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