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Tag Archives: Book review

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: 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: 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.

Book Review: The Shark Net, by Robert Drewe

The-Shark-Net-e1427188699108This highly acclaimed memoir was published in 2000, and has since been made into a TV series released in 2003. Robert Drewe, first a journalist and later a novelist, has an arresting tale to tell, and the literary skills to tell it with affection, humour, some bitterness and a good deal of drama.

The memoir tells the story of his coming of age from a child to a man in Perth, then the remotest capital city in the world, during the 1950s and ‘60s. When Robert was six, his father Roy, who worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company, was transferred from Victoria to Western Australia and the whole family had to make the adjustment to life in the raw suburbs built on the sand hills around the city. After a short period of transition – where his mother makes him wear shoes and socks instead of the bare feet favoured by the other boys, and warms him against sunstroke (or boiling brain as she calls it) – Drewe finds much to love about his new home. Through the prism of his family life, he tells of experiences that were common to boys growing up in this period – adventures with neighbouring children, Saturday afternoons at ‘the pictures’, interaction with girls and a growing interest in sex.

Through the specifics of his own family, Drewe also manages to give a fascinating picture of the social setting of suburban life in Perth at the time. Roy rises fairly quickly to become branch manager for Dunlop – it is ‘a branch manager town’ – and the family mixes with all the other middle class business people who live nearby. Since Dunlop makes sporting goods like tennis racquets and sponsors sporting events, Roy and his wife often entertain famous tennis players and other sportspeople; Robert rubs up against fame much more often than most boys. But his picture of family life also has darker currents running beneath it. Roy is bluff and hearty to his mates, but bad tempered and demanding with his wife and children. Does he hit her? Is he unfaithful to her? Possibly and probably, though Drewe never says so directly. He grows up alienated from his father, and at odds with his mother. Because he is such a good writer, this combination of family concerns and social backdrop works seamlessly.

But there is an additional element to all this; right from the beginning of the book, we are aware of the fear and horror caused to the people of Perth by a serial killer who murdered eight strangers between 1958 and 1963, and committed a number of other violent crimes. The story starts with the man’s committal hearing; Drewe is present as a junior crime reporter, watching with terribly mixed feelings. One of the people he killed was a friend of Drewe’s and one of the murder weapons belonged to another friend. Drewe has met and spoken with the man a number of times. At several points in the book Drewe adds sections in which he imagines what the man might have been thinking and doing at various stages of his life. Not till quite a long way through the story, with all the suspense-building skill of a good novelist, does he eventually reveal who the murderer is.

Like many coming of age stories, this one can be seen as a loss of innocence, by both Drewe himself and by Perth as a result of the murders. The book’s title is clearly a metaphor on a number of levels. Near the end, he ponders the usefulness of shark nets –nets set up to keep sharks away from beaches and swimmers. The distance – mostly desert – between Perth and the eastern states, from which all things bad emanate, is its own protecting shark net. Perth beaches don’t have shark nets; the shark was in any case inside the society, killing at will. And in his own life, Drewe thinks that there are sharks cruising just below the surface of everyday things, just as there are in the sea he loves. Yet the book concludes on an optimistic note, as Drewe leaves Perth for a job on the eastern sea board, passing, if you like, to the other side of the shark net which may protect, but also stultifies.

In his author’s note, Drewe says ‘this is a both a book of memory and my portrait of a place and time. Memory may falter and portraiture is a highly subjective endeavour, but I have tried to tell a truthful story.’ I guess this pre-empts my usual gripe that no one can possibly remember so much of their childhood, including conversations, in such detail. The novelist doesn’t have to. It’s a case of creative remembering that adheres as best it can to the truth. But I did note what is left out, even if I didn’t really miss it. Some of his experiences ring true to my upbringing in another small provincial state capital at much the same time – bearing in mind the gender differences of course. But one huge dissimilarity is that the first question anyone in Adelaide asked then of anyone else was what school they went to. There isn’t any reference at all to Drewe’s life at school, or his intellectual life. Obviously he must have read more than the comics he admits to. But school? He’d never have got away without mentioning it in Adelaide.

You can read more about Robert Drewe and his work here. He doesn’t seem to have a web page, but here’s a long article about him – which fills in some of those school details. Perhaps he thought he’d sound like he was blowing his own trumpet if he put them in. The article was published at the time his second memoir, Montebello appeared in 2012.

Book Review: End of the Night Girl, by Amy Matthews

End of the Night Girl was published in 2011, as part of the prize attached to an Adelaide Festival Award for a Best Unpublished Manuscript. Apparently it had been turned down by a number of other publishers before this. I find this hard to understand; I think it is a very good book.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how well written it is. I just wanted to keep reading. It made me wonder yet again what makes some writing seem so entirely appropriate to the story it is telling. Is it the right word in the right place? Do the images the writer uses evoke the feeling or the place in a particularly striking way? Or is it because of the story itself touches something specific to the reader’s experience or imagination? Whatever it is – a combination of these perhaps? – I would have thought the book worth publishing just for the power of the writing. Some readers might not like some of the language – I don’t much like the C word myself – but Amy Matthews has a great ear for dialogue, and for language appropriate to character. She captures how people do think and feel.

So what of the plot? Molly is a waitress in an Adelaide restaurant. She has dropped out of university, had a number of boyfriends, drinks too much after work, and is drifting, directionless. Much of the story is made up of small incidents to do with her work and her family, and finally her decision to take on a bit more responsibility. Molly has a sharp tongue and is given to feckless behaviour, but is an interesting and engaging character. Yet if the book consisted only of the daily round of her life – however sensitively portrayed – it might leave the reader saying so what? Is that all there is to it?

But Molly is haunted by the Holocaust. And she writes down bits of a story about a young woman, a Polish Jew, that come, seemingly unbidden, into her head. ‘I’ve been writing this stuff for a couple of years,’ she says, ‘just little scribbles on spare bits of paper.’ The fragments that she has written, set perhaps unnecessarily in a different font, are interspersed throughout the book. They are not in strict chronological order, but start in the 1930s. They tell – or at least indicate – the story of Gienia a village girl, from the death of her father to an arranged marriage in Warsaw then all too soon to the Nazi death camps. The back cover of the book talks of ‘a murdered Polish Jew’, and Molly does write of Gienia’s death. I thought at first that there was sufficient ambiguity in Molly’s account to suggest that she has allowed Gienia to survive. But I guess that whoever wrote the notes for the back cover knows better than I do. Matthews has certainly shown Gienia suffering deeply, and perhaps more unexpectedly, shown her battling for survival against other Jews in the camps.

There is a constant tension between the stories of Molly’s and Gienia’s lives. On one level, they are totally different. Molly’s urban hedonism contrasts with Gienia’s peasant upbringing. When Gienia is starving, Molly is throwing away uneaten food. Gienia tries to hold onto her family, Molly pushes hers away. Gienia has a fierce determination to live while Molly just drifts. But while Gienia’s story has its own outcome already to a large degree predetermined by our – and Molly’s – knowledge of the Holocaust, it also reflects Molly’s own circumstances. Through what she writes about Gienia’s life, Molly is examining her own. ‘I don’t know why I find this life so hard, when it should be so easy,’ she thinks. ‘Standing before the cliff-face of the Holocaust the wild fear I feel sometimes makes perfect sense.’ ‘I build horrors, to make mine trivial, and send her into hell.’ And ‘There is no equivalence, a little voice hisses, but not wanting to listen, I let my thundering heartbeat drown it out.’

So is there an equivalence, and if not, what point is Matthews making? I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s a case of ‘read it again’, or maybe Matthews isn’t clear enough. What worries me is Gienia’s death. Why show all that suffering, all that determination to survive, only to kill her off? If there isn’t a link, an ‘equivalence’, between the two stories, then Molly’s story is diminished. If there is – and surely this is the case – then what is it in Molly’s story that is equivalent to Gienia’s death? We’ve known of that death from near the beginning of the book (to say nothing of the back cover). Sometimes Molly seems scarcely able to control the story she has created; she fears ‘the flurry of words will bury me alive’. But she has chosen that outcome for Gienia; quite early in the story, she says that Gienia’s death ‘has become a constant in my life, something I can depend on when all else falls away.’ Perhaps the point of equivalence is that by the end, Molly no longer needs her? I feel this would be perverse, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps I’m just being sentimental about wanting her to survive. Or maybe just too literal; there are ‘non-realist’ elements in the book. I’d love to know what other people think.

You can read a little more about Amy Matthews here (strangely she doesn’t seem to have a web page), and here is an interview with her. She worked for a time as a waitress, so really knows what Molly’s life was like. And just out of interest, here’s another opinion of the book which doesn’t differ all that much from mine. But I was interested to see that it cites a critic from a major Australian newspaper who thought that Molly’s and Gienia’s stories could be considered separately. I think that’s missing the point.

Book Review: Sunshine from the North, by Nancy Sarre

Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part.  Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Nancy Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars and casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’.  But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by Una B Porter.

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

imageI might as well say straight up that I’m not suggesting that anyone else reads this. After a discussion with friends about what constitutes science fiction, as opposed to speculative fiction and to fantasy fiction, I remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). It was one of the first of what I then called ‘science fiction’ stories that I had read, and, I thought, an impressive one. So I read it again. And it is impressive. It’s also a heavily Roman Catholic treatise on original sin. What was I thinking? And the re-reading didn’t really help with the science/speculative/fantasy fiction distinction either.

The book is in three sections. It is set somewhere that is just recognisable as North America in 3000 and something, the second section coming some hundreds of years after the first, and the third more hundreds after the second. In the first section, the world is barely surviving after a nuclear holocaust sometime in the past, the great ‘simplification’ that followed it – ie a purge of scientists and intellectuals – and the destruction of all but the most basic technology. An abbey in the desert founded by Father Leibowitz, a former technician, has a mission to preserve and propagate what little scientific knowledge remains; it has a meagre store of scraps of unrelated technical information, blueprints and manuals that no one now understands. An apparently chance meeting with a pilgrim leads Brother Francis to a buried fallout shelter, where further documents are found. Will this help or hinder the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz?

In the second section, small independent waring states have emerged, with a vestige of civil society. There are now a few secular scholars, and one of them wants to examine the memorabilia held in the abbey. Thon – a title a bit like Dr – Taddeo is a brilliant young natural philosopher. The abbey’s mission has been the preservation of literacy and learning. What possible danger could there be in his examining the abbey’s holdings? Taddeo says that he seeks ‘truth’, but he clearly represents technology designed to serve the power of the secular state. We get a hint of the incompatibility of church and state beliefs, more strongly developed later, when Taddeo looks at a peasant and sees a man who is ‘illiterate, superstitious, murderous.’ The cleric with him sees the ‘image of Christ’. Back at the abbey, the monks have deduced the idea of electricity from the fragments of information they hold, and have built a dynamo; they are apparently not opposed to technology as such. But for them, secular might and power count as nothing in the face of religious truth. The abbot welcomes Taddeo to the abbey, hoping a bridge can be built between the secular and the religious vision of knowledge. But is this possible?

In the third section, major powers have arisen capable of space travel, and again armed with nuclear weapons, this time located in space. But surely they have learnt the lessons of the past?

For all that the subject matter of this book is grim, Walter Miller mostly writes with a light, even humorous touch. Readers are invited to smile at the superstitions of the monks, and to sympathise with the dilemmas of the abbots. We are given both sides of the debate, as in the rightness or otherwise of euthanasia in the third section. But the secular view is never allowed to win and underneath, there is a hard line Roman Catholicism at work. The themes of the rise of technology, the meaning of Christianity and the lust for secular power – the result of unrestrained original sin – tie the sections together. The mysterious pilgrim also plays a part in all three sections.

The book needs to be read in the context of Miller’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1940s and the ramping up of the Cold War in the 1950s. His war service also left him traumatised, particularly his part in bombing the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, as a result of which he embraced pacifism. The possibility of nuclear annihilation now seems less urgent than other threats to the world and its environment, but in the 1950s the crazy danger of the MAD policy – Mutually Assured Destruction – practised by both the Soviet Union and the West was a daily threat. Talk of fallout shelters and how they could be used was commonplace. Miller’s diatribe against the horrors of nuclear war may appear a bit over the top now, but would have seemed perfectly rational when the book was written, and when I first read it.

So is this science fiction? As I’ve noted before, Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction where the latter is an extension of existing technical capabilities taken to their logical extreme. This leaves ‘science fiction’ as fiction dealing with wholly imagined physics and/or technologies. But what might have been only imagined in 1959, like the possibility of wholesale space travel, is merely ‘speculative’ now. (The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, so it wasn’t entirely ‘new’, even then.) And where does the ‘dystopian’ label come in? I think perhaps that labels aren’t much use after all, and certainly not in books like this where the genres meet.

You can read a little more about Walter Miller here.

PS. Comparisons are probably as futile as labels, but I can’t help myself. Where else do we find monastic communities preserving learning after ‘sackings’ (read simplifications), while secular societies rise and fall around them? These same elements, and others I won’t give away, also appear in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) – reviewed here. I’d love to know whether Stephenson ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Book Review: The Unexpected Professor, by John Carey

TheUnexpectedProfessor-e1421135459618John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’.

One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it. While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.

John Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.

Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells.  Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating. Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing.

More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test. You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Book Review: Some Hope, by Edward St Aubyn

SomeHope-e1417564367567I read a review of At Last (2011) by St Aubyn, thought it sounded interesting, and finding it was the last of five books about Patrick Melrose, decided to start at the beginning – and if you’re going to read any of them, I suggest you do the same. The edition of Some Hope that I read is actually a collection of the first three books – which are all quite short, almost novellas – the trilogy consisting of Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). After a gap in which he wrote two non-Patrick Melrose books, the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. Lost for Words, satirising literary prizes, was published in 2014.

Never Mind takes place over one day when Patrick is five. He lives with his mother Eleanor and father David in a rather grand old house in Lacoste in the south of France. His father’s family can trace its roots back to the Norman conquest – the winning side, of course – and his mother is a rich American. Both are totally dysfunctional as parents, his father being alcoholic and cruel, his mother being alcoholic and ineffectual. ‘At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.’  We also meet Victor Eisen, a retired philosopher, and his wife Anne who live nearby, and Nicholas Pratt, baronet and man about town, and his girlfriend Bridget, who have flown over from London for a short stay. Amidst all the malicious comments, the snobbery, the misery – and to the reader, the cringe worthy embarrassment of it all – one comment by Nicholas stands out: ‘in my opinion, nothing that happens to you as a child really matters.’ Could he be more wrong? What are the consequences for Patrick?

We find out in Bad News. Patrick is twenty two. He’s just received the ‘bad news’ that his father has died in New York and is on his way from London to collect his ashes. He hates his father. ‘What instrument could he use to set himself free? Disdain? Aggression? Hatred? They were all contaminated by the influence of his father, the very thing he needed to free himself from.’ What follows from this paralysis is a drug taking binge, described in detail. Patrick is an addict; he is himself ‘bad news’. I read somewhere that this is one of the best descriptions of addiction ever written, not least because it can be funny. I guess there is a kind of black humour, as for example when Patrick has bought heroine, he parts from the dealer ‘with the genuine warmth of people who had exploited each other successfully.’ I found it excruciatingly difficult to read; I don’t really want to know just how it’s done. It raises for me the issue of rejecting writing because the subject is unpleasant versus reading something that is unpleasant because it is so well written. Or is the reader exploited along with everyone else? A couple of the characters from the earlier book make an appearance.

In Some Hope, we are back in the world of satire, snobbery and malice, this time in London and at a lavish birthday party at a mansion in the Cotswolds; ‘a world in which the word ‘charity’… was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’ or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences.’  It is eight years later, and Patrick is off the drugs, but little happier. He cannot rid himself of the legacy left to him by his father – ‘sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty and betrayal ’ – and he fears turning out like him. A number of characters from the first book and one from the second, are, like Patrick, invited to the party, along with some other mostly pretentious and unpleasant new ones. Few have any redeeming features; only Anne, from the first book, and Patrick’s friend Johnny, stand out. Before leaving for the party, Johnny attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to strengthen his resolve not to take any drugs. St Aubyn’s description of the meeting is revealing; he can’t help poking fun at the ‘obscure and fatuous slang’ used by participants talking about their ‘recovery’, but Johnny nevertheless finds that however ‘ridiculous and boring’ the meetings are, they help him stay clean. He is also the one that gets to tell a simpering Princess Margaret at the party that he doesn’t ‘rely on an accident of birth’ for distinction, to which she replies ‘there is no accident of birth’. But the question at the heart of the book is whether there can be ‘some hope’ for Patrick – or anyone else caught up in this world.

Readers will probably not be surprised – though possibly horrified – to learn that under the satire, much in these books is autobiographical. Patrick’s childhood experiences were St Aubyn’s experiences, followed by years of drug addiction and mental illness. In an interview in The Telegraph, it is explained that at the age of 25 he underwent psychoanalysis, which took him, he says, ‘from suicide to creativity’. ‘By that point in my life I was completely ashamed of everything I’d been and done, and the contract I made was to write a book that gets published or commit suicide. It was not at all melodramatic in the state that I was in at the time. I thought about committing suicide every day.’ After the first book was published, he felt he had to keep going. ‘If I don’t write I’ll go mad, and if I go mad I’ll have to kill myself, so I must keep writing,’ he said. Just as well he turns out to be rather good at it.

You can read more about Edward St Aubyn here. There’s a long piece about him and his ‘inheritance’ in The New Yorker here. And you can read a review of his latest book here. It’s definitely on my Christmas list.

 

Effi Briest

Effi Briest book review by Mathew Drogemuller.

Effi Briest, as well as Theodor Fontane’s most successful novel, is said to be part of a trilogy of “adultery tragedies”, a set that includes no less than Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. These tales of 19th century society all have in common female protagonists trapped in boring, if not loveless, marriages; attempting to escape their fates, so to speak, they seal their dooms. Effi for example must walk the path of the guilty divorcee, estranged even from her parents who feel they must condemn her actions.

Needless to say, Effi Briest does not have a happy ending. The beginning is positive but tinged with fear for the innocent bride-to-be. The middle is murky, slow but suspenseful in a deliberate way.

Insofar as Effi acts as a criticism of the strictures of 19th century marriage, it is a successful novel. Geert von Instetten, bureaucrat and husband to Effi, is all but forced, or so he believes, to duel and kill Effi’s past lover. Even at the cost of his own happiness, he feels he has no choice but to divorce Effi and live his days in an aimless misery. Effi’s childlike spirit is crushed and her life ends on a suitably tragic note.

It is not, however, in Fontane’s style to meticulously document any events with great poignancy. Rather the novel glazes over critical moments, barely insinuates critical plot points, and most of the prose is awash with minutiae. The effect is one of slowly revealed consequences, the building up of a subtle and distinct mood, and the sense of meaningless momentum leading to an inevitable, existential ending.

For a book written in 1896 in German, Effi Briest is not unrelatable. But although many of the passages don’t require close reading, and it reaches just over 200 pages, it can be tedious to read.

Book review: “There’s No Home”, by Alexander Baron

Reviewed by Rod Wise.

It was a kind of rite of passage for 15-year-olds a long time ago, well before James Bond showed how to get adolescent jollies up. By the time the first batch of baby boomers reached puberty, bookstores were awash with World War II memoirs masquerading as fiction. And the best of them were in the old Pan stable, much less refined than Penguin or Fontana, but much more vivid.

For this writer, two stood out among the many that were passed from hand to sweaty North Sydney hand in 1959 or thereabouts – From the City, From the Plough (published 1948) and There’s No Home (published 1950). From all the novels of a similar genre, these two alone portrayed scenes, incidents and characters that stayed with me, almost verbatim, for more than five subsequent decades. Such was the impact they made on an impressionable age-group.

Both books were written by the same author, Alexander Baron, piles of whose work could then be found in any second-hand bookstore in Sydney. That is, until, about a dozen years later, he and his oeuvre simply vanished – out of fashion, out of print, out of sight, as it were. Baron, whose birth name was Alec Bernstein, eventually gave up writing fiction in the ‘70s and proceeded to have a productive, though largely unrecognised career as a script writer, with such notable credits as Sense and Sensibility, Poldark and A Horseman Riding By. But it should not surprise that much of his script-writing dealt with historical rather than contemporary vignettes of life.

Yet, quite unexpectedly, his fictional works have had a recent renaissance with a number coming back into print. It is believed that the impetus for this was largely Baron’s appearance in The Cardinal and the Corpse, an idiosyncratic telemovie of the 1990s about the old Jewish East End of London. This film was a labour of love for the British poet and Beat Generation historian Iain Sinclair who has gone on to champion Baron’s revival.

Sinclair says in his notes to the re-issue of The Lowlife, that Baron, himself, was mystified by the sudden interest in his work, but that he also had no wish to become a sort of cult figure: fashionably here today, unfashionably gone tomorrow. Such was the man’s modesty, content as he was to acknowledge that his was a voice from another era and thus to see out his days (he died in 1999) in the North London middle-class Jewish enclave of Golders Green.

So, out of curiosity, I sought out copies of From the City, From the Plough and There’s No Home from the net and the results of my re-reading them were quite illuminating, really.

The former novel was a fictionalised account of Baron’s (then Bernstein’s) experiences and observations while serving with the British Army’s 43rd Division before and after D-Day 1944. It was, in fact, a sensitively drawn portrait of life and war as experienced by ordinary soldiers, men who were, ultimately, very ordinary people from very ordinary parts of rural and urban England.

Given that Alexander Baron was a social realist writer, and not a psychological analyst in the vein of those writers who followed the Joyce-Faulkner path in Twentieth Century fiction, it was perhaps inevitable that no matter what the quality of his writing or the accuracy of his observations, this book would inevitably fall from favour – once the post-war need to understand what had actually happened in the Second World War had run its own race and fallen from favour.

Eventually, after some misgiving, I then turned to There’s No Home. This novel deals with Baron’s time in Sicily in 1943, when he was attached to the British 78th Division during the July-August invasion of that island. Rather than being a description of “men under pressure” as was From the City, From the Plough, this novel was about a lull in the fighting, when a British battalion is ordered to garrison the city of Catania for two months before the Allied advance moved on to the mainland of Italy.

Though no fighting takes place in the story, throughout it the war is never far away: aircraft, both Allied and Axis, continually fly overhead, the distant sound of explosions is constant, and a dog and children are messily blown to pieces by a booby trap left by the retreating Germans. And hanging over everything is the ever-present questions of “When” and “How long”.

For this is a story about British men far from home and desperate to feel some sense of home again, and the local Sicilians whose own men are either still fighting elsewhere, or held in POW camps or killed in action, and who, themselves, are desperate for some return to normality and stability.

For two months, these unlikely groups find a common thread, a marriage of convenience perhaps, that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers and transcends, also, the immediate need for sexual release and consolation. But like a cork pulled from a Sicilian wine bottle, it can only be put back with the greatest difficulty.

Baron’s story revolves around his apparent alter ego, the married Sergeant Craddock, and Graziella, a Sicilian woman, who has received no word on the fate of her own soldier husband. The story follows the evolution of their relationship, as first one, then the other, tries to balance the present euphoric bubble against their own past whose shadows never entirely go away. As reproachful letters from home, or as family photos brooding watchfully on the mantel-piece.

Through both, and also through the lesser, nastier relationship between Captain Rumbold and the fifteen-year-old Nella, we see both Britons and Sicilians, men and women, on the verge of finding their true feelings and identities in a situation that it is inherently hopeless. “Whom are you going to desert, your comrades or me?” Graziella pleads. “If you knew what love meant, there would not be any doubt!” “There is no doubt,” Craddock/Baron replies. “I am a soldier. You have known that all the time.” The battalion moves out, hearts are broken, eyes are guiltily averted, the war goes on.

That this story is very close to the bone for Alexander Baron is obvious, not only from the sensitivity of the text – so very foreign to war novels of the immediate post-war period – but also from the photograph included in the volume of a young, unnamed Sicilian woman, a snapshot that was found among his papers after his death. A reliable body of opinion suggests that this was, in fact, “Graziella”.

What surprises me is that this book was never made into a movie. It has all the presence, drama and visual impact likely to pack a theatre. But unlike the prosaic (“This is like it really was”) and personally undramatic From the City, From the Plough, There’s No Home was possibly too sensitive and “unmanly” in 1950 to interest British film-makers who were then either still writing Ealing comedies or were trying to compete with gung-ho American movies in 35-mill format – a format that was ill-suited to the wide-screen epic that became the staple fare of English-speaking movies of the mid-1950s. Alternatively, it is possible that the author’s earlier communist credentials might have inhibited British film-makers from risking a sharp financial backlash from US distributors and audiences.

Yet, it is conceivable that had There’s No Home been published a decade later, its canvas, the intense, personal drama that always exists against a backdrop of significant events, might have made it a very attractive proposition for those British film-makers who are masters of the miniature. And thus we might have had a film as lasting as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for example.

Unfortunately for Alexander Baron, he was a man of his times, ahead of his times, even, but not in step with his times.

Recommendation: A fine read, delicately balanced between externals and internals, where the author’s lightness of touch belies a penetrating, human awareness.

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is one of my favourite authors. Looking back over my What Book To Read blog, I see that I’ve already reviewed three of his books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), The Final Solution (2004), The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007).* I thought the first of these was brilliant, had minor quibbles with the second, and found the language of the third daunting, but very worthwhile in the end. Telegraph Avenue (2012) resembles the third in this; it is a challenge to read, but richly rewards the effort.

It is 2004. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run a second hand record store called Brokeland Records, specialising in rock, funk and jazz,  located on Telegraph Avenue, where white hipster Berkley shades into the largely black working class town of Oakland. Telegraph Avenue is on a downward slide, and so is their vinyl record business. The fifth-richest black man in America has announced that he is building his latest Dogpile megastore just down the road, and it will include a second-hand record section. It may regenerate the district, but it will likely ruin Archie and Nat. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe are also friends and business partners: they run a midwifery service called the Berkley Birth Partners. Their problems arise from a home-birth that goes wrong. Furthermore, Gwen is thirty-six weeks pregnant and not currently interested in sex, but the same can’t be said for Archy. His estranged father, a former drug addict and briefly the star of a few ‘Blaxploitation’ films, is in trouble and asking for his help, and Titus, the teenage son he never acknowledged from a former relationship, has come looking for him. Titus has met Julius, the teenage son of Nat and Aviva, and Julius has developed a huge crush on him. And then are the neighbours, friends and local business people, at least one of whom is decidedly shady, with a Black Panther past. And there’s a talking parrot. Does Chabon have a thing about parrots? The novel opens on a day when everything goes wrong for Andy and Nat and Gwen and Aviva, and things keep going wrong. Can the friendships, the businesses, the marriages survive the disasters, some brought about by external forces, others the working out of long simmering tensions, and some the result of just plain bad temper? Can the characters find new directions and meanings in their lives?

Nothing else I’ve read by Chabon deals so directly with the pressures of contemporary America. Economic decline now seems to be a pervasive theme in American literature; here it is both a contributor to the sense of failure that permeates much of the book, and a catalyst for change which may provide redemption. Archy, for example, is tired of trying to run a failing business, ‘tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path  of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.’ But what can he do about it?

The issue of race is also central. Gwen and Archie are black, Nat and Aviva are white, and this conditions how they respond to the problems they face. Gwen, for example, has to fight ‘the urge to apologise, wanting to point out that if you were white, eating shit was a choice you could make if you wanted; for a black woman, the only valid choice was not to.’ ‘I’m sick of having no power in this game,’ she says. Nat finds it’s not always comfortable being ‘a white guy living along the edge of blackness all your life.’ But the black/white relationship is never simple. Archy sees the record shop ideally as a way of fusing racial differences through the creation of what he calls ‘Brokeland Creole’ – many styles of music melded together; ‘That means you stop drawing those lines.’ Nat comes to realise that the issues between the four main characters are not about race; they are about personal desires and drives. ‘For years [Nat’s] life had balanced like the world of legend on the backs of great elephants, which stood on the back of a giant turtle; the elephants were his partnership with Archy, and Aviva’s with Gwen, the turtle was his belief that real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible … Now that foundational pileup of bonds and beliefs was tottering … Not because anybody was a racist. There was no tragic misunderstanding rooted in centuries of slavery and injustice … it just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up a world.’ But lest the reader think that Chabon is making light of the depths of racism in America, it is a brief intrusion into the story by Barak Obama, then a state Senator just beginning his political career, that gives birth to a way thinking about a more fulfilling future for all of them. ‘The lucky ones,’ Obama says, ‘are the people … who find work that means something to them.’ A trite enough point, but of great importance to Gwen and Aviva, Archy and Nat.

This is an extremely dense book, both in terms of the twists and interweaving of the story, and of the language – as is always true for Chabon, but perhaps with even greater intensity than ever. There are gems of expression on every page, many of them very funny. Just to take one at random, try this: ‘Whenever she asked Archy to bring her a Tampax, he always got this look on his face, somewhere between intimidation, as by an advanced concept of cosmic theory, and dread, as if mere contact with a tampon might cause him spontaneously to grow a vagina.’ Sometimes, indeed, the language is too dense for me, requiring maximum concentration just to understand what is being said. The book is divided into five sections, one of them only a few pages long – but written as a single sentence – a brilliant display of syntactical juggling, but not for the faint hearted. Which I am sometimes.

You can read more about Chabon here. I know nothing about the music that he is talking about, though his familiarity with it is obviously as great as his knowledge of comics in Kavalier and Clay. It’s probably just coincidence that the whole book brings to my mind a song by another group from another era – Telegraph Road, from Dire Straits. You can listen to why I think it’s relevant here.

*Actually I’ve reviewed four, but seem to have omitted to post the review of and Gentlemen of the Road (2007). I will remedy that soon.

Book Review: Beams Falling, by P.M. Newton

BeamsFallingAfter complaining in a recent post that too many police procedural crime stories are about psychopaths and serial killers, the next one I pick up isn’t like that at all. Beams Falling (2014) is Newton’s second novel in a series featuring Detective Nhu Kelly (inevitably known as Ned) of the NSW Police. Like the first one, The Old School (2010), it is firmly set in the burgeoning underworld of gang and drug crime in Sydney. If you are going to read either of them, read The Old School first, as this story follows on from the end of that one. And don’t read any more of this review, as I can’t help giving away some of what happened in the first book. Here’s the link to it.

Ned is slowly recovering from being shot in the line of duty. Physically she is well enough to return to ‘light duties’, but she is still suffering psychologically from the trauma. She feels an overwhelming need to take her gun everywhere with her, though this is against police procedure. But is she in a fit state to carry a weapon? She is also driven to return to policing by the belief that she knows who killed her parents in an execution style shooting when she was a child. She is sure that Old Man Liu, a rich crime boss turned ‘respectable’, and his son Sonny are responsible, but they seem to be beyond the reach of the law, protected by members of the very police force Ned works for. (I like her comment: ‘Sydney. You were only a crook until you made enough money, then you were promoted to ‘colourful local racing identity.’) She is disappointed to be assigned to a task force dealing with Asian crime in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, as this is the home of Vietnamese, rather than Chinese gangs. But maybe they will lead her back to Chinatown and the Lius.

The story is set in 1993, though there is little to indicate this apart from a mention of a federal election and the absence of mobile phones. As in the previous book, the action takes place against a backdrop of internal police politics and external and internal investigations of police corruption. But they play a much smaller part in this story than they did in The Old School. Shades of bending the rules, ‘playing a bit rough’ and even of corruption, do add to an air of suspicion and mistrust that makes Ned feel an outsider. ‘Secret f*cking squirrels,’ she thinks. ‘Last thing she wanted to do was to get sucked into whatever that lot were up to. Even so, being excluded, making it so obvious, it touched a nerve.’ Here the focus is much more on Ned herself, and her battle to deal with the effects of her injury. There is also more exploration of police culture, with several minor sub-plots designed both to illustrate and to undermine the idea of the force as a family that looks after its own – what she calls ‘the false sense of intimacy of the Job’. I guess this is where Newton’s own experience as a police officer comes in; she spent over a decade as a detective in Sydney, and must have a pretty good idea of what it’s like – particularly what it’s like to be a female police officer. Nhu of course has the further ‘difference’ of being part Vietnamese. I also wondered if Newton sets her stories in the early nineteen nineties because she feels more comfortable putting a bit of distance between policing then and now.

One of the strengths of the book is the daily round of police work which Newton is well able to describe. But the story is told from Ned’s point of view, so this means that she only sees scraps of the whole. Perhaps because of this, I found the plot a bit confusing at times, and though it did eventually come together, I thought the book lacked the narrative drive of Newton’s first one. The role of Detective Sean Murphy, from under-cover police operations, is vague, perhaps deliberately so, but you really need to have read the previous book to understand Ned’s relationship to him. There are lots of characters; I couldn’t always keep track of them. Several characters have a role – in either the action or the police culture – but then just disappear. The relationships between the various branches of the police are a bit befuddling too. Some things are left open-ended; it could be argued that life, particularly as far as police investigations go, is like that. It could also be that Newton will take them up in later books.

I thought at first that the emphasis on Ned’s state of mind had come at the expense of the social comment I valued in The Old School. But thinking about the book, I realised that Newton’s depiction of the drug wars in the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta is itself social history. There is a poignant picture of the fracturing of Vietnamese families and culture in collision with the unpleasant realities of crime and drugs. The young gang members – the ra choi  – which literally translates as ‘coming out to play’, but here means the foot-soldiers of the drug wars – are the children of Vietnamese migrants who struggle to give them a better life; the sound of the sewing machines of Vietnamese outworkers can be heard in the streets. Why have they rejected their parents’ values and chosen to ‘play’ with drugs and guns? Newton’s questions are well worth asking.

To understand the title, try reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope

Yes, you’re seeing straight. This is Sense and Sensibility – 2013 style. It is the first instalment of the Austen Project, a series that rewrites Jane Austen’s six novels for the modern age. I don’t usually like prequels and sequels to Austen’s work, let alone the ridiculous vampire version of Pride and Prejudice. But Joanna Trollope is an interesting choice because in her own work she is very good at catching the speech and behaviour of the modern English middle class. She should be able to do a make-over of the 1811 original if anyone can.

Everyone pretty much knows the story, and Trollope sticks closely to it. It is a romance in which there are obstacles to the happiness of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in the shape of initial wrong choices of partner – ie wrong choices by Edward Ferrars and Marianne herself. Elinor reacts with sense to her situation; Marianne gets into hers by excessive sensibility. But as in all romances – see my discussion of romance novels here – it comes right at the end. Trollpe’s version includes most of the original scenes, translated into a modern setting. Norland is not left to Mrs Dashwood and her daughters at least partly because she isn’t actually married to Henry Dashwood, who hasn’t left a will. Barton Cottage is a rather ugly new house. Sir John Middleton has turned Barton Hall into the location for a high-end clothing business. John Willoughby arrives to rescue Marianne in his Aston Martin, not on his horse. On their visit to Allingham, they have sex. Marianne’s humiliation by Willoughby is recorded and posted on Facebook. Willoughby tells Elinor that he really loved Marianne at the hospital where she is recovering from an asthma attack, rather than the fever she suffers from in the original. Why asthma? Modern medicine says you can’t catch a fever from being wet.

Joanna Trollope (photo from theguardian.com)

Joanna Trollope (photo from theguardian.com)

The characters are also very much true to their originals. Elinor – often called Ellie – is practical and considerate of others. She gives up her architecture course to get a job to support the family. Marianne – often called M – wants to be ‘overwhelmed’ – to drown herself in emotion – and is scornful of anyone who doesn’t meet her romantic standards. The modern M is perhaps even more disdainful of others than the original. Margaret – here Mags – is a typical young teenager, convinced her family want to ruin her life; she gets rather more exposure than Margaret does in the original. This is also true of Bella – Mrs Dashwood, from whom M has learnt her love of drama and impulsiveness. She is more fully drawn, with her ‘gift for bohemian home making’, and maybe even a bit more demonstrative than the original. The adaptation of Edward Ferrars is possibly the least flattering; a man who is ‘of no profession’ in Austen’s day is a gentleman, whereas today he looks more like ‘a waste-of-space man’, sweet, but ineffectual.

It goes without saying that Trollope has done a great job updating the language of the book. Two examples will suffice. When it first seems that Edward is attracted to Ellie, M says ‘Wouldn’t it just completely piss off Fanny if you and Ed got together?’ And M is relieved to find that she wasn’t wrong in trusting that Willoughby loved her – he wasn’t just ‘a shagbandit’. Trollope’s ear for the idiom of the young – and not so young – middle class hasn’t deserted her.

But what has she managed to do with the social mores and expectations Jane Austen was working within? Clearly respectable marriage is no longer the only acceptable path for a young woman, though of all the major female characters, only Elinor has a job. Marriage – or at least romance – is still shown as a priority for women. ‘Do we have to have boyfriends?’ asks Mags. And Elinor replies ‘Of course we don’t have to. But we seem to want to, to need to, don’t we?’ But she agrees there’s no need ‘to make them our whole world.’ Money also remains important: Trollope has a little bit of fun here. When Elinor says: ‘this isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships’, her mother replies ‘It does for some people.’  Willoughby deserts Marianne for a Greek heiress, and Lucy is after Ed for what he might inherit. Bill Brandon eventually finds Ed a job, but it remains unclear why he didn’t have one already. His dependence on his mother, OK in the nineteenth century, looks like weakness in the twenty-first. And Elinor can’t help finding his honourable nineteenth century behaviour in sticking to his engagement with Lucy as ‘utterly idiotic nobility’, as indeed it seems. Lucy’s decision to marry Robert, a gay party planner in this version, doesn’t have much justification other than to manufacture a happy ending – but I guess this was pretty much true in the original.

And what of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’? Ellie finds her role as the sensible one even more trying than Elinor does, and she wonders if she can go on coping with it. When she hears that Lucy is married, apparently to Ed, she is really upset; has she overdone ‘not wasting emotional energy in yearning’? ‘Serves you right,’ she says to herself. ‘Serves you completely right, stupid stupid Miss Sensible.’ Both Marianne and her mother come to see, as in the original, that there is more to ‘the good life’ than ‘allowing emotion to prevail over everything’. But there is a bit in the original, where Marianne is talking about how she bitterly regrets her misplaced devotion to Willoughby and her slighting of everyone else that is not in this version. Elinor asks her if she compares her conduct to Willoughby’s. Marianne answers ‘No. I compare it to what it should have been. I compare it with yours.’ In this passage it seems to me that Austen is endorsing sense over sensibility. I think Trollope is sitting a bit more on the fence.

And does this revised version suggest the Austen Project is worthwhile? I can’t see this book leading anyone to read the original. It’s fun in its own right, but I’d choose the original any day.

You can read more about Joanna Trollope here. The references to the tree house come straight from Ang Lee’s delightful 1996 film – a must-see if you haven’t already.

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