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Kay has two blogging roles on the AIMN. On the one hand she is a book review blogger, critiquing a range of genres from detective, to literary, to romance and non-fiction. Her book review blog, whatbooktoread.com is a great place to choose your next book. On the other hand, Kay has a PhD in history and is a life-long feminist who also shares her daughter Victoria’s passion for politics and occasionally writes blogs analysing political policies and media performance.

No Virginia, there is no moderate Malcolm

The idea that there’s a nicer, kinder, small ‘l’ liberal hiding away inside Malcolm Turnbull, waiting for the right circumstances to come out, dies hard. Even now, when his very narrow win makes it more likely that his policies will appease the right wing of the Liberal Party and all of the National Party, some commentators are still looking for that elusive moderate Malcolm.

Yes Sean Kelly, I’m looking at you. On Friday in his daily blog, Kelly gave us ‘Turnbull discovers his voice, a little’, urging him to seek the middle ground and assuming hopefully he has a different and more moderate voice than we have seen recently. On Monday, admittedly among other more critical comments, he considered the changes Turnbull had made to his ministry. This is what he had to say about environmental policy:

The most significant change was getting Greg Hunt out of environment, and replacing him with Josh Frydenberg. The prime minister should be applauded for this. Hunt, by now, has managed both to hold too many positions on how to tackle climate change, and to dig in far too deep on Direct Action. Moving him frees Turnbull to execute a shift in the Coalition’s approach, which will be necessary as he seeks to re-establish credibility with the electorate in the years ahead. This was a canny move.

But there are a few problems with this ‘canny move’.

First, there’s no evidence that Josh Frydenberg – formerly an Abbott supporter – holds progressive views on climate change that could result in a shift in the Coalition’s approach. Indeed, back in September, when he was appointed by Turnbull as Minister for resources, energy and northern Australia, Frydenberg said on Radio National that he fully supported Direct Action: ‘We have the mechanism absolutely right’. He completely rejected any cap and trade scheme. Perhaps he was telling porkies, and Direct Action will be morphed into a cap and trade scheme after all, but aside from the fact that you can never apparently believe what any of the government says, ever, there’s no reason to expect that he will now support effective action on climate change. At least Greg Hunt once upon a time, according to his Honours thesis, supported a market mechanism.

Furthermore, Freydenberg is a strong supporter of coal mining. The New Matilda reports that ‘Frydenberg has been a major advocate for coal, and has echoed Tony Abbott’s belief that the mineral is “good for humanity”’. On his appointment back in September, Andrew Bolt apparently called him ‘the new Mr Coal’.

Then there’s the fact that by giving responsibility for the environment to Frydenberg, alongside energy, Turnbull has effectively downgraded the importance of the whole environment portfolio. It’s true that Labor’s Mark Butler has shadow responsibility for both areas, and there can be synergy between them – but not when the Minister is an advocate for coal mining. A SMH headline reports Greenpeace’s view that ‘Combined energy and environment portfolio for Josh Frydenberg a ‘huge blow’ for Great Barrier Reef’. The Climate Council is more moderate, but then they have to try and work with him.

And another thing Kelly didn’t mention is that Turnbull has appointed Queensland National Senator Matthew Canavan as Minister for Resources. In today’s Guardian, Cavan is reported as saying ‘there is still a level of uncertainly about the impact of carbon emissions on global warming.’ Right. So Malcolm, who really believes in the urgent need to do something about climate change (“I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.” (ABC, 2009)) has put a climate denier not only in his ministry, but in charge of resources. Canavan is a huge fan of the Adani coal mine. What a surprise! That’s evidently how committed Malcolm really is.

One can’t but wonder what’s in that secret agreement between the Liberals and the Nationals about climate change. Or maybe even worse, if there’s anything at all about it.

‘But, but …’ I hear you cry, ‘moderate Malcolm hasn’t had a chance. Circumstances are against him’. No. A leader leads. Get used to the idea that there is no moderate Malcolm who will emerge one day like a butterfly from his conservative chrysalis. The real Malcom is the one who fully supported Tony Abbott’s 2014 budget – ‘I support every element, of course, including the Medicare co-payment’ – (yes, the transcript is still on his website), who acclaims the free market, and who will do anything – like spending $1million, or even more – to keep his job. Get over it.

Am I picking on you Sean? There is a huge amount of much worse journalism going around. You are clear sighted on many things. Please just get this one sorted.

Book Review: Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan

This book is set primarily in the 1930s at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, with all the horror and suffering that involved. And Mo Yan does not shrink from graphic accounts of cruelty and death. I went on reading this distressing book for three reasons. First, it is my book club novel, which I therefore feel I have an obligation to read. Second, events like this happened, and continue to happen; it is little enough to ask that I accept the challenge of reading about them and facing the awfulness on the page that some people face in reality every day. And third, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012; this book, published in 1987 (translated 1993), is an important part of the work for which the prize was awarded, and as such deserves huge respect. But it was still a struggle to get through it.

The story is written as if it were a family chronicle by a son looking back at the lives of his father and mother and grandpa and grandma, though the son hardly ever comes into the story himself. It is in fact quasi-biographical. It is not chronological, moving mostly seamlessly between the experiences of his grandma as a young woman, and the Japanese invasion of China a few years later. The story begins with his father taking part in a guerrilla attack on the invading Japanese near the village of Northeast Gaomi but then moves back in time to when his grandma as a young woman is sent to be married into a rich peasant family in that village – they make wine from sorghum – though things do not go as planned. Incidents may recur, though with slightly different details and emphasis. One example is the accounts of why the family’s wine is so good. Another is the death of Uncle Arhat, who by one version was a resistance martyr and by another a foolish man carried away by rage, though it is presumably Yan’s point that both may be true.

Duality is at the heart of the story. In the landscape there is ‘the Yang of White Horse Mountain’, and ‘the Yin of the Black Water River’. The narrator both loves and hates the village: ‘I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart and to hate it with unbridled fury,’ he says. The township is ‘easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, the most unusual and most common, the most sacred and most corrupt … place in the world.’ The ubiquitous sorghum turns red when the grain is ripe; it looks like a ‘sea of blood’, and that is what it becomes with the arrival of the Japanese. The narrator’s grandfather Yu is both brave and cruel, a man for whom murder is simply a means to an end. Yet is there a difference between murder and killing wounded enemy soldiers? And I couldn’t help wondering about the duality of the whole project of resistance to the invaders; certainly it was heroic, but equally it was doomed, and brought frightful retribution.

Yan has no qualms about being graphic about the violence which both sides inflict on each other, though the Japanese have greater fire power and therefore more occasions to display their brutality. But life in rural China even before the invasion was no picnic. In a way the book is partly a love story, but there is no room for sentimentality; life for the peasants was, to use Hobbes’s phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Yan views life with a slightly wry air; for example the spade Uncle Arhat has attacked a mule with sticks out of its side ‘at a jaunty angle’. The reader already knows just what is going to happen to Arhat because of his actions, making the use of the word ‘jaunty’ highly ironic. This no doubt intentionally makes the story even more difficult to read. I have to confess that I did skip over some bits of the violence.

In line with this duality, there is much lyrical writing, especially about the landscape, and the ever present sorghum fields. The red sorghum represents life and regeneration; there is again a conscious irony that when the narrator returns to the village at the end of the story, the red sorghum has been replaced by a hybrid green variety. It is only through pursuit of red sorghum that he can redeem himself.

Mo Yan’s life seems to reflect the duality that inhabits his writing. Mo Yan is a pseudonym which means ‘don’t speak’, and he rarely gives interviews. He says that ‘for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated’. Some of his writing is critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but he has been a member of the Party for many years, he had a career in the army and is – or has been – the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer’s Association. As the first mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature he received praise from the Party, but Chinese expatriate writers are critical of him for not being more critical of the repression of free speech by the regime. He has, however, had his share of criticism by the government for his sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Communist Party members. As one reviewer noted, his readers ‘have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances’. Here is the text of a rare interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel – though it didn’t really clear up much of the confusion. On the other hand, if resistance to the regime is as suicidal as resistance to the Japanese, which of us would undertake it?

You can read more about him here, including details of the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him. A highly acclaimed film of Red Sorghum was made by a Chinese studio in 1987-8, released in the West in 1989; here’s a review. I don’t think I want to see it.

Book Review: Rainbow Pie, by Joe Bageant

The sub-title of this book, published in 2010, is A Redneck Memoir. Having read Bageant’s earlier book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (2007) (reviewed here) I thought this one might offer some pointers to current state of American conservative politics and the rise of Donald Trump. I was right, though the memoir also challenges the assumptions of many liberals like me concerning the people he writes about.

Bageant was born into a family that had for many generations worked their own small farm in West Virginia, essentially as a subsistence unit with strong community links. But his grandfather and grandmother were the last generation to be able to do so, as the post-World War II cash economy and large scale agri-business, hand in hand with rampant consumerism, reduced them, and others like them, to being part of a white underclass with no choice but to sell their labour where they could for poverty-level wages.  The subsistence farming community was marked by hard work, thrift and independence; there was no place for government, big business or unions. And even when the tie to the land was broken by economic necessity, the value of independence remained. Bageant traces the swelling of the ranks of a white underclass through the decline of his own extended family, noting that despite continuing hard work, they were caught in a downward spiral. The one thing that might have saved them, a decent education, was for the most part denied them by niggardly local elites who controlled their schools, and who encouraged early leaving for dead-end jobs or military service in America’s overseas wars.

As in his previous book, Bageant explains how gun culture and fundamentalist religion are integral to the values of the white underclass. Hunting has always been a feature of life in West Virginia; guns were an integral part of the subsistence economy. They are no less valued because that economy no longer operates. Any suggestion of gun control is anathema, the more so as these people are traditionally suspicious of almost any government activity. Fundamentalist religion offers a sense of community previously provided by being part of a genuinely close knit, land-based, economy. He isn’t blind to the black/white world view of Christian fundamentalism, nor to the ignorance and superstition often involved, but he tries to explain why this world view has such a hold on people like his family. Central to his analysis is the refusal to accept the reality of class in America: ‘Illiterate? In poor health? Underpaid, disposable, superstitious, and exploited? Big deal. That would describe much of the planet. The difference is American class denial’.

Bageant clearly respects the old ways of independent subsistence farming. I think he may be sentimentalising these old ways, which were almost by definition narrow and restrictive of the individual, especially women. He sees the processes that destroyed that way of life almost as a conspiracy between government – Republican and Democrat alike – and big business. Agri-business didn’t happen, he argues, by chance; it was rather the product of regulation, subsidy, financial instruments and government sponsored propaganda, supplementing the economic power of a few big corporations. I’m not entirely comfortable with his view, but neither can I really fault it. It’s an uncomfortable sort of book.

Equally clearly Bageant hates the circumstances in which the white underclass now finds itself – both from what has been done to it by way of poor health, education and wages, and by what it accepts for itself, particularly the ‘collective amnesia’ which inhibits people’s ability to question their situation. Bageant uses his mother’s diary to inform his account of his parents’ life, so he has primary evidence of the poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that prevailed. However when he askes her about those days, she looks back on them with nostalgia. ‘For all the anxiety, grief and hardship, she … was remembering those times as the days of rainbow pie.’ Hence the ironic title. However this denial, he argues, is not just the blindness of the underclass; it is promoted by the rich and shared by the liberal intelligentsia who do not make the effort to understand this underclass and who may even, indeed, deny its existence. Hence the sub-title, taking to himself and his family the label ‘redneck’.

Bageant did not live to see the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading aspirant for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. But much in this memoir foreshadows the acceptance of just such a candidate. On the issue of the white underclass’s hostility to healthcare reform, for example, he writes that the ‘sad truth is that the pent up anger has little to do with feelings about healthcare, but a hellluva lot to do with all the shitty breaks, insults, and degradations that come with being an underclass citizen of the Empire.’ This anger has been successfully exploited by people who benefit from America’s class war. The calls for exclusion of Mexicans, and increased protection for American manufacturing – however unrealistic – resonate with the overwhelmingly white male supporters of Donald Trump many of whom are themselves excluded from the prosperity and comfort of what they routinely see on TV as the American dream.  Bageant might well be saying ‘I warned you’ from his grave.

Bageant doesn’t say in this memoir how he escaped his background to become a journalist, but you can find out more about him in this quite detailed account of his life. If, like me, you don’t know what rainbow pie is, here is a recipe.

 

Book Review: Eucalyptus, by Murray Bail

Eucalyptus (1998) has won praise and prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has been described as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘highly original’ and ‘a pleasure’. This just goes to show that different books appeal to different people, as for all its strengths, this isn’t one that particularly appeals to me.

Holland (no first name), an unlikely settler on an outback NSW property, has become obsessed with eucalyptus trees, and has acquired and planted at least one of each of the over five hundred species and sub species on his land. When Ellen, his beautiful only child, grows up, he decides that she will be given in marriage to the man who can correctly name all of the trees on the property. Many try and fail. Eventually a suitor arrives who looks as if he might win the prize. But what if Ellen has given her heart elsewhere?

None of this is meant to be realistic – except for the very specific identification and naming of the eucalypts. The story seems to draw on fairy tales, or to use Bail’s own word, fables, which he says, are ‘stories that take root’, and ‘pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces.’ They reproduce ‘ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable’. There is, obviously, the archetypal tale of the king who sets difficult tasks, the prize for success in which is his beautiful daughter and his kingdom. Scattered throughout are stories about people, often left incomplete, a device that seems to hark back to A Thousand and One Nights. The princess at one point pricks her finger on a needle and later has to be woken from lethargy by the rightful prince. So there is an intentional disjunction between botanical facts and narrative fantasy. This is echoed in the two strands of the story dealing with the suitor who has technical knowledge, and the lover who tells stories; one deals in classifying and naming, the other in stories about people – empirical knowledge versus imagination. Not that the trees themselves represent prosaic reality; far from it. There are lovely, lyrical descriptions of the trees and the landscape they create. Bail is also good at descriptions of people; after years on the land, Holland’s face had ‘become a reddish terrain of boulders, flood plains and spinifex’. I’m less convinced by Ellen’s ‘speckled’ loveliness – the idea of moles and beauty spots enhancing beauty doesn’t work for me. All this is told with a sort of whimsical lightness that befits the essence of the story, which is romance.

So what is there not to like? While some of Bail’s writing is beautiful, I find some of it annoying. He has a tendency to utter gnomic statements such as ‘The father is always waiting for the daughter’. Really? What does this even mean? Or ‘Art is imperfect, unlike nature which is casually ‘perfect’. To try to repeat or even convey by hand some corner of nature is forever doomed.’ I understand that there can be levels of meaning within the story; for example Holland’s planting of eucalypts not native to the area could be seen as imperfect ‘art’ rather than ‘nature’, but this sort of speculation, which some people may well find satisfying, I find distracting. And then there are the stories. Holland tells his daughter to ‘beware of any man who deliberately tells you a story’, though of course she doesn’t heed his warning. Stories are what win her. But what do the stories add up to? Some of them are about women trapped by circumstance, but I can’t hold enough of them in my head at once to discern a pattern in them – if indeed there is one. I assume Bail hasn’t just written whatever comes into his head, so I wish he’d clarify the meaning of the stories for me.

Then there is the whole question of fairy-tales. It isn’t reasonable of me to object to the fact that most fairy tales come from a time in the past that was patriarchal in the extreme; they are what they are. But I can’t help feeling very uneasy with the translation to modern times of the ‘woman as chattel’ to be given away by the figure of male authority. That the story doesn’t go quite to this script doesn’t alter the fact that Ellen is essentially passive. Bail is certainly not setting out to subvert the traditional fairy-tale; male competition for a female prize is at the heart of the story. This makes Ellen a weak character for me. I know that fairy-tale characters are stereotypes, but I find her essentially uninteresting, which doesn’t make for a satisfying read. Bail is said to wish ‘to challenge reader expectations and complacency’, so maybe I’m just not responding to that challenge. Other readers have obviously found this ‘experimental fiction’ much more enjoyable.

There isn’t much about Murray Bail’s life on the internet, though you can read an outline of his career here. (Nowhere does it say he was married for a time to the novelist Helen Garner. You have to go to her Wikipedia entry for that.) Here is a favourable review of the book from the New York Times. And here is rather nice piece of writing by him.

 

Book Review: The Lieutenant, by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. The Lieutenant (2008) is the second of her books dealing with the first contact between the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia and the new arrivals from Britain, and is set before her best known work Secret River (2006), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Daniel Rooke is a clever young mathematician with an interest in languages, but his humble background and lack of connections makes it hard for him to advance in England in the 1770s. He joins the Royal Marines as a second lieutenant – being unable to afford a commission in the Navy – and excels at navigation. He finds social relationships difficult, but manages to get along well enough with his fellow junior officers. Nevertheless, he always feels an outsider. Wounded in the American War of Independence, he returns to England with no prospects, and is pleased to accept a place on the Sirius, flagship of the motley first fleet of ships assembled to transport convicts to the almost completely unknown continent of Australia. Once there, he adjusts quite quickly to the strange plants and animals, and begins to learn the language of the local Cadigal (or Gadigal) people. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of white settlement in Australia will easily guess that this is not going to end well, and Grenville gives plenty of clues to this along the way.

In Rooke, Grenville has created a most appealing character through whose eyes we begin to see that an environment that seems harsh and unwelcoming to most white inhabitants of Sydney Cove, convicts and their gaolers alike, is full of interest and even pleasure. Rooke, the outsider, can ‘enter the strangeness and lose himself in it.’ He is a scientist; he thinks rationally about his environment. His greatest interest is in the Cadigal language, which he sees as the key to unlocking an understanding of the Aboriginal people. He knows that language is ‘more than a list of words’, it is a machine; ‘to make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts’. And he realises that he can do this, and that ‘everything in his life had been leading here’. His main helper in this project is a young girl, Tagaran. With her, he realises that even understanding language as a mirror of culture is but a step on a path to deeper understanding which goes beyond science: ‘It was the heart of talking, not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.’ In this context, he was no longer an outsider. ‘Tagaran was teaching him a word, and by it was showing him a world.’

This is, of course, a work which imaginatively re-creates history, rather than one of pure invention. There was indeed such a Lieutenant of Marines as Daniel Rooke; his name was William Dawes, and he did learn a lot of the Cadigal language and fill notebooks with it as Daniel does in the story. The fateful moral decision Rooke makes is very similar to that made by Dawes, and Rooke’s subsequent history, as told in the final section, is the same as that of Dawes. You can read Dawes’s biography here. (The word with which Tagaran shows Daniel ‘the world’ is in notebook B21, though her name doesn’t appear.) Using Dawes’s story with different names allows there to be a certain timeless quality about it: a lonely man finding himself through contact with indigenous peoples could happen at any time in any place of first contact. So equally can his story of loss of innocence.

For all that, there is real history involved, and while Grenville is not trying to tell that history, I think she is a bit light on historical detail. Rooke seems to have been left alone to an unlikely degree, and to have remarkably little to do. The real Lieutenant Dawes played a much more active role in the colony, in addition to his work with the Cadigal language. Here, Grenville may be emphasising Rooke’s isolation for reasons of the story. The very early years of the colony were even harsher than Grenville suggests. She doesn’t really explain just how dire the food situation was and doesn’t really explore the paradox of a starving white community existing alongside a well-fed Aboriginal one. Her portrait of Governor Phillip (Gilbert in the story) seems overly harsh to me, though perhaps she knows more about him than I do, or perhaps this is another device to heighten Rooke’s position as an outsider. You can read about Phillip here. I always thought he did as well as it was possible to do as governor of a harsh penal colony, and that he genuinely didn’t wish to harm the Aboriginal population – not merely for strategic reasons, but also for humane ones.  But harmed they were, and more deeply and quickly, I would have thought, than Grenville suggests. Before there was any official policy of reprisal against them, Aboriginal people were dying of the cholera and influenza brought by the first fleet, and according to Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, by 1789, ‘black corpses were a common sight’. Could Rooke and Tagaran’s friendship have flourished in such conditions? Or did Dawes, unlike Rooke, get no further than listing the mechanics of the Cadigal language? One thing is certain: Dawes’s recording of the Cadigal language has been vital to its survival today.

You can read more about Kate Grenville and her work here. And here is an interesting review of this book.  A more recent book, Sarah Thornhill (2011) forms a sort of trilogy with it and The Secret River. You can find the spot where Rooke sets up his hut, now Dawes Point, close to the southern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Book Review: The One Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

This book was published in 2009 in Sweden, but has had a spike of interest because a film of the book, advertised as a comedy, was released in Australia in 2014. Our book club thought it might be nice to read something a bit more cheerful than we had been doing, and tried this. But it wasn’t one of our better choices.

Jonas Jonasson apparently said he wrote the book because he thought the title was so good it needed a story to go with it. The window which the hero, Allan Karlsson, climbs out of is that of the nursing home to which he has recently been relegated, and I agree that the idea of escape from a nursing home is pretty appealing. But for me the joke ends there. What follows is a picaresque series of adventures, during which Allan gains a fortune, a group of friends and finally a wife. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to his past life, during which he met some of the twentieth century’s major players, including General Franco, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Harry Truman, and played a role in some of the century’s major events.

Some of what happens might be funny in a film – for example the role of the elephant – but I didn’t find it funny on the page. The book has been very popular; some people must find it charming. I just found it silly. So silly that I assumed it must be satire. Now I am very dense when it comes to satire; I need to understand clearly what is being sent up. I thought at first that Jonasson was echoing Voltaire’s Candide, where everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – even when the reverse is actually true. Allan is an expert in explosives, and has a hand in creating the atomic bomb. Surely the capacity to destroy humanity is being set against his optimism – his ‘unstoppable ability to look on the bright side’? There are other similarities to Candide too – the picaresque nature of the story, the somewhat sadistic treatment of enemies, the matter-of-fact tone, and the fact that the story deals with events of the time. (You can read about the original Candide here.) But there are major differences. There is no tutor Panglos urging optimism; Allan is his own Panglos. He emerges unscathed from his adventures; there are no terrible outcomes for him or his friends as there are in Candide. In other words, despite his capacity for destruction, his optimism is rewarded – after all we know from the start that he lives to be a healthy 100-year old. This surely isn’t satire.

If not satire then what? We all sat around trying to drag some deeper meaning from the book. Maybe the story is intended to be absurd in the philosophical sense of absurd, where human purpose meets, in Camus’s phrase ‘the unreasonable silence of the world’? But Allan ‘had never been given to pondering things too long’ – he doesn’t seem to have much purpose, and certainly doesn’t try and see any purpose in the world; he accepts whatever will be will be. Naivety and simplicity win out. Is the book a sort of Swedish Forrest Gump, where: ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’. Forrest Gump makes history in extraordinary ways, through a series of accidents and happenstance, just as Allan does. We also thought of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, where Chance, the simple-minded gardener, almost by accident becomes Chauncey Gardiner, Presidential candidate. (Being There is well known for being Peter Sellars’s last film). But Allan is not simple-minded like either of these characters. Is he more like Jaroslav Hašek’s hero in The Good Soldier Švejk? Švejk appears to be ingenuous, but is actually very clever at getting his own way; this is also true of Allan. But it’s drawing rather a long bow to make the comparison. We even wondered if Allan’s oft-stated lack of interest in politics or religion was meant to be significant; after all, by just being friendly and pleasant, he plays a major role, so he says, in dampening down the tensions of the Cold War.

Perhaps the moral of this post is that there is not any deeper meaning in the book, and that we shouldn’t be trying to create one. It doesn’t have to have some cosmic message, or to fit into some literary tradition. It is what it is – which in my opinion, isn’t up to much.

You can read a little more about Jonas Jonasson here. This was his first book; his second, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (2014), is in a similar vein. I note that the publisher’s description says it’s written in the ‘same light-hearted satirical voice’ as his first novel, so maybe I was right first time about the satire being there, whether I could see it or not. You can read here a very much more favourable review of the book from The Guardian, where it was nominated by readers for the Guardian First Book Award. It didn’t make the short-list though.

 

Book Review: This House of Grief, by Helen Garner

Why did I read a book I knew would upset me so much? After all, I already knew the ending. Well, I was on a plane, and it was all I had to read … and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The book, published in 2014, is subtitled The Story of a Murder Trial, and that is exactly what it is. It tells of the two trials of Robert Farquharson, an apparently ordinary bloke who, on the evening of Father’s Day 2005, drove his car into a dam in country Victoria. He escaped, but his three sons, aged 10, 7 and 2 did not. Farquharson’s story was that he had suffered from a coughing fit while driving, blacked out and ended up in a dam. He said he had tried to save the children but had been unable to do so. An investigation by the police into what had happened concluded that there was enough evidence that Farquharson had deliberately driven into the dam, and he was charged with the boys’ murder.

Helen Garner structures the book around the trial, which she attended every day. So we meet all the main characters: Farquharson himself, looking ‘small, scared and terribly lonely’, Peter Morrissey, Farquharson’s defence lawyer, with his ‘big, fair and bluff, Irish style, with the bulk and presence of a footballer’, Jeremy Rapke QC, the Crown Prosecutor, with ‘a mouth that cut across his face on a severe slant, like that of someone who spent his days listening to bullshit’, and the judge, Justice Philip Cummins, with his ‘open, good-humoured face’. And then there is Cindy, Farquharson’s ex-wife and mother of the dead boys, her new partner, her family and Farquharson’s family. Next, like the jury, we hear the evidence against Farquharson, and Morrissey’s attack on it. Was it possible that Farquharson had blacked out because of a coughing fit? What evidence was there about the path of the car into the dam? Why were the lights and the ignition off? And much worse, what would have happened to the boys when the car sank?

As well as this more or less technical evidence – though being technical doesn’t make it any the less horrible – there are the relationships involved. Was Farquharson bitter and vengeful about his separation from his wife? She said she believed his story, and that he would never hurt the kids, because he loved them (– though she had changed her mind on this by the second trial). And even if he did love them, Garner puts paid to the ‘sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges.’ Had he really tried to save them? And what about his odd behaviour immediately after the crash, when he had refused the offer of two passing motorists to dive into the dam to search for the car, and instead demanded to be taken to his ex-wife’s house so he could tell her he’d killed the kids? Was this a natural desire to share his shock and horror, or an act of revenge? The jury eventually finds him guilty, but he wins an appeal and a new trial. The new jury finds him guilty again.

None of this does justice to the power and passion of the book. Helen Garner almost wants him not to be guilty, because how can one comprehend that a father would deliberately kill his children? ‘In spite of everything I know about the ways of the world,’ she writes, ‘it was completely unendurable to me that a man would murder his own children.’ At times, she almost feels a bit sorry for him, he is so pathetic. I was strongly reminded by her description of his behaviour in the dock of Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ (which you can read more about here). He’s isn’t presented as a monster; he’s ordinary, though lacking in insight or empathy – failing to ‘think’ in the same way Arendt is describing. But maybe this makes him a monster.

Because Farquharson is charged with murder, the court cannot consider the possibility that hovers in the background of the book: that Farquharson’s plunge into the dam was a failed suicide attempt – which might have made his crime manslaughter. His lawyer does indeed clutch at this straw at the end of the second trial, but Farquharson never strays from his ‘not guilty’ plea, and so this possibility – attractive because marginally less horrible than intentional murder – is never explored. Because of this there is never any discussion of what he did or might have done to get his children out of the car; he claims only to have regained consciousness too late to save anyone but himself.

Some of the journalists covering the trial thought at times that Farquharson’s legal team might have established ‘reasonable doubt’; neither jury thought so. The evidence is there for readers to make what they will of it; I know what I think.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, but you still aren’t sure whether or not to read this book, have a look at this masterly review by Peter Craven, who says it all so much better than I can. This one by David Maher is pretty interesting too. Ten years on the case is still ongoing in the sense that Farquharson’s ex-wife is now in the process of applying for compensation from the victims of crime fund. It’s still ongoing, too, in the sense that it’s something no one who has read the book can ever forget.

You can read more about Helen Garner here, and my review of her 2004 book Joe Cinque’s Consolation here.

 

Book Review: Ideas for Australian Cities, by Hugh Stretton

When Hugh Stretton, one of Australia’s great public intellectuals, died last month aged 91, I was moved to re-read one of the first books he wrote* – Ideas for Australian Cities. This book, published in 1970 was so unusual that he couldn’t find an academic publisher for it, so he published it himself. At the time, I found it one of the most important books I’d read, one that changed my way of looking at cities. So what do I think of it forty-five years later?

Most of the book is about the history of the cities Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and the town planning arrangements that were operating in them in the late 1960s. Most space is given to Canberra, then still a relatively new city, offering options for planned development not open to older cities. Adelaide gets the next most space, in particular the work of the SA Housing Trust, which was then still a major player in the housing market as a provider of low cost housing for workers, rather than welfare housing, centrally planned, but built through private contractors. Melbourne and Sydney get less space as established cities unlikely, though for different reasons, to be amenable to a planned response to such problems as underinvestment, sprawl and overcrowding which already characterising them.

In 1970 there was considerable novelty in a book about cities. Stretton refers to the existence of some rather more technical urban research and publications, but for most students of Australian history, it was the impact of the bush that defined Australia. Cities were still the ‘five teeming sores’, the parasites on the countryside of A.D. Hope’s bitter poem Australia. Stretton’s book marked a sea change in attitudes to the centrality not only of cities, but also of the suburbs in assessments of national life. Rather than seeing it as deadening, Stretton saw the quarter acre block as a site with potential for freedom and creativity for families.

It’s true that the planning regime of each of these cities as described by Stretton is now out of date; since 1970 there has been both a wave of political interest in cities and a retreat into neo-liberal reliance on the market to shape them. Nothing has come, other than a few false starts, of his hope that new cities would be created, so as to reproduce the amenities and freedoms of the old ones. The problems he identified then have only got worse now: unaffordable house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, long journeys to work for those forced out to the margins, traffic congestion, destruction of parts of cities to build freeways and parking lots, inadequate public transport, well-meaning but ultimately destructive creation of public housing ghettos which breed crime and violence, or, more likely, very little public housing at all, and long waiting lists for the most vulnerable.

But Stretton has nevertheless left a major legacy – or at least he has left me one. This is the understanding that urban development is a site of power. He makes it very clear in his book that urban growth, and the planning – however much or how little – that shapes it, is essentially the result of political choices. In fact he calls the book a ‘political tract’. By this he means that planning choices – even the choice to do nothing – have differential effects on the rich and the poor. It is nearly always, he says, the rich that benefit when development is left to the market, but proactive planning can also have a bias in favour of the rich if it results in ghettos for the poor. His ideal is for as little social segregation as possible, as mixed neighbourhoods generate better schools, because there are parents with the resources to defend and improve them, better facilities because there are more people able to argue for them, and more diversity and interest to leaven the mixture. Unfortunately segregation is becoming more common, and is a major factor in both creating and sustaining inequality in Australian society.

Stretton also has a major concern about planning which focuses on the needs of men as workers and commuters, and ignores the needs of women and children at home in the suburbs. Planners, he felt, often privileged cars over pedestrians, made routes to schools and shops unduly dangerous, and favoured high rise living even though it was quite unsuitable for young children. This is an area where much has changed, with many more women now in the workforce, so that fewer journeys are made on foot (making traffic congestion worse), and unsupervised play in neighbourhood backyards is relatively rare (children without this freedom now play computer games alone inside). Many families live in medium density housing because they can’t afford a house with a backyard or aren’t prepared to drive the long distances to get to one – which they would have little time to enjoy anyway. But I don’t think these changes negate Stretton’s basic concerns about the importance of the needs of children for suburban safety and freedoms.

In an interview in 2007, Stretton was asked how he thought Australia’s cities were going. His main concerns remained the need to develop alternative city centres, with the full range of employment, government services and cultural pursuits, though he thought it unlikely that the political will existed to do that. He also re-iterated the need for public housing that was more than simply for welfare purposes, as that almost always resulted in ghettos for the poor: public housing should be built ‘to sell into the middle and bottom of the housing market to keep it effective for everybody…I would love all that back and I don’t think there is ever any good reason for being rid of it.’ He rather confounded his conservative interviewer by his concluding remark: ‘I think part of the problem is governments have decided that they must buy votes by cutting taxes at election time, not revealing that this means that house prices are anything up to twice what they need be for lack of that public supply into the housing markets.’ An unfashionable view, maybe, but I think it’s as true now as it was in 1970.

Hugh Stretton’s voice in defence of equality will be sadly missed.

There isn’t much about him on the internet; here is the barest outline of his career and work. There is far more to it than I can cover here, but you might like to read two other posts I wrote about his 2005 book Australia Fair here and here.

*The Political Sciences, his major academic work to that time, was published in 1969 by Routledge & K. Paul, respectable academic publishers.

Book Review: Ransom, by David Malouf

David Malouf is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers. This is his 2009 rendering of sections of Homer’s Iliad– roughly, a much abbreviated version of books 16 to 23. But it explores details not in the original, and exhibits a grace and imagination that befits both the story and the writer.

Ransom deals with the death of Patroclus, Achilles’s battle with Hector, his abuse of Hector’s body and Priam’s recovery of it. This last makes up Part 3 of the book, and goes well beyond Homer’s version. When I started reading, I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming weariness in the face of the apparently never-ending horrors of what men do to each other in war. Why write about it again? But as I read further, the beauty of Malouf’s writing, and the essential humanity of this retelling of the story drew me in.

Malouf was first attracted to the story of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks when he heard part of it as a child during World War II in Brisbane – then the headquarters of General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the war in the Pacific. The story seemed to him the archetype of all stories about war, especially as at time he didn’t know how the war on his doorstep would end. So rather than writing something new, he wrote about the first war to appear in literature. ‘There’s little new that matters under the sun,’ writes David Marr, reflecting on Malouf’s work. ‘We are what we have always been, what moves us has always moved us; we’re writing now as we have always written.’ Malouf says that the ‘whole story of the Trojan war is really central to my notion in terms of feeling of what war is and what the vulnerability is of people, women or children, but also soldiers in war. So it’s haunted me for a long time.’

Malouf believes that since Achilles and Priam were going to come together at the climax of the book, ‘the reader must know as much about those two people as possible’. Achilles is a very divided figure; a hero, the greatest warrior of the Greek army, but also in his grief and anger, capable of doing un-heroic things, as can be seen from his treatment of Hector’s body, as well as sulking in his tent and letting Patroclus fight in his place. He knows that he will die in the war – his mother, a goddess, has told him so – and it becomes a question of how he will be remembered. He is if you like ransoming his future reputation. Future remembrance is also Priam’s concern. He knows that ultimately Troy will fall and he will die, but in addition to acting out of genuine grief over the death of his son Hector, and his outrage at the desecration of his body, he wants to do something that he will be remembered for. He is offering a ransom for his son in a conventional way, but his manner of doing it is startling – an act of moral rather than physical courage.

But Malouf didn’t want just to re-tell the story; ‘I wanted to deal with different aspects of stories from the ones that Homer deals with,’ he says. Thus he writes about Priam’s childhood, and the chances that brought him to the throne of Troy. He also makes it clear that Priam’s choice of how to act in this instance is quite revolutionary. I think the carter who transports the ransom – and certainly his mule – are also from Malouf’s imagination.

I’ve said the writing is beautiful. It is simple and clear, yet quite profound. One random example can show this. Priam is trying to explain to his wife Hecuba his reasons for making his moral act to ransom Hector’s body; he is telling her how it felt to be a child in danger. ‘Imagine, then,’ he says, ‘what is was like to be that child. To actually stand as I did at the centre of it, of what was not a story, not yet, but a real happening, all noise and smoke and panicky confusion. To know nothing of what is to come and simply be there – one of a horde of wailing infants, some no more than three or four years old who have been driven like geese out of the blazing citadel, along with rats, mice and a dozen other small, terrified creatures, all squealing underfoot.’ The precision of the detail is important in evoking sympathy, as is the use of italics. But it’s more than that. Somehow it just gels –the right word in the right place.

It is now agreed that Homer’s story has a basis in fact. As I read about Priam’s expedition to the Greek camp, I was sharply reminded of the landscape of Troy as it is today. The seashore, where the Greeks were camped, is further away now than it was then; his journey would have been considerably longer. The archaeological site that contains the ruins of Troy sit in the middle of open country, with a scattering of olive trees; it is easy to understand how Troy simple disappeared from history until its rediscovery in 1871 by Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist/adventurer who essentially looted the site, carrying off what may or may not have been Priam’s treasure. The entrance to the site sports a giant wooden horse – a part of the history of the Trojan Wars that comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, not Homer’s Iliad.

You can read more about David Malouf here. And here’s an interesting interview with him about the book, from which the above quotations are taken. I’ve also reviewed another book which has Achilles and Patroclus at its centre: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

Book Review: Maestro John Monash, by Tim Fischer

The subtitle of this 2014 book is ‘Australia’s Greatest Citizen General’, which gave me hope that it might look at Sir John Monash as a citizen as well as a general. Alas, this was not to be. The book is a plea for a re-evaluation of Monash’s contribution as a soldier in World War I, and is central to Fischer’s campaign to have him posthumously promoted to Field Marshall. Tim Fischer is a former leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister of Australia, so I should have known better.

The book does give a brief outline of Monash’s career before the war as an engineer, and mentions his role as head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission after it. But most of the book concerns the various campaigns Monash was involved in, from Gallipoli to the Western Front, where he became commander of the Australian Army Corps. Fischer argues that Monash learnt from his own and other people’s mistakes and developed an ‘holistic’ approach to military tactics and strategy that was notably lacking in generals like Haig and Rawlinson. He was also much more concerned than many regular army commanders about keeping his men as safe as possible. A successful demonstration of his approach occurred at the battle for the village of Hamel in July 1918, and was repeated in later battles in August, which saw the last desperate German thrust towards Amiens repelled, and the war ended sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Some other senior military commanders were probably thinking along similar lines, but Monash was meticulous in his planning and implementation of a coherent plan of attack, and Fischer is likely correct that others followed his example.

Fischer notes that despite his undoubted successes, The Cambridge History of the First World War, published in 2014, didn’t even mention him. And he argues that having a university and a freeway named after him are scant recognition for him in Australia. So why didn’t he get – and hasn’t he got – the recognition Fischer thinks he deserves? He identifies four main reasons. Monash was a Jew of German heritage, at a time when anti-Semitism, to say nothing of anti-German sentiment, was common; he had come through the ranks of the part-time citizen militia, starting out in a university regiment, rather than from the regular army; he was a portly fifty years old in 1914, and it was openly known that he had a mistress. Perhaps as a result of such considerations, the influential war correspondent C.E.W. Bean took against him: in 1914 he wrote that Australians did not want to be represented by Jews ‘because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves’ – a characteristic he freely attributed to Monash. He and the journalist Keith Murdoch, who also disliked Monash, were close to the war-time Prime Minister Billy Hughes and did their best – unsuccessfully on this occasion – to persuade him against giving commend of the Australian Army Corps to Monash. And Hughes himself didn’t like Monash; Fischer speculates that Hughes may have been jealous of his popularity with the troops. He made sure that Monash stayed in Europe until 1920 as the officer responsible for repatriation of Australian soldiers, and didn’t promote him from a three to a four star general when he could have after the war. In fact his promotion came at the hands of the Scullin Labor government in 1929, which also considered him for Governor General, though Scullin actually chose the Chief Justice, Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian – and the first Jew – to hold the post.

So all in all, Fischer, though he is certainly no historian, makes quite a good case that Monash has been unjustly neglected. The book is more of a polemic than a history; there are various non-sequiturs, and an attack on former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s view that the First World War was ‘devoid of any virtue’. Fischer is firmly in the camp that sees the ‘baptism of fire’ for the new nation as formative of the national spirit.

And this is where I was disappointed – though in retrospect not surprised – to find that there was almost no treatment of Monash as a citizen. As head of the Victorian State Electricity Commission, he belongs in a different formative tradition. Public utilities may now be out of fashion with governments, and privatisation all the rage. But the very establishment of a state owned electricity generator and provider, which Monash oversaw, stands in the same tradition of using the state to create a better life for people as initiatives such as the old age pension, the baby bonus, the basic wage and industrial conciliation and arbitration, all of which were introduced in the first twenty-five years of the new century. This is not to deny that Australia remained a deeply unequal society, or that organisations like the SEC were created piecemeal, without thought for an overarching political purpose. But it has always seemed to me that the national spirit is as much derived  from – and is reflected in – this cooperative thrust to use state power to ameliorate social conditions as it did from the more hierarchical and militaristic celebration of war, whether in defeat or victory. These strands are not mutually exclusive; mateship and courage existed at home as well as at the front. Monash himself summed up the potential divergence of these strands of ‘national character’ when he refused invitations to take part in the quasi fascist New Guard movement, saying that ‘the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate.’ I’d be happy to see him celebrated as both a soldier and a citizen.

If you want to read a proper biography of Monash, try Geoff Serle’s John Monash: A Biography. (1982), or the more recent Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War (2004) by Roland Perry. You can read more about Tim Fischer here, and his crusade for justice for Monash here.

Vale Ruth Rendell

imageIt was with much sadness that I heard last week of the death of Ruth Rendell. I guess it wasn’t totally unexpected – she was, after all, 85 – but her death leaves a gap in crime writing that will be hard to fill.

Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930-2015) wrote three different kinds of crime fiction. There is her Inspector Wexford series of police procedurals, her stories which involve crime but don’t focus on its detection (Ruth Rendell Mark II), and her psychological crime stories written under the name Barbara Vine

Rendell is reticent about her personal history.  Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers.  Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man.  She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’.  After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times.  She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950.  They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later.  They had one son.  She wrote six books before she approached a publisher; when she did, her books were instantly successful.  From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories.  In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and from then on continued to produce books in all three categories.  In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government.  Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor (2002).

I remember reading From Doon with Death not long after it was published. I thought it was OK as a standard police procedure with some human interest around the Wexford’s and his off-sider Burdon’s families, but not brilliant. The Wikipedia entry on the book, however, says that ‘although the identity of the victim’s lover “Doon” would not be much of a surprise to the 21st century reader, at the time of its release it was considered ground-breaking and daring’. I’ve always thought that Rendell’s writing grew in stature as she developed the character of DCI Reg Wexford. In the early books, Wexford’s role was essentially just to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret.  Later he grew into a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like,’ she says, ‘– I’ve done that more and more’.

Even more important, though, was the development of his social conscience – the lens through Rendell’s own concerns for social, political and moral issues were reflected. Three books in particular stand out for me: Simisola (1995), Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999). They deal with racism, environmental issues and child abuse.  Rendell has always held left of centre views, and was active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show ‘the world as it is’ led her to tackle issues she thought important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond most police procedurals. It is this grounded, thoughtful appraisal of aspects of British society that will be most missed.

The books that come after these are still good; I’ve reviewed several of them, and they continue up to the time when Wexford has retired – though he can’t keep out of the detecting business. They include The Monster in the Box (2009) here, The Vault (2011) here and sadly the last one, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) here.

For all that I admire the Wexford series, however, my favourite of Rendell’s books remains one of her stand-alone Barbara Vine ones – The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (1998). One difference between the Vine stories and the Wexford and the other psychological mystery Rendell stories is that the former involve much more reference to events in the past. The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy also differs from the Wexfords in being a mystery story, rather than a crime story. It might even be suggested that it is a novel about family relationships rather than a mystery story; it is a story about deception, rather than crime. Sarah Candless is the daughter of a famous novelist, Gerald Candless. After his death, she sets out to write his biography. But all is not as it seems when she beings looking into her father’s past. Like a lot of other mystery stories, it is a quest, and it builds up a strong sense of mystery, and ultimately, suspense.  It makes for a complex and satisfying story.

You can read the obituary of Ruth Rendell in the Guardian here. In 2014 she created a new detective, Colin Quell, for The Girl Next Door. A must-read for me.

 

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
(2005) is Foer’s second novel. After reading it I wasn’t surprised to learn that he teaches creative writing at New York University, or that the book has significantly divided critical opinion.

Oskar Schell, now nine, is still mourning the death of his father two years ago in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. Always a nerdy kid who knows, for example, that the Hall of Mirrors is in Versailles, ‘which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously’, and reads Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for recreation – he is finding it difficult to come to terms with the loss of his father, and suffers from insomnia, fear of elevators and Arabs, and a sense of being ‘in the middle of a huge black ocean.’ He takes his tambourine with him when he goes out so that he can play it and know ‘I was still me’, and he bruises himself in moments of stress. One day, picking through his father’s possessions, he finds a strangely shaped key in an envelope marked ‘Black’, and immediately embarks on a project to try and find the lock the key will open by visiting all the hundreds of people in New York named Black. This search makes up the body of Oskar’s story, which is told in the first person. Does his mother really let him wander about New York on his own, or sometimes in the company of an 102 year old man?

In addition to this plot strand, there are also the stories of Oskar’s grandmother, who lives across the street from him, and his grandfather, who left his grandmother some forty years earlier. Both of these stories are told through letters, though it is unclear which if any of them were ever sent. Oskar’s grandfather – about whom he knows nothing – writes initially to his unborn child, Oskar’s father, then to the son he only meets once. His letters have a ‘run on’, almost stream of consciousness style. Oskar’s grandmother writes to Oskar. Her letters have short, staccato sentences. These letters reveal fragments of their life in Germany, and their strange, unhappy marriage. I found some of the details a bit confusing, and was relieved to see that some of the reviews I read were confused too.

As well as the alternating of the three distinct voices of these characters, there are a number of visual aids – if that’s what they could be called – to the story. There are random photos – for example of door knobs, pages with only one line of print on them, blank pages, pages where the text gets smaller and smaller and becomes a black block, and, most commented on of all by reviewers, a series of pages that work as a flip book which show the reverse of reality – a body falling upwards towards one of the Twin Towers. Some of the photos are taken by Oskar. Some of these effects represent the communication of the grandfather, who is unable to speak, so writes down what he needs to say. (He has ‘yes’ and ‘no’ tattooed on the palms of his hands.)  The blank pages are the result of typing on a typewriter with no ribbon. I’m not sure whether these overly symbolic visual aids add anything, but I no doubt have an old fashioned view of the novel.

There seem to be two major criticisms. The first is related to problems with writing from a child’s point of view. Several of the reviewers I read pointed out that novels about coming of age from childhood used to be popular, whereas now, childhood itself is material for fiction for adults. The problem is the voice: how to make it juvenile, but not cute. Writing in the New Yorker, author and critic John Updike said that his ‘heart slightly sank when he realized that he was going to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of an unhappy, partially wised-up nine-year-old’, and I can’t help agreeing with him. Other reviewers have compared Oskar with another disturbed young New Yorker – Holden Caulfield, though his was arguably a coming of age story. No one can help sympathizing with Oskar’s unhappiness and his loss. But there are mixed reactions to Oskar; one comment on the back cover sees this as ‘a heartrending portrayal of a child coping with disaster’, whereas a critic in the New York Magazine says ‘Oskar resembles nothing so much as a plastic bag crammed with oddities’. The reviewer in the Guardian says ‘I would have preferred not to take sides. But, looking back at my jottings in the margins of Foer’s new book, I can’t deny how frequently and furiously I’ve scribbled “Aaaarrghh!”’. One reviewer talks of the ‘profundities’ in the text, ‘all of them dropping with the same ”plop”’. I think that some of the rather trite things Oskar says are meant to be wise. I think that is true for the grandparents too, but being enigmatic isn’t necessarily a sign of wisdom. ‘I do not want to hurt you, he said. ‘It hurts me when you do not want to hurt me,’ I told him,” and “I spent my life learning to feel less.”’ Really? It sounds to me furthermore as if Oskar’s voice is often that of Foer himself.

The second issue is the use of 9/11 in the story. Apparently the original draft didn’t have 9/11 in it, but once it had occurred, Foer changed the story to include it. He says that ‘If you’re in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it’s risky to avoid what’s right in front of you.’ The plot needs a bereaved child, though not one whose father necessarily died in the Twin Towers. His complete obliteration makes Oskar’s search for any semblance of him all the more poignant, and that is probably what some critics don’t like about the book: they think it veers into sentimentality. At least one reviewer considers the use of 9/11 to be completely inappropriate; Foer, he says, ‘snatches 9/11 to invest his conceit with gravitas, thus crossing the line that separates the risible from the villainous.’ The title of his review is ‘extremely cloying and incredibly false’. The inclusion of details of both the fire-bombing of Dresden and the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima are seen by reviewers as occasions for either additional courage and brilliance on Foer’s part, or further tawdry attempts to invest the story with seriousness.

As for the title, which is never explained in the book, Foer says ‘War is loud and close. As for the novel itself, I hope the reader feels it loudly and close.’ Some readers do, and some don’t, ‘obviously’, as Oskar would say. I’m genuinely torn. You can find out more about Foer and his work here. ELIC has been made into a film which got an Academy Award nomination, but mixed reviews. Surprise.

PS My book club considers that Oskar may be autistic. I’m not sure: there is evidence both ways. Is it reasonable for an author to assume that his readers would make such a connection?

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret (2013) is the fifth of Moriarty’s six novels, all of which are stories about families and relationships, and how ordinary lives teeter on the edge of the abyss of disaster.  Moriarty lives in Sydney, but her work seems to have special appeal in America; she’s one of the few Australian authors to have had three books on the New York Times best sellers list at the same time. Moriarty is popular in England too: this book features on the Richard and Judy Book Club list in 2013.

The book begins by introducing three women. There is Celia, mother of three daughters, successful Tupperware party host, and pillar of her daughters’ primary school community. ‘Celia … knew exactly where each tiny piece of her life belonged, and where it needed to be slotted in next’. By chance she comes across a letter written by her husband, John-Paul, which is ‘To be opened only in the event of my death’. Can she stop herself from opening it, even though he is still very much alive? Then there is Tess. She runs and advertising company with her husband Tim and her cousin Felicity, and has just found out from them that they have fallen in love. ‘They were good people, and that’s why they were going to be so nice about this, so understanding and accepting of Tess’s rage, so that in the end Tess would be the bad person, not them.’ And what about their son, Liam? The third woman is Rachael. She hopes her son and daughter-in-law are going to tell her they are having another baby; instead they tell her that they are taking her grandson Jacob with them to New York for two years. ‘She had no idea her life was so flimsily constructed, like a stack of cards … Remove the Jacob card and her life collapsed.’ For Rachael lives with the pain that her daughter Janie was murdered, for which no one has ever been held to account.

Having established these story strands, Moriarty weaves them ever more closely together till they produce tragedy, resolution and acceptance. The story is told from the perspective of each of them, with brief flashbacks to Janie on her last day. The writing could probably be called ‘free indirect style’, where ‘where a character’s voice is probably the silent inward one of thought’. This allows characters to be self-critical, aware of their subterfuges and evasions. ‘She’d talked too much when she’d met Tess and her mother … Babbled. Sometimes she could hear herself doing it. Oh well.’ It also allows the author some knowledge of the ‘little did she know’ variety – what if Janie had lived in this case – and there is an epilogue full of what might have happened but didn’t.

Moriarty’s writing is appealing because it so cleverly catches the middle class vernacular of the world these characters inhabit. It’s as if she is privy to all the conversations we’ve ever has with our children. For example Celia is driving: she can hear a child’s iPad. ‘Can you please turn that off,’ Celia said to Esther. ‘It’s distracting.’ ‘Just let me – .’ ‘Turn it off! Can’t one of you children just once do what I ask, the first time? Without negotiating? Just Once?’ Reading it, I was strongly reminded of Joanna Trollope, who has the same skill.

The whole point of the characters is their ordinariness. Cecilia sometimes wonders whether she wants something dramatic to happen to her: ‘Sometimes her life seemed so little.’ ‘Is that what you want, Cecilia?’ she asks herself. ‘Some nice big exciting tragedy?’ But when she gets it, of course she doesn’t like it at all. The story reminds us just how close we all are to the vagaries of existence – past actions that turn out to have consequences for the present, accidents that could happened to anyone, and secrets randomly revealed. It’s also about limits. Cecilia finds that she had no idea what her real limits were until she was pushed to them. ‘She could easily have gone her whole life without knowing those limits, but now she knew exactly where they lay.’ Are they the limits we would accept for ourselves? Knowing all the circumstances, how can we judge? And despite the occasional flights into what might have been, the moral of the story seems to be that ‘Perhaps nothing was ever ‘meant to be. There was just life, and right now, doing your best. Being a bit ‘bendy’.’

Realistic characters, a plot with interesting twists, thoughts you might have had yourself and the challenge of thinking about what you would do in these circumstances. So what’s not to like? I did enjoy the book, but couldn’t help sometimes feeling it was a little bit too knowing, a bit too slick. It’s not that I don’t think excellent books can be written about ordinary everyday things; it’s just that this one feels a bit too much like Desperate Housewives and not enough like Middlemarch. Or am I just being a literary snob?

Book Review: Bedford Park, by Bryan Appleyard

I first came across Bryan Appleyard in 2009 when I read his article in the Sunday Times repudiating his previous scepticism about global warming. He is a columnist who often questions the dogmatism of science, so this was a significant conversion. What brought about the change? ‘I exposed myself to any journalist’s worst nightmare — very thoughtful, intelligent people.’ He’s written several non-fiction books, mostly about some aspect of science, and this is his second novel. It is only indirectly about science. Bedford Park (2013) begins in 1912 with Calhoun Kidd on his way back to America after spending more than twenty years in England. It then jumps back to his original decision to quit America, his arrival in London and his reluctance to leave it – a kind The Europeans in reverse. I say this because while the book is clearly a satire on the English literary establishment of the day, I’m not always sure just who or what is being poked fun at. Henry James gets a mention, but doesn’t appear in person. Cal is the very opposite of the stereotypical American – he is languid and indecisive. Soon after he arrives, he finds the murdered body of an acquaintance, but is he too ineffectual to do anything about it? Bedford Park is a real place, developed on the (then) western edge of London in the 1880s. It was seen as a place for residents to escape from the dirty and crowded inner city, the first of the ‘garden suburbs’. And a number of members of the cultural elite lived there or frequently visited it, including the Yeats family and their poetical son Willie, G.K Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. The Russian anarchists Stepniak and Peter Kropotkin frequented it as well. In the book, Cal meets all of these real people, and others; indeed, an important factor in his decision to stay in England is an encounter with Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse, and reputedly the most beautiful woman in Europe. He also becomes friends with the editors of two rival periodicals, W.T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, and Frank Harris of the Fortnightly Review. Some readers may enjoy this; others may find it all too clever by half. I probably missed heaps of sly references. In an article about the actual Bedford Park, Appleyard seems quite sympathetic to the place, but in the book he emphasises its ‘artistic and political pretensions’. These range from a sort of folksy ‘merry England’ through spiritualism, with Blavatsky and Bessant, to a vague sense of the inevitability of scientific progress. ‘It is a place of art and genius … These suburbs are the way of the future,’ says Cal. ‘It is here that history is being nursed into being,’ says Ford Madox Ford. None of the real characters is treated seriously. Where does the science come in? W.T. Stead claims that spiritualism has a scientific basis, which is clearly nonsense, yet Cheiro, the Irish palm reader (a real person) gives an extraordinarily accurate reading of Cal’s character. This is contrasted with the view of one of the made up characters who has an equally unscientific view of the powers of electricity – but he knows that he doesn’t really understand it, and has real insights into the pretentions of Bedford Park. This exemplifies one of the things that puzzles me about satire: what is being mocked, and what is not? Is there any solid ground for the reader, or is nothing to be taken at face value? I think here it’s the latter, which leaves me flailing round trying to get a grip on what Appleyard is really saying. Though maybe he’s not really saying anything, except that the search for certainly is futile. Despite the interest of real characters and real places, I have another problem with the book: the plot is thin to the point of being non-existent. It’s hard to write a compelling narrative about a weak man who is ‘blown from side to side like a falling leaf’. Throughout the story the insubstantial Cal is contrasted with Frank Harris, who is blunt and forceful, but his actions are too chaotic to give structure to the story. Instead, we have several set pieces, which are versions of things that did happen, but seem there for effect rather than narrative drive. These include a séance with Madam Blavatsky, a Festival of Healing, and visits to the Bioscope to see moving film and the Olympics at White City in 1908, all historically interesting, but not satisfying as a plot. There is a twist in the book which I suppose could be called playful, and which isn’t apparent (or wasn’t apparent to me) until you read the appendix at the end. Don’t cheat and read it first – though one review I saw stated it as a known part of the story. It turns on a detail that some people might know, and others might guess, but I think finding it out at the end gives strength and even structure to the story that is otherwise lacking these qualities. Intrigued? Yes, but don’t go overboard trying to find a copy of the book. I think I’d stick to Appleyard’s journalism. Appleyard doesn’t seem to have a webpage. His books are listed here. And all his articles are available here. He has been three times Feature Writer of the Year and is currently Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards; try this interview with Philip Pullman to see why. PS: There’s a Bedford Park here in Adelaide, but it is definitely not a garden suburb. There is a university in it, though, so perhaps it could be said to have intellectual pretentions.

Book Review: The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

The-Silver-Swan-by-Benjamin-Black-e1427876201146When the first Benjamin Black crime story appeared – Christine Falls (2006) which I reviewed here – there was no mention anywhere that this name was a pseudonym for John Banville, the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea – reviewed here. Banville had told the literary world that he was going to write a crime story, but there was nothing to alert an unsuspecting public that this was it. With The Silver Swan (2007), Black’s second crime story, the cover makes it quite clear that this is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. And this is fair enough, because what Benjamin Black writes isn’t your normal crime story – there’s too much Banville in it for that.

This book is again set in Dublin in the 1950s and features the pathologist Quirke – he doesn’t seem to have another name. He is asked by a man he knows slightly not to perform an autopsy on his wife, who has been found dead in the sea.  Quirke initially agrees, but finds suspicious circumstances, and does one anyway. So he knows she didn’t drown. But what should he do about it? He gets as far as talking to Detective Inspector Hackett, who he met in the first book, but doesn’t tell either him, or the coroner the truth, and the verdict is death by misadventure. Why does he not speak out? Both he and Hackett are still bruised from the outcome of events in the first book; we now find that the corruption they discovered – ‘the wave of mud and filth’ – has been hushed up. Quirke doesn’t feel like sticking his neck out again, but he suffers from an ‘incurable curiosity’. So will he be drawn into the mystery whether he wants be to or not?

Quirke shares the story with the dead woman, Deirdre Hunt. Black is very clever at managing transitions between past – recent past in this case – and present, not stooping to giving dates and times as some authors do. It works smoothly enough, so we read about events leading up to her death mixed in with events after it. The story is also told through Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and to a lesser extent through Deirdre’s business partner Leslie White. This provides an opportunity to get inside these characters’ heads, to understand their motivation. This is essential, because this book, like the previous one, relies on characterisation rather than fast-moving action for its interest. Quirke does a bit of traditional detecting, such as asking questions and putting pressure on people. Black also uses the crime story tactic of misdirection to keep the plot ticking along; ‘Nothing,’ he warns, ‘is what it seems’. There’s also elements of family saga, carried over from the previous book; they make more sense if you’ve read it. But overall, the reader is primarily being asked to engage with the disordered psychology of the main characters.  Black says of Quirke: ‘he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’. And is what he seems intent on showing – with somewhat mixed success, in my opinion.

For all that Banville continues to insist that he and Black are ‘two completely different writers who have two completely different processes’, the writing is that of someone with a literary sensibility. Where else would you find a crime writer describing a character’s eyes darting with ‘an odd, hindered urgency’? Or feeling ‘the touch of a cold tentacle of unease’? And these are just two random examples. In an interview, he describes Dublin as ‘a beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty’; in the book, the smoky, shabby presence of the city is almost palpable. Banville explains that ‘Quirke lives in the apartment in Dublin which I inherited from my aunt and he moves around in that area where I was when I first moved to Dublin … it’s soaked in my recollections.’ And so it’s not surprising that the language he uses to describe it is sensuous and evocative. Banville says ‘I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they are pieces of craft work and I like to think they are honestly made.’ Maybe the Black books are less verbally dense, but you could read this book just for the pleasure of the writing.

I find this story to be ultimately pessimistic, both in terms of the fate of the characters and the society in which the action occurs. The society Black describes is narrow and stifling; he has an American visitor comment critically on ‘The way you go about in cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding things that should change or be fixed or made new.’ We know from the start that Deirdre Hunt’s attempt to change her life ends in disaster; is she being punished for asserting herself in a male dominated society, or simply a victim of it?  And Black ignores the common premise of most crime novels that justice must be seen to be done, and order restored. The Dublin of the 1950s may be beautiful, but in Black’s hands it’s not a very nice place.

I was interested to see that the first three of the Black stories (there’s now seven of them) have been made into a BBC TV series, Quirke, and though it doesn’t seem to have been shown yet in Australia there’s a DVD available. You can find out more about the series here. And you can read more about the work of Benjamin Black here. The most recent Benjamin Black book is a Phillip Marlowe fanfiction, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The most recent Banville book is Ancient Light (2012); after reading The Silver Swan, you might not be too surprised to find it’s a story of obsessive love.  Two completely different writers? I don’t think so.