Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2016

The Easy Way Out, by Steven Amsterdam

the-easy-way-outThere are, as I write, renewed efforts to introduce legislation in Victoria that would allow assisted suicide, but I don’t suppose that Steven Amsterdam or his publishers knew when they signed their contracts just how topical this book was going to be.  The Easy Way Out is a confronting exploration of what assisted suicide might mean for anyone involved.  The title is ironic: in the world created by Amsterdam, even though assisted suicide is legal, there is no easy way out…

Narrated with a kind of sardonic intimacy as if Amsterdam is not going to indulge any sentimental views about death, the novel traces a trajectory as Evan, a nurse who has chosen work as a suicide assistant, tests the boundaries of the law.  Working in the confines of the Mercy hospital where every ‘assist’ is monitored and documented and scrutinised afterwards, Evan finds it hard to stay as detached as he is supposed to.  Families don’t always follow the script, and the ‘simple’ act of drinking a cup of Nembutal isn’t always so simple for someone with muscles that don’t obey any more.  And it’s not just that procedures don’t allow for human frailty, there’s also the psychological impact on Evan to consider.  He doesn’t tell people what he does because not everyone shares his view that he is helping people to die a good death.  Crucially, he doesn’t tell his lovers Lon and Simon.

Evan is gay, and Amsterdam has chosen to eschew any cosy domesticity which might offer support for Evan by setting up his relationship with these two men as a physical relationship only.  (There’s a fair bit of gay sex in the novel).  It’s not a case of three’s a crowd, because Lon and Simon would like to have a deeper bond with Evan, but he remains aloof.  Indeed, Evan is in what looks like a lonely place: his own father committed suicide when he was a boy, and his mother, Viv, has built barriers around herself to prevent any intimacy developing.  When Evan was twelve, she disappeared for a weekend, without telling him where she was, so that he would learn to enjoy independence, and that’s her style.  She’s not into mothering, and when she herself develops a terminal disease, she expects Evan to take care of her as unsentimentally as he takes care of other people in the same situation.

Only it’s not that easy, of course.

Amsterdam is a palliative care nurse, so there’s authenticity about the situations he describes, and what he forces the reader to confront is that this issue is not that simple when you’re at the coal face.  I think most people fear not death, but the process of dying, and many of us who have seen suffering would like to see reform that allows people to have death with dignity.  But Amsterdam isn’t about to let us avoid the reality: in a legal situation, the most intimate private moment of his characters’ lives are witnessed by someone who is required to follow procedures and to stay out of it.  Someone who begins to count in his head the number of times the loved ones say ‘I love you’ and who treats the end of life as routine.  Someone more conscious of the TV monitor watching his every move than he is of the existential significance of the moment.

In the case of people who take matters into their own hands, there is the unsentimental matter of deliberately choosing who finds the body.  One sets things up so that motel staff will discover it and the assumption is that they see plenty of death so it won’t affect them.  Another performs a last macabre act of revenge by ensuring that it’s her mother who will find her.  And just when the reader thinks that Evan has mastered the art of total detachment he confronts a suicide that was not performed as he expected and is horrified.  Sometimes, this is a very difficult book to read.

Does Amsterdam have an agenda?  I think he does.  Smart, funny, compassionate Evan has to tussle with his conscience about the essential issue.  When and how is it ok to assist someone to die? And whose choice is it, really, and the moment when it counts?

I take the cup of Nembutal to her bedside, put the straw in it, and hold it close to her, slipping a hand behind her warm back so she can sit up.  The touch of my hand starts her purring louder again.

The cup is in front of her face.  The straw is just out of the reach of her mouth.   ‘[…].  This is Nembutal.  If you drink it, your heart will stop and you will die.  Is this what you want?’

She stops, jerks her hand up to her face, pokes her fingers against her cheek.

‘The choice is yours.’

I give her back a squeeze to keep her up in a drinking position. This starts her going again. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a massage.  The touch is enough. The corners of her mouth even hint at a smile.

‘The choice is mine then’.  (p.262)

Other reviews are at the SMH and the Oz.

Author: Steven Amsterdam
Title: The Easy Way Out
Publisher: Hachette, 2016
ISBN: 9780733636271
Review copy courtesy of Hachette.

Available from Fishpond: The Easy Way Out and good bookstores everywhere.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2016

The Blue Door, by André Brink

the-blue-doorAnother story from Africa!

It’s been a very long time since I read anything by South African author André Brink (1935-2015): I think I discovered him at the library when he was shortlisted for the Booker for the second time with Rumours of Rain (1978).  (An Instant in the Wind was shortlisted in 1975).  I remember reading four or five of his books, and although I didn’t keep a journal in those days, I still vividly remember The Other Side of Silence (1982).  Brink was a great writer, passionate and fearless about exposing apartheid to the world, and remarkable as a bilingual author, writing his novels simultaneously in both Afrikaans and in English.

The Blue Door is, however, not a novel: it’s a slim novella of only 122 tantalising pages.  It asks the question what if… what if reality suddenly shifts and everything that is familiar no longer exists.  In the course of the story Brink references Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphoses and Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart and what happens to David Le Roux is somewhat similar.  When he lies in bed with a wife called Sarah who he’s never seen before, she is reading Murakami’s novel and ponders Miu’s disorientating experience of  shifting dimensions, changing places with herself.  David, since he stepped inside the blue door, has been confronted not only by Sarah, but also two children that he has apparently fathered and who expect him to tell him the usual bedtime story – a fairy story that happens to allude to very similar circumstances to his own situation.

And because this is a South African story, issues of colour surface.  David’s wife Lydia is White, and so is he.  His wife in the new reality, Sarah, is Black, and only a few years ago, their ‘marriage’ would have landed them in gaol.   As he lies awake in bed he remembers an aborted relationship with a smart, sassy Black woman called Embath, a woman who captivated him and saved him from drifting into marriage with a childhood sweetheart.  With artful precision, Brink shows us exactly what Nelia is, damning her with a single word when she stumbles in on Embath and David together, and she shrieks in a high-pitched voice, ‘with a meid, David, with a meid?’  He moved on after that, and married Lydia, but he has never forgotten Embath and what might have been.

Torn between loyalty to his predictable wife Lydia and the sensuous charms of an uncertain future with Sarah, David tries to find his way back but finds that the past is gone.  His memories are unchanged, but they don’t help him to negotiate a way forward in a world where he does not know anything about Sarah or how they come to be sharing a life together.

Is the past an illusion, or is the present an hallucination? The Blue Door a very powerful metaphor for the transition from apartheid to the new South Africa.

Author: André Brink
Title: The Blue Door
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2007
ISBN: 9781846551239
Source: Kingston Library

Availability?  Try your library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2016

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

the-famished-roadIt’s been a while since I’ve read anything from my Booker Prize collection, so when Radio National chose Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) for this month’s African Book Club, I decided to join in and resurrect my long-term The Complete Booker challenge.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to like The Famished Road because the novel was said to feature magic realism, and I’m not very keen on that, but it turned out that I liked the book very much – and I’m not so sure that I agree with labelling the book that way anyway.  After all, if a spirit world is part of an author’s world view (or his characters’ worldview) and these spirits intervene in the life of the characters, how is that different to a writer writing about people invoking the intervention of some other deity? Would we call it magic realism if an event in a novel were attributed to the intervention of a Christian or Islamic god?

The world Okri creates in The Famished Road is utterly convincing.  Azaro, the central character, is a spirit child, one usually destined to die young so that he can return to the more congenial spirit world.  Our world, after all, is full of heartbreak and suffering:

There was not one among us who looked forward to being born.  We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see. (p.3)

Azaro has been born and reborn many times, but this time, for reasons he is not sure of, he breaks the promise he has made to return to his companions, and decides to stay.

It may simply have been that I had grown tired of coming and going.  It is terrible to forever remain in-between. It may also have been that I wanted to taste of this world, to feel it, to suffer it, know it, to love it, to make a valuable contribution to it, and have that sublime mood of eternity in me as I live the life to come.  But I sometimes think it was a face that made me want to stay.  I wanted to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.  (p.5)

Alas, Azaro’s decision doesn’t entirely bring his mother happiness.  His spirit companions are very angry with him, and from time to time they put in a concerted effort to get him back, and this quest causes mayhem.  Mum has plenty to put up with anyway, living in grinding poverty, with a husband who drinks too much and gets them into debt, and with little hope for the future except for her ambition that Azaro should finish school.  With the help of a mendacious herbalist she fends off the spirits time and again, but she has less success with managing her husband.

Dad is one of many who have left village life for the sprawling slums of the city.  He was supposed to succeed his father as a Priest of the God of the Roads, a god that demands sacrifices of anyone setting out on journeys, undertakings, births, funerals, whatever but Dad’s not suitable for this role because of his propensity for fighting.  In the city he thinks he can earn money by boxing, but Mum is dubious because in the village he kept losing and they had to come to the city because of their debts.  And since Dad’s a man of intemperate habits in more ways than one, they soon add to their debts when a party gets out of hand and he gets in extra booze on credit…

Directly or indirectly many of their troubles are caused by malevolent spirits, but the forthcoming elections add to their problems.  Characters in the novel bemoan Independence as causing all the trouble and politics plays a big part in the story, but (apart from its publication date of 1991) there is not much to help date events.  Wikipedia tells me that Nigeria gained its independence in 1960 but during the First Republic (1960-1979) the country was plunged into Civil War from 1967 to 1970.  There was a Second Republic from 1979 to 1983 and a Third Republic from 1993 to 1999, with military coups intervening in between.  (The Fourth Republic continues to the present day).   But whatever the specifics of the time period might be, elections – and the political thuggery that accompanies them – bring violence, corruption and suffering to the ordinary people of the compound.

Both The Party of the Rich and the Party of the Poor make promises that will never be kept, but The Party of the Rich has more resources to bully the people into voting for them.  As Azaro’s father finds out when he goes looking for work, those who won’t commit to voting for The Party of the Rich get the worst jobs, for pitiful rates of pay.  Dad is a stubborn man, and he is vociferous in his opinions, which gets him into trouble with his landlord too.  Madame Koto, an ambiguous figure who runs the local shebeen, decides to align with the Party of the Rich and does very nicely out of it once she hires prostitutes to keep the politicians and their thugs happy.  She is the first in the compound to get electricity and she even buys a car (though she can’t drive it).

But Dad gets ever more degrading jobs and can’t seem to keep out of debt. Mum’s efforts to improve their lot with a stall in the market don’t work out, and she goes back to hawking her pitiful wares to bring in an ever-declining income.  Things get really bad when Dad a.k.a. The Black Tyger decides to take up boxing again and his voracious appetite means Mum and Azaro often go hungry.  There are also some disquieting scenes where his impotent rage results in a beating for his wife and child.  I was a bit uneasy about the scenes of reconciliation and forgiveness between them, as I am disinclined to accept domestic violence as the norm in novels from any culture, and I’ll be interested to see if this issue comes up in the RN discussion about the book.

It may sound as if The Famished Road is a dreary misery of a book, but it’s not.  Azaro’s voice is upbeat and strong, and when he comments on the folly of his father and other adults, he does not judge them and his impudence is endearing.  He sees his father treated like a beast of burden and he has compassion for him, but he also has a sense of humour about the crazy world he lives in.

I think this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it book.  If readers are prepared to enter into the world that Okri creates, it has much to offer, but some readers may dislike the hallucinatory sequences and the bizarre happenings in the spirit world.

Author: Ben Okri
Title: The Famished Road
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 1991
ISBN: 0224027018
Source: Personal library, part of my collection of Booker Prize winners (and it’s autographed too!)


Fishpond: The Famished Road

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2016

The Third Man, by Graham Greene, narrated by Martin Jarvis

the-third-man-001Quite by accident, I seem to have knocked off another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. (664 to go, 2006 Edition!) Until I consulted my Goodreads shelves to mark that I’d finished it, I did not know that Graham Greene’s The Third Man was even listed.  Indeed, I’ve been listening to it en route to visit my father without realising that it’s a fascinating work in the way that it creates a kind of European noir.  Not ever having read anything by Chandler (Raymond, presumably) or Hammett (Hammett who?) I did not know that

[their] classic hard-boiled novels…have universal significance in their depiction of a world where space is defined by urbanisation, and where corruption springs up as a result of the modern city. (2006 Edition, p.457)

What 1001 Books says is that Greene has transferred these distinctly American concepts to Vienna…

evoking an urban space fractured by both war and development, but one that also has an immutable weight of history lacking in its American counterparts.  (ibid.)

vienna-beethovens-graveI have been to Vienna but I did not recognise this same city in The Third Man.  Vienna was the first city that I visited in Europe, about 15 years ago when the budget first allowed for international European travel.  I remember arriving in the Graben and taking a very early morning walk until our hotel was ready for business or failing that, a warming coffee could be had from a café. (Alas, arriving in an unwelcoming dawn is a common phenomenon for long-haul passengers from Australia).  Used to the clean lines of Melbourne’s modern buildings and its elegant Victorian Gold Rush edifices, I was taken aback by the florid Baroque architecture, and since we didn’t subsequently venture much beyond the city centre except to take the tram to visit Beethoven’s grave at the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna’s main cemetery in the southeast, I don’t have any memory of any other kind of architecture.  (This trip was only three weeks after my first ankle operation, so I did well to be able to hobble around at all, really).  We were only there for three days and I was jetlagged for most of that so I wasn’t really aware that Vienna had suffered extensive damage during WW2 and that much of what we saw was restoration.

cafe-maria-theresiaGraham Greene brings post-war Vienna to life.  Rollo Martins, a second-rate writer of westerns, arrives in the undignified ruins of the war-damaged city to visit his old school-friend and childhood hero Harry Lime.  Except for five British pounds which Rollo can’t exchange due to currency restrictions, he has no money and is expecting Lime to put him up and give him a job.   But Vienna is in the grip of Allied Occupation by the Four Powers (France, USA, Britain and Russia) and although much of the bomb damage is shrouded under heavy snow, infrastructure is a shambles.  The shopping strip exists only at eye level, repaired only to the first floor.  And in marked contrast to our delighted discovery of the truly decadent Café Maria Theresia at Café Hawelka, Rollo can’t get anything but ersatz coffee and the tea is undrinkable.  Green’s unsympathetic portrayal of the city might perhaps be in rather poor taste if it were not for Britain’s own experience of the bombing of civilians at the hands of the Germans and the subsequent muddle of post-war reconstruction and austerity.

Rollo’s plans fall apart when he discovers that he has arrived in the wake of Lime’s unexpected death and he’s only just in time for a hasty funeral.

Fortunately for Rollo, because the surname of his nom-de-plume Buck Dexter is shared with a serious writer of the same name, he is mistaken for the real Benjamin Dexter and fêted by a naïve stout middle-aged young man from the British Council called Crabbins, who puts him up in a hotel and lends him some money.  In exchange, Rollo has to deliver a lecture for the city’s literati, and with Rollo’s impersonation Greene pokes a bit of fun at modernist writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  But before long, in the course of attending the funeral, Rollo discovers that there is something a bit suss about Lime’s death, and he determines to find out more.

The story is narrated by a world-weary British policeman called Calloway, who knows what Rollo does not: that Lime has (like almost everyone else in the beleaguered city) been involved in a racket, and a very nasty racket at that.  However, Rollo as an amateur has two advantages that a policeman has not: he doesn’t have to work set hours, and he can cover more ground in a day than Calloway’s men can.  Also, he can be reckless…

That recklessness makes for well-orchestrated suspense which apparently made The Third Man a terrific movie, though in this case, the movie preceded the novella because Greene wrote the screenplay first.  1001 Books makes much of that too, suggesting that

the interlinking … actually furthers the story’s central feature, the idea of opposing things being forced together: the old and the new, the “serious” and the “entertaining”, the novel and the film, Europe and America.  The breaking down of boundaries between these concepts is a signal feature of  twentieth century literature, and The Third Man remains a powerful example of how this can be made into something other than a disaster to lament. (ibid, p 457).

I think this is a load of old codswallop, if only because the “serious” and the “entertaining” had been together in literature ever since Dickens…

This edition is superbly narrated by Martin Jarvis (who is memorable for his portrayal of Jon in the 1967 BBC adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, starring Eric Porter, Susan Hampshire and Kenneth More. You can still buy this version and it is a million times better than the recent truly horrible 2002 version which I could not bear to watch after the first atrocious half hour).  I enjoyed this beautifully crafted thriller so much that I listened to it twice:).

Author: Graham Greene
Title: The Third Man
Narrated by Martin Jarvis
Publisher: Clipper Audio, CSA, 1988
Source: Kingston Library


This audiobook edition looks as if it’s long out of print, but perhaps Audible has a copy.  But you can get a print edition at Fishpond: “The Third Man (Twentieth Century Classics S.)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2016

Dying in the First Person, by Nike Sulway

dying-in-the-first-personQueensland author Nike Sulway is a versatile writer.  She won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Author and was also shortlisted in the Commonwealth Writers Prize with her novel The Bone Flute, (UQP, 2001) and also published The True Green of Hope (UQP) in 2005, both under the name N.A. Bourke.    I knew her work as a children’s author when, under the name Nike Bourke, she and illustrator Stella Danalis were shortlisted in the 2006 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards and I read her picture book, What the Sky Knows to my classes.   I can see from her Goodreads page that she also writes science fiction and fantasy, and that under the name Nike Sulway, she won the James Tiptree, Jr Award for Rupetta, (Tartarus Press, 2013) for a work that explores and expands our understanding of gender. 

Her latest novel Dying in the First Person is a moving exploration of grief and identity, as well as a meditation on the power of language and translation.  But it’s very hard to convey just how stunning it is without spoilers.  I’ll just try to do my best…

Samuel and Morgan are twin brothers, separated by more than the oceans that lie between them.  Samuel, whose point-of-view dominates the narrative, has stayed at home in Australia, caring for his widowed mother and living a conventional if lonely life.  Morgan took off after his father’s suicide and has never returned.  His sole contact with his family is to forward his writing for translation by Samuel.   As boys, they had created a fantasy land with its own history and language, and now the continuing Nahum stories are widely read, providing both men with work to do and an income to live on.  But Morgan’s extreme political beliefs have led him to live a nomadic life, and to eschew both possessions and relationships.  His brother Samuel actually knows almost nothing about him.

The story begins with Morgan’s unexpected death in the Netherlands, and the arrival of his enigmatic partner Ana, who accompanies the body home.  She also brings the last Nahum manuscript, and the prospect of Samuel learning something about his brother’s life.  But silences descend.

There are silences like thefts. A word stolen from the mouth before it is spoken.  Deep in the cave of the body, past the glottis and the epiglottis, sinking further, down past the larynx.  It waits for the dark opening and plunges deep into the chest, the lungs, burrowing in, taking root in that silk-wet darkness.  A black seed, wintering in the body.

There are obstinate silences.  A phone that does not ring. A letter that is never sent. A note left on a doorstep that blows away before you come home. A page that cannot be translated.  There are whole languages we cannot translate. They fall into two distinct categories: languages for which we have some text – some scraps of poetry or history – but no lexicon to translate the meanings of those marks; and there are the unwritten languages whose last speaker fell silent before their words were recorded.  (p. 171)

There is the silence of a sleeping woman, woken by a noise in her house.  Perhaps it was a dream.  The sound is gone – faded – before she truly wakes. She does not turn on the light, which will only chase away the fragile certainty she feels.  She belongs to the dream, and to the voice she heard there, to the possibility of hearing the dead speak, of recovering the lost and holding them again. (p. 172)

There is, of course, the silence of death.  Absolute and final, it dissolves speech as it dissolves the body.  word by word, the speaker rots, until only her bones remain, and these bones – though clearly once part of her – bear no resemblance to the creature that lived and moved and spoke. We could imagine that this silence is obstinate: to us, stuck here in the shade of life, it seems that the dead refuse to speak. They hold their tongues, as the saying goes, between mossed and broken teeth.  But this is mere fanciful imagination. Accusation and narcissism.  Perhaps it would be truer to believe that the dead do speak, but not in a language we can understand.  To us.  (p. 186)

In a wholly unexpected twist, events conspire to make Ana break these silences, revealing complex desires.

… this life I’m living feels like the last one I’ll have so I have to hold on to it; I have to make it true.  (p.258)

As it happens, I’m reading Ben Okri’s The Famished Road which – while entirely different in every way imaginable – also features a character determined to make a family allegiance true.  Dying in the First Person is a beautiful book which would, I am sure, be rewarding for book groups which enjoy quiet books that linger long after the last page is turned.

You can find out more about Nike Sulway at Perilous Adventures.

Author: Nike Sulway
Title: Dying in the First Person
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2016
ISBN: 9780994395832
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.

Available from Fishpond: Dying in the First Person: A Novel

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

the-manyI thought I wasn’t interested in this year’s Booker shortlist: it looked rather mundane to me.  But then I read Karen’s review of The Many at Booker Talk and became intrigued…

A novella of only 141 pages, The Many is a melancholy tale, suffused with grief, individual and collective.  Timothy Buchanan arrives in an isolated village in Cornwall after some kind of environmental catastrophe has devastated the local fishing industry.  Despite its setting on the wild Cornish coast, there is a strong sense of claustrophobia because the fishing grounds have been confined by a barrier of rusting container ships beyond which the fleet may not venture, though most of the fishermen have given up their boats and resigned themselves to a crusty idleness in the pub.  Those that do put out their boats usually return empty-handed or with a catch malformed by the chemicals that permeate the bay, a catch that must be sold in its entirety to the authorities, overseen by a faceless woman in grey.

The story unfolds through the perspective of Timothy, and Ethan, one of the few remaining fishermen and the only one prepared to give Timothy a cautious acquaintance.  Alternating third person narratives reveal that Timothy has bought (sight-unseen) the cottage of Perran, who drowned on the rocks ten years ago.  The whole village mourns him, and his derelict cottage had stood as a kind of grim memorial to an event which has scarred the collective memory of this close-knit community.  Timothy, escaping his own demons, has blundered into a hostile world which sees him as an interloper desecrating a sacred space.

The Many reminded me of the film The Wicker Man because it features a similar contrast between the closed community with its own hidden agenda to protect, and an outsider who has no comprehension of a world with its own laws and rituals.  Timothy’s plan is to renovate the cottage as a home for himself and his wife Lauren, but to the village he is an unwelcome ’emmet’, what we in Australia would call a ‘blow-in’.  But it is not just that he represents wealthy Londoners transforming the coast with their weekenders: he also represents the anonymous external world which has ruined their way of life by polluting the fishing grounds and by imposing bureaucratic controls on their industry.  And when he desecrates Perron’s cottage with new carpet and paint, he soon finds out that their hostility is very real indeed.

The Many is a thought-provoking book.  The use of the present tense establishes a sense of tension which links the subterranean truths of the village with the power of the restless sea encroaching on the village – because the ocean will not be confined behind a cordon of ships whatever the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture may say.  The physical environment is always threatening: on land and on sea it’s cold and it’s wet and above all, it’s unfamiliar to Timothy, who does not belong.  He gets no help to navigate his way around on board Ethan’s boat so that he stumbles and falls, and his explorations in the surrounding fields are perilous too:

There is a steep step down from the field level into the cave and he can see nothing beyond the patch of earth directly beneath the lintel stone, worn smooth and grassless. He steps towards the doorway in order to see further in and stands just shy of the shadow it casts.  Unable to see further, he lowers himself down into the darkness to see better what lies beyond.  He feels the cold rising up from the ground and he descends and it brings to mind a memory of lowering himself into the burning cold of the sea.  The floor is deeper than it had looked originally and when his feet touch the floor he is in the shadow, unable to see anything in front of him.  He edges forward, waiting for his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness.  There is a rustling in front of him and two heavy bodies hurtle out of the darkness and Timothy is knocked back sharply onto the smooth floor.  Thin feet jab at his head and he raises his hands to protect his face, gripped by a panic that threatens to overwhelm him and he flails his legs and keeps his hands and arms up over his face and ears as the assault continues.  A heavy body lands on him and he struggles to breathe beneath its smothering weight, and the scrabbling resumes.  He feels something sharp connect with his mouth and there is a sudden pressure on his chest and then there is silence.  (p. 96)

Munmuir is very good at creating this level of suspense.   Timothy’s feverish dreams create a hallucinatory effect that contrast with his poignant memories of a stillborn child, and Ethan’s sense of unease about the risks he takes build to a crescendo as he seeks to find a way out of his entrapment.  As Karen noted in her review, this is not a book that resolves neatly into certainties, but that is what makes it so interesting.

Will it win the Booker?  I have no idea, but I’m glad it was shortlisted or I might have missed it!

Author: Wyl Munmuir
Title: The Many
Publisher: Salt Publishing 2016
ISBN: 9781784630485
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:The Many

moscow-in-the-1930s I struggled with this book.  The subtitle of Moscow in the 1930s says it’s a novel, and having read the blurb I was expecting something in the style of Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, (see my review) except that the story of Moscow’s literary scene in the Stalin years would be fictionalised in some way.  But I soon found that I was out of my depth…

It was not because I don’t know enough about the literary scene in Moscow after the Revolution.  The blurb mentions that

literary aficionados will encounter important literary locations for the history of Russian letters: the Dobrov House, Peredelkino, Lavrushinsky Lane – and also the names of legendary figures such as Olga Bessarabova, Maria Belkina, and Lydia Libidinskaya.

I hadn’t heard of any of these, but I didn’t think that would matter.  I’ve read most of the great 19th century Russian writers, and I’ve read some post Perestroika authors, but I know very little about the writers whose work was repressed in the 1930s, and I was assuming that this book was meant to introduce readers to them.  No, what I found baffling was that the book was more like a disjointed memoir of an authorial quest.  Although there were many, many people referenced in the book, it didn’t have character development, and there wasn’t any plot to speak of.

I read to about page 50, and, floundering, read the introduction by Elena Pogorelaya, and then, not much the wiser, tried again.  As Stu from Winston’s Dad says in his review, the book is about writers from the post-revolutionary historical period, and Gromova had access to materials about them from her work as an archivist, and she has used these letters and diaries to create… well, some kind of fiction, I think…

It reads more like a memoir of Gromova’s research.  It consists of patchy fragments from this and that, (which look as if they are authentic quotations from the archives) and although it ought not to matter whether the reader has heard of the writers Gromova references, there are many instances where she assumes knowledge that sent me off to Google, again and again, often with no results.  Maria Belkina, author of The Intersection of Fates, ‘one of the most famous books in Russia’,  has no online presence that I can find, nor could I find out anything about Olga Bessarabov or Varvara Malakieva-Mirovich.  The poetry of Marina Tsetaeva is, however, sufficiently well-known to warrant a Wikipedia page, which illuminated things for me a bit because it explained her tragic life and how oppression under Stalin blighted her fortunes.

Reading this book, I felt, keenly, that I was always missing something.  Gromova’s point is that these people should be rescued from obscurity, but I felt as if I were traversing a map with no landmarks to guide me.

For example, when the narrator is puzzled by the posthumous repudiation of a major Moscow celebrity, Bulgakov, (who I recognised as Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita which I’ve read) she writes:

Why?  It looked like I would be able to dig and find the answer to this question, for that I would need experience and an understanding of how lives were intertwined.  Life rolls on like a ball, lifting up its heroes on high and then dropping them to the bottom.  This ball keeps rolling even after the person passes away, it continued to act on his fate in the same way as when he was among us.  How many times have I had to witness the strange reflections or distortions of a person’s life in their posthumous existence!

Sergei Alexandrovich appeared in Tatyana Alexandrovich’s life shortly after Malyugin’s letters, and more importantly after Tashkent.

“I’d really like to write about Tashkent, the balakhana, Akhmatova,” she said.  “That is the most important thing I should manage to do.”

Later, after she had passed away and when no such book was found, Ludmila Vladimirovna also frequently uttered the word “Tashkent”, the place where Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Elena Sergeevna Bulgakova spent time. (p. 31)

Twenty pages later I learned that the balakhana meant an additional storey added to an Uzbek house, and it was not until some 17 pages later that I understood its significance of ‘Tashkent’ in the context of WW2 and the prospect of Soviet defeat.  It was where many of these writers were evacuated to during the bombardment of Moscow:

The Soviet writers in Tashkent for the first year could not believe in the possibility of victory, and they spoke of how their evacuation would soon become an emigration.  Everyone was preparing for Uzbekistan to become an English colony and they had to learn the language.  Alexei Tolstoy had already thought up a name for Tashkent, “the poor man’s Istanbul”.  No one believed a single thing the government said. How could anyone believe when they had all participated in the lies of state propaganda? (p.48)

It is little nuggets like this that make Moscow in the 1930s interesting, but they are few and far between.  Who could have imagined that the intelligentsia were anticipating colonisation by the Brits??

The book began to work for me when I let go of trying to follow the paths of its characters, and abandoned trying to work out how it purports to be a novel.  I just read it as if it were a memoir and assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the narrator was Gromova herself.   She tells the story of her previous books, which explore the ways in which people she has researched are bound together.  In 1930s Moscow the knot of personal relationships had become a noose, or even a garrotte because the Kremlin’s interrogators would haul in everyone and anyone who was associated with a suspect.  She discovers papers about Nikolai Stefanovich who infiltrated a group of poets and denounced them to the authorities: this betrayal led to four members being shot and the rest were sent to the gulags for a long time.  There is also the poignant story of Wanderers of Night, a novel written by Daniil Andreyev.  Copies were hidden because it was anti-Soviet but Andreyev himself revealed the last copy under the floorboards because he could not withstand interrogation.  It is a terrible irony that literature replaced religion for this generation under the Soviets and its authors served like priests – but that working as a writer in the prescribed Soviet way was like a prison.

This evil, Gromova says, does not die:

If an evil is done for some period of time and is destructive to the human race, this evil will surely leave its mark on the way people subsequently live. Generations will follow that will lack strength and inspiration. They will look at everything around them with apathy and indifference. Their spirits will be burned out, they will grow tired long before they are even born. This is now today the 20th century casts a shadow over the 21st.

The lives never lived by those who were shot, tortured and murdered could not vanish.  It is likely that their era silently flows alongside ours.  To save the generations following after, one will have to see and hear these lives, to let every lost soul, every person who died in vain, reappear now in our time.  (p.131)

Although Moscow in the 1930s is a difficult book to read, this tender homage to writers under Stalin provides an insight into a world that should not be forgotten.

The translation is generally smooth, but there are some annoying lapses, e.g. When society wasp going through (p82); she happy to hear (p254); she attend church (p.312).  There are also problems with homophones e.g. pore/pour (p18) and story/storey (p55) and adverbs e.g. so stunning talented (p28).

Author: Natalia Gromova
Title: Moscow in the 1930s, a novel from the archives
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, London, 2016
ISBN: 9781784379711
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications.

You can order it online through Readings but you won’t get much change from AUD$100, it must be a mistake, surely! Fishpond has it for slightly less than the Book Depository at under $40:Moscow in the 1930s – A Novel from the Archives

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2016

New Zealand Literature Survey

Just thought I would pass on this link to a fascinating discussion about NZ Literature…

This is the blurb that enticed me to listen to it:

According to a new survey by the New Zealand Book Council into our reading habits, many readers believe homegrown novels are over hyped and too much of a mixed bag to bother with. Generally we prefer Kiwi non-fiction. Crime’s the most popular genre, but even then – despite a big and growing number of Kiwi crime writers – they make a tiny proportion of crime sales here. Lynn Freeman brings togetherr authors Tina Clough and Patricia McCormack, and Cambridge bookseller Hamish Clayton to talk about these and other trends. Can anything be done to turn New Zealand readers on to New Zealand-based fiction?

The discussion ranges over all sorts of topics including book cover design, self-publishing, Scandi-crime and what booksellers can do to promote their own authors.

PS One of the speakers debunks the value of reviews.  Though I’ve never bought a book because of a review at Goodreads or Amazon, I buy books all the time because they’ve been reviewed by my favourite bloggers.  What do you think?  Do you ever buy books (or borrow them from a library) because you’ve read a review?

coping-with-grief I’m not really one for reading self-help books, and indeed the fact that after blogging everything I’ve read since 2007 I’ve had to introduce the category just for this book is an indication of that…

But Coping with Grief was there at the library when I was browsing for audio books to listen to on my daily trip to Keysborough to visit my father in aged care, and I thought, why not, maybe there’s something to learn.  It’s many years since I read Kubler-Ross on the stages of grief, a book which was not a self-help book but rather an explanation of the process, one which I have recognised in myself in different contexts as well as in others around me:

  1. Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.
  2. Anger – When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?”.
  3. Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.
  4. Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
    During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
  5. Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.  (Wikipedia, viewed 18/9/16).

Coping With Grief talks about these aspects of grieving, but also covers the difficult first year, physical reactions, the funeral and children.  They spend some time acknowledging how hard the first year can be, and how there can be physical reactions such as illness and tiredness which may crop up weeks or even months or years after the bereavement.   They also say that it’s a pity that most workplaces only offer three days of bereavement leave, which puts pressure on to have the funeral on the third day, when perhaps people are not really ready for it, and when the unfortunate consequence can be that the support of family and friends can sometimes dissipate too quickly afterwards.

The book is not just written for the bereaved: it’s also intended as a guide for all of us when we are supporting them.  There are suggestions for what to say, and also what not to say.  Expressions like ‘time heals’ are not helpful to people who cannot at that stage imagine ever feeling any better than they do at the time.  Religious sentiments are not welcome for non-believers either: I remember feeling a most unholy rage when some years ago religious work colleagues kept telling me that they would pray for me when my much-loved music teacher died; it was all I could do to keep my temper – and really, since I’m sure they had good intentions, I don’t think that what they intended was to add to my stress levels!  People also don’t like to be told that others ‘understand’ – the truth is that we don’t ‘understand’ the grief of others, not at all.  And another no-no is to do what I have to admit I myself have done: to say ‘if there’s anything I can do, let me know’.   If you’re going to do something – make a meal, do the shopping, mow the grass – just do it.

To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything special about this guide, there are probably dozens of similar books equally as good, though the audio book format suited me at this time.  The authors themselves say that seeking professional help from a grief counsellor may be what is needed in some situations, especially if there are personal issues that you don’t want to share with friends or family.   But what I would suggest is that it’s a good idea to learn about grief and grieving beforehand in whatever way suits you best – because losses of all kinds can crop up and most of us don’t know how to handle it very well, and are not as good as we could be in supporting others.   It’s not just about death and dying – people feel a loss when a marriage fails, when children grow up and move far away, when they suffer physical disability or chronic illness and can no longer do the things they used to do, and when conditions like dementia rob them of the relationships they had with loved ones.  (Just last week I met a middle-aged man whose wife had early onset dementia, and he was struggling with all kinds of grief about that).

Of course no one wants to think about grief when all is well, but it’s a bit like pre-paying for a funeral, it’s a great help if you are prepared!

Authors: Mal McKissock and Dianne McKissock
Title: Coping with Grief
Publisher: ABC Books/Vision Australia, undated
ISBN: 9781864825596
Source: Kingston Library




Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2016

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, by Mandy Sayer


It’s a while since I reviewed The Australian Long Story edited by Mandy Sayer, and I’d never read her fiction, so it was good to chance upon The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (2007) at the library.  A slim novella at 159 pages, it bridges a space between adult fiction and YA, but although the sex is offstage it would be a brave school that listed it for required reading since there’s plenty of strong language…

It’s a very well-written road journey with familiar themes.  The teenage narrator Mark Stamp, his sister Ruby and the unnamed baby form a distorted kind of holy trinity as they flee from a very troubled home in a dreary country town when Mark finds his mother’s body.  With no money and only a vague idea of getting help from some dubious relations, they set off for the coast  with their father Roy in hot pursuit.  Like a monster in a horror movie, he keeps surfacing as if indestructible.  No sooner do the young people think they’ve shaken him off, than his old Fairlane shows up in the rear vision mirror.

And he’s a very nasty piece of work.  There’s no redemption for this character, none at all.  He’s been the constant subject of gossip in town for the mystery of how he came to lose his leg and there’s no shortage of storytellers with a grudge against him.  But his children don’t consider getting help from the authorities: Mark has already spent time in foster care and doesn’t want the family split up again, and since (like the other kids in town) both Mark and Ruby are experienced shoplifters and vandals, they can’t expect a sympathetic ear from the police.

(Or so they think.  They are wise to the police ignoring domestic violence, but even the most idle of country police would presumably get their act together when there’s been a murder, if for the excitement, if nothing else?)

Anyway, Ruby and Mark speed across a network of small and unhelpful towns, putting their survival skills to good use, with a combination of theft, shoplifting, and cunning.  The baby is surprisingly amenable to a peculiar diet and shows some of the indestructability of her father.  But Ruby, older and more street-smart than Mark and mostly the subject of his reluctant admiration, falls for a strange young street-performer who adds to the sense of risk when he joins the trio and displaces Mark from his place beside Ruby on the passenger seat.

It is this construction of kids-without-interfering-adults in an uncaring world that marks the novel as Young Adult, along with the doubts and insecurities of its teenage narrator.  Sayer depicts this boy with an interior monologue showing him to be articulate about his own feelings but reticent about expressing them.  He’s been a bit slow to join-the-dots about what’s been going on, but eventually he is propelled into an adult world whether he’s ready for it or not.

I was a bit surprised by the tidiness of the ending.  The novel is a compelling read: the suspense is really well-crafted and the dialogue has an authenticity that works really well.  And then in the space of three pages everything is too-neatly packed away into a resume.  Some readers won’t care about this because the book is about the ride not the destination, but others may find it unsatisfying.

Fiona Gruber reviewed it at The Age. 

Author: Mandy Sayer
Title: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) 2007
ISBN: 9780732286019
Source: Kingston Library

Out of print, try your library or Brotherhood Books.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2016

War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay

war-and-turpentineAlthough my edition of War and Turpentine is published by Text Publishing right here in Melbourne, its release had somehow passed me by and it was listening to a Radio National interview with its Flemish author Stefan Hertmans which piqued my interest in the book.  As the author, explaining his delay in dealing with his grandfather’s memoirs, says himself…

the hundredth anniversary of the cataclysm would release a flood of books – a new barrage alongside the almost unscaleable mountain of existing historical material, books as innumerable as the sandbags on the Yser front, thoroughly documented, historically accurate, made-up novels and stories. […] If I didn’t hurry, it would be published when readers turned away with a yawn from yet another book on the First World War.  (p.11)

Too true.  Already in 2016 there is a sense of embarrassed fatigue about the anniversary flood, and there are two years to go.  Yet I was entranced by this book, and not just because it appeals to my love of art.  It’s also a book that traces the tragedy of the 20th century, a century which destroyed all the old certainties.

Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain was an amateur artist, mostly self-taught because he grew up in a kind of Dickensian poverty that we cannot imagine now.  From Urbain’s memoirs the author learns that his grandparents’ marriage met with disapproval because of class differences: his father was a painter who died young, probably from ingesting toxic paints as he restored art works in churches, while his mother Celine was estranged from the good family that might have helped them.  So Urbain’s childhood was spent scrounging food and coal to keep the fire burning and he missed a lot of school, discovering instead that he had a talent for drawing though it didn’t save him from soul-destroying and dangerous work in a foundry.  This part of the book is familiar and yet a revelation: we in Australia know that enlistment in WW1 also offered some of our young men an escape from drudgery or unemployment, yet Urbain’s childhood story reveals the origins of an integrity that seems to have vanished.  You see traces of this lost world of grinding poverty and hardship and an idealised value system which is long gone in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet too; it is worth being reminded about it, I think, because although the men of that generation are gone now, the loss of those values scars the men and women who are still with us, though they are very old now.

Urbain’s war is also familiar and yet different: in all the flood of words about WW1 we have not heard the voices of the Flemish people over whose land the battles raged.  John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ was penned by a Canadian in 1915.  Urbain’s memoirs reveal a different kind of pain, showing us not just the devastation of his homeland but also the tragic realisation that the rules of war that he had learned in military college did not apply in this new savagery:

My knapsack was encrusted with mud and dirt; we rinsed off our things at a deserted farmhouse. I found my drawing materials, which I had almost forgotten – charcoal and a pencil. The few sheets of paper I had brought from home were full of mud stains. With a painful lump in my throat, I sat down by a stump and drew the devastated landscape, the piles of debris, the shell craters, the bodies, the blasted stumps, the dead horse I had seen hanging from a broken elm, perfectly straight, its bloody half-severed head gruesomely twisted against the cool morning sky, its legs tangled in the remains of the tree like strange branches.  Under its torn, stinking belly crawling with flies, a few boards from a splintered cart still hung from a length of rope. I thought back to the calm, soothing sound of my father’s hands brushing over the paper as he sketched in the peace and quiet of a distant Sunday afternoon, and my eyes were full of tears, so bloody hot and full that I crumpled the paper into a ball, chucked it away, and cursed.  (p.152)

When he hears that the fall of Ghent is near, (p.175) fear grips [his] heart when he thinks of his mother there.  He has heard about the atrocities from refugees:

Frantic refugees told us that the Germans had subjected the people of Aarschot to still more reprisals, in the form of summary executions.  They would round up the entire population of a village chosen at random, make the trembling men line up in rows, announce that they had calculated the resistance to be one-third, shoot one in three men in the neck, and force the women and children to haul away and bury the corpses of their husbands and fathers. Women who lost control of themselves were beaten to death with a rifle barrel as their children clung to their skirts.  The atrocities in Wallonia were said to be even larger in scale; as evidence one man showed us a sickly-smelling cap with his brother’s brains still cleaving to the inside.  (p. 153).

In the aftermath of this dreadful war, Urbain meets the love of his life, but loses her to the Spanish flu, a catastrophe which killed more people than the war did, (its casualties including one of my son’s ancestors here in Victoria, a man who had survived the war only to die on his return).  The author’s detective work amongst his grandfather’s artworks reveals Urbain’s long-held grief about this, shedding light on Urbain’s relationship with his subsequent wife.  It’s poignant to read, yet one can’t but admire the stoicism with which this man bore his travails.

As you can see from the excerpts quoted above, this novelised memoir does not flinch from the brutality of the subject matter.  But the war years are not the main focus of the book: not quite 100 pages in a book of almost 300 pages, and some of that is about when he was recuperating from wounds in England.  War and Turpentine is not a war book as such, it is about a man who represents a generation and while it is intensely personal in tone, it has a universal significance.

Highly recommended.

Author: Stefan Hertmans
Title: War and Turpentine (Oorlog en terpentijin)
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016 (first published 2013)
ISBN: 9781925240207
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: War and Turpentine and good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2016

Two Sisters, a true story, by Ngarta and Jukuna

two-sisters-a-true-storyTwo Sisters is a riveting book, one that deserves a wide audience.

This is the blurb from Magabala Books that made me want to read the book:

Ngarta and Jukuna lived in the Great Sandy Desert. They traversed country according to the seasons, just as the Walmajarri people had done for thousands of years. But it was a time of change. Desert people who had lived with little knowledge of European settlement were now moving onto cattle stations. Those left behind were vulnerable and faced unimaginable challenges.

In 1961, when Jukuna leaves with her new husband, young Ngarta remains with a group of women and children. Tragedy strikes and Ngarta is forced to travel alone. Her survival depends on cunning and courage as she is pursued by two murderers in a vast unforgiving landscape.

Jukuna’s rich account may be the first autobiography written in an Aboriginal language. Presented in English and Walmajarri, her determination to see her language written has made her one of our most valued authors.

I have read a few books by desert people, but I haven’t read one like this.  It is hard to convey the sense of wonder with which I read it.    Two Sisters is an authentic account of an ancient way of life as it was lived by sisters Ngarta and Jukuna in the Great Sandy Desert, and then it covers the period when this way of life was disrupted by the coming of Europeans into the north.  It is written by people who had never seen a white person or any of the accoutrements of station life, so much so that when they encounter a water tank, their first action is to placate the water spirit that they believe inhabits all the water holes that sustain them.  But theirs is not a life of deficits: they led a rich, fulfilling life, learning skills of more than mere survival since childhood, and supported by a kinship system which ensured that there was always family to take care of them.  It was only when this life was disrupted that there were not enough men around to enforce the law and keep everyone safe, but even then the habits of resilience and independence stand the sisters in good stead.

When I read about the teenage Ngarta taking off alone across the desert, I was stunned.

Ngarta lived in terror of the two men.  She had seen them spear her mother and kill her grandmother and then her brother for no reason at all.  She kept wondering who would be next.  When she had the chance, she took her mother to one side.  ‘I said to my mother:’ “You and me’ll have to go, run away in the night.  They might kill us.” But my mother wouldn’t listen.’  Perhaps Ngarta’s mother was too frightened to run away. in case the men followed them.  She must have wondered where else she and her daughter could go, when their only remaining relatives were here in this last little band.  Ngarta made up her mind to go on her own.

The next afternoon, when the brothers were out of sight, Ngarta ran away.

‘So I went away on my own, in the afternoon.  I went west.  I took only a kana [digging stick] for hunting and a firestick.  I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri. ‘ Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints. (p.39)

For a year, she lived on her own in the desert:

Ngarta visited other waterholes she knew, spending time at each one, living by hunting and collecting fruits from the trees and plants and seeds from the grasses.  All the time she was heading in a northerly direction.  In due course she made her way to the big jumu, [a soak, a temporary source of underground water] Kajamuka.

Ngarta had never left her desert country, but she thought she knew how to get to Christmas Creek Station.  Her various relatives who had travelled back and forth between the desert and the station had described the journey to her.  She had heard people talking about the direction of the waterholes they stopped at on the way, and she had a good idea of how to find them.  Besides that, it was wet weather time again, and there should be enough rain falling to keep her out of trouble should she miss one of them.  (p.40)

This journey has the same epic quality as Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington.

Equally impressive is Jukuna’s determination to ensure that the Walmajarri language isn’t lost.

Over the years I have done a lot of work related to my language, Walmajarri.  I learned to read Walmajarri and I have learned to write it too.  With other people I translated some parts of God’s word from English into Walmajarri.  We carefully checked that work, then I read some of the translation onto cassettes.  Those cassettes were sold to others so that they could hear God’s word.

Another thing I did was teach some white people to speak a little Walmajarri.  Later on I went to the adult education centre in Fitzroy Crossing, called Karrayili.  There I began to learn English – writing and reading it, recognising the letters and words. [….] Now I teach children Walmajarri, and I really enjoy doing it.  I teach them how to find bush foods and animals, and I teach them the names of the animals that live in the river country and that big goanna that belongs to the plains country.  I also tech the children the names of other, smaller animals. (p.79)

The book comprises just 125 pages which consist of

  • Ngarta’s story – a desert tragedy
  • Jukuna’s story – my life in the desert
  • Wangki Ngajukura Jiljingajangka (Jukuna’s story in Walmajarri)
  • Short explanatory pieces by Pat Lowe
    • The Walmajarri diaspora
    • The world of the two sisters
    • Working with Ngarta
  • A short explanatory piece by Eirlys Richards
    • Working with Jukuna, and
  • A Wanmajarri pronunciation guide and a glossary

There are also full colour photos of beautiful art works by Ngarta and Jukuna, and photos of the sisters on country in the Great Sandy Desert, a vivid reminder of the world that the sisters lived in.

Its format makes it an ideal book to use with secondary school students wanting to learn more about indigenous lifestyles prior to European settlement.

Authors: Ngarta (Ngarta Jinny Bent); Jukuna (Jukuna Mona Chuguna); Pat Lowe and Eirlys Richards
Title: Two Sisters, a true story
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781925360271
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books
Available from Fishpond (Two Sisters: A True Story) and direct from Magabala Books.

the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher-and-other-talesYou know how it is… browsing at the library, you see a title that seems familiar, something that you meant to read at some stage because it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die…

The Fall of the House of Usher is classic horror, a short story that has muscled its way into 1001 Books (a canon which is supposed to be confined to novels) because

it is simply impossible to imagine the modern novel without considering Poe’s masterful writing, and this seminal tale in particular.  (p.111)

Well, the good thing about bringing home this collection is that I have knocked off three titles from 1001 Books in the space of an hour, because there are two other short stories honoured by inclusion in the list.  1001 Books tosses around epithets such as gifted writer; incredible legacy; and with significance as indisputable as artworks so diverse as Borges’s tales, The Name of the Rose, and The Usual Suspects.  If you are a fan of the horror genre, you will presumably agree, but these stories just made me laugh.

  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) features a narrator who is summoned to the melancholy House of Usher to provide aid to his childhood friend Roderick, who with his dying sister Madeline are the last of the line.  All the now familiar tropes of the horror genre are there, (Gothic house, dark lake, dreary red velvet curtains etc.) but I suppose they were radical and new when Poe created them.   She dies, they bury her in the dungeon, the men read gloomy poetry, and Roderick’s superstitious forebodings come to pass.
  • The Pit and the Pendulum (1843) is IMO a more convincing story.  The narrator has been imprisoned alone in a dark dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition in Toledo and is subjected to a string of horrors signalled by the title, each one more sadistic than the last.  There is a deep pit into which he nearly falls in the dark; he is bound onto a platform where salty food is within reach but water is not; there is a pendulum with a sharp blade cunningly positioned to come slowly closer to his bound body; there are plentiful rats and there are walls shifting towards him to force him into the pit.  But of course the reader knows that he escapes, because in paragraph one he compares the white lips of the judges who condemned him to the white paper on which he is tracing his words. Still, the story works quite well: we see his desperate plight, his dawning comprehension about what is happening and his appalled recognition that each time he escapes he has fallen into a predetermined trap which is designed to drive him mad.
  • The Purloined Letter (1844) is a ‘pioneering detective tale’ which features a pompous gentlemen called Dupin and his not-quite-so-smart offsider mocking the thick-witted Prefect of the Parisian police who can’t solve the crime when the solution is right under his nose.  This story predates the appearance of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet by forty years, and it shows its age in the prose style.

Am I going to read any of the rest of the collection?  Not a chance…

Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Title: The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish, 1986 (Great Writers Series)
ISBN: 086307670X
Source: Kingston Library

Probably available free at Project Gutenberg.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2016

Daphne, by Justine Picardie

daphneI can’t pretend to be disappointed by this one… I bought Justine Picardie’s Daphne so long ago that I had forgotten all about it, and indeed only took it off the shelf because the P shelf was at capacity and I thought that if I read it (404 pages) it would make room for at least two more books.

But I was expecting it to be better than it was.  I must have bought it because it’s a reimagining of the latter years of Daphne du Maurier (tick) when she was writing a biography of Branwell Brontë (tick) tied together by a PhD student researching du Maurier and the Brontës (tick).   Three different eras linked together by literary figures, a kind of literary pilgrimage on the page (tick).

Well, it could have worked a whole lot better than it did. But it is an awful muddle, endlessly repetitive and much too long for itself.

Du Maurier, who holds the book together by virtue of her name as title, has for reasons inadequately explained, chosen not to write splendidly mysterious novels set on the Cornish coast but a biography of Branwell Brontë instead.  (Wikipedia says it’s because she wanted to be taken seriously as an author, rather than be known as a ‘romantic novelist’ but why she picked Branwell as a subject, and eventually published The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë seems bizarre.)  As everyone knows, Branwell, unlike his famous sisters Charlotte, (Jane Eyre) Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), was a loser who drank too much and never wrote anything remotely interesting to anybody.  But Picardie’s Daphne hopes to resurrect him, find some hitherto unknown manuscript that shows that he too was a literary genius, and she enlists the help of a pathetic old wannabe champion for Branwell called Alex Symington because he has some dubiously acquired papers (and even a long-lost book of poems by Emily Brontë in her own handwriting though Daphne (like everyone else) does not know it).  This part of the story is conducted by third person narrations from the PoV of Daphne, and of Symington, punctuated by correspondence between them.

Alas, Picardie’s Daphne is a tormented woman.  Her husband Tommy has had a nervous breakdown, but it is Daphne who is wrestling with demons from long ago and reliving her life as a kind of reincarnated Rebecca.  There is a lot of this, overwritten in case the hapless reader forgets any of it, and it is beyond tedious.  If I had read Margaret Forster’s biography of Du Maurier I would have known whether some or any of Picardie’s account of things are true, but the effect of Picardie’s novel is to make me put reading the bio on the backburner because I do not want to read another word about this favourite author of mine for a good long while.

Symington on the other hand is quite interesting in a British eccentric kind of way.  Penniless because (for good reasons) he’s been sacked from his work as a librarian of Brontë documents in the various museums that we all like to visit, and harassed by a long-suffering wife called Beatrice, he lives in a decaying house surrounded by boxes of pilfered papers which are going mouldy.  His fantasies about restoring his name by restoring Branwell’s are pathetic, but few readers will fail to feel a bit sorry for him.

And then, oh dear, there is the PhD student, Jane.  Her characterisation is cobbled together from the fictional worlds that Picardie has obviously been inhabiting for too long, and lest the reader be too dim to realise this, her first person narration laboriously meanders through a rewrite of Rebecca which includes her angst about her failing marriage and a still-living ex-wife called Rebecca.

The irritating thing about this book is that some bits of it are quite interesting, interesting enough for me to persist with it.  But having finished it, I know that I wasted my time. Oh well…

Author: Justine Picardie
Title: Daphne
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2008
ISBN: 9780747590668
Source: Personal library, no idea where I bought it from.

Probably long out of print, and no wonder…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2016

A Childhood, by Jona Oberski, translated by Ralph Manheim

a-childhoodThe blurb tells me that this slim book is a novel (a novella really, it’s only 137 pages long) but there is an awful veracity about it and it seems more like fragmented memories from real life.

Jona Oberski (born 1938 in Amsterdam) is a Dutch writer.  Wikipedia tell me that his parents fled Nazi Germany the year before he was born, but they were deported to Bergen-Belsen some time after the Netherlands were occupied in 1940.   The child who narrates this story is about the same age as Oberski would have been at the time.

The book consists of five parts, each with a few brief episodes, told in the simple language of a child, and entirely from his limited perspective.  In that respect it’s a little like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) by John Boyne, but it does not share that troubling plot line: there were no children in Auschwitz because they were gassed immediately so Boyne’s story has to be read as a not-very-satisfactory fable which runs the risk of sanitising history.  (IMO The film is even worse in this respect).   Bergen-Belsen, however, was a concentration camp where Jewish hostages were held pending prisoner swaps with the Allies: when the boy’s mother in A Childhood talks about having the exit papers to go to British Palestine, it is because a couple of hundred of hostages who had these permits were actually traded.  Knowing this explains her comparative optimism even though conditions when they were evacuated were terrible, and towards liberation typhus was rampant in the camp and thousands of people died.

The story begins with the family being arbitrarily moved to some kind of transit camp, (which turns out to be Westerbork) and the parents are separated.  The mother reassures her child that it is some kind of ‘mistake’ and that Daddy will sort it out.  And he does, (presumably by making the authorities aware of their value as hostages though this is not mentioned because all we have is the limited perspective of the child).  They are able to go back home and celebrate his birthday.  He’s an only child and there are lots of presents, so many that his parents set some aside to give to him later so that he doesn’t become overwhelmed.  But in the next chapters the reader learns that shopkeepers are starting to deny them custom and that they must wear yellow stars on their jackets, but again there is no real explanation.

(And this assumption that readers will recognise the story elements and join the dots makes me worry, because we have had another instance of a Hitler dress-up, this time approved by a teacher, and this time awarded a prize for having the best costume, and this time taking place in the presence of exchange students from a Jewish school.  So as well as a family creating an environment where this costume was thought to be ok (for Book Week, no less, promoting Mein Kampf for primary school children?) there is a whole crowd of adults from class teachers to judges to the principal who should have intervened, and didn’t.  Unless all of these people were acting with anti-Semitic malice, there is worrying ignorance about the Holocaust.)

When the story moves on to internment in the Belsen-Bergen camp, things are more incomprehensible to the child.  Again, his parents are separated, but in time he is taken to see his father – who is unrecognisable.  There is an horrific scene in which other children dare the boy to go into the Dreadhouse (the Deadhouse, which is where the corpses are stored); it is even more horrific when this boy fails to understand that his mother has died (probably of typhus).   As we read this we are drawn into the enigma of the Holocaust…

The child finds it incomprehensible because he is a child.  He narrates as a child who has no knowledge of the Holocaust, only what is happening to him and his secure world … and there are elements of this naïve ignorance which we realise that adults around him would have shared.  Until the full horror of the Holocaust was known after the war, even adults caught up in it did not understand the evil scope and intention of it; they only knew what was happening to them.  But although we as adult readers in a post-Holocaust world understand what is going on in this story, when we reflect on the Holocaust at this distance in time we still find it incomprehensible, as incomprehensible as the child does, though in an entirely different way.

There is a remarkably thorough analysis of this book by Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly.

Author: Jona Oberski
Title: A Childhood (Kinderjaren)
Translated from the Dutch by Ralph Manheim
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2016, first published 1978
ISBN: 9781782270676
Source: Pushkin Press subscription series

Available from Fishpond: A Childhood


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2016

Meet an Aussie Author: Jenny Ackland


Jenny Ackland is a teacher and writer.   But I didn’t know that when I first met her over lunch at the Melbourne Writers Festival a year or two ago.  We both live in Melbourne and we were just there to meet up and do festival stuff.  While I wouldn’t ever call Jenny ‘shy’, I would say that she is modest about her writing, and a bit ambivalent about promoting it.  It was not until she had signed a deal with Allen & Unwin to publish her first novel The Secret Son in September 2015 that I knew anything about it.   It was not until I came in part way through her interview with Kate Evans on Radio National’s Books and Arts that I thought, hey, I’ve reviewed that book!  and why didn’t I know this interview was going to be on?!

And since Jenny has never mentioned her other writing achievements to me I had to go to the Allen & Unwin author profile to learn that

her short fiction has been listed in prestigious literary prizes and awards, such as the Bridport and Fish Prizes, as well as published in various literary magazines, including Visible Ink, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings and the Sleepers Almanac. Her first novel manuscript was listed in the HarperCollins Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development (withdrawn).

Anyway, now that I know how good a writer she is, I am pleased to be able to bring you a minor scoop about the next novel, which, as you can see from Q9 below, looks rather intriguing….

Here are Jenny’s responses for Meet an Aussie Author:

  1. I was born in East Melbourne. My mother said the nurses at the hospital were mean.
  2. When I was a child I wrote a long story about the adventures of a girl like me who went horse-riding on the holidays. I wrote ‘fiction based on fact’ on the cover page. I got A+ and it was the only story the teacher read out during class, all the students were laughing in the right places. It took almost the whole lesson for her to read and I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud. I was twelve.
  3. The person who encouraged me to write was a teacher at uni whose name I can’t remember. I wrote a short story for children, about a rockpool and some fish, and he said maybe it could be published. It wasn’t but someone else saying that to me made me think ‘a-ha’ in a very quiet way.
  4. I write mostly at my desk, sometimes in bed. Or at the kitchen table for a change of scene.
  5. I usually write first thing in the morning if it’s ‘new words’ of a first draft. I write for three or four hours before petering out.
  6. jenny-ackland-workspaceResearch is my oxygen and helps spark ideas.
  7. I keep my published works nowhere special. Just lumped in where they might have been put with other books.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I … can’t remember what I did. I will say there would have been champagne, and I will also say I can’t remember what I wore the day I got married the first time. My grandmother was suitably appalled.
  9. At the moment I’m writing a long ambitious time-jumpy novel set in Australia, about circuses and abortion. I’m terrible at making books sound appealing.
  10. When I’m stuck for an idea, I read, research or hold still and wait while performing the rest of my daily life. I’m never really stuck for ideas, it’s more about solutions to plot problems or something about theme or setting. I’ve learned patience is so important.

I love this picture of Jenny’s writing space.  I do admire neat and tidy authors who have everything just where it ought to be, but Jenny’s desk looks more like mine and I like the glimpses we get of her love of china. And because I know why there’s a picture of Ned Kelly on the wall, I am scouring the photo for clues about the next book!

The Secret SonYou can find out more about Jenny at her blog Seraglio – not a pizza place and follow her on Twitter @JennyAckland

You can buy Jenny’s novel at Fishpond: The Secret Son and good bookshops everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2016

Hurma, by Ali AL-Muqri, translated by T.M. Aplin

hurmaHurma is another book that I came across thanks to a review by Stu at Winston’s Dad, and it’s the first I’ve ever read by a Yemeni author.  Wikipedia tells me that Yemen is a developing country, and the poorest country in the Middle East.  It is isolated amongst its neighbours because it refused to support the First Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.  Governance and corruption have been major problems there for ages and a civil war in the 1990s was never really resolved – rebel forces took the country’s capital in 2015.  Given this state of affairs, it seems amazing that there is a functioning publishing industry, but again Wikipedia comes to the rescue with a page about Ali Al-Muqri which tells me that his work is published in a magazine called Banipal, and that two of his books have been nominated for the Arab Booker Prize.  (A prize apparently organised from London and funded by Emirates, with the aim of promoting good quality Arab literature).

Now, courtesy of the Brisbane Writers Festival Opening Address, there’s a been a brouhaha about writers appropriating the culture and experiences of others, and I do not want to get into that*.  But this book (like The Patience Stone) is written by a male author purporting to be a woman under the veil.  Written in a culture that oppresses women, this novella gives a voice to the silent and the invisible.  Yes, it would be better if there were a flourishing Yemeni publishing industry that brought us both male and female authors who could write freely about taboo subjects, but from what I’ve been able to glean from Wikipedia, Ali Al-Muqri is lionised in the west because he has the courage to tackle taboos like sex, religion and war.  So… while I wait for translations from the emerging women’s writing industry in Yemen, I’m reading Hurma…

‘Hurma’ means ‘sanctity’ and the nameless woman who narrates this strange and alienating tale is just another anonymous woman shrouded in black who must be protected from violation or dishonour.  She grows up in an ultra-conservative society where not even her voice may be heard outside the home because it is ‘haram’ i.e. forbidden.  But she has a lively and spirited sister called Lula who gets hold of pornographic cassette tapes, and who is allowed more freedom than is normal because her father is indebted to her for his life.  ‘Hurma’ learns about sex (at least in theory) from Lula, and also from a lascivious lecturer at the Islamic University who (via a video link, since he cannot be in the same room with the women) explains how matters of sex in the Koran should be interpreted.  The hypocrisy of his words is exposed when the camera strays south of his waistband and the girls can see what he is doing…

Women reading this book will feel a sense of claustrophobia at the limitations of life in this society.  Marriages are arranged with total strangers, and the ridiculousness of the rules is satirised in a television debate about whether a woman can circumvent the rules about being with strange men by suckling them (having the effect of making them family).

I was surprised by the bluntness of some of the viewers’ questions.  If they hadn’t cited verses from the Quran and the words of the Prophet – peace be upon him – I might have doubted their Islam.  One viewer said in astonishment, ‘God bless our venerable sheikh who has shown us that sharia can solve any problem, including the mixing of the sexes.’  The second caller agreed with the first and said she would breastfeed her male colleagues at work so she could mix with them without feeling sinful, something that had really been bothering her.

One of the callers thought the fatwa was wonderful but wondered how she could suckle the family’s Ethiopian driver and make him family, given that he was Christian? (p. 101)

That these rules are all about having power over women in a patriarchal society is shown by the transformation of ‘Hurma’s’ brother from a socialist sympathiser who has no time for religion to a proselytising husband constantly practising sermons to inflict on the female members of his family.  The transformation comes about when he accidently sees the face of Nura, falls passionately in love with her, and then finds that religion is the way to manage his jealousy and possessiveness.  Under the form of Islam available to him in Yemen, he can have absolute control over her and every aspect of her life.

Things take a more serious turn when ‘Hurma’ is manipulated into jihad by her strange husband.  The book shows that in situations like this, the notion of being ‘radicalised’ is a nonsense.  ‘Hurma’ has no idea why she is wanted, what her role might be, or what the purpose of her actions are.   She is asked to research newspapers publishing taboo subjects in the newspaper, and to spy on people who might be breaching Islamic law, but she doesn’t know what the consequences might be when she writes her report.  Eventually – completely ignorant of any politics except a generalised hatred of the Wicked West – she is whisked off to Afghanistan where the rape of women is commonplace but the victims cannot even talk about it amongst women afterwards.  For ‘Hurma’, whose husband is impotent, her curiosity and ignorance about sex takes an alienating turn when she wonders about the possibility of rape as a cure for her frustration.  I do not think a female author would have contemplated such a possibility…

Hurma is a somewhat disjointed book, where the reader like the nameless narrator does not have all the information needed to make sense of things.  There are lots of quotations of ‘hadith’ (religious teachings describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) but although they are footnoted, non-Muslims cannot know whether they are genuine or out of context,  or not.  Not having been to Yemen (and with no plans to go!) I cannot know how accurate a depiction of Yemeni life for women this novel might be, and as Geraldine Brooks showed in Nine Parts of Desire a casual visitor is unlikely to find out in ultraconservative societies where women are silent and invisible.  So I am acutely aware that I read this book differently from the way a Yemeni woman would read it, or a Muslim woman in the West.  However, the impression I get is that the form of Islam being depicted in Hurma is an aberration and that Yemen is a society that is using religion as a way of maintaining a patriarchal society.  Because I grew into womanhood during the 1970s when in the West women were starting to take their rightful place in society, it seems unbelievably sad that the Middle East is still riddled with societies like this, almost half a century later.

There is an interview with the author at Qantara, and a thoughtful review at Globally Curious.

*I’m sorry, I can’t find a link to what was actually said by Lionel Shriver, only to a critic of it who walked out and didn’t hear all of what was said.  So I don’t know what Shriver was on about or the context, and including a one-sided link here doesn’t look fair to me.  So if you are interested, you’ll have to do your own search.

Author: Ali Al-Muqri
Title: Hurma
Translated by T.M.Aplin
Publisher: Darf Publishers, London, 2015
ISBN: 9781850772774
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $14.84

Available from Fishpond:Hurma

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2016

The Great Swindle, by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne

the-great-swindleThe Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre is not the sort of book that I associate with winning the Prix Goncourt, which is the most prestigious literary award in France.   Although I’ve read hardly any of the winners, (only partly because not all of them are translated, a situation which seems to be improving), the impression that I have is that the winning books tend to be a bit demanding.  One of the winners is Marcel Proust, in 1919, for Vol 2 of In Search of Lost Time: A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom a.k.a. Within a Budding Grove).  More recently I liked Marguerite Duras’s The Lover which won in 1984 but it’s written in an impressionistic style (see my review);  OTOH I thought that The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi was an unconvincing attempt by a male author to represent oppressed Afghani women (see my terse review) and I suspect that the choice had more to do with politics than literature.  But The Great Swindle is a page-turning novel of suspense and I am indebted to Stu from Winston’s Dad for his enticing review because despite its 459 pages I romped through it over two nights and was sorry to come to the end of it.

We in Australia tend to sentimentalise the diggers of WW1, but Lemaitre has written a forceful story showing how three soldiers come back from the war corrupted by their experience, while at the same time exposing the shabby way veterans were treated by the French government and society.

Albert and Édouard are traumatised by their war.  In the very last days of the war, when both sides had ceased hostilities in anticipation of the armistice, their ambitious officer Lieutenant Pradelle was still intent on making a name for himself with a pointless assault on Hill 113.  Albert was buried alive by the impact of a shell, and brought back to life only by the heroic efforts of Édouard who did further damage to his wounded leg in the process, and had half his face torn off by shrapnel as he dug frantically with his hands to get Albert out.  It is a measure of how compelling the writing is that – although the blurb tells us that Albert survives the war – the sequence describing Albert’s entombment and rescue is heart-stopping.  Lemaitre spares no details: it is grotesque and terrifying and a stunning feat of imagination.  And it sets the tone for the rest of the book: we are on Albert’s side.  He is an ordinary, unprepossessing bloke, and, as we are regularly reminded by his scornful mother, also none too bright –  but the reader is desperate for him to find some measure of happiness.  A happiness which the author seems determined to withhold!

Édouard, the estranged son of a wealthy industrialist, enlisted in defiance of his father, to whom he is a grave disappointment.  Édouard has a rare talent for drawing, and as a schoolboy he uses his art to draw outrageously provocative versions of great art works which depict the authority figures in his life fornicating.  In addition to causing awkward situations at school that not even money could resolve, Édouard liked dressing up in his sister Madeleine’s clothes and makeup, and his louche mannerisms infuriated his father who basically disowned him.  Édouard comes out of the war so grotesquely disfigured that he refuses to go back home and instead takes on a false identity, isolating himself in the shadows of Paris with the hapless Albert to care for him (and to find supplies of morphine for his addiction).

Ah, but there is so much more to it than that!  Édouard and Albert were witnesses to a war crime committed by Pradelle and he is not about to let these two interfere with his ambitious plans to profit from the war.  Using connections forged by a prudent marriage to a woman with a fortune (I am being evasive to avoid spoilers), he sets up in the business of supplying coffins for the new centralised war cemeteries being established by the French government to reduce the cost of repatriating remains to the bereaved all over the country.  Pending the payment of war reparations by Germany, the government is broke and the economy is in ruins.  They save money with miserly pensions for veterans and by dismissing the concerns of the bereaved with unctuous claptrap about the heroic dead forming a brotherhood in their common burial grounds.

The vast honourable and patriotic venture of bringing together the bodies of the dead involved a whole series of gratifyingly lucrative operations.  There were hundreds of thousands of coffins to be made, since most soldiers had been buried in the bare ground, wrapped only in their greatcoats; hundreds of thousands of exhumations to be done by hand (the decree specifically insisted that the greatest possible care be taken); countless trucks to transport the coffins to the nearest train stations, and as many reburials in the new military cemeteries…

If Pradelle could secure a small part of this business, for a few centimes apiece his Chinamen would dig up thousands of bodies, his trucks would ferry the thousands of rotting corpses, his Senegalese workers would rebury them in rows of neat new graves each with a pretty cross at a premium price – in less than three years there would be enough money to renovate the family home at la Sallevière, which at present was a crumbling ruin.

At eighty francs per corpse, and assuming an actual cost of about twenty-five, Pradelle expected to make a net profit of two and a half million.

And if, besides, the minister should approve various mutually agreed orders, even allowing for the necessary bribes, it could come to five million.

The bargain of the century.  To an entrepreneur, war represents significant business opportunities, even after it is over. (p.126)

Extravagant sample coffins to secure the contracts are soon replaced by cheap wooden ones that fall apart when transported, and more profit can be generated by making them all too short for the average Frenchman.  But that’s not the worst of it, as the reader will eventually see.

Édouard and Albert, meanwhile are doing it tough.  They are bound together because each owes his life to the other, but Édouard’s fake identity and his grotesque appearance make it impossible for Albert to lead the simple life he had dreamed of in the trenches.  He has been dumped by his girlfriend Cécile, whose letters had sustained him even though they tapered off towards the end of the war, and he can’t bring any girl home to his miserable lodgings because Édouard is such a repulsive sight.  The omniscient narrator, however, isn’t the least bit sentimental about Albert’s predicament :

He saw pretty young girls here and there, in the shops, on the omnibus, many of them with no beau since so many men had been killed, girls who were waiting, watching, hoping, but Albert was no conquering hero, always glancing about him, skittish as a cat, with his battered shoes and a greatcoat that dribbled dye, he was not what anyone would call a catch.

And even if he did find himself a young lady who was not too disgusted by his appearance, what sort of future could he offer her?  What was he supposed to say?  ‘Come and live with me, I share a flat with a crippled ex-soldier who never leaves the house, shoots himself full of morphine and wears carnival masks, but never fear, we have three francs a day to live on and a folding screen to protect your modesty? (p. 207)

Édouard, who had never had to think about money, eventually realises that something must be done, and he cooks up a an audacious scheme for making a vast amount of money.  It relies on the cooperation of a none-too-keen Albert who, caught in a trap not entirely of his own making, is terrified of Pradelle finding them and just wants to lie low in his hopeless existence.  But things get more and more complicated (though not hard to follow because the book is so expertly constructed) and as Pradelle picks up the trail the suspense becomes almost unbearable because the reader has become so invested in Albert’s fate.

Is The Great Swindle great literature, worthy of the Prix Goncourt?  In some ways it reads like a 19th century novel: it has an irredeemably evil villain in the form of Pradelle; the author himself tells us that he is reminiscent of the vile Inspector Javert in Les Misérables.  Like the fiction of Balzac and Zola, the story exposes corruption, bureaucracy and the squalor of the urban poor.   Characters are boldly unforgettable; settings are generous with vivid detail.  But no 19th century author could have imagined the horrors of the Great War, and the detached cynicism of the narrator could not have been created while the veterans still lived, even though this story pays homage to their courage.

I can’t comment on the quality of the prose.  All I can say is that it is ably translated and a pleasure to read.

It would be a splendid choice for bookgroups who don’t mind reading a longer book…

Update (later the same day)

Here’s a review of the French edition, from Words and Peace.  (The review is in English).

Author: Pierre Lemaitre
Title: The Great Swindle (Au revoir là-haut)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Publisher: Maclehose Press, 2015, first published 2013
ISBN: 9780857053251
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $27.74

Available from Fishpond:The Great Swindle


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2016

2016 Queensland Literary Awards shortlists

Shamelessly lifted from the QLA website, here are the 2016 shortlists for the Queensland Literary Awards.  Links go to the QLA book info pages and to my reviews.

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award

The University of Queensland Non-fiction Book Award

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

Griffith University Children’s Book Award

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

The Courier-Mail 2016 People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year

Vote now – voting closes 5pm Friday 26 September 2016.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers – how good it is to see small indie publishers featuring in these shortlists!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2016

Vale Inga Clendinnen (1934 – 2016)

I am indebted to Michelle at Adventures in Biography for the sad news that Inga Clendinnen AO, FAHA died yesterday, aged 82.

Clendinnen was many things to many people: an author and historian, an anthropologist and academic, but to me she was the writer who showed me how to look at Australia’s Black History differently, in her wonderful work, Dancing with Strangers (2003).  Her legacy is the thousands of people who read this book and whose ideas were reshaped by her insights.

Later, I read her earlier work, Reading the Holocaust (1998) and again, found my ideas and interpretations reshaped by a different way of looking things.  It was uncanny the way she explored long-held perspectives, always with respect, and yet found a way to identify the human embodiment within the incomprehensible inhumanity of the Holocaust.

After that, I read her memoir of being critically ill, Tiger’s Eye (2000) and have never forgotten it.  It guided my response to encountering very serious illness amongst friends and family because it taught me always to remember that the person is not the illness.

(I read her essay collection Agamemnon’s Kiss (2007) too.  It was interesting, but not life-changing.  And I took no interest in the spat with Kate Grenville over the Quarterly Essay in which she reprimanded Grenville for her hubristic claims about empathy and historical fiction.)

No other author other than Germaine Greer has impacted on my ways of dealing with my world in the way that Inga Clendinnen did.  Her works live on.


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