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Tag Archives: Kay Rollison

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: All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

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All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

All the Birds Singing is the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, given to a book judged to be ‘of the highest literary merit’ which presents ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. I don’t have a very good history with literary prize winning books, and I’ve only read one of the other five short-listed booksEyrie, by Tim Winton (and you can see my post on that book here). But I think this time they’ve got it right. I can’t really say I enjoyed the book, but I found it utterly compelling.

The structure of this book is crucial to its power. In the first chapter, we meet Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on her small sheep farm on an unnamed island off the British coast. She welcomes solitude and avoids the locals as much as possible, her only company being a dog called Dog. But something is killing her sheep. The second chapter takes the reader, quite without warning, back to a sheep station in Australia, where Jake is working as a shearer. The next chapter is back on the island, the next in Australia and so on. The chapters set on the island deal with Jake’s life there and her determination to protect her sheep. She is the narrator, and the story moves forward in time, though it is told in the past tense. She also narrates the chapters set in Australia, but in the present tense. These, however, move back in time. They tell how Jake comes to be working as a shearer, why she has fled to Britain and how she got the terrible scars on her back.

This structure was a little confusing at first, but I quickly came to feel that the story couldn’t have been told in any other way – surely the mark of excellent writing. Instead of spoiling the tension by revealing what has happened, the Australian chapters incrementally increase the tension as each chapter hints at what happened earlier, leaving the reader hungry to know more, and increasingly anxious about what they may find. It also increases the poignancy, with the reader knowing that some hopes and expectations are doomed to be unfulfilled, as their outcome has already been revealed. And it turns out there is every reason to be apprehensive.

You know right from the start that there is a lot of pain in this story – though I don’t know what the quote on the front cover, that ‘Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain’, actually means. Inherited pain? But the eviscerated sheep on the first page isn’t a one off; there are animal deaths of one kind or another in nearly every chapter, as well as human misery. Jake gives animals feelings, often enough of panic or terror. Her personification of Dog, on the other hand, is one of the delights of the story, though it is also an illustration of her loneliness and alienation from human beings.

Some critics, and the Miles Franklin judges, see in the story ‘perhaps, some form of redemption,’ but I didn’t really find much comfort amidst the bleakness. As Jake says, ’Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit.’ The incident that sums up all the desolation for me is the one where she hits a kangaroo while driving. At first she thinks the animal is ok: ‘I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine,’ she says. But it isn’t. The kangaroo is fatally injured, and she has to finish it off with a crowbar. I suppose the point is that she takes responsibility for what has happened, rather than just driving away and leaving the animal to die in pain. But then there are the circumstances in which Jake gets the wounds to her back. Can the reader feel any optimism for her after what happened? Again, maybe it is the responsibility she feels for the sheep in her care on the island that will be her salvation.

When I recently read and reviewed Victoria Hislop’s The Island, my immediate response was that it was not well written. This time, the language feels just right. What’s the difference? What is good writing? The Miles Franklin judges, and other critics, emphasise the ‘deceptive sparseness’ of the prose. I think it’s also that the tone is just right – or ‘perfect pitch’, as another reviewer called it. Jake speaks and thinks exactly as she should for who she is. Thinking about what makes some writing good and some just ordinary, I often fall back on John Carey’s definition of literature: ‘writing that I want to remember … those particular words in that particular order’. That sounds about right for this book.

Having said all that, there are still a few things that nag at me about the story. While the British chapters are continuous in time, the Australian chapters jump back irregularly, so it is sometimes hard to get a sense of how much time has passed between the events being described. The practical part of my brain wonders how Jake became such a competent shearer in what seems like a relatively short space of time. And even though the reader knows she has been left some money, how is she able to buy the British sheep farm? How did she even get a passport? If the story is, as has been claimed, a moral fable‘, maybe this level of social realism isn’t relevant, but I still can’t help wondering. I guess it’s because Wyld has made Jake such a real person for me.

You can read more about Evie Wyld here. This is her second book. I’ll take a deep breath and read the first one, but I might look for a little bit of light relief first.

Book Review: My Invented Country, by Isabel Allende

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My Invented Country, by Isabel Allende.

This memoir, published in 2003, is about two ‘invented countries’: Chile, and the landscape of memory that Allende draws on for writing her fiction. These two invented countries are inextricably intermingled. Allende left Chile after the military coup that brought the dictator General Pinochet to power, and most of her memories are of Chile before the growth of the unrestrained free market capitalism that Pinochet introduced. These memories are necessarily partial and, she says, nostalgic. But along with later experiences, they served as the raw material for a good deal of her fiction. ‘I can’t separate the subject of Chile from my own life,’ she says.

Isabel Allende has spent much of her life living outside Chile. Her father was a diplomat, and she was born in Peru. Her ‘stepfather’ – her mother never married her second lover because he couldn’t get a divorce – was also a diplomat, and the family travelled with him to Bolivia and Lebanon. She then returned to live with her grandparents in Chile, but after the coup, fled to Venezuela. Her second marriage was to an American and she now lives in California. ‘It was my destiny to become a vagabond,’ she says, and ‘lacking a land to put down roots in’, she had to anchor herself through her writing.

Isabel Allende was born into an upper middle class family, and she is acutely aware of the various social distinctions that operated in Chile at the time. These were based as much on origin – European heritage being valued over local Indian birth – and family connections as on wealth. She paints Chileans as strongly family orientated, somewhat reserved, very religious and socially conservative – though one has to assume that this is a very partial view – which of course she never disputes – as such an electorate would hardly have voted for the socialist President Salvatore Allende. Allende herself was aware of the inequality and hypocrisy of her society, and says she always felt an outsider to it. But initially, she conformed to social expectations, not even thinking of going to university, marrying young and immediately starting a family. She fell into a career as a journalist more or less by accident.

Allende’s radicalisation seems to have come as much from her sense of the injustice of women’s unequal place in Chilean society as from a belief in class warfare. She was, she says, a feminist before she knew the word for it. She felt she was a prisoner in a rigid system of male machismo, the power of the Catholic Church and social convention. Soon she was using her position as a journalist and TV presenter to promote a feminist agenda – a radical stance in socially rigid Chile. Although she doesn’t talk much about her part in Chilean political life in this memoir (having done so in an earlier one), she was clearly on the left, despite the political conservatism of most of her family. The exception was, of course, her ‘uncle’ – actually her father’s cousin – Salvatore Allende. After his overthrow and suicide or murder in 1973, Isabel did not at once flee, but feeling increasingly threatened by the regime, with its secret police and use of torture, she felt by 1975 that she had no choice but to leave. ‘I remember fear as a permanent metallic taste in my mouth,’ she writes. She lived in Caracas for ten years as a refugee, and I couldn’t help but be struck by her comment that ‘Instead of making an effort to learn about the land that had so generously taken me in, and learn to love it, I was obsessed with going home to Chile … you feel like a victim who has lost half her life’. I wonder if that is true for the refugees now seeking desperately to come to Australia.

For all its interest, I found this rather a frustrating book. It has very little structure, with Allende returning again and again to the themes of memory and nostalgia, rather than presenting a chronological account. Allende is aware of this, noting at one point that she needs to pick up the main thread, ‘if there is any thread in all this meandering.’ She justifies this meandering by saying that ‘Memories don’t organise themselves chronologically, they’re like smoke, changing, ephemeral’. No doubt this is true, but it isn’t always easy to follow as a narrative. Sometimes I find her observations a bit trite, as in ‘[Chileans’] spiritual compulsion rises from the earth itself: a people who live amid mountains logically turn their eyes towards the heavens.’ Really? But she can also be very funny, as in ‘Elvis Presley was already fat by the time I learned of his existence’. Maybe the translation from Spanish also gives a slightly flat and naive tone to what in the original might have been sharper. Or maybe I’m being unreasonable here; Allende has had many tragedies in her life, and overcoming them as she has is an incredible achievement that can fairly be told with a little complaisance.

You can read more about Isabel Allende here. Her website lists her books, and also gives information about the Isabel Allende Foundation, set up after the death of her daughter from the neurological disease porphyria, to support projects promoting social and economic justice for women.

Listen to this speech Allende made in 2007 on feminism, featured on the TED website to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8).

Book Review: Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

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Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

When it got so hot in Adelaide recently, the only thing to do was to sit quietly and read a book. So I chose to re-read a former favourite, Gaudy Night (1936), and to see how it has stood the test of time.

Dorothy Sayers is one of the classic writers of Golden Age crime fiction, which was dominated by the sort of clever puzzle mysteries she is so good at. In the early books, her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey reads like a bit of a parody of the upper class Englishman, complete with monocle and a repertoire of silly slang.  But in the later books, particularly those which also feature Harriet Vane, herself a writer of detective stories, he shows that under his flippant nonchalance he has uncertainties and sensitivities.  Indeed the Vane/Wimsey stories could also be thought of as love stories with a bit of detection thrown in. Gaudy Night is the third of the four Vane/Wimsey stories. If you are new to them, it’s worth starting with the first one, Strong Poison (1930) because it sets up the relationship between Vane and Wimsey – with all its problems.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet goes to the student reunion – traditionally known as a Gaudy Night – of her Oxford College, Shrewsbury (imaginary, but based on Sayers’s own women’s college, Somerville). There she is exposed to some unpleasant anonymous messages. She is distressed because one of the messages might apply to her own circumstances. But she thinks no more of it until sometime later when the Dean of the College asks her to come and investigate a spate of such messages, and other malicious damage which has occurred around the college. Harriet unwillingly agrees. The perpetrator becomes bolder, and the incidents more dangerous. It is clear that whoever is doing this must come from within the College. Could she be a student? A member of the domestic staff? Surely she couldn’t be one of the members of the Senior Common Room? And how difficult will it be for Harriet to translate her writing about mysterious crimes into solving one?

A second strand in the story is her relationship with Wimsey. He fell in love with her in Strong Poison, and saved her life when she was charged with murder. Harriet feels beholden to him, ‘the creature of his making and the mirror of his own magnanimity’; needing to be grateful to him ‘is simply damnable’. ‘The fact is,’ she thinks, ‘I have got a bad inferiority complex … I could have liked him so much if I could have met him on an equal footing …’ So here we have the classic elements of romance: a relationship that can only progress to mutual love once certain problems are overcome. It didn’t happen in the previous book (Have His Carcass, 1932); will it happen in this one? And where might Wimsey fit into Harriet’s efforts at detection?

But what really sets this book apart is what has been described as Sayers’s ‘love affair with Oxford’. Most of the action is set there, and the buildings, the landscape, the social customs and ambiance of 1930s Oxford life are affectionately conveyed – she clearly loves the place. Even more important is her depiction of the academic life that is lived there by the female dons; its values are central to the story.

How does this stand up to a modern reading? I have a somewhat mixed reaction. The puzzle Vane and Wimsey have to solve is cleverly established, especially as the clues to the solution, which are only easy to see in retrospect, are really as much about states of mind as about the physical evidence. While the denouement is quite powerful, this is not an action packed thriller, and it may move too slowly – and with a bit too much Oxford – for some readers. I am sentimental enough to enjoy the love story. Sayers writes well, and Vane and Wimsey are both well drawn and interesting characters. She writes intelligently about academic life, though her conclusions would now probably be considered simplistic. Sayers is clearly a feminist – though of course she does not use that word – and is passionate in her defence of the need for equality in education, and about the difficulty of the choice that had to be made then between marriage and paid work.

However there remains the question of whether her loving description of the life of a tiny elite – with an aristocratic detective to boot – can still evoke sympathy and interest. The characters are not unaware of the issues of class and privilege, but that doesn’t alter the reality of it in the story. Some of the female dons protest against any automatic assumption that the outrages are being committed by one of the servants. But servants they remain. Wimsey is aware that the aristocracy is becoming a back number: ‘Our kind of show is dead and done for,’ he says. ‘What the hell good does it do anybody these days?’ But he’s still rich and privileged. This could reasonably be seen as Sayers telling it like it is; readers of today may or may not find it interesting. Re-reading it, I found her veneration of Oxford and all its traditions a little difficult to appreciate unreservedly, even as an escape from the heat. But don’t let me put you off. Like I said, the love story is nice.

You can read more about Dorothy Sayers here. She says that ‘The novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland’ but I don’t believe her. Harriet Vane shares too many of her experiences with Dorothy Sayers for it all to be make believe.

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