Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2015

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, by S.A. Jones


Isabelle of the Moon and Stars

My apologies to those of you who saw an earlier draft of this review: I accidentally clicked Publish when I hadn’t finished writing it.

***

What can I say?  I’d finished reading The House in Smyrna (review and Book Giveaway coming on Monday Feb 2 when the publisher’s embargo is lifted) so I took Isabelle of the Moon and Stars off the TBR at 11.00PM to make a start on it at bedtime – and didn’t turn out the light until I’d finished the book at 3.30AM.  Yes, it is that good.

Books written to an agenda are rarely successful IMO, but this one works.  The publisher’s blurb tells me that the author S.A. Jones wrote

out of dissatisfaction with the way that mental illness is portrayed in contemporary culture.  Works like Silver Lining Playbook and The Rosie Project suggest mental illness is a quirky idiosyncrasy and that its vicissitudes  are conquerable by love. 

Well, as you can see from the concluding thoughts in my review, I had my doubts about the viability of the relationship in The Rosie Project too, and one might wonder about the one depicted in Toni Jordan’s Addition for the same reason.  But there can be a cruel world of difference between a minor obsessive disorder or high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome and other much more debilitating mental health conditions and the important thing for everyone to get right is to treat each person as an individual, and to avoid stereotyping.

I know a genuinely good, kind and loving man who tried for some years to live with a bipolar partner and was wracked with guilt when he finally admitted to himself that he couldn’t continue with it.   What I liked about Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is that it doesn’t depict mental illness as merely an exasperating quirk.  It shows not just the depth of suffering that comes with a capricious and devastating disability for the person with mental illness, but also the unhappiness that it inflicts on the man who loves her while he tries to negotiate the relationship.  At the same time the novel also shows that Isabelle’s condition is only part of her, and it doesn’t define her.

What makes this work is the (often unsung) structure of the story.  The reader meets Isabelle as a capable, functioning, tertiary-educated employee with a droll sense of humour.  Like her boss, we know about ‘the incident’ which caused some difficulty at work, but we do not know exactly what occurred nor its cause.  It is not until the reader is thoroughly engaged by the plot trajectory (the love interest, the sleazy boss, Isabelle’s plans for an Australia Day party on the neglected roof of her flat) that her condition in extremis is depicted in harrowing detail.  She experiences The Black Place alone in her flat, where she has locked away her knives and the medications she might misuse, but she still has opportunities to surrender to despair.

It is then that the reader is faced by the same existential questions as the characters: how should a good person respond?  Would we walk away as Isabelle’s lover Karl did when he found out?  If Isabelle has the courage to tell, will Evan walk away too?  Does he understand what is involved?  Can he ever understand?  Does she owe it to him to let him try, when she has been so badly hurt before?

The extent to which the reader engages with this likeable character is tested when, in a panic, Isabelle takes a flight to the Czech Republic, without telling the people that she should.  My reaction was horror: what The Black Place returns in a place where she has no support network? That was until I realised that sadly, Isabelle doesn’t really have a support network back in Perth, either.  Yet when she is confronted by darkness of a different kind at Terezin it is she who offers support to a German tourist afraid to confront the weight of history.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a terrific book that offers much to think about, but it’s also an unsentimental story of love and hope and courage.

Highly recommended.  I expect to see this novel on any number of shortlists…

PS I was delighted to see amongst the acknowledgements at the back of the book, the names of some of my favourite writers that you’ve come across on this blog: Andrea Goldsmith, Jane Gleeson-White, Amanda Curtin, Annabel Smith, and soon-to-be-published (how exciting!) Jenny Ackland who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time last year.

Author: S. A. Jones
Title: Isabelle of the Moon and Stars
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2014
ISBN: 9781742586038
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2015

Wittgenstein Jr, A Novel, by Lars Iyer


Wittgenstein JrI came across this book via an enticing review at Tony’s Book World and ordered a copy the same day.  I was intrigued because I had not long finished reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,  a self-inflicted challenge imposed by signing up for a year-long course called Great Books at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne.  Most people, I suspect, would be more familiar with Wittgenstein from his appearance in the Monty Python skit below, and unless you are deeply into philosophy of the most exacting kind, I recommend that you stick with the Pythons.

But the novel is a delight.  Narrated by a Cambridge student called Peters, it tells the story of a group of undergraduates and their perplexed response to the tortured musings of their philosophy lecturer, whom they nickname Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s been teaching us for two weeks now.

Was it Ede’s idea to call him Wittgenstein?  Or Doyles?

He doesn’t look like Wittgenstein, it’s true.  He’s tall, whereas the real Wittgenstein was small.  He’s podgy, whereas the real Wittgenstein was thin.  And if he’s foreign – European in some sense – he has barely the trace of an accent.

But he has a Wittgenstein aura, we agree.  He is Wittgensteinisch, in some way.

He has clearly modelled himself on the real Wittgenstein, Doyle says (and Doyle knows about these things).  He dresses like Wittgenstein, for the one thing – the jacket, the open-necked shirt, the watch strap protruding from his pocket.  And he behaves a bit like Wittgenstein too: his intensity – his lips are thinner than any we’ve seen; his impatience – the way he glared at Scroggins for coming in late; his visible despair.

And of course, like the real Wittgenstein, he has come to Cambridge to do fundamental work in philosophical logic. (p. 5)

This brief extract has introduced us to a couple of Peter’s undergraduate pals,  the remnants of a class which began with 45 students but dropped to 12 because Wittgenstein is incomprehensible and by modern standards, his classes are dreadful.  (Where’s the handout? the list of key concepts? the PowerPoint? the virtual learning environment??)   What’s left of the class includes the indistinguishable Kirwin twins who are only interested in sport; and Okulu, who listens to Brahms on his headphones during lectures.  Doyle (often in velvet) and Guthrie are keen on drama so their rooms are frequently the venue for rather droll alcohol-induced re-enactments of seminal moments in philosophy such as the death of Socrates or The Madness of Nietzsche. Mulberry is distinguishable by his collection of t-shirts, all variations on a theme of F-you; and Titmuss has come back from his gap year in India with dreadlocks and a hippie attitude.  Ede has an aristocratic lineage to live up to so he wears sports jackets, fending off enquiries about what it’s like to be really posh.

Much of this book is laugh-out-loud funny, but my favourite bits satirised the dons (easy target, but so deliciously done), and the English Lawn:

All of England was once a lawn, Wittgenstein says,  The whole of the country, with its uplands and lowlands, with its suburbs and towns, was once the quintessence of lawn.

The English lawn ran right into the Houses of Parliament.  It ran right into Buckingham Palace, into Whitehall and the Law Courts.  And into the media empires and the great publishing companies.

The English lawn rolled up to middle-class houses, just as it rolled up to aristocratic mansions.  And even if it was halted by working-class concrete, it ran nonetheless through the heads of the working classes, just as it ran through the heads of the middle classes and the upper classes – a timeless idea of England.

Did we realise that it was for the green  peace of meadow and hedgerow that English soldiers defended their country from foreign invaders?  That they conquered the world to spread the English lawn, in India and Kenya?  That they quashed the Peasant’s Revolt for seeking equality on the English lawn?  And that lawn is at its most lush in the universities?

The old dons lived out their lives on the English lawn.  They sipped warm beer and watched cricket on the English lawn.  They munched crustless sandwiches at garden parties on the English lawn.  And one day they were laid to rest on the English lawn.

The dons drew all their strength from the English lawn, Wittgenstein says.  They were always sure of things on the English lawn.  You could never best a don on the English lawn.  You would only break your lance tilting at a don on the English lawn.  (p.61)

Alas for Wittgenstein (and the rest of us too), the days of the old dons are over.  Today, they network, they bid and they do it in a monetised Cambridge.  They use phrases such as learning competencies. *profound sigh*  Wittgenstein thinks that they are telepathically connected, so similar do they seem to him in manner and thought.  And they are out to get him, ready to pounce.

And the philosopher-dons are the worst of all, he cries.

The dons of ethics – the least virtuous of all. The dons of logic – the least reasonable of all.  The dons of epistemology – the least knowledgeable of all.  The dons of metaphysics – the least profound of all.  The dons of aesthetics – the least cultured of all …

The dons of philosophy: academic-output manufacturers! Impact-seekers! Grant-chasers! Citation-trufflers! Self-googlers! Web-profile updaters! Facebook posters! Tweedy voids! (p. 117)

You don’t have to struggled through the Tractatus to find this ultimate campus novel hilarious, but I loved the way that the author has spoofed the real Wittgenstein’s style of piling propositions one on top of another.  While Iyer’s Wittgenstein struggles to be profound and write the ultimate book of Logic, his students wish they understood him.  Entirely complicit in their own failure to understand anything, they still yearn for the idea of the Cambridge experience:

Imagine walking through the cloisters with Wittgenstein, solving some logical problem together, voices echoing.  Or standing on the library steps, exchanging ideas with hushed vehemence.  Or walking silently in thought alongside him or the Backs, musing on some great problem …

EDE: Wouldn’t it be nice to be brilliant?  Philosophically brilliant! Logically brilliant! Wouldn’t you like to show witty brilliance at least?  A brilliance of witty repartee at the dinner table? Wouldn’t you like to be a savant, who people fear for and look after? Or a drunken genius, who comes into his own in kebab shops at 4 AM? (p.27)

Amber, our Silky Terrier pup, 6 weeks old, two weeks before coming to her new home with us.

Amber, 6 weeks old, two weeks before coming to her new home with us.

Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University (not ours, the one in the UK).  I suspect that much of what he writes in Wittgenstein Jr is eerily true-to-life.  I shall road-test this theory by reading the novel to The Spouse (who studies philosophy at Monash) as we drive up to Smythe’s Creek on Sunday to collect our new Silky Terrier puppy, Amber.   It’s a four hour drive, but it’s only a short book (225 pages, with lots of white space because it has lots of very short chapters/episodes, some only half a page long).

Do read Tony’s review, and this one at the Telegraph.

Author: Lars Iyers
Title: Wittgenstein Jr
Publisher: Melville House, 2014
ISBN: 9780992876500
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $23.69

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2015

The Lie, by Helen Dunmore


The Lie

Another book from the overflowing D-G TBR shelf!

It seems it’s not possible to read The Lie without comparing it to Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which I think is one of the finest attempts to render the horror of World War I in fiction.  Malcolm Forbes, who reviewed it for The Australian, thought that:

Pat Barker matches her for historical accuracy and the ability to delve deep into the human psyche, but Dunmore’s haunting, lyrical and mesmeric prose to describe carnage and loss elevates her into a different league.  (The Weekend Australian, March 1-2, 2014)

But while I thought The Lie was well written and quite interesting, I didn’t find it as compelling as Barker’s  Regeneration (the first of the trilogy) which I read more than a decade ago.  With its avoid-the-issue ending, the plot of The Lie is a bit simplistic, and the novel wears its architecture too noticeably, flickering back and forth between the returned soldier’s flashbacks to the trenches and his musings in the present.  It’s been done before, and despite the prolific quotations from other people’s poetry, it needs to be done better than this to ‘elevate her into a different league’.

Author: Helen Dunmore
Title: The Lie
Publisher: Hutchinson, London, 2014
ISBN: None (uncorrected proof copy)
Source: Won in an online competition, thanks Naomi!

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Potato harvest

Eastern Barred Bandicoot. Photo J.J.  Harrison, via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Eastern Barred Bandicoot. Photo J.J. Harrison, via Wikipedia Creative Commons

I have made a startling discovery today: The Spouse has been bandicooting! Yes, this photograph is the evidence.

The bandicoot, as Australians know, is a cute and furry marsupial unique to our shores.  (Well, nearly unique.  Apparently there are some in New Guinea, but I think we own the brand.)  Cute it may be, but its habit of digging means that it has few friends among gardeners and farmers, and in less enlightened times it was hunted for sport and to augment the family table.  (Bandicoot stew, anyone?)

Its reputation as a pest led to some Australianisms such as miserable as a bandicoot and barmy as a bandicoot.  In the 1900s when Australian writers romanticised other elements of bush life,  the poor old bandicoot – as exemplified in Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding – was stuck with its personification as slightly stupid and of low status with a blend of timidity and cunning.

And what does all this have to do with potatoes?

The verb, to bandicoot, derives from potato farming in Victoria in the 1890s.  It captures the action of digging around the roots of the potato plant to steal the tubers without disturbing the plant.

The Aitch FactorI am indebted to one of my dearest friends for this delightful augmentation of my Aussie idiom.  She isn’t able to attend a little gathering that I’ve organised to mark my retirement, and to compensate for her absence she has given me this delicious book, The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler.  I started reading it this morning over breakfast and I am enchanted, as any lover of the English language will be.

Susan Butler is the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, and so it is her job to sift what goes into successive editions, and what comes out.  As such she deals with word warriors who are outraged over the difference between authorise and authorize; grammarians who are angst-ridden about curriculums versus curricula; punctuation pedants aghast about the apostrophe – and of course the Americanisation of our language with insults like gotten.  (This last is my example, not Butler’s.  Don’t tell me about Middle English – I know what I was taught by Mrs Sheedy in Grade 6, and I know what’s proper and what’s not).

The book is a miscellany of language issues ranging from Aitch (Protestant) versus Haitch (Catholic); the bizarre Australian pronunciation of maroon as morone (as in bone); derogatory terms (including one which I have occasionally used in blissful ignorance of its origin); the decline of the hyphen and the rise of the apostrophe and so on.  It is – to use an old-fashioned expression which I think is probably not in the Macquarie – a ‘hoot’ and it was not possible to resist interrupting The Spouse over his breakfast reading so that I could share the more hilarious snippets.

Highly recommended!

Author: Susan Butler
Title: The Aitch Factor, Adventures in Australian English
Publisher: Macmillan, 2014
ISBN:9781742612614
Source: Gift, thanks Carol!

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2015

A Blade of Grass, by Lewis DeSoto


A Blade of GrassSometimes when I finish a really good book I just can’t wait to dash off to the computer and write my review – I want to tell everyone about it.  That’s the way I feel about A Blade of Grass by South African/Canadian author Lewis Desoto, which was longlisted for the Booker in 2004.  It’s a story of an inter-racial friendship set on the contested South African frontier in the 1970s during the apartheid era.  I found it to be a remarkable debut novel that was engaging from the very beginning yet managed to raise complex issues about entitlement to land; about power and gender; and about the destructive effects of fear of The Other.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered from some outraged comments at GoodReads that some readers are very cross about this book. For some, there is too much lyrical description, for others too much symbolism.  One who thought that DeSoto also has absolutely no place in writing from a female perspective took issue with the way that the peace and harmony of the relationship between two female protagonists, one Black, one White, is disrupted by jealousy over a man.  Someone else is peeved about the stereotyping of entrenched racist Afrikaaners; ambivalent, hopeful Britishers; and resentful, disenfranchised Africans.  (There was also a reader who thought it was set during the Boer War.  The less said about that the better, eh?)  The novel copped a very negative review at Culture Wars too.

I don’t think that I read this novel uncritically, so I was relieved to see not only some positive views amongst the others at GR, but also this one from Quill and Quire. I felt that this novel rendered the complexities of living in a racist society with the respect it deserves.  The two central characters, Marït and Tembi, are creatures of the society in which they grew up and their identities are forged by the black/white divide.   Even when they transcend this divide, as Desoto renders it, they inevitably retain some habits of thought and behaviour, and in moments of crisis they revert to old habits even if intellectually and emotionally they reject them.  This seems entirely realistic to me.

Marït is a recently orphaned Afrikaaner married to an Englishman who is farming in an area subject to attacks coming from over the unnamed border.  Her husband Ben is able to fulfil his dream and buy a farm there because it’s cheap, but he’s killed in what is labelled a terrorist attack by the white community.  (Even the labels that are used are pregnant with meaning.  Which one to use? Freedom fighter when we approve, and terrorist when we do not?  But the victims suffer just the same, whichever).

Marït, who has always doubted her hasty choice to marry and become a farmer’s wife, has never taken any notice of the anonymous Black workers on whom she must now depend.  Alienated from the well-meaning but officiously racist local women with whom she has nothing in common, she finds herself drawn to Tembi, an outsider within the Black community, who took over the role of meid when her own mother died in a roadside accident.  The colour bar all but collapses as these two young women comfort one another and take on the management of the farm because neither has anywhere else to go.  DoSoto is particularly good at rendering their shifts in identity using the clothes that identify their fluid allegiances.

But as the border conflict intensifies, the survival of two women alone on a farm becomes an impossible dream. The rivalry between the women when Khoza arrives is only superficially sexual: their conflict symbolises the moral issues underlying land ownership in a post-colonial society: both women love the farm and believe they have a moral right to it but only one can have it.  (Khoza speaks Shona, a Bantu language, and he has walked from over the border at Zwartloof.  He is, however, completely out of his depth when it comes to the complexities of a civil war.  He represents only a longing for justice and equality, a hunger for land, and a sense of resentment).

The significance of the title is revealed in this passage where Tembi and Marït are idling by the river:

Tembi watches a blade of grass arrow into the current.  She imagines herself tiny, small enough to sit on it, as if it were a boat. She imagines the boat travelling down canyons, through villages and towns, even through the cities, coming at last into a lagoon that spills out to the ocean.  She imagines a yellow beach and crashing waves and ships offshore.

‘I wonder where this river goes, ‘ Tembi says.

‘Down to the sea, ‘ Marït murmurs, ‘Like all the rivers,’

This single blade of grass, a strand plucked idly in passing, will float down this single river, and join a larger river where other streams flow into it.  There, Tembi imagines, they will become one river, and plunge into the sea, all becoming one.

‘I want to visit the sea one day.  It’s my dream.’  (p. 268)

DeSoto prefaces his story with that well known quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

But the farm at Kudufontein is no Eden, and the ending is quite harrowing as the reader knows it must be.  Nevertheless there is hope, not because of the scenes that bookend the story with Tembi planting seeds, but because the fragile friendship across the colour bar foreshadows the end of apartheid.

Author: Lewis DeSoto
Title: A Blade of Grass
Publisher: Flamingo (Harper Collins) 2004
ISBN: 9780732278342
Source: Personal library, purchased from Top Titles, Brighton, $29.95

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 23, 2015

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons


Cold Comfort Farm I finally got round to reading this book, which has been on my wishlist for ages and my TBR ever since it was released in Australia as a Popular Penguin.  This was a book that I seem to have known about forever, one whose memorable phrases bled into the vocabulary of our family because my parents had read it when they were young.  It is a delicious satire of the British rural novel, lampooning Jane Austen’s marriage machinations; the doom-laden stories of Thomas Hardy; and the daft sexuality of D H Lawrence.  The fact that these are three of my favourite authors makes the comedy all the more enjoyable.  (Though I have to confess to having ‘grown out of’ Lawrence.  I read and loved everything of his when I was a young woman, but like Tchaikovsky who is great when you want to wallow in your own adolescent misery, Lawrence is a taste best savoured in youth, IMO.  It is too hard not to laugh in the wrong places once you reach ‘a certain age’.)

Anyway, Gibbons’ spoof is brilliant.  Flora Poste, a socialite with no apparent means of support other than £100 per year,  is a parasitic orphan who descends on her only living relations, the Starkadders, at the aptly-named Cold Comfort Farm because she does not care to get a job.  Flora is forever fending off suitors who are in love with her, including Mr Mybug, who she identifies with a shudder as an author straight away. Mybug, who has come to the peace and quiet of the rural lifestyle to write, is working on a book about how the Brontë sisters passed off their brother Branwell’s stories as their own – because no woman could possibly have written Wuthering Heights.

Flora’s central amusement is to interfere in situations which take her interest.  There is nothing worse, for Flora, than things being boring.

The Starkadders – since they are eccentric bunch of characters – are not boring at all.  They include:

  • Aunt Ada Doom who keeps to her room, long bemoaning that she saw something narsty in the woodshed and bullying the rest of the family into staying right where they are because there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort;
  • Old Adam, a part-time fire-and-brimstone preacher, who has named his cows Pointless, Graceless, Aimless and Feckless;
  • Seth – think smouldering sexuality
  • Judith, who is obsessed by her son Seth, and curtains the innumerable photos she has of him with black cloth when he goes away to be a movie star (oops, sorry, spoiler);
  • Elfine, who is, yes, an Elfin child given to swanning about in the fields and has an affinity with all God’s creatures; and
  • Reuben, whose ambition to run the farm is stymied by tradition and inertia.

There are also some wives, but they are not allowed to live at the farm, by order of Aunt Ada Doom.

Clearly this lot are a challenge, but Flora is up for it, and in no time at all there is an Austenesque Happy Ending, culminating in Flora finding her Own True Love as well.

Somewhere on the shelves I think I have Here Be Dragons as well, but a preliminary browse has been inconclusive.  Perhaps it will turn up as I continue to work on the G shelf (which has burst its banks thanks to some new (old) titles by Patricia Grace)…

PS The introduction by Lynne Truss is inane.

Author: Stella Gibbons
Title: Cold Comfort Farm
Publisher: Penguin, Popular Penguins series, 2006
ISBN: 9780141045481
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings, $12.95

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2015

The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning


The Middle Parts of FortuneI was in two minds about how to classify the authorship of this book. Wikipedia tells me that Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was an Australian poet and novelist, but in the introduction to Frederic Manning’s  The Middle Parts of Fortune Simon Caterson tells us that Nettie Palmer rued that Australia could not really claim him.  This was presumably because although he was born and educated in Sydney, Manning settled permanently in the UK in 1903 when he was 21, enlisted with British forces in WW1 and died in England in 1935.   However, it does seem to me that he has an Australian sensibility.  I suspect that no Englishman of his class in his era could have written with such authenticity about life in the ranks during the Great War.

The Middle Parts of Fortune was first published in an anonymous limited edition in 1929 under the authorship of ‘Private  19022′.  Manning’s authenticity includes some lively dialogue in the … a-hem … vernacular , so much so that an expurgated edition entitled Her Privates We was published in 1930.  Having read the reissued original published in the Text Classics series, I cannot imagine how this pruning could have been done without ruining the book, but it was apparently a runaway bestseller.

I suppose that’s because by then, people were reflecting on ‘the war to end all wars’, and wanted to try to understand what it was like.  And this book is superbly written, conjuring the perfect balance between courage and fear; suffering and acceptance.  Unlike Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That) and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, Manning’s perspective is not that of the English public school officer class; through his central character Bourne, he shows us a philosophically-detached participant-observer in the ranks.  For although identified early on as ‘officer class’ because of his education, speech and bearing, this Bourne prefers ‘the anonymity of the ranks’.  Manning was uniquely positioned to portray this point-of-view because he had failed to get his commission in 1914 because of drunkenness and resigned a second attempt to serve as an officer in 1917 for the same reason.  So he spent spent most of his war in the ranks and saw action on the Somme and at Ancre.

Simon Caterson’s introduction notes that Manning’s tone is different to his more famous bitter anti-war contemporaries, and that the world of the novel is one where horror is normal.   But it is not unremitting horror; there are not many scenes on the front line and the men spend more time parading, marching to new positions, scrounging food and sometimes female company in the villages, and dealing with dirt and squalor.  There is a vivid scene in which Bourne, allocated the task of pulling a Lewis-gun, injures his foot when the men holding it back from the rear to prevent it from running into him as they move down a slope, lose concentration – and the step of the gun tears through his boot and into his heel.  He marches on, and then spends hours on an overcrowded train, as of course he must, but at the end of the day he needs to deal with it:

When they had found their stables for the night, Bourne took his boot off and examined his heel; his sock was hard with dried blood and the wound itself looked dirty, so as there was a light showing in the house, he thought he would try for some hot water to bathe it, and he knocked persuasively at the door.  It was opened by an old man with a patient, inquiring look on his face.  When Bourne, speaking lamentable French, explained his need, he was invited to enter, and then made to sit on a chair, while his host brought some hot water in a basin and insisted on bathing the wound himself.  When it was clean he went to a sideboard – the room was a kind of kitchen-parlour – and brought out a bottle of brandy, pouring some into a cup so that Bourne’s heart rejoiced in him; but the old man only took a strip of clean linen, which he folded into a pad, and after saturating it with brandy, he once again took up Bourne’s foot in his capable hand, and squeezed the linen, so that the brandy fell drop by drop onto the broken flesh. It stung a little, and Bourne, sceptical of its healing power, would have preferred to take it internally; but against the old man’s voluble assurances that it was três* bon pour les plaies, he could find nothing to say.  Finally his host took up what was left on the linen pad and placed it over the wound, and Bourne drew a clean sock over it.   He always carried an extra pair in his kit, but it was a mere chance that they were clean.  Like most of the men he had dumped everything that was not necessary, even his spare shirt and underpants; for when a man has to carry nearly three stone of kit and equipment on the march, he becomes disinclined to take much heed for the morrow, and prefers to rely on the clean change provided at the divisional baths, in spite of the uncertain interval.

By the time the treatment was complete, Bourne’s gratitude had left him almost bankrupt in the French language; but the old man increased his obligations by giving him a cup of steaming coffee, well laced with that sovran remedy for a torn and swollen heel, and they talked a little while.  He could not persuade his host to take any payment, but he accepted a few cigarettes, which he broke up and smoked in his pipe.  He was alone in the house, Bourne gathered, and he had a son who was at the front.  His only other relation was a brother who was a professor of English at a provincial university.  These two facts seemed to establish a degree of kindred and affinity between them, and when Bourne left to sleep in his stable he was invited to come in again in the morning.  (p. 47-8)

* The text spells très with a circumflex which in French was apparently historically used as a marker for vowels followed by consonants such as ‘s’.  I hadn’t come across this before and thought it was a publisher’s typo or a spelling error by Manning in the original.

As one who has spent a little time in small French villages off the tourist trail, I found that this scene resonated strongly with me later in the book when Bourne comes across villages entirely destroyed by the conflict.  I don’t think I’ve ever read any French literature about the immediate post-war period and how these devastated villages and their way of life were rebuilt, if indeed they were.

The Middle Parts of Fortune is an absorbing novel, but it’s soul-destroying too.  As I progressed towards the end of the book, I knew that the trio of Bourne, Shem and 17-year-old Martlow, and the officers these soldiers admired, could not reach the final pages unscathed, so I read with a kind of dread of the inevitability that gives the book its authenticity.  And in the aftermath of reading, I found myself thinking, what is the point of reading about this appalling human suffering when we seem to have learned nothing from it.

Author: Frederic Manning
Title: The Middle Parts of Fortune
Publisher: Text Publishing, Text Classics series, 2012
ISBN: 9781921922381
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books, $12.95

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The Mirror of BeautyThe DSC South Asian prize for literature  is about to be announced so it is time for the Shadow Jury to reveal its shadow winner!

When the shortlist was announced in December, Stu from Winston’s Dad and Tara from Book Sexy and I formed a Shadow Jury to read and review all the books and choose our winner from among them.

The shortlisted titles were

While we thought that this is a great shortlist and we really loved Noontide Toll, in the end the winner we chose is

*drum roll*

The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

We chose it because it has the distinction of being the only title written in the author’s own language and then translated, and because it really is a great story.   It’s a sumptuous epic portrait of the Mughal Empire in its decline, and we really like its striking central character, Wahir Khanam, a woman who transcended the expectations of the culture in which she lived.  The book also introduces the wonders of Indian poetry to western readers and is a joy to read.

Many thanks to Stu and Tara for making our deliberations a pleasure!

Update: 23/1/15 The Lowland won the prize.  Worse than that,  the Sponsor (DSC) is pulling out, so now unless a new one is found, the Prize for South Asian Literature will go the same way as the defunct Man Asian Prize.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2015

The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith


The Talented Mr RipleyI have been slacking off in my quest to read 1001 Books Before I Die, and, choosing one to read on this trip to Qld, I looked for something on the TBR that I could cheerfully leave behind for my dear old dad to read. I was pretty sure he would enjoy The Talented Mr Ripley; I’m not so sure that I did.

It is said of this novel that it’s different because it’s a crime novel written from the PoV of the perpetrator, and I can see from reviews at GoodReads that there is for some readers a kind of frisson in hoping that Tom Ripley will get away with it.  Some seem to think that he’s a sociopath and others seem to have decided that he is ‘forced into’ committing one of his murders.  *Oops* was that a spoiler? Not really, the blurb says much the same thing.

For me, this novel fits into the tired old trope of Europeans as Other.  From Shakespeare (who can be forgiven) to Enid Blyton (who cannot) far too many Anglo-centric authors have depicted Europeans in stereotypical ways and Highsmith is no different.  Tom Ripley the anti-hero goes on and on about how stupid the French and Italians are, and how he can outsmart their detectives at every turn.  The only interest in this book for me was waiting to see him get his comeuppance.

He doesn’t.   And no, that’s not a spoiler either, because everyone knows that there’s a whole series of these Ripley books.  Which I don’t intend to read.

But lots of other people love this novel, and obviously the contributors to 1001 Books think it’s beaut, so don’t take any notice of me.  Read Michelle’s review at Book to the Future for a more positive view of the book!

Author: Patricia Highsmith
Title: The Talented Mr Ripley
Publisher: Vintage (paperback, movie tie-in edition), 2000
ISBN: 9780099283782
Source: Personal copy, mooched from BookMooch when I was briefly a member.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2015

Battarbee and Namatjira, by Martin Edmond


Cultural warning: Aboriginal readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Battarbee and NamatjiraA biography of someone who worked in the creative arts, IMO, doesn’t just evoke the life of the subject, it also explains something of what it was that made the subject special.  From that wonderful biography of Beethoven by Jan Swafford which I reviewed some time ago, I have learned not just about the chronology of Beethoven’s life and its cultural context, as well as when and why he composed certain pieces, but also about the development of that quality that made his music unique – what Swafford calls ‘Beethovenish’.  Well, in this very readable dual biography of the painters Rex Battarbee (1893-1973) and his Aboriginal protégé Albert Namatjira (1902-1954), Martin Edmond not only tells the fascinating story of their entwined lives, but he also explains the unique quality in Namatjira’s water colours that excited his mentor and made him the most famous Aborigine in the world. 

The book begins with an introduction to the Arrernte, their beliefs, their lifestyle and kinship systems and how their art was an integral part of religious and cultural life, and then moves on to the Lutherans in Australia, and how they came to be active in missionary work in Central Australia in the period relevant to this book.  There is an account of Battarbee’s childhood, and the war service which left him maimed, and also of Namatjira’s early life at the Hermannsburg Mission and how he came to be both Christian and an initiated man with cultural responsibilities.  The intriguing first meeting between the two is a reminder that we mostly don’t know the significance of events until long afterwards; there are a number of times when this meeting may have occurred, but it’s not clear.

Namatjira’s significance is not just that he was the first important Aboriginal artist who came to White Australia’s notice, but also that he was symbolic of an intelligence that Aborigines were thought – at that time – not to have.  The prevailing view in the interwar years was that they had a childlike naïveté, and were not capable of learning much, at best being suited to domestic work or manual labour.   They were believed to be in need of protection and paternalistic guidance, and religious leaders felt a responsibility to look after them while also replacing indigenous beliefs with Christianity.  It is a shameful aspect of our history that in Australia – which was otherwise a world leader in universal suffrage for men and women – Aborigines were not considered citizens, were not counted in the census, and were denied the vote altogether.

It took a rare and special man to transcend these prejudices, and this biography shows us that Rex Batterbee was such a man, and it was Namatjira’s art that was a catalyst for that reappraisal:

When Batterbee realised, in Palm Valley in 1936, that he had a prodigy on his hands, it was seeing that he emphasised: It even makes me sit up and take note of whether he sees better than I do. Before the lessons took place Albert complained that he could not manage colour: Rex recalled later that one of the things he taught him was how to see the colour in the landscape.  Curiously, learning to see colour might also enable you to see something beyond colour: that is, form. One of the astonishing things about Namatjira’s painting after 1936 is how quickly he progressed towards the refinement of detail, on the one hand, and on the other the extension of space he learned to conjure from the landscape.  His forms became more intricate to a point where the proliferation of detail feels almost vertiginous; while at the same time the space he commands recedes, in the other direction, towards infinity. (p. 153)

This quality was present even in Namatjira’s early work.  Edmond describes them as naïve, rudimentary in their drawing and lacking in detail, with clumsy attempts at perspective – yet although awkwardness is their salient attribute there is a peculiar prescience, as is something both familiar and strange is pushing up towards the surface of the image. (p.152)

What is Edmond alluding to that is both familiar and strange? For those of who are not artists, Edmonds explains the concept of luminosity, and how artists use colour to express the immanence of the divine in many understandings and these may be taken to include the ancient verities Albert had begun to learn at initiation:

Current wisdom suggests that watercolour paints appear more vivid than acrylics or oils not because they are transparent but because actual particles of pigment are laid down in a pure form with fewer fillers obscuring their colours.  Multiple layers of watercolour paint, whether mixed or simply intensified, do for this reason achieve a luminous effect – as Rex had learned at Bitter Springs Gorge and alluded to when he remarked that Albert puts it on even stronger than I do.  It is possible however to go further and suggest that the achievement of luminosity was also a warrant of the ability to see properly, a guarantee of clarity of purpose and of execution, even a means towards a revelation of the essence of creation. (p.148)

What seemed puzzling about this otherwise excellent book as I read it is that there are no examples of either artist’s work for the reader to muse over. Edmond describes some paintings in tantalising detail but – especially when he’s discussing the anthropomorphism of Namatjira’s work – it was frustrating not to be able to see what he means.  There are plentiful small B&W photos placed within the text (though alas, not captioned so you have to keep flicking to the image credits at the back of the book)  but there is no painting by Namatjira, and none by Battarbee so that we might evaluate Edmond’s assertion that  Battarbee was not a lesser painter than Namatjira:

…although he was an uneven painter (and what painter is not?) the best of Battarbee is equal to, though different from, the best of Namatjira.  If we have not yet realised what these differences are, that is hardly the fault of the artists themselves. (p.153)

Apparently most of the paintings are in private hands, and since there has never been a retrospective of either artist’s work, the works remain dispersed, and from a scholarly point-of-view, chaotic.  There are however, plenty of books and catalogues of Namatjira’s work, but the current copyright holder, Legend Press, refused permission to reproduce them.  Edmond describes their attitude as intransigent.  I’d use another well-known Australian expression, but hmm, I’d better not.

Tucked away at the back of the book where you won’t find it until you finish reading, there is a link to the publisher’s website where there is a list of links to paintings by Battarbee and Namatjira, but this was no use to me during my sojourn in Queensland where internet access is like intermittent sunshine on a Winter’s day, merely a brief moment when you feel connected to the rest of the world instead of marooned back in the 20th century.  It was a salutary experience to read this book in the way that people must if they don’t have internet access, but it’s not an experience I recommend.

(BTW, lest you wonder, I was not in Far North Queensland nor in the remote outback west of the state, I was on the Gold Coast, 20 minutes walk from the Burleigh shopping centre, using Telstra’s 4G network. Which for over 24 hours failed to open any web page.  Uploading this to the web had to wait until I was somewhere else with better coverage.)

But – my internet problems resolved – I found the links on the publisher’s website unsatisfactory because it hadn’t occurred to me to record the page numbers of the paintings described.  Confronted by a list of links on the website which isn’t referenced to the relevant page in the book – and no index (!) to help me find the descriptions again,  I was stymied. (There are Notes on Sources, and Acknowledgements – but the absence of an index is something that ought to be fixed in future editions.)

What is really odd about the missing paintings in the book, is that there is a plethora of images of Namatjira’s paintings all over the web.  What’s more, Namatjira’s fame during his lifetime means that there is a good chance that a reader can find reproductions of his work in old books.   I was able to see a Namatjira painting in one by Peter Luck at my parents’ house.  And even though the image was small and the colour reproduction dubious, I could see what I had never realised before: that the placement of the ubiquitous tree and the mountains in the background were more than simple realism.

But alas, while Namatjira was popular with ordinary buyers during his lifetime, State galleries spurned his work.  And as Edmond so cogently explains, Aboriginal politics and art politics was toxic.  Namatjira was born on the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg that wanted to bring the Arrernte people to Christianity – and to make the mission self-sustaining it was essential that it be productive.  The pastor Albrecht was an entrepreneurial fellow, and the mission was involved in a thriving trade in Aboriginal artefacts while also engaged in the cattle trade.  Men like Namatjira made decorative poker work which was sold to tourists and in shops down south…

And so when Rex Battarbee arrived – reinventing himself as a painter because his WWI wounds made other work impossible and he didn’t want to be deskbound – Albrecht was supportive of Namatjira’s interest in Western Art.  But the art world was interested in ‘primitive art’ and was dismissive of an Aboriginal man aping a style, as they saw it, that was alien for him.  Edmond disposes of this argument by pointing out that other artists are influenced by external movements, citing the example of Australian Impressionists being influenced by French Impressionism, but the galleries’ position was that there were other artists producing similar work of a higher standard and that Namatjira was only noteworthy because he was Aboriginal.

Aboriginal politics arose because of issues of self-determination.  Over time Rex Battarbee came to realise that the mission system was paternalistic, recognising that Namatjira had valid cause to chafe under the restrictions that ruled his life.  At a time when few non-indigenous people had ever seen Central Australia, Namatjira’s vivid paintings had great market value.  But Aborigines were not Australian citizens then, they were wards of the state.  Although the artist received payment for his artworks, the mission objected to how he spent it.  Not understanding Aboriginal kinship obligations, Albrecht felt that Namatjira frittered away his money, shouting his relations in all kinds of generous ways.  And he didn’t want Namatjira to buy a car because he was concerned about the temptations that money could bring, worrying that Namatjira was vulnerable to women and alcohol if he were able to visit Alice Springs.

These issues are not entirely resolved today when the Aboriginal art market is worth millions.  We often see TV images of Aboriginal artists sitting under a tree while they work on the ground, and it looks as if they are being exploited, or cheated of their due.  We hear stories about how the artists – who often don’t speak English – need to be protected from unscrupulous dealers and forgers, and – if we are to believe tabloid journalists for whom negative stories about Aboriginal affairs are a staple – perhaps also from the cooperatives which were formed to look after their interests.  It seems a far cry from the genuine good will of a man like Battarbee who spent a lifetime in Central Australia as an enabler of Aboriginal art and the Hermannsburg school, and who came to see that the artists had a right to manage their own affairs.

Looking back on this period, it is hard not to sit in judgement on Australian decision-makers who were, of course, representing public opinion at the time.  Namatjira, who was not allowed to use his money to build a house in Alice because the curfew kept Aborigines out of town after dark; who could not get a grazing licence to set up a cattle station on the land of his choice; and who was taxed on his earnings despite not having the vote, was treated shamefully.  In his old age they took his name off the register of Aborigines but that did not give him citizenship, but bizarrely offered only the right to drink.  And as most people of my generation know, he was charged and found guilty of supplying a relation with alcohol, and sentenced to six months jail for it.  Edmonds tells the story of the subsequent appeals with a kind of rueful awe, as if he too cannot believe that such a thing might have happened in recent history.  Albert Namatjira was born in 1902, but he died aged only 57, in 1959, his spirit all but broken.

I cannot go on like this.  I cannot stand it any longer.  I would rather put my rifle to my head now and end it all than go on.  Why don’t they kills us all?  That is what they want.

He did indeed take up his gun but it was wrestled away from him by his son Enos.  It was only when he was told that he would be allowed to serve his sentence in open country rather than in a prison that he calmed down a little.  He continued:

Why can’t they leave me alone?  I have nothing.  They told me I would not have to go to gaol.  They told me it would be fixed in Melbourne. What is left for me?  I am an old man.  I have worked hard.  They have taken a lot of my money in taxes, but now I must go and do hard labour. (p.319)

He was survived by his wife Rubina who died in 1974, and his children, all of whom died young too, except for Oscar who lived to be 70.  But the Hermannsburg school of painting lives on, true to the spirit of the men who are the subject of this book.  (Wenten Rubuntja, whose book The Town Grew Up Dancing I reviewed recently, painted in the Hermannsburg style as well as Papunya).

I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating book, from which I have learned so much – and not only about the two subjects.  But I don’t want this to be one of those reviews so detailed that you don’t need to read the book!

Battarbee and Namatjira is no hagiography, but it is generous in spirit.  For all their flaws, the main players are rendered as men of good will.  As you’d expect in a book about the art world, there are some crooks, and as you’d expect in a biography using source materials written in less enlightened time, sometimes there are words and expressions used that make a contemporary reader flinch.  But Edmond has a captivating style and the book is beautifully written, of interest to anyone who is interested in art or in Aboriginal issues.

Author: Martin Edmond
Title: Battarbee and Namatjira
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9871922146687
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2015

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber


The Book of Strange New ThingsI like to think that I am open to reading debut authors and authors unfamiliar to me  – but sometimes, I have to admit, an author’s ‘name’ and reputation does influence what I read.  So it was for me with The Book of Strange New Things, because I know that I would not have taken it off the shelf if it hadn’t been written by Michael Faber, who captivated me with his stunning debut, Under The Skin.

The story of an evangelical preacher ministering to aliens in a galaxy far away while his wife struggles with the horrors of a dystopian world back on earth?  No, it doesn’t sound like anything I would want to read.   I’m not interested in science fiction or dystopias, and even less interested in a meditation on faith.  But the author’s name lured me into opening the book, and then I was hooked.  I romped through all 584 pages in a couple of days and was sorry to reach the end.

I’m still trying to analyse how Faber has achieved such a compelling novel out of such unpromising material.  It begins with the central character, Peter Leigh, in the car on his way to Heathrow, with his wife, Bea. Uncharacteristically she urges him to bypass a forlorn hitchhiker – she’s a good, kind-hearted woman, supportive of him and his ministry and despite an unedifying past she’s a respectable woman – but she wants to make love with Peter one last time before he sets off on the adventure of a lifetime.  Under the auspices of an enigmatic corporation called USIC, he is to minister to the native inhabitants of Oasis in a galaxy far away.  While he is cradling doubts about whether he is up to it, she wants to sully their farewell love-making at home with a hasty fumble in a car.  He’s not really keen, but he does it anyway.  And then he’s off…

The book is structured so that the third-person narration allows the reader to see and hear what’s happening to Peter on the faraway planet, but we are also privy to the couple’s thoughts and feelings through their emails.   As with many couples in such a situation, things begin well – there are some delays and miscommunications in the beginning, but they share the same sense of importance about his mission, and they express their love and longing for each other in poignant ways.

But things are not as they expected.  Like most missionaries, I suppose, Peter expects that he will have to work hard to make connections with The Other and he is prepared for discouragement, disappointment and perhaps even danger, though of course he is fortified by his faith.  What they are not expecting is that things will turn out to be much easier for him than he anticipated – while life back on earth for Bea suddenly falls apart: there is one natural disaster after another, the economy collapses (Tesco fails!!) and civilised life in London is on a precipice of violence, thuggery and despair.

So while Peter’s faith is being reinforced by events, Bea’s is being challenged.  Their communications become less comprehensible to each other, and they become both more and less careful about what they say to each other – with unintended consequences including occasional hostility.

As this relationship begins to unravel, Peter’s loyalties are tested to the limit.  He discovers that his congregation has profound needs which matter as much to him as the spiritual, and though he tries not to, he begins to resent the offhand attitudes of his colleagues at the base.  He chafes against the procedures, the censorship and the blandness of everything, and as he becomes closer to the Oasans, he starts to feel more comfortable with them than he does with humans.  Things come to a head when he sets out alone for the Oasan settlement and there’s a reality check which had me reading far too late into the night.

I loved this book, and I think I loved it all the more because I was reluctant about it!

Update 18/1/15 Also see Tony’s thoughts at Tony’s Book World.

Author: Michael Faber
Title: The Book of Strange New Things
Publisher: Canongate, 2014
ISBN: 9781782114079
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin, Australia.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2015

The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins


Cover of the first edition of The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins, 1879 (Source: Wikipedia)

Cover of the first edition of The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins, 1879 (Source: Wikipedia)

Sometimes, a daft melodrama from the 19th century is a good break from serious reading.  The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins fits the bill.  It was apparently a contribution to the weekly periodical All the Year Round in 1859, one of five short stories bookended by stories from Charles Dickens for a Christmas edition Wikipedia suggests that Dickens’ stories and one by Elizabeth Gaskell are the strength of the collection. If  The Haunted Hotel is anything to go by, that’s probably true.

Beware: Spoilers (lots)

As was common in the period, the characterisation of the wicked ones who come to a sticky end is racist.  They’re all foreigners. There is

  • The sinister Countess Narona, a.k.a. the first Lady Mountbarry after his Lordship jilts Agnes Lockwood, who was his bride to be and the lovely heroine of the story;
  • Her brother, the villainous Baron Rivar, in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone, his chemical experiments financed by his sister’s fortune and by gambling; and
  • the courier Ferrari, married to a worthy Englishwoman but clearly not to be trusted because he has A Foreign Name.

The story opens with Countess Narona’s melodramatic visit to an English doctor.  She thinks she’s going mad.  He dismisses her histrionics. Soon he hears the rumours at the club that his mysterious patient is none other than the infamous woman who infatuated Lord Mountbarry at the gaming tables on the continent.  The marriage is a covert affair but the doctor is not the only one from the club to sneak into the brief ceremony out of curiosity.

Agnes bears her humiliation bravely as befits a Wronged British Gentlewoman. She goes off to Ireland to be governess to the children of Lord Mountbarry’s brother, leaving behind a Disappointed Swain i.e. Henry Westwick, the third brother.  Alas his love is unrequited because she is still pining for Lord M even though he is a Bounder and a Cad.

However, just before Agnes departs for Ireland, Fate sends Mrs Ferrari in quest of a reference for her husband.  Oh no, it’s for a job with the Wicked Mountbarry household in Venice!  Agnes recoils, but she cannot deny employment to the needy.  Fatefully, she gives the reference.  And not long after that, Mr Ferrari disappears without a trace.  Gasp!

Agnes, it seems, is forever fated to cross paths with the new Lady M, who flits around orchestrating melodramatic meetings with Agnes and Henry, often muttering prophetic words of Doom. These come to fruition in Venice in a hotel that was formerly the very palace where Lord M has so conveniently died of bronchitis.  (And alas for the insurers, the two attending doctors verify that there is nothing suspicious about the death, though we readers know better than that by now).

Having collected the insurance, the Baron and the Countess slope off to America together, but he dies, and she comes back, raving incoherently about Destiny.  Much mischief ensues.  The entire Mountbarry clan has descended on Venice for a family holiday, and *shudder* every member of the family who spends a night in the renovated room where Lord M died, suffers macabre experiences (horrible smells, nausea, bad dreams and even a headless horror).  (It is a measure of how weak this story is that I had worked out how these ‘supernatural’ events were arranged long before Collins reveals the mechanisms.  He should have rationed his clues more carefully.)

Things become even more bizarre when Henry overcomes his distaste for The Woman Who Wronged Agnes and had Nefarious Dealings resulting in the death of his brother Lord M,  and accepts the Countess’s offer to write a play for him.  Being only a Third Son, he has to make his own way in the world and must have money to Win the Hand of Agnes.  As well as investing in continental hotels, he’s also a theatrical entrepreneur.  The scenario for the play, which he reads when the Countess breathes her last, explains all the shenanigans.

Left to the reader’s imagination is the question: who was it who suspended the Headless Horror above Agnes’ head in the bedroom?

This story was written towards the end of Wilkie Collins’ life when he was in decline.  I’ve read The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and trust me, they are well worth reading.  T.S. Eliot (according to the book description at GoodReads) may well have admired The Haunted Hotel but I thought it was a daft and unconvincing example of the gothic horror story.

Author: Wilkie Collins
Title: The Haunted Hotel
Publisher: Gutenberg 170
Read on the Kindle.


The Foundling's WarI enjoyed The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon, (see my review) but this sequel is not quite as successful.  It is, as the title and the book cover suggest, a continuation of the life of Jean Arnaud who comes of age as France capitulates to Germany during World War II.  Most of my reading of fiction about this period has tended to explore evil and the struggle to deal with it, so I found this book a little wanting.  Amoral adventures and a disdain for politics that seem somewhat charming in adolescence resonate differently when life gets serious under a jackboot, or so it seems to me.

But I wasn’t just disappointed by Jean’s scant attention to the Occupation and its pro-Nazi offshoot in Vichy.  The sentimental education of a boy that seemed life-affirming in the first novel seems a little over-worked here: it’s too long, too improbable and sometimes too confusing because (even though I read The Foundling Boy only recently) the plentiful characters from the first novel reappear without timely explanation.  Jean went to bed, or wanted to, with quite a few women in The Foundling Boy, but in the sequel I lost track of which women were relations and which were former lovers.  And although Jean has two fathers and two mothers in The Foundling Boy it was easy to keep them separate because the peripatetic biological parents were both flamboyant characters while the stay-at-home adoptive parents were stoic and rather dull; in the sequel since they are all offstage almost all the time, the occasional references to them had me floundering sometimes (especially in the case of Antoine, his lovers and his other children).

Amongst other improbabilities, in The Foundling’s War Jean falls for a gorgeous woman who won’t bed him.  Claude has a husband doing something non-specific in London, and although they were on the verge of divorce, she has promised him to be faithful until he returns.  So despite an intimacy that would test any young man’s ardour, Jean and Claude are not lovers but of course everyone thinks they are, (and presumably the husband would think so too.)  Her behaviour changes after she is arrested and tortured by the Germans and then released (because Jean and his conman friend Palfy know people in high places) – but this change is because she is traumatised.  To pay for her psychiatric treatment, Jean becomes involved in smuggling money for the Germans.  And he cheers himself up about this depressing situation with an affair with an entertainer called Nelly.  Claude eventually takes up with an eccentric ‘man of the woods’ which made no sense to me at all.  (Maybe I missed something? Deon writes as if from a first draft, with snippets of out-of-time-or-place information all over the place, giving the impression of reminiscences as they come to mind, though presumably the style is intentional.)

Some time ago, I read a book called Island Madness by Tim Binding.  It was a novel set in Guernsey and it explored the moral compromises that accompanied the German Occupation.  Reading that book challenged my simplistic ideas about collaboration, as did Irene Nemirovsky’s  Suite Française.  But The Foundling’s War is a weak effort at illustrating the moral complexity of choosing between the needs of a loved one and patriotism in wartime.

Well, it is meant to be a light-hearted novel, and no doubt there were plenty of people on all sides of the conflict who managed to romp through it without too much hardship.  Claude certainly suffers, and Jean does not escape unscathed: he is nearly shot after he absconds from the French army, he goes hungry as many did, and he gets some rough treatment in the post-war vengeance on collaborators.  But overall, the war is a canvas for a coming-of-age story and not much more.

One other thing: there’s a reference to the Allied sinking of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, an event which inspires the author to write

How could one hope to succeed in a defeated country that, since the unprovoked massacre of its sailors at Mers el-Kabir, no longer knew whether yesterday’s allies were not today’s enemies and whether the enemy currently occupying half the country in such a disciplined way would not become tomorrow’s friend? (p. 75)

Never having seen this event referred to as a massacre before, and curious about why an author writing in 1977 would have a character – even a politically naïve one – raise the prospect of forming an alliance with the Nazis, I looked it up on Wikipedia (though conscious that the French edition of Wikipedia perhaps interprets events differently).

The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, part of Operation Catapult and also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was a British naval bombardment of the French Navy (Marine Nationale) at its base at Mers-el-Kébir on the coast of what was then French Algeria on 3 July 1940. The raid resulted in the deaths of 1,297 French servicemen, the sinking of a battleship and the damaging of five other ships.

The combined air-and-sea attack was conducted by the Royal Navy as a direct response to the French-German armistice of 22 June, which had seen Britain’s sole continental ally replaced by a collaborationist, pro-Nazi government administrated from Vichy. The new Vichy government had also inherited the considerable French naval force of the Marine Nationale; of particular significance were the 7 battleships of the Bretagne, Dunkerque and Richelieu classes, which collectively represented the second largest force of capital ships in Europe behind the British. Since Vichy was seen by the British (with a good deal of justification) as a mere puppet state of the Nazi regime, there was serious fear that they would surrender or loan the ships to the Kriegsmarine, an outcome which would largely undo Britain’s tenuous grasp on European naval superiority and confer a major Axis advantage in the ongoing Battle of the Atlantic. Despite promises from Vichy Admiral of the FleetFrançois Darlan that the fleet would remain under French control and out of the hands of the Germans, Winston Churchill, still reeling from Dunkirk and stung by the Vichy French collaboration, determined that the fleet was simply too dangerous to remain intact, French sovereignty notwithstanding.[3]

In response to the British attack at Mers-el-Kébir and another at Dakar, the French mounted air raids on Gibraltar. The Vichy government also severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. The attack remains controversial. It created much rancour between Vichy France and Britain, but it also demonstrated to the world and to the United States in particular, Britain’s commitment to continue the war with Germany at all costs and without allies if need be.

I can well understand why there was rancour from collaborationist, pro-Nazi Vichy France, but given the unequivocal terms of the British ultimatum, I found it surprising that the author/translator refers to it as a massacre.  It was not indiscriminate killing of unarmed people.

Author: Michel Deon
Title: The Foundling’s War
Translated from the French by Julian Evans
First published as Les Vingt Ans du Jeane Homme Vert in 1977
Publisher: Gallic Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781908313713
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallic Books

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2015

Summer’s Gone, by Charles Hall


Summer's Gone The blurb is right: there are only a handful of novelists who have looked at the 60s of demonstrations, civil disobedience, riots, imprisonment and change.  Why is that, I wonder?  Why haven’t our Baby Boomer major novelists tackled the dizzying world they grew up in, that shaped their identities?

From the author bio that prefaces Summer’s Gone, autobiographical elements underlie the plot of this engaging novel, and the title suits the elegiac tone.  It’s the coming-of-age story of a man whose youthful mistakes haunt his entire life.  And while the novel doesn’t quite fulfil the brief about the politics of the era, it does show how young people floundered as they came of age in the sexually permissive period that vanished with the arrival of HIV-AIDS.

Nick is a carefree young bloke in Perth when he teams up with his mate Mitch and sisters Alison and Helen to form a successful band called the Warehouse Four.  None of them are tertiary educated or campus radicalized: this was in the period when (except for very clever scholarship students) only the wealthy could go to university.    They have, however, absorbed ideas about ‘doing their own thing’ – which translates into working at dead-end, no commitment jobs; sharing inexpensive flats with rudimentary attention to décor and hygiene; premarital sex; and careless abandonment of their parents and their parents’ values.

The Vietnam War and its emerging civil disobedience campaign is so far off-stage for these four that Nick is taken by surprise when Mitch decides to take control of his future and enlist rather than wait for the uncertainty of the conscription ballot.  It’s a weakness of this book that it’s not explained how Nick the eventual draft-dodger manages to successfully evade the federal police for most of the story even though he has a number of encounters with  police across the country.   It just happens, and readers without inside knowledge may well think that Nick’s years in quite open ‘hiding’ lack credibility.  It was, in fact, a scenario that was quite possible, given that the federal police were at that time hopelessly undereducated, poorly trained, badly organised and inefficient, and state police sometimes turned a blind eye in their encounters with draft-dodgers because they shared the same objections to conscription and the Vietnam War.   (I have also heard it said that they despised the federal police for professional reasons and weren’t about to ‘do their jobs for them’.  But I prefer to ascribe more noble motivations for the incidents I know about).

Summer’s Gone doesn’t explore any of the bigger picture issues that tore families apart over Vietnam; the novel only traces the trajectory of events as they impact on Nick – and he’s politically naïve.  As many people were.  He doesn’t engage with or seem to notice any of the political anti-war, anti-conscription movements which convulsed Australian society, and he doesn’t seek support from or seem to know about the grass-roots organisations that helped draft-resisters and draft-dodgers like him to evade capture and imprisonment.   This makes him an interesting character who dispels the illusion that everyone who disapproved of the war had coherent reasons for doing so and was politically active in the campaign against it.  Nick is just a bloke who wants to be left alone to make music and love.

Mitch is a rough diamond, but he and Alison get together very quickly, while Nick’s ardour for the beautiful Helen takes much longer to quench.  As they struggle with their wholly unexpected sexual difficulties fate steps in with the needs of an old boyfriend, an imperative that can’t be refused.  Helen goes off to Melbourne to be by his hospital bedside and Mitch goes off to basic training at Puckapunyal in Victoria.  This leaves Alison and Nick together on the other side of the continent in Perth…

There are a number of betrayals in the novel, with disastrous consequences.  We know from the striking opening lines that Helen has died, an event irrevocably associated in Nick’s mind with the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  But looking back on events from Nick’s middle age, the story is structured in different time frames which piece together to show how maturity emerges out of loss and tragedy.  How, and why Helen dies, is not revealed till late in the story, and the guilt that sours all Nick’s relationships turns out to have been misplaced.  What he learns, too late, is that relationships are more complex than they seemed in the heady years of youth.

Summer’s Gone is a less ambitious book than Peter Walker’s recent Some Here Among Us which begins in the same era with a New Zealand setting (see my review) but IMO it offers a more coherent picture of the turbulent 1960s.  With its focus on Nick’s coming-of-age, and his simple ordinariness, Hall’s novel brings the era to life.

Author: Charles Hall
Title: Summer’s Gone
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780987561541
Source: Review copy courtesy of Margaret River Press

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2015

The Scatter Here is Too Great, by Bilal Tanweer


The Scatter Here is Too Great The Scatter Here is Too Great is a most impressive debut from its Pakistani author, Bilal Tanweer. Innovative in form, and haunting in its theme, this novel held my attention from start to finish.

As you can see from the cover, the central image of the book is a bullet-shattered windscreen:

The hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals.  That’s a metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful, and born of tremendous violence.

One way to give you this account is to ‘name the streets and number the dead.’  Another is to give you this scatter I have gathered to make sense of things, go beyond appearances, read the crystal design on the broken screen.

My mind is a stiff skein of voices.  I will yank out the threads and find the edges.

Listen.

In fragments,  through the voices of Tanweer’s narrators, we learn the stories behind a bomb-blast in the city of Karachi, in Pakistan.  The first voice is childish: a boy explodes into fisticuffs when he is teased once too often – but his family and school are more concerned about his swearing than they are about him beating up another boy.   His ambition is to become a fighter pilot and fight India. Violence is commonplace beneath a veneer of religious respectability.

In the next vignette we see an ageing Communist, Comrade Sukhansaz mocked and harassed on a bus when he begins quoting poetry that belongs in Pakistan’s secular intellectual past.  His idealism conflicted with his family, who fear his atheism in Islamized Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988 (and also a key character in A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, see my review). Sukhansaz alights from the bus into the Cantt station bombing and his voice is silenced.

His nephew, trying desperately to impress his girl with his mother’s car, witnesses the carnage but must clean the blood off the back of the car so that no one will know he was there.

A writer in the city is knocked off his feet in his apartment and reflects on the autobiography he’s writing for his son.  He despises the poetry his father writes and wants instead to be straightforward, but his life won’t permit it.  He has to write about the virtues of discipline to conceal the fact that he’s an opportunist; he has to be careful not to say too much:

That was the strange problem with writing, you had discovered. Meaning never matched the words and words always evaded the thought.  Before you had started writing, you could picture the clean arcs of your life  You had clear ideas.  But what finally made it onto paper was circular and loopy and joined at the wrong ends with everything else. It messed up the whole picture.  So you abstained from saying too much.

He waits impatiently for his estranged father, who was supposed to visit that day…

Three hoodlums get caught up in the blast.  One had drifted into crime, and having met a nice girl, he wants to change his ways.  He doesn’t get the chance and the ambulance driver who holds his body is traumatised for the rest of his life.  Two weddings are called off, a business fails, and his family is helpless against his superstitious belief that he saw the harbingers of the end of the world, Gog and Magog picking their way amongst the bodies.

It’s only a short book, just 200 odd pages, but the impact is powerful.  Pakistan, a city so violent that its atrocities rarely make the news in Australia, becomes a real place not an abstract news story. Tanweer’s ‘writer in the city’ wants these stories to survive but knows they will not.  The place becomes the place where the blast was. :

The bomb was going to become the story of the city,  That’s how we lose the city – that’s how our knowledge of what the world is, is taken away from us – when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was and we are left strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known.

I read this book as a member of Stu’s Shadow Jury for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.   The winner is due to be announced on January 22nd.

Author: Bilal Tanweer
Title: The Scatter Here is Too Great
Publisher: Vintage Digital, 2014
ISBN: 9781448189939
Source: Personal copy, read on the Kindle

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