first published in 1991 (my edition: 2008) but set during World War One and featuring charaRegeneration is the first book in a trilogy by Pat Barker, first published in 1991 (my edition: 2008) but set during World War One and featuring characters based on real historical figures. That is to say, I would hope you've heard of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, well-known war poets. This historical fiction novel is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917; this is the hospital for convalescing soldiers suffering from a range of physical and mental ailments go to recover. The final line of the blurb sums it up well: "Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men." The story is told from the perspectives of Sassoon, an officer and recipient of medals who has become a pacifist - being sent to Craiglockhart was a favour done by a friend; the alternative was a court martial; and Dr William Rivers, a psychiatrist who, officially, must always support the war effort and the government's propaganda, but who is finding it increasingly hard to send these men back to the front.
One of the delights of this book - and for a book about the tragedy and hypocrisy of war, there are many delights to be found - is the subtle exploration of people's attitudes about the war, the propaganda associated with it, and the idea of silence. In a way, these men were sent to this hospital to silence them - they were neither seen nor heard, a perfect place for someone like Sassoon. Barker has written it in a voice distinctive to the time and place, and the sense of a 'boys' club' comes across clearly - and of boys playing at war (I'm referring to the men in charge, here, too). What really drew me in, though, is the characters: a diverse, eclectic mix of men, some of them suffering from terrible post-traumatic stress disorders, who are brought vividly alive and given that otherwise-silenced voice by Barker. This is a powerful novel, both sad and uplifting, that fascinates and captivates while, ultimately, stripping the glory used to sell war and presenting us with the human side of conflict. A must-read, and one I'd love to re-read already....more
This was a somewhat random purchase made one day, and surprisingly I read it straight away rather than let it languish on my shelves for ages. It turnThis was a somewhat random purchase made one day, and surprisingly I read it straight away rather than let it languish on my shelves for ages. It turned out to be a thoroughly engaging novel that had me caught up in its web of wonderful characters, beautifully-rendered history and often nail-biting tension.
Set in rural New South Wales in 1900, the story takes place over just a few days. Berylda Jones and her sister Greta live with their Uncle Alec at his house, Bellevue, in Bathurst. Berylda has been away, studying, but returns now for Christmas. What she learns devastates her. Always aware that Uncle Alec is a misogynistic bastard who takes every delight in putting his nieces down, verbally and physically, she now discovers that he has been raping her sister. Greta is a shadow of herself, and Berylda fears she will vanish altogether. Berylda concocts a plan to travel to Hill End where there lives a Chinese herbalist, Dr Ah Ling, to buy poison from him to put in Alec's tea. But first she must find a way to make Uncle Alec give his permission to a three-day absence, something he isn't likely to do.
The unexpected arrival of botanist Ben Wilberry and his friend, the artist Cosmo Thompson, create a good opportunity. Himself looking for a particular kind of native daisy, Berylda arranges for them all to go together, along with Buckley, an old manservant, and makes it hard for Uncle Alec to refuse. But the journey is just the first step: putting a stop to Uncle Alec is something Berylda is determined to do, even if it means becoming a murderess.
There is something delightfully gothic about this novel, that I relished. I loved the setting, the atmosphere, the landscape, the characters and especially the ending. I loved that Kelly didn't hold back, that she doesn't Austen-ise the world (my way of combining 'prettify' and to turn a blind eye to social problems, domestic abuse etc.), that she didn't make the sisters sound provincial or naive in a misguided belief that such things didn't exist back then. It was refreshing as well as riveting, and - while I read this before I watched the TV show - settings like Hill End and the herbalist's abode now remind me of True Detective (the first series). It's not the swampy American south that does it, but that isolated, almost suffocating atmosphere coupled with a kind of inbred mentality - by that I mean that it's as if the world outside it doesn't exist, and weird shit can happen.
Uncle Alec was a boldly drawn, nasty piece of work. He had married their aunt, whose death is pretty clearly suspicious to readers much sooner than it is to Berylda. A hatred of women is at his core, but this is exacerbated by his racist attitudes as well: Greta and Berylda have a Chinese grandmother (the Chinese were early settlers in Australia, though they weren't welcome at the time or for a long time after), and it's as if this incites his malice. Both misogyny and racism are at the secret heart of Australian culture, and Kelly makes a brave, intelligent foray into this manly web, which affects men as well as women - men like Ben, whose father is a prick who, as you can imagine, hardly respects his son for becoming a flower-gazer. I have huge respect for Kim Kelly, for aside from Paper Daisies being a wonderful story well told, it carries this strong sense of social justice throughout. The ending surprised me, but in a good way, and it was a true climax, releasing a great deal of tension that had been building up for quite some time. Fantastic read!...more
1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and unacknowledged. Twenty-three year old Riley Purefoy lost half his jaw in the war; the artificial replacement helps hold his face together and is healing well, but he can't chew food or speak clearly. Still, Riley considers himself one of the lucky ones, and not just because all his limbs are in working order and his brain isn't muddled. He's just got married to Nadine, his fiancée from before the war, who served as a nurse on the front. While Riley comes from a working-class background, Nadine's parents are upper class, and as much as they've always liked Riley, they don't much care for the idea of their only child marrying a disabled veteran with no work skills or prospects.
Riley tries to find work, but he's just one of many unemployed young man missing body parts. Yet his determination not to live off Nadine's parents drives him to persevere, and make his own path.
In contrast, his commanding officer from the war, Peter Locke, returns from the war haunted by the overwhelming loss of life, all the men under his command who didn't make it. The list of names feels immense, and Peter soon turns to alcohol in order to endure. His wife is no help: Julia was raised by a domineering monster of a woman who made her understand that her only value was in her looks, so in order to be what she thought Peter wanted, she underwent a facial treatment that's left her face looking like a mask: white, immobile, false. Julia is ill-equipped to live with this new version of Peter, or their three-year-old son, Tom, who was whisked away by Julia's mother after his birth. Not knowing how to be a mother to Tom, or a wife or even friend to Peter, her plaintive, melodramatic behaviour quickly drives them both away. And now that Nadine and Riley are married and off on their honeymoon, the household only has Peter's cousin Rose to keep it sane.
Rose, however, has the opportunity to train as a doctor, an opportunity she wants with heart and soul. Never married and now never likely to be, medicine is the one thing she cares about - aside from her cousin and his family. Now she must make a decision, to put her own life ahead of someone else's and sacrifice her dream, or to stay and help.
From March to December, 1919, The Heroes' Welcome follows the paths of these five men and women as they struggle to build a life and a future while they mourn for all that's been lost.
There is always a "right" time to read a book, when your mind and emotions are aligned with a book's mood and tone and content, when your own mind is receptive and open to the story that wants to be heard. As interested as I am in World War One stories - stories about the first half of the twentieth-century interest me greatly - this was not, unfortunately, as it turned out, the right time for me to read this book. I kept picking it up, telling myself, Now, now, now I will start it; reading the first few paragraphs that describe Riley's injury, his face and what he's had to adapt to, I had to keep putting it down. The trouble way, I'd just finished reading Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man - a heavy non-fiction expository book - and was reading another about a man with mental health problems who abducts a girl, plus I'd just watched Sophie Scholl, a World War II story that made me cry buckets, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and in need of something light and fun. The Heroes' Welcome felt like the last nail in the coffin of my emotional well-being (that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there are other things going on at the time that were making me feel this way).
All of that aside, I did find this to be a very readable novel, and certainly a very memorable one. Not enough stories get written about life after the war - we tend to skip a few years and go straight to the heady, exciting, liberating Twenties. No one received counselling or support after the First World War; likewise, no one seemed to want to hear about the struggles of the survivors through fiction. This story felt raw and true and honest, just one story among many possibles that could have been told but no less real for that. It is a sequel to a novel I haven't read, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, but it didn't make a difference: anything you need to know in order to understand these characters and their stories is provided. And aside from the sense that they have considerable shared history that I wasn't privy to, it didn't really feel like I was missing out for not having read the first book.
This is a depressing tale, though: the story of Julia affected me deeply and on top of all the sad stories I'd been reading and watching at the time, it felt like one sad story too many. Perhaps its that element of realism, but this didn't read like a story of hope to me, but one of struggle. Riley's industry, pro-activeness and pragmatic outlook help considerably in balancing out Peter's self-indulgent (yet still understandable) melancholy, depression, and general stubbornness to move on with his life. The two are opposite ends of a pendulum with a narrow swing. Their wives - and Rose - also present drastically different perspectives. Julia is the wife who stayed behind, who has no idea how to do anything let alone look after a small child and a mentally ill husband who shuns her. Yet of all of them, Julia goes through the most in terms of metamorphosis, which is why what happens is all the more heartbreaking. You come to care for her, shifting from scornful pity to sympathy and then to empathy. Of them all, Nadine was the least well-developed, and a little too perfect, but it was Tom, the child, who, while being thinly sketched, hit the hardest: my own son is three, nearly four, as I write this, and the neglect that Tom experiences was painful to read.
At times, the prose style felt too static, too constrained. The omniscient narrator describes almost endlessly, and left too little for me to but endure. The writing flowed, the story flowed, and you certainly get swept along - almost, slightly, with that 'train wreck' sensation, that fascination with the macabre that continues to appeal to us - but at the same time it never relaxes into the telling, never relinquishes control or trusts the reader to understand these characters on their own.
This was an emotional read, an intense and often upsetting story that I can't imagine myself ever forgetting. That's something I always want from fiction, that evidence of a connection and a good story told well. These people felt real, their stories like true reflections of real ones. For all that, though, it lacked that organic touch: the third-person omniscient narrator was just too intrusive for me. That's an element of the story that I don't think I would have reacted to any differently, had I read this at a different time.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours...more
According to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The subAccording to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The sub-genre is described thus: "Although it deals with the themes of horror, mystery and the uncanny, Tasmanian Gothic literature and art differs from traditional European Gothic Literature, which is rooted in medieval imagery, crumbling Gothic architecture and religious ritual. Instead, the Tasmanian gothic tradition centres on the natural landscape of Tasmania and its colonial architecture and history." This is the first time I've heard the term 'Tasmanian Gothic' but it clicked instantly - it's the perfect way to neatly capture the atmosphere and essence of Danielle Wood's haunting and beautiful first novel.
The present-day portions of the novel are set largely on Bruny Island, in the south of Tasmania, in 1999. Essie Lewis, only child of a university professor who's gone 'walkabout' on a global scale, and a mother who died of cancer when Essie was young, was brought up between her father, an environmentalist, and her grandfather, a successful businessman in hydro-electricity who began life in poverty. From her grandfather, Charlie, she learns stories from the past, pieces of her ancestors and others. When Charlie dies, in 1999, Essie puts her life as a marine scientist in Perth on hold, takes Charlie's ute and drives to Bruny Island, where she rents one of the shacks by the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather was superintendent in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
She has a key to the lighthouse, now disused in favour of a more modern version nearby, and during the next several cold months, she spends a lot of time up by the light, with the postcard photo of a young Alva, a girl - her great-great-grandparents' daughter - who was born here. Alva looks just like Essie, and ever since Essie saw the picture when she was a child, she's been drawn to her long-dead relative. Now, using the bits and pieces of stories from her grandfather, her great-great-grandfather's log books, and some random things bequeathed to her by Charlie - among them a carved coconut; a tiny coin; a stone seamed in bright quartz and mica and bits of garnet; and a coiled plait of pale hair - Essie writes Alva's story, a story that Essie starts to recognise is really her own.
Also on the island is Pete Shelverton, a man also trying to find a measure of peace within himself. A chance meeting between Pete and Essie rekindles an old friendship that goes back to when they were children, but some history seems too hard to surmount, or escape.
At its heart, this is a story about belonging, and place, and time. As such, it's a deeply moving, beautiful, haunting book, a story that artfully, even subtly, bridges the gaps of time. Essie is uprooted, aimless, un-anchored. While she has an apartment in Perth, she has recently broken up with her boyfriend, David, and has no real attachment to the city. She likes things clean, sterile almost, and minimalist. She likes things to match, and colours to complement. She's organised, and introspective, and hard to reach, emotionally. She misses her mother, but it's as if her father doesn't like to share his grief over her passing; for several years after her mother died, Essie didn't speak. At the lighthouse on Bruny Island, she becomes hermit-like and absorbed in the past, and the act of creation, of bringing Alva to life. In the process, she feels close to truths her grandfather wouldn't have told her.
Likewise, Peter is a loner, a man who is content in his own company and solitude, who has spent months at a time on Macquarie Island, south of Tasmania, hunting the feral cats that live there and decimate the wildlife. After one such stint, he came home to discover his girlfriend couldn't, and didn't, wait for him. He waits eagerly, impatiently and with a sense of anxiety for word to come from the department, to hear he will be going back in September. Once he encounters Essie, though, things slowly start to shift inside him. Both Essie and Pete subconsciously recognise that it is through our relationships with others, especially real, deep and intimate relationships, that we find our sense of place and belonging.
The Cape Bruny lighthouse is one I've visited, incidentally, many many years ago: it's not something you're likely to forget any time, because it's at the edge of a promontory, perched above jagged, black, precipitous cliffs against which the sea violently hurls itself. I remember looking down at those thundering waves and feeling so incredibly insignificant, so incredibly mortal and fragile. It wasn't a particularly cold or overcast day, but this spot seemed to hold its own, stormier weather. This is my memory, at least, but aside from a mention of cliffs, this image doesn't feature in The Alphabet of Light and Dark. (I actually started to wonder whether I'd confused it with some other lighthouse, somewhere else in the state, but after a quick search online I found this picture that somewhat confirmed it, though it's probably that my memory has bridged gaps and isn't wholly accurate. That in itself is quite fascinating, though, and ties into the concept of the Gothic nicely: that I would associate such turbulent waters and cliffs with a colonial lighthouse.)
The lighthouse itself acts like a touchstone, a solid colonial object of mystery and romance, of light and dark (the 'alphabet of light and dark' is, literally, explained as the spaces between flashes - each lighthouse is different, so you can identify, at night, which lighthouse you're near [p.128]). I 'waxed lyrical' on lighthouses and what they symbolise in my recent review of The Light Between Oceans, so I'll point you in that direction rather than repeat myself here - suffice it to say, that the lighthouse serves much the same purpose here. Now with the added perspective of the 'Tasmanian gothic', the lighthouse takes on another layer - or really, everything about lighthouses can be summed up by the term. For Essie, it's a place of comfort, too. A true anchor in her mourning and sense of floating. Pete is the one who keeps it clean, coming every couple of weeks to keep the dust away; for him, too, it's an emblem of stability, routine, predictability. A lighthouse is a sign of civilisation, both literally and symbolically.
The novel touches upon the original Aboriginal inhabitants, and the idea that 'they walk no more upon this isle'. Now and again Pete - a descendent himself - hears typical racist comments, usually along the lines of Aboriginals getting government handouts once they claim ancestry. It isn't a central topic, more of a complimentary theme: the Aboriginals too, like Essie, have been displaced, dispossessed, no longer - often - have a place they can properly 'belong' to. Here in Tasmania, we have been taught for so long that all the Tasmanian Aboriginals were wiped out, that Truganini was the last Aboriginal, full stop. And so, when we started rewriting that 'fact', acknowledging all the descendants, many people refused to shift their thinking and view these people with great suspicion. We're no less racist here in Tassie than on the mainland, when it comes to the Indigenous population. It was a soft, complementary touch on the part of Wood, a lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, to include them - part of me wanted it to be more prominent, to matter more, because I love stories about Indigenous issues etc. and learning from them - but I have to also acknowledge that having it as a shadow (again, that 'light and dark' theme) worked quite beautifully. After all, it is Essie's story, a colonial story, first and foremost. The Aboriginal story is part of it, a dark part, but not the whole of it.
The theme of place, and belonging, was strong here. When Essie goes to Scotland with David, prior to the 'present day' events of the novel, she has a moment I could completely identify with:
Essie is separated from [Alva] by time, but in space, she is intimately close, patrolling her walls, stepping through them like a ghost. It makes her feel giddy. She has to sit down on the cold stone, drop her head between her knees to stop herself from fainting. [...] She had felt it another time, too. In Scotland. She had gone with David to a conference in Glasgow. On the way, they had stopped in the city of Edinburgh and walked the steep streets up out of the cavity of the railway station into the city, dense and blackened with age. She looked down and there, carved squarely into the paving stone beneath her feet, was the inscription:
This is my own, my native land. --Walter Scott
Essie had needed to reach out to David to stop herself from falling in the Alice-hole that opened up there in the pavement, a core cut through centuries of Picts, Celts, Angles, Norsemen, all the way to infinity. Imagine that kind of belonging, she had said to David, breathless. He had not understood. [p.72]
I have felt that, and you have to love it when some surprising little detail in a novel leaps out at you like that and instantly connects you to a character. I tried to articulate it in a post I wrote late last year, on Tassie's colonial past and our persevering connection to it - why we love our old heritage buildings, etc. I think Essie captured it well. It's based around a shared culture, which is also why there's a disconnect between us (speaking as a white descendent of British settlers etc.), and the Aboriginals. I have lately been looking at prominent landmarks (since so much else has been changed, disfigured or removed altogether), like mountains and rivers, and trying to imagine Aboriginals there, back before we arrived. It is hard, though. It is so much easier to feel connected - to feel the absence of time within a place - when visiting a colonial heritage site, for instance.
The one thing I disliked, or that irked me, with The Alphabet..., was the use of present tense in the Essie and Pete chapters. It didn't seem like a good fit, it felt a bit stilted and awkward, even when the actual phrases, imagery and language was beautiful, and resonated. But then, the use of present tense has become a real fad in the last, oh, five or so years? and I'm completely and thoroughly sick of it. It's also not a very good tense to use - it's limiting, it's tricky to get right, and it often has the opposite effect from the intended one (it's primary use in fiction is to remove a sense of time, to make the story feel present and the ending unpredictable - for example, theoretically, if you have a first-person narrator and you use present tense, you could kill the character off, something that is illogical when using past tense). Past tense is a stronger, more versatile tense to use, and can achieve the same effect of timelessness and being 'in the now' that present tense should. This book pre-dates the fad, and uses it in a literary sense, but it's an ambitious tense for a first novel. It altered the tone, kept me at a distance I didn't feel was necessary, and, to me anyway, didn't achieve the desired effect.
That is my only real complaint. Otherwise, this is a truly beautiful book, full of rich description, a vivid sense of the past, and characters who felt alive. The atmosphere is imbued with this sense of a Tasmanian Gothic - a sense I'm grateful to have a name for, now. It is a story in which characters 'find themselves' by facing the past: a classic formula, because there's so much truth in it. As Charlie, Essie's grandfather, insists, 'the way things are now rested on the way things were.' [p.55] In order to understand what is, you have to understand what was. Essie's obsession with Alva provides her with a way to handle her own feelings about her parents and grandparents, the animosity between her father and Charlie, her mother's death. And Pete.
As I write this, I'm almost overcome with an urge to re-read the novel, right now. That doesn't happen very often. This is a story about stories, a story about connections across place and time, a story about finding your place in the world - and how you never really stop looking for it. A wonderful glimpse into the colonial past within the natural beauty of the Tasmanian coast, I highly recommend The Alphabet of Light and Dark....more