Posted by: sallycripps | January 15, 2009

BBRLM Sally Dec 08

* The Sword and the Miracle by Melvyn Bragg – 7.5
Originally titled Credo, the book had a name change for US publication. I had high hopes of this historical epic, set in 7th C Britain, the late Dark Ages.  I am the world’s biggest fan of Arthurian legend, early British history, Irish/British/Scottish relations, how women’s roles and perceptions have been altered over time, the whole Lord of the Rings concept that “good will out but you have to fight for what you see as right”, obscure words and names – in other words, this book should have been a keeper. What stopped it from being so for me were the looong religious sections. I thought these parts needed quite a bit of editing. While Irish princess Bega might indeed have wrestled between serving God or marrying soulmate Padric, the many scenes of prayer and piety got a bit tiresome to read. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the way Bragg scoped out this nationalistic drama and breathed life into the times. It starts in Ireland where we see the way clans are forced into alliances and battles to survive in the primitive conditions of the times. After a brutal rape and murder scene, Bega is forced to flee the country to escape the fallout, falling in love with her British tutor, himself descended from the royal house of Rheged and back to Arthur. The story expands on the many events in history from that time – the building up of the Angles and Saxons in Northumbria and the resistance of the Celts and Picts, the growth of Christianity and decline in pagan beliefs, the powerplays between Celtic and Roman Christianity, and the Synod at Whitby. There is even an explanation for the origins of the Venerable Bede. The story eventually moves to its climactic battle between opposing nations, as well as opposing theologies. And of course the romantic interest was always there to give the story a personal touch.

* The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay – 7.5
I thought the book failed as a thriller but passed on the deeper questions of ownership and identity, and also got a tick for the creation of a Ye Olde Bookshop feel beloved by book collectors. Hay’s novel tells of a year in the life of Rosemary Savage, an innocent young Tasmanian woman who moves to New York after her mother’s death. There she finds a job in The Arcade bookshop and becomes a pawn in the quest for a lost manuscript by Herman Melville. Hay has chosen to flavour the novel with Melville’s Moby Dick, making one of the bookshop characters, Mr Geist (Ghost) an albino. Also like the whale, he is unnatural and unknowable, yet Rosemary, like Ahab, wants to “get under his skin”. So we have a coming of age/quest story with the message that it’s not possible to know everything and that a thirst for knowledge can turn into an unhealthy obsession if we’re not careful. This is exemplified by the asexual cloth-loving Oscar, whose eclectic knowledge doesn’t seem to help him be happy, and by Lilian in a parallel storyline, an Argentinian woman yearning for her son, lost in that country’s political turmoil – “the absent child makes you to be absent”, she says. Rosemary herself learns this in relation to her mother’s ashes – “I…had to see the box for what it was – simply a memento, an object that denied oblivion…I’d wanted to deny her death…her death had called me to myself”. There are many, many other allusions to looking back at what is lost – the nostalgia inherent in Anzac Day (Rosemary’s birthday), the significance of Rosemary’s name (remembrance), Geist’s blindness (literally and metaphorically), all the hope tied up with the Eternity image. I can see how reviewers get the idea that Hay aspires to a scholarly romance like AS Byatt’s Possession. The fable and magical realist elements made me think a lot about what books offer. The question of seeking out books for their price or their personal worth is also explored. “Ownership is the most intimate tie we can have to objects,” one bookshop character says. “All collections are trying to elude time, to control it.” Should we hoard things of value or make them widely available? Rosemary says “books aren’t lumps of paper but minds on shelves” – take from them to make yourself rounded. Be like Pearl, the pre-operative transgender cashier – learn who you are and pursue that. Do what Chaps did for Rosemary – have courage to set someone free, to find themself. And like Rosemary says to editor Russell, about the ending of Moby Dick – “Well, one does survive the wreck”. I haven’t gone into the mystery of the lost manuscript – I thought it was convoluted and uninteresting, and Hay’s attempt to mix genres, Melville-style, didn’t sit well with me. This is a book that would definitely pay to reread.

* Drop City by TC Boyle – 9
What a trip, man, this cat rocks! Was the hippie movement’s quest for a better life via “dropping out” of society a success? Boyle subtly and cleverly takes us through this scenario with characters that are very believable. We start off with Star (Paulette Regina Starr) and Pan (Ronnie Sommers), three-week residents of Drop City South in California, and immediately there is tension. Ronnie (his flower power name doesn’t seem to stick) wants to get it on in a threesome but Star is already disillusioned with the concept of free love. She likes the alternative lifestyle though, milking goats and living off the land, and hooks up with Marco, a new resident who’s been around a few communes and knows their failings. Cut to Alaska and fur trapper Sess Harder’s entertaining search for a partner to share his life on the frontier. The story alternates between the two camps with lots of humour and real life drama (Sess has an enemy that shoots his dogs so he retaliates by driving his car into the river, and Drop City has a confrontation with its black residents on Druid Day) to look at lifestyle choices and whether they are all they are cracked up to be. Sess’s life is one completely in tune with nature – is this really what Drop City people want, when they are forced north to Alaska by the law? I also liked the way Boyle brought in the lifestyle of the Eskimos, increasingly altered by technology (guns and snowmobiles to hunt with), fast food diet and plane drops of alcohol. The story built to an excellent climax and I felt I’d been challenged as well as entertained.

* Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka – 7.5
The story meandered a bit much for my liking and strangely included the thoughts of a dog, written the way the author thought a dog would think. However, it was much the same style as the author’s Ukrainian tractor story, treating a serious subject in a light-hearted way, so I was forewarned. This time it is the itinerant European workforce in the UK and their working conditions that are being scrutinised. Lewycka read as though she had firsthand experience of strawberry picking, chicken processing, poor living conditions, and exploitative employers. The main characters are both from Ukraine – high class Irina and miner’s son Andriy – you can pretty much guess the rest. The story is also peopled with numerous other colourful characters and memorable adventures which add to it’s fun and lightness.

* Provenance by Jane Messer – 8
I think this Queensland author is a great find – I really enjoyed what at heart was a love story, but breathed Australia from every pore. Rafaela is a young Italian girl growing up in cane-cutting country in Qld’s north in the 1950s and wants to escape a future of domesticity for one of pursuing her love of art in far-off Melbourne. She finally seizes her chance but her train is halted by floodwaters in northern New South Wales. She catches the eye of young Sikh scientist Chanchal and so they begin an idyllic interlude on a remote farm, unaware that tongues are wagging. As well as brimming with Australian flavour – the stifling heat of north Qld, the bustling markets of Melbourne, and suburban life in Carlton, I really enjoyed the clarity of Messer’s message and the interesting ways she took the story back to its title. The tales of the two young people unfold and keep intersecting, making us think about the immigrant experience, family and country ties, and the needs of people for heritage and background. It also explores Australia at a time when it was just stepping into the modern world, but still burdened with the question of “who is a real Australian?” Provenance was also highlighted by Rafi’s artwork. My only quibble was the dialogue – often were the times when I thought it was stilted and unnatural.

*Guest review by Sally Cripps.

NB The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows 10% of the number of words on this website to be reproduced and/or communicated by any Australian educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or the body that administers it) has given a notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under Part VB of the Act. For details of the CAL licence for educational institutions contact: Copyright Agency Limited, Level 15, 233 Castlereagh St, Sydney NSW 2000 Ph 612 93947600 Fax 612 93947601 Email: Except for personal use or as permitted under the Act (e.g. for the services of the Crown or in reliance on one of the fair dealing exceptions i.e. a fair dealing for the purposes of research or study) no part of this website may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the copyright owner Sally Cripps at w.sf.cripps at bigpond dot com

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