You know how it is: You’re reading in bed, you finish a book, and you’re not quite tired so you pick up the next one on the bedside TBR, intending to read just a couple of pages and then drift into sleep. Well, I did that after finishing Boy on a Wire, and started what was meant to be a page or two of 88 Lines about 44 Women…
And was jolted wide awake by the prologue.
I shan’t tell anything about it, except to say that it is harrowing. An ordinary situation that gets very out of hand. It ensures that you give your full attention to this superbly crafted book which has been nominated for the 2010 NSW Premier’s Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. It’s up against some august competition because the shortlisted writers are:
- J.M. Coetzee – Summertime (on my TBR, of course)
- Richard Flanagan – Wanting (see my review)
- Cate Kennedy – The World Beneath (see my review)
- Steven Lang – 88 Lines about 44 Women
- David Malouf – Ransom (see my review)
- Craig Silvey – Jasper Jones (hmm, what is this doing on this list? See my review)
Update 29/4/17: In the event the prize went to J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime.
Whether it wins or not, the short-listing means that this novel has got the attention it deserves. It took me ages to get hold of a copy of Lang’s previous book, The Accidental Terrorist (winner of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Manuscript from an Emerging Author in 2004, and the New Writing Award in the 2006 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and longlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award 2006. Read Kimbofo’s review of it here). I went into bookshop after bookshop expecting to find it, only to be disappointed. It wasn’t just missing from the chains, it was my local indie bookshops too, and in the end I ordered it by mail.
Lang writes beautifully, with evocative descriptions of landscape and moody reflections exploring the male psyche. Here is his angst-ridden character Larry exploring in Scotland:
The face of the hill is so steep it pushes all thought, maudlin or otherwise, from the mind. I have to stop for breath every ten or fifteen paces, the air rushing cold into my lungs. Higher up, the burn has carved itself into a little gorge; its furious water tumbles over black rock, the spray glistening on the bare branches of the small rowans and birch that cling to its banks. This is not a place for trees. There’s scarcely one on the hill, except those the forestry have planted over to the west, Sitka spruce, but they’re miniscule things, bonsai’d by the cold at this altitude, and anyway don’t count. The broadleaf species, oak and silver fir, the Caledonian pines, only thrive along the edge of the loch, in the protected glens, giving a hint of what might have been.
I have learned to read the Australian landscape, at least in part, seeking out the clues to its history before white settlement, but here in Britain, in the land of my birth, I’m at a loss; humans have been shaping things for too long. I have less idea of what is natural, what manmade. Half an hour of vigorous climbing brings me to the remains of an old dry-stone wall that runs along the hill, crumbling, moss-covered, paralleled by a new fence strung between treated-pine posts. This wall, at this height, is testament to another time and another kind of patience that I cannot begin to comprehend. (p32-3)
A steady narrative pulse and a teasing structure shifting across time and place render the book hard to put down. The melancholy tone and sense of menace creep up on the reader and make the story compelling. Not only did I find it hard to get to sleep the night I started it, towards the end I had to keep reading till I finished at 4:00am. It wasn’t just a truly horrible character called Bene who prevented a good night’s sleep, it was also the central character’s inability to deal with what had happened. I was worried about him! He runs away from sunny Australia with its carefree lifestyle to the bleak, beautiful and austere Scottish highlands, hoping to sort himself out – but finds instead that a new relationship is just as fraught as the previous ones, because he can’t face up to the truth about himself. Larry is the ultimate unreliable narrator, so emotionally repressed that he can’t express himself or his feelings except in his music, and he can’t deal with even the most ordinary of relationships – with his aging parents, his sister Celia and her husband. Will he find happiness with Sam? Do we want him to, after what has happened?
Quite apart from the plot, I found the novel interesting because it covers territory completely unfamiliar to me; others will like it because they know that territory well. The central character and narrator is a middle-aged rock musician, whose band played to screaming teenagers who bought enough records to reach platinum. In the band’s heyday they went to A-list parties where there was hash and cocaine and plenty of girls. They played a kind of music I don’t know at all, and they lived a life described in magazines I never read…
I’m not quite sure how I managed to evade the popular culture of the time. I’ve never been to a rock concert, and although as a teenager I liked The Beatles and Joe Cocker, I lost interest not long after that. When Larry refers to Eric Clapton I know who he is, but if they’re playing his music in the supermarket or a cafe I don’t know it and I wouldn’t recognise him if I saw him. The only questions I can answer when I occasionally see Spicks and Specks over the washing-up are the ones about classical music – the rest are a complete mystery. No one would want me on their team!
Even so, I liked Lang’s descriptions of how music can affect the mood of a crowd, and I loved reading Larry’s creative struggle to write a symphony. His old mate Roly is very scornful about symphonic music in the 21st century, but I think that’s unfair to modern composers and I was glad when Larry decided to take no notice. This breach over music is not the only matter on which the old friends don’t see eye-to-eye, but I’m not giving away any more than that.
Larry’s particularly bitter about his education in boarding school.
I recognise these men. I went to boarding school with their kind, never mind that they’re a generation younger than me. I can tell by the hardness of them, a certain stiffness mixed with a hail-fellow-well-met good-naturedness; a genial exterior hiding an interior lack, the husk of the parts of themselves they had to kill off in order to survive. The costs of privilege in Britain. (p195)
The worst crime of our education was not physical or sexual abuse, or the stifling of originality, or even the absence of love and the example it set for the rest of our lives. The dark and heinous crime at the centre of that institution was convincing us that their system was the best in the world, that theirs were admirable goals, and it was a rare privilege to be allowed to strive to achieve them.
Now, here are these men, out in the world, apparently successful but in reality floundering, discovering so late in the piece that they do not really have an angle on existence, that in the early hours of the morning they, like everyone, have to stare down uncertainty. (p205-6)
It was interesting to read this in contrast with Jon Doust’s style in Boy on a Wire.
Apart from bookshop reviews, it’s hard to find reviews online: there’s one at Flinders Academic Commons but you have to subscribe to read the one at the ABR. Steven Lang has his own website and his Facebook page will probably announce how he gets on in the awards before I get home from work to blog it.
Alas, as with other publications from Penguin, this one also has some unfortunate proof-reading errors. I’m happy to provide them with my list if (as I hope it will) 88 Lines about 44 Women goes into a second printing.
Author: Steven Lang
Title: 88 Lines about 44 Women
Publisher: Penguin 2009
Source: courtesy of Steven Lang, and nicely autographed too. Thanks Steven!