5★ “Indeed, Marinus was as likely to be found in a virgin’s bed as her grandmother’s, and on the rare occasions when his advances were rebuffed he assu5★ “Indeed, Marinus was as likely to be found in a virgin’s bed as her grandmother’s, and on the rare occasions when his advances were rebuffed he assumed the woman suffered from a disorder of the mind and took her anyway, for he recognised no one’s rights but his own and those of his peers within the Roman legion.”
A family saga of the Family of Man, humankind from the first year in the Christian calendar, AD1 in Palestine. Roman legionnaire Marinus is the father of the family in a story that opens with bloodshed.
“On the night that I was born, my father, Marinus, left our home while my mother was in labour and, over the eight hours that followed, slaughtered a dozen infant boys, the sons of our neighbours and friends, each one under the age of two years.”
Whether the story of Herod killing babies is myth or truth, is not for the likes of me to decide. This is an epic tale that transcends truth, and (dare I say?), wisdom.
Boyne has done the impossible. I know nothing about the Gates of Wisdom, (because I am ignorant) or the philosophy or religion/s which may incorporate or refer to the concept (as I said, because I am ignorant). No matter, it isn’t necessary.
Have you ever stood in a lift/elevator that has multiple mirrors where you extend into infinity? This reminds me of that. Might my ancestors or all my other selves from way back when be informing my current self? [image] Infinity mirror
I expect there will be people who will be reminded of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, some of the works of James MICHENER, or more recently, Annie Proulx’s recent far-reaching Barkskins, but nothing I can think of can touch this for breadth. Moving at the pace of roughly a couple of generations, John Boyne takes a family around the world to live its story in a different place at a different time.
What seems confusing at first becomes compelling reading, as you quickly catch on that the father’s name begins with M, the mother’s with F, the sister’s with A, the brother’s with a J, and so on. As I recall, the first few stories pretty much repeat themselves, with only a little embellishment, but as it moves forward and the reader becomes more accustomed to what’s happening, more details are added.
The circumstances of the time and place alter people’s responses . . . somewhat. Wars, colonisation, slavery are commonplace. Enlightenment? Not so much, although art, in all its forms, continues to fight its way through. [image] A truncated version of evolution, from self to selfie
The narrator is an artistic boy, “the boy” or “little brother” or similar. He grows up over the course of the novel. His father is a macho sort of fellow, his mother is loving and artistic, his sister is conniving and murderous, and his older half-brother disappears from home when the narrator is still young. The circumstances change, the names change, but the thread of the story picks up each change and nuance all the way to the year 2080.
I apologise to the author for the following illustration. I don't mean to suggest that this is another Dr Who, just that it's only the 'new' doctor we see today. [image] Dr Who nesting dolls in 14 incarnations
There are many things this is not. It’s not time-travel, not time-shifting, not sliding doors, not alternative universes or the matrix. It’s a bit more evolutionary than that, more like different, slightly updated versions of a basic story.
I have also not read Ovid's classic Metamorphoses, which I understand includes the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, itself drawn from an old myth, which we would recognise as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and later the more modern musical, West Side Story. I will say this is kind of like that, each story appropriate to its own generation. Thwarted lovers must be a universal theme, no?
In some of the later stories, there are echoes from the past – designs that recur, patterns that feel familiar to a character. In the eighth century in Bulgaria, a dying father recounts to his son (our narrator) how he won his wife after fighting off enemies in Cappadocia.
“‘Cappadocia is in the Ottoman Empire, Father,’ I told him. ‘You have never travelled as far as that.’ . . .
‘I have travelled further than you know. As have you, my son. My journeys might be at an end now, but so many lie in wait for you. Do your memories never surprise you? Do you not dream of the past and the future and recognise both with equal clarity?’ . . .
‘Your shadow falls both behind you and before you while you stand between the two pretenders, a mask across your eyes.’”
What do we inherit? Whose influence is so pervasive that we aren’t even aware of it?
This is the most layered, multi-faceted story I think I’ve ever encountered. The base layer is the Roman legionnaire, and the tracing-paper layers build up on top of it, each layer covering the bottom but extending a bit around the edges as the characters acquire depth and the story itself extends and moves forward.
There is just enough bending of reality to make it still feel real. It’s as if you could put a needle through the centre of each layer and string them together, like the necklaces one of the narrator’s artistic selves makes.
It is amazing. I dare not think about the layouts and drafts that Boyne must have designed to incorporate world history, major events, and real people. Tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, the Plague, Shakespeare, all as they happened, where they happened. Crete, Guatemala, France, Norway, England. But also China, Russia, Mexico, Argentina. Babies, elders, blind prophets.
There are more than 50 countries/places (I think), with narrative language that suits the times without being historically accurate. It mostly “sounds” right, which is the point.
It’s hard to avoid the word “universal”, but that word sounds too dry to me. This is not dry history. It’s an ambitious, clever, intelligent novel, and it’s a lot of fun. Straight to the favourites shelf, or as Aussies would say “straight to the pool room”.
Thanks to NetGalley and Random House (and John Boyne!) for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted. This is due to be published in July 2020. ...more
5★ “Four in the morning, and she was more awake than she’d been in years. She was Christmas-morning-when-you’re-eight kind of awake. Her blood was caff5★ “Four in the morning, and she was more awake than she’d been in years. She was Christmas-morning-when-you’re-eight kind of awake. Her blood was caffeine. Your whole life, you wished for something like this. You told yourself you didn’t, but you did. To be involved in a drama.”
The story isn’t about her, though, it’s about them, and she knows them. Jimmy, Sean, and Davey. The boys. They grew up together, from different parts of town. But at eleven, boys are rough and tumble, and who cares where you live? You all play in the street, and when a car comes along with a couple of big guys in it who say they’re cops, who are you to question them? One of you gets in when told to, while the other two back off.
Davey Boyle went for the ride, and no, they weren’t cops. Davey escaped after four days of abuse (which is never described, only referred to), and is now a seemingly quiet, pleasant man with an uneventful life. He had a rough childhood in the Flats, but he’s doing okay. He was a baseball star in high school and is now married with a young son.
Jimmy Marcus also grew up in the Flats, was a happy-go-lucky hoodlum who got a little rougher over the years. He is now an ex-con, running a corner store and determined to go straight. He’s a widower with a second wife who is the only daughter of the eleven kids in the well-named Savage family.
“When they were kids, they had no individuality to the outside world. They were just the Savages, a brood, a pack, a collection of limbs and armpits and knees and tangled hair that seemed to move in a cloud of dust like the Tasmanian Devil. You saw the cloud coming your way, you stepped aside, hoped they’d find someone else to f*ck up before they reached you, or simply whirl on by, lost in the obsession of their own grimy psychoses.”
The third boy, now a local cop (a real one), did not live in the Flats, but on the Point, the nicer part of town. Sean Devine is separated, unhappily, achingly so. He hasn’t kept in touch with Jimmy and Davey, but of course he knows Jimmy’s criminal record.
All three are still haunted by the men and the car that took Davey away. Davey, of course, but Sean and Jimmy are as well. What would have happened if? Could we have stopped it? We watched them drive him away.
The blurb gives the crux of the story, which I think is a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll just say that the writing is terrific, the people are real, and the tension and plot make it hard to put down. Some books do make me keep thinking ‘just one more chapter. . . ’ This is one. So I’ll just add a few quotes that gave me a good sense of the story and the characters.
This shows Jimmy’s early ambivalence, choosing between friendship and what he thinks he can get away with. When they were kids, he picked up Sean’s baseball glove just as he walked out of Sean’s house, but held it so nobody could see it.
“Jimmy took the glove and he felt bad about it. Sean would miss it. Jimmy took the glove and he felt good about it. Sean would miss it.”
Sean came from the Point and could afford the loss. Jimmy came from the Flats and was entitled to fend for himself however he could.
This is one of the men who stopped the boys in the road.
“He looked like a cop—blond crew cut, red face, white shirt, black-and-gold nylon tie, the heft of his gut dropping over his belt buckle like a stack of pancakes. The other one looked sick.”
This is another pair of brothers who live in the Flats.
“The brothers grew up crammed and mangy and irate in a bedroom the size of a Japanese radio beside the el tracks that used to hover over the Flats, blotting out the sun, before they got torn down when Brendan was a kid.”
Suspecting the worst, but not wanting to admit it, feels like this. You know. You just know.
“You felt it in your soul, no place else. You felt the truth there sometimes—beyond logic—and you were usually right if it was a type of truth that was the exact kind you didn’t want to face, weren’t sure you could. That’s what you tried to ignore, why you went to psychiatrists and spent too long in bars and numbed your brain in front of TV tubes—to hide from hard, ugly truths your soul recognized long before your mind caught up.”
This is one of my favourite books. No question, I just know. ...more
4★ “If you are capable of acknowledging that you only live once, then you have to at least consider an easier option. Don’t you?”
OK, this one is the re4★ “If you are capable of acknowledging that you only live once, then you have to at least consider an easier option. Don’t you?”
OK, this one is the real deal. I have little patience for the rural romances that try to work some lessons about “the land” into their narrative to give them some semblance of credibility. They don’t. They come across sounding teachy and preachy (technical terms, I know).
Dillon “Dimple” and Ruth Travers could have been our neighbours when we were farming. Anderson tells their story simply and well. They run a mixed property with crops and cattle, and their two grown sons have left home for jobs in the city. But the boys love this place, the only home they've ever known.
It's the middle of The Dry, which I capitalise just to indicate it's a longstanding drought, not just a seasonal one. After 25 years on the land, both love what they do but are exhausted. The book opens with a scene familiar to me and with a radio broadcast equally familiar to me.
“Dimple helped 3027 to her feet. The cow was too heavy for him to lift, but if he held the base of her tail he could steady her as her weak legs wobbled and found their place. Alongside, her tan, soft-eyed calf probed impatiently, nudging the flank, his tongue like a long, flat, rippling leech, survival its only agenda.
There was a bloke on the ute radio saying confidently that drought could be a good thing because it removed the bottom rung of farmers.
‘Wally frigging Oliver,’ Dimple muttered to the cow. ‘Trust an Oliver to insist on survival of the fittest.’”
First, the tag number. That’s real. Some cows have names, most don’t. I could ask my son about 788, and he would remember the powerful, belligerent, stubborn red Droughtmaster cow who raised great calves but would charge a working dog when she thought they were too pushy. Fair enough, but when the dog jumped on the back of the quad bike for protection by us, it was kind of scary! Ah, 788. But I digress.
Second, helping to lift the cow by holding the base of the tail. It’s tricky, but it helps them find their feet. During drought, they get weak, and after calving, even weaker. But if you can get them up on their feet and feed and water them where they are, they can come good in a few days.
Third, the shock jock looking forward to weeding out small farmers. Yep. Let the big agro-corporations take over, big machinery, fewer people, profits – um – overseas investors? Or stashed away in the Cayman Islands? Great for the country – not.
So much for my own teachy-preachy moment. Ruthie is waiting for a medical diagnosis and decides she wants to take on this Wally Oliver guy face-to-face and tell him from one small farmer to one big farmer what she thinks of his removing “the bottom rung of farmers”.
“Dimple was quiet. This was not the sort of thing Ruthie normally did. But what Ruthie did wasn’t always normal, and when she set her mind to something, it was a big ship to turn around.”
They plan an overnight trip, travelling through parched country to a small town to stay in the local pub, and thus begins a change in the tone of their conversations. They are honest with each other.
“The horizon receded as the country started to flatten out. There was no green on the side of the road here. In places, there were bright-green crops in circles under centre pivots. The fresh, thick crops in an almost moonscape gave the sense of science fiction.
‘Always hard to like an irrigator,’ Dimple said, and meant it.
‘You’d do it if you could.’
See? Honest. Dimple would love to be able to afford bigger, better machinery, (even irrigation – gasp!) and Ruthie would love to travel, go out for coffee, hit a gallery or two. But they make do with staying at the local pub in the small country down near Wally Oliver’s big landholding. Which leads me to the fourth true thing.
Fourth, I find that when we travel and stay in unfamiliar surroundings, we are often inspired to talk about different things, maybe open up a bit. The routine of home tends to fall into patterns, but new places spark new topics and all those what-ifs that we may have kept buried.
This is what happens to Dimple and Ruthie. The only part I found a little difficult to accept was how quickly the conversation changed and how the dynamic between them changed in one way but not in another. Were they going to drift apart . . . or not?
It’s a good story, well-written, and with characters I liked. I thought Anderson handled the tricky job well of getting into both their heads and telling it in the third person. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong, but choices are hard when the times they are a-changin’.
This is very much a story about these people, not some diatribe about governments But as I write this, during the world’s Covid 19 lockdown, I wonder if more people will be motivated to step up, like Ruthie and Dimple, to confront the greedy governments who have destabilised health systems and community services in order to support huge corporations and build an economy instead of building a society. Thus ends my own teachy preaching. :)
Thanks to NetGalley and Scribe for the preview copy I've enjoyed....more