Anne Griffin, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 266 pages; 2019.

The cover of my edition of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said claims it is an international bestseller. I can see why.

This is a delightful and entertaining tale about an old man looking back on his life in rural Ireland, a man who came from nothing, struggled with dyslexia and reinvented himself as a farmer with an eye for property acquisition.

It shows how the course of his life was altered by a single act in his childhood involving a rare gold coin, an act that binds him to the owner forevermore.

An evening in the bar

The novel is set on a single evening, in the bar of a grand hotel, and is split into five parts. Each part is a toast dedicated to a person who played an important role, whether for good or bad, in 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan’s life.

7.05pm
First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout

Over the course of the evening, interspersed with wonderfully amusing details about the hotel and its young landlady owner, we learn about Maurice’s upbringing and the relationships he had with his older brother, his wife Sadie, his two children and his sister-in-law. It’s a typical life in the sense that it’s filled with births, deaths and marriages, ups and downs, tragedies and small triumphs.

But for all the charm and witticisms Maurice displays as he relays his life story, there’s an undercurrent of unease.  On more than one occasion I wondered if others actually liked him? Was he petty? Perhaps even sly and cruel? For throughout the tale Maurice holds a grudge, and a deeply felt one at that — and it’s largely about that aforementioned coin.

A lifelong grudge

This is how the grudge came about. When Maurice’s headmaster advised him to leave school, aged 10, because he struggled to read and write — thanks to what was clearly a case of undiagnosed dyslexia — he went to work for the Dollards, a Protestant family in a Big House, where his mother was already employed in the kitchen.

Maurice did odd jobs around the farm but was subjected to terrible beatings and bullying, mainly by the Dollards’ son, Thomas, who was of a similar age.

Quicker than I thought possible, Thomas was there at my back, a hunting crop in his hand. As I turned, he struck me with it, the metal slicing into my cheek. When I fell to the ground holding my face, he kicked my stomach again and again and again.

Maurice gets to avenge these ongoing cruel acts several months later when he scoops up a gold coin that Thomas has flung out an upstairs window as part of a fight with his father. No one sees Maurice take the coin which turns out to be an exceedingly rare gold sovereign produced when King Edward VIII was on the throne but removed from circulation upon his abdication in 1936. The coin is so rare that its loss costs Thomas his inheritance — and later his sanity.

(Side note: the coin, it turns out, isn’t fictionalised. Only six were produced, making them one of the rarest British coins in existence. Google tells me that the Royal Mint dubbed it the “coinage that never was” because it was pulled from production when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One of these coins sold at auction in 2020 for £1 million. More about the coin here.)

Reading treat

When All is Said is a real treat to read. The author achieves a careful balancing act, preventing the narrative from heading into either sentimental or maudlin territory. It is tender, frank and endearing.

Maurice’s voice is brilliant — it’s intimate, moving, funny and all too human. You do feel like you are sitting at the bar with him, listening to him tell his tale. He’s a flawed character but he recognises his flaws. When he apologises to his son for not being a good father  — “I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better” — you know he means it.

I’m not sure you could describe When All is Said as a “feel good” book, but it’s certainly a warm and witty one, the kind of tale that makes you appreciate a life well lived. It is masterful storytelling.

Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Trevor Shearston

‘Hare’s Fur’ by Trevor Shearston

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 194 pages; 2019.

Australian writer Trevor Shearston is a new-to-me author, but he’s been penning novels for quite some time judging by his GoodReads author’s page which lists eight novels, a short story collection and an academic paper.

Hare’s Fur, published in 2019, is a gentle but immersive story about a man leading a relatively solitary life whose world is opened up by the arrival of three young runaways whom he takes in and shelters.

It’s set on the outskirts of Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, where 72-year-old professional potter Russell Bass lives and works. His wife died 11 months ago and he is going through a period of adjustment. He has a few close friends living nearby — including his sister-in-law, Delys, and her husband, Hugh, who is also a potter — who keep an eye on him, invite him over for dinner and make sure he doesn’t turn into a complete recluse.

He is pretty self-sufficient though and sticks to a regular schedule of work, throwing pots, sourcing clay and wood for his kiln, firing and sending his work off to exhibitions.

Hiking trip

Once a month he heads off on foot to the valley below his house to collect iron-rich rock he uses to make glazes for his pots. (The title of the novel, by the way, refers to a type of glaze, black with coloured streaks, that is said to resemble hare’s fur.)

He halted and stared through the columns of trunks. It was like peering into the gloom of a cathedral. The path disappeared among mossed boulders and ferns and pepperbush and the five or six other species that made up the understorey.

On one of these trips, he notices a Mars Bar wrapper on the path, which, in turn, leads him to discover two young children, Emma and Todd, and their teenage sister, Jade, living in a remote cave.

He befriends the trio who have been hiding from DoCS (child welfare) and the police for the past nine days. Both parents have been jailed for drug offences (possession and dealing) and there’s a fear the siblings will be split up when they are taken into care.

This presents Russell with a moral dilemma: does he tell the authorities, or does he help the children evade them, even if that means being drawn into a risky world he doesn’t quite understand? He chooses the latter.

Fragile bonds

Over the course of this beautifully written novel, we witness Russell’s relationship with the children grow and develop over a short period of time. He provides a safe haven for them, offers food and shelter, and acts as a guide and mentor. He teaches Emma to play chess, shows Jade how to throw pots on a foot-driven wheel and lets Todd watch as much TV as he wants.

A bond of trust evolves but it is as fragile as the pottery Russell creates.

There are risks associated with Russell’s decision. There’s an older sister, Kayla, who arrives with a boyfriend standing in the shadows, spinning a story about trying to find an aunt in Sydney who will take them in. And there’s a fear that neighbours, seeing Russell with children, will want to know who they are and why they are staying with him.

But while these children have effectively turned Russell’s world upside down, their arrival has now given his life new meaning. With them, he is free to be himself. When he tells them his own son died, aged eight, it’s like the “bursting of a bubble in this chest”:

There were people he’d known for years who assumed that he and Adele had been childless.

There’s a melancholy sadness at the heart of this novel, but it’s also an uplifting account of crossing a social divide to help others. It doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of life, but it shows how a gentle, empathetic and nurturing attitude can work wonders on children damaged by forces outside of their control.

And it’s filled with gorgeous detailed descriptions of the landscape and the art of pottery.

For other takes on this novel, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums and Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 132 pages; 1997.

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely — and it’s framed around a grandmother who has a relatively large property in the outer suburbs of Perth.

It’s also an insightful tale about grandmothers — in particular, the love they hold for their children and their grandchildren — and what it is like to grow old, to look back on the past and to fear for the future of the people you will leave behind.

Pausing still outside the door, the grandmother wanted to go into the room. She thought of kneeling down beside the children. She longed to brush their soft hair with her lips. Sometimes she prayed inside herself that they would stay small and clean and good. Wholesome was a better word. For ever.

A tale in three parts

In The Orchard Thieves, the unnamed grandmother lives with her eldest daughter (who is dubbed “the aunt” throughout), who we might unkindly call a spinster. The youngest daughter is married and lives nearby (her two sons regularly stay over), while the middle daughter lives in London with a young daughter.

The story is divided into three parts — Three Miles to One Inch, The Orchard Thieves, and Three Times One-Third — but they could easily be seen as Before, During and After the arrival of the middle daughter who turns up and disrupts the pattern of everyone’s lives.

This daughter is pregnant but doesn’t have a partner and hasn’t told her family that there’s a baby on the way (her mother, the grandmother, has all kinds of theories including the possibility her daughter is a lesbian because she isn’t aware of any man on the scene). The daughter expects she can move into her old childhood bedroom, but neither her mother nor her older sister like the idea. The grandmother would prefer it if her daughter lived elsewhere and to perhaps go back to England if necessary.

But the middle daughter is a schemer and she thinks it might be a good idea to sell the property and to divide the proceeds between the three siblings. She tells the older sister, the aunt, it’s about time she talks to their mother about death and dying. “Old people need to be helped to let go,” she insists.

“There’s a fortune here, right here under our feet,” the middle sister said. “Once this house is knocked down, there’s enough space here for several units and a swimming pool.” The middle sister wanted a sale, she said, and she wanted — needed — one-third, a one-third share. Surely they both wanted what she wanted.

But this idea gets put on hold when the middle daughter gives birth to a baby in the house and then succumbs to what is likely to be neonatal depression (although this term is never used). The grandmother must then step in to look after the baby as well as the little granddaughter, all the while fearing for her grandsons, who she hopes will “not continue to be robbers”, and her older daughter, who she fears is lonely.

Eventually, things come to a head and everything gets more or less resolved. The grandmother realises that what happens to her loved ones is largely beyond her control, that her grandsons, during their lives, will “do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling”, and that her daughters will get on with the business of living. And this is all nicely summed up in the last line:

The grandmother, putting the baby up to her shoulder and feeling the softness of the baby’s cheek against her own, remarked that there was really only one week between a bad haircut and a good haircut.

Fable-like writing

There’s something about the prose style and the telling of the story that lends The Orchard Thieves a fable-like quality. No names — of people or places — are used throughout the text, except when the grandmother looks at her maps from her old life in England and she traces the contours of rivers and towns with which she was familiar in her childhood.

This is further evoked by references to Ceres, a Greek goddess of fertility, motherly relationships and the growth of food plants, and Demeter who wished to make her grandson immortal by placing him in a fire, an action his mother did not understand and prevented. When the middle daughter runs a bath for her baby that is far too hot, it’s hard not to see the parallels that Jolley is making between Greek mythology and the life of the grandmother.

The Orchard Thieves is a rather beautiful book, rather different to other Elizabeth Jolley novels I have read, but one that explores common themes in her work about isolation, ageing and family ties.

I could write much more about it, but I won’t. I urge you to read it if you can find a copy. I suspect it is long out of print — I picked mine up second hand and lo-and-behold it’s a signed edition, something I didn’t realise when I bought it and only noticed when I sat down to read it on the weekend.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this novel.

I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 4 Week, which celebrates women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

And because the English-born author settled in Perth, this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, London, Meg Mason, Publisher, Setting

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 346 pages; 2020.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is one of those novels that seemed to be everywhere in 2021, earning rave reviews and hitting the bestseller charts around the world.

It’s the story of Martha Russell, a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

After a short-lived, unconsummated marriage to a “total fuckwit”, she gets married to a childhood friend, Patrick, whom she’s known since she was 16. But while that marriage lasts considerably longer than her first, it also fails when her husband walks out two days after her 40th birthday party.

Disintegration of a marriage

The novel charts the disintegration of the marriage in tandem with Martha’s increasingly bizarre behaviour, which goes up and down like a roller coaster, and her quest to get answers to her psychological problems, which include crippling depression, unexplained bouts of sudden anger and suicidal thoughts.

Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tirelessness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.

It’s written in the first person in an engaging, likable voice full of mordant wit. There is something starkly funny on every page, and it’s this dark sense of humour, expertly balanced with a sense of pathos, that elevates the narrative into something surprisingly upbeat despite the bleak subject matter.

It expertly weaves Martha’s background into the story, so that we get a full rounded picture of her upbringing, the product of a Bohemian London family — her father is a failed poet, her mother a struggling sculptor — largely supported by a rich aunt, who lives in Belgravia, on the same square that is home to Margaret Thatcher.

The passing of time is measured by the number of Christmas Day dinners hosted by Aunt Winsome and the number of children her sister, Ingrid, has with her husband Hamish — “a man she met by falling over in front of his house while he was putting his bins out”.

She is pregnant with her fourth child; when she texted to say it was another boy, she sent the eggplant emoji, the cherries and the open scissors. She said ‘Hamish is non-figuratively getting the snip.’

It’s her close relationship with Ingrid, who is 15 months younger than her, that gives shape to Martha’s life. They have each other’s backs, but there are tensions, petty fights and falling outs. It’s tender and touching — and often blackly funny.

The story is deeply rooted in London life — the family home, for instance, is on Goldhawk Road — and the various neighbourhoods are faithfully depicted to provide a richly atmospheric novel.

Laughter and sadness

There’s a lot to like in Sorrow and Bliss, not least the way the author explores family loyalty, the forces that shape our personalities and how having it all doesn’t automatically bestow happiness upon us. It’s the kind of book that makes you cry on one page, laugh on the next — and sometimes do both at the same time!

That said, around the halfway mark I began to find the voice wearisome. Perhaps I have just read one too many books about women losing their grip on reality?

According to Amazon, Sorrow and Bliss was “an instant Sunday Times bestseller and a book of the year for the Times and Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard, Spectator, Daily Express, Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Irish Daily Mail, Metro, Critic, Sydney Morning Herald, Los Angeles Times, Stylist, Red and Good Housekeeping”.

And it has scored rave reviews from all and sundry, including celebrities (hello Gillian Anderson) and authors, such as Jessie Burton, Anne Patchett and David Nicholls.

For another blogger’s take on this novel, please see Tony’s review.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway: A young woman suffers a profoundly disturbing mental breakdown following the death of her secret lover.

‘A Line Made by Walking’ by Sara Baume: A 25-year-old woman, who is chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, decamps to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside to get better, but her mind slowly unravels.

‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey: A young Manhattan-based woman escapes her crumbling marriage to hitchhike around New Zealand, but her journey descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her present and her future.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sarah Tolmie, science fiction, Setting

‘The Fourth Island’ by Sarah Tolmie

Fiction – paperback; Tordotcom; 112 pages; 2020.

Loss, despair — and distinctive knitted jumpers* — feature strongly in The Fourth Island, a mesmerising novella by Canadian writer Sarah Tolmie.

It’s set on the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, which comprise Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr, but the story imagines a fourth island called Inis Caillte (directly translated from the Irish to mean the “lost island”).

This island is a secret until a drowned man, Jim Conneely, washes up on the shore of Inis Mór wearing a distinctive jumper that no one recognises.

The fact remains that any knitter in any town on any of the isles, or on any farm, knows a sweater knit, here in the Arans. She can probably tell you who knit it. She will know the wool and the stitches and the patterns common to each district and family and parish. She can probably tell you what saint’s day it was finished on. And if she doesn’t know herself, she knows a woman who will. […] So, when a woman tells you that it is undoubtedly an Aran sweater but it was knit by a woman neither from Inis Mór nor Inis Meáin nor Inis Oírr, you are left with a riddle.

The man is buried but the jumper is kept by Aoife, an old wise woman who wields a lot of power in the community, a kind of antithesis to the priest whose power, said to be divine, is merely in the office he holds.

To keep the jumper is a bad omen, but keep it she does, until she dies, and then “Dirty Nellie”, the village whore who is deaf and dumb, takes it for herself. The warmth of the garment offers comfort, for Nellie has terrible pain in her stomach that no amount of herbal remedies, provided by Aoife, has ever been able to ease.

The story traces what happens to Nell and a small collection of other characters who find themselves unexpectedly transported to Inis Caillte, a magical kind of island where people are happy, restored to good health — Nell, for instance, regains her hearing and her voice when she arrives — and where everyone can understand each other regardless of the language they speak.

It’s also a place where time ceases to have meaning. The story is set in 1840, but there are characters on the island who are from Cromwell’s era, 200 years earlier, which begs the question, what is going on?

Speculative fiction

The Fourth Island is speculative fiction and — SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph to avoid — I suspect the island is actually a version of heaven and that all the residents on it are dead.

It explores loss in all its many forms, including the loss of life, the loss of health, the loss of reputation, the loss of religion, the loss of pain.

It also posits the idea that loss need not necessarily be negative, for in Nellie’s case regaining her ability to hear and speak after a lifetime of being unable to do so presents her with a strangely unwelcome challenge: she must deal with her newfound loss of silence and come to terms with being a different person.

The one thing she dwelt on was the loss of her deafness — it was a loss, the loss of the person she had been before — and its meaning.

Other positives include the loss of prejudice — all the characters get on with each other and one man, in particular, realises that in his earlier life on Inis Mór he had shunned Nellie because he had rushed to judgement about her lifestyle, but now he regards her as a friend.

Oh, there’s a lot to consider and mull over and cogitate on in this short novella, which is beguiling, unsettling, melancholy and wise. It’s written in hypnotic, fable-like prose, which lends a fairytale quality to the story.

It would make a great book group choice because there’s so much to discuss. Like the best speculative fiction, it’s full of ideas and metaphors, and different readers will bring their own interpretations to bear on it. It really is a little gem of a book.

* I am using the Australian/British term jumper, but the text uses the North American term sweater.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Way It Is Now’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 416 pages; 2021.

Garry Disher is fast becoming my favourite crime writer. And this new novel, published in Australia in November and due to be published in the UK later this year, only cements my firm opinion.

The Way It Is Now is a complete standalone — in other words, not part of a crime series, of which Disher has penned several — so it’s a good way into his work if you have not read him before.

It’s not strictly a police procedural but does feature a police officer, albeit on suspension from his role in Melbourne’s sex-crimes unit, who is carrying out his own personal investigation into the disappearance of his mother 20 years ago.

Dealing with the past

Now holed up in a holiday shack on the Mornington Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne, Charlie Deravin, on disciplinary leave from his job (he thumped his chief inspector), has time on his hands to think about his past.

He grew up around cops — his father was a detective — and still sees many of them, now retired, around the traps. This brings up memories of his childhood and the macho culture that surrounded him and his older brother, Liam, with whom he now has a strained relationship. That’s because Liam blames their father, Rhys, for their mother’s disappearance.

Rhys was accused of murdering his wife but had never been charged with the crime because a body was never found. The only suggestion that she had come to harm was the discovery of her car abandoned “out near Tooradin with a crumpled bumper, the driver’s door open and her possessions scattered up and down the road”.

Charlie suspects his mother’s lodger, Shane Lambert, of the crime. Shane was a timber mill worker who Charlie had warned off not long before his mother went missing because she was feeling intimidated by him in her own home. Charlie decides to track him down, using his own police skills and contacts.

It’s only when he begins digging around in the past that it comes rushing up to meet him: the skeletal remains of a young boy are found on a building site not far from his mother’s house. That boy went missing at around the same time as his mother did, and Charlie, a young police constable at the time, had been part of the search team.

When a second skeleton of an adult is discovered, underneath the first, it begins to look like a twin homicide has been committed. But who did it, and why?

Testing loyalties

The Way It Is Now feels incredibly timely — Rhys, on a cruise ship with his second wife, Fay, catches covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic —  and has a strong sense of place. I loved reading about towns that are familiar to me such as Philip Island, Tooradin and Hastings — even Leongatha, where I went to secondary school, cracks a mention.

The fictional town in which the story is set feels like any real town on the Peninsula or the Bass Coast, where Charlie spent his childhood surrounded by men with “big natures and a black intensity if you caught them unguarded”.

Menlo Beach was a Peninsula beach town of unassuming shacks dating from the 1930s, side by side on a crosshatch of narrow, potholed dirt streets. Half the houses down here on the flat were fibro. Cheap housing, back when Dad and his mates started buying holiday houses and weekend getaways in the late 1970s, places that became family homes. Six cops on ten little streets. Rowdy, rampaging men who thrilled the kids and made them laugh; one or two wives, cut desperately from the same hardwood, who didn’t. Booze-soaked barbecues and beach cricket, wrestling on the lawn. Sailing, catching waves, cycling up and down Arthur’s Seat.

The novel, richly layered between past and present, highlights how loyalties — between colleagues and family members — can be tested in trying conditions and how attitudes can change over time. It asks questions about toxic masculinity, homophobia, police culture and the misuse of power.

And while the story hinges on the dead woman trope, a pet hate of mine, it’s not used as a convenient plot point but as a way to explore a wider narrative — at what point do men own up to their role in allowing such crimes to occur?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ha Jin, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Vintage International

‘The Boat Rocker’ by Ha Jin

Fiction – paperback; Vintage International; 222 pages; 2016.

The Boat Rocker by American-based Chinese writer Ha Jin is a novel about truth, propaganda, censorship, politics and corruption.

It is framed around fraught and complicated relations between China and the West. It posits the idea that literary stardom can be purchased in China if you are willing to become a pawn of the Chinese Government. It also posits the idea that only American journalism can save the world from corruption by exposing lies and reporting the truth.

If that all sounds naive, or too simple a premise, there is a caveat: the story is set in 2005 before Twitter was created and Facebook was in its infancy. The only thing that went viral back then were websites and their comment sections.

A principled journalist

The story focuses on a Chinese expatriate, Feng Danlin, who is a reporter at a small Manhattan-based news agency that publishes a Chinese-language website read by people all over the world. Danlin is a fiercely principled journalist who believes his job is to expose lies wherever he may find them regardless of the consequences.

When he discovers that his ex-wife, Yan Haili — who also lives in Manhattan (now with a new husband) — is set to become China’s biggest literary star, he is suspicious. He has read her writing before and has a low opinion of it. He does some investigative work and discovers the film rights haven’t been sold for millions of dollars as claimed. Nor is the book being translated into 30 different languages, because it still hasn’t been translated into English.

When Danlin writes a series of articles about Haili’s deception, suggesting she’s in cahoots with the Chinese Government, he comes across as jealous and vengeful. But his criticism hits the spot, and Haili tries to silence him by “legal bullying”.

A microcosm of bigger issues

As a premise for an entire novel, the issue of whether a writer is all that she claims to be seems rather petty — and a little bit ludicrous. It also comes across as misogynistic and the tone of the novel, certainly the first half, does leave a bitter taste in the mouth, especially when Haili is often referred to as a “bitch”. (As an aside, I’ve often found that Chinese books written by men do have misogynistic and sexist overtones — Ma Jian’s work, which I love, is a case in point.)

But the author is making a bigger point: that “minor” deceptions (or, should I say, fake news?) such as Haili’s so-called literary success are indicative of major deceptions going on between governments and their people all the time, we just aren’t attuned to them — unless they are exposed by the Fourth Estate.

Jin also makes a bigger point about the consequences, for in China, to be seen to be acting against your government is life-changing — and not in a good way. But in places like the USA, being critical of your rulers is all part and parcel of democracy.

Not so modern journalism

I actually wanted to read The Boat Rocker because it was billed as exploring the “moral dimensions of modern journalism”, a subject I’m interested in because of my past career in the media, and because I also thought — mistakenly, as it turns out — that it might be classified as a “newspaper novel”, of which I have a soft spot (see here and here).

But the journalism aspects of the book are fairly thin; it’s really about propaganda and the way governments (both in China and the USA) use it to influence their citizens.

And what it does have to say about journalism feels terribly outdated now, especially when we’re all lost in our own online echo chambers thanks to the social media algorithms that feed us what we want to hear. And dare I even mention US President Donald Trump and the way he manipulated everything and told barefaced lies and had absolutely no shame about anything?

I did like this comment though:

You claimed that without a country an individual would be nothing, but how many people have been reduced to nothing by their countries? Patriotism is a pejorative word in my dictionary: it connotes spiritual paucity, intellectual blindness and laziness, and moral cowardice. Isn’t it terrible to let only a country form the underpinning of one’s being?

The Boat Rocker is an interesting novel, but, on the whole, I felt ambivalent about it.

I certainly liked the latter half better than the first, because when Danlin eases up on his criticism of his ex-wife the narrative opens up to look at bigger issues, including what it is like to be a Chinese expatriate. The conversations he has with various diplomats and intellectuals are particularly insightful into the mindset of Communist China and its citizens…

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book lists

27 books by women: completing the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

For the 6th year in a row, I signed up to do the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2021. My aim was to read 20 books; I ended up reading 27.

Here is a list of all the books I read arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review).

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt (2021)

A charming novel about two Aboriginal Australians — a mother and daughter — embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton (2021)

This historical true crime book turns a forensic eye toward women who murdered men in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

‘Mermaid Singing’  and ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser (2021)

A story about racism, freedom of movement and the Australian way of life, this novel is split in half —  one half in France in the 1980s; the other half in Australia in a dystopian near-future — and the reader gets to choose which to read first. [This is yet to be reviewed on this blog, but I will add a link when I’m done.]

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil (2021)

In this quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood, a young Australian unexpectedly falls pregnant in London then finds her paranoia kicking in when her boyfriend’s cousin becomes possessive of the baby.

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett (2021)

Beautifully written and illustrated memoir explaining what it is like to be a resident on a psyche ward and to live with a complicated mental health condition.

‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald (2021)

Billed as a “disaster thriller”, this novel revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert (2021)

An investigation into the murder of a local teenage boy is reopened when new evidence comes to light in this impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett (1959)

A richly told collection of interconnected short stories focused on a bunch of diverse female characters who work at a woollen mill in 1950s Sydney.

‘Moral Hazzard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

This brilliant novella set in the 1990s recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson (2004)

A complex, multi-layered and compelling story inspired by the life of Charmain Clift, and almost impossible to describe in an 800-word review let alone a single sentence!

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson (2021)

An epistolary novel composed of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa (2021)

An intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition, and marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

‘Revenge: Murder in Three Parts’ by S.L. Lim (2020)

A beguiling tale of a Malaysian woman whose parents treat her like a second class citizen on the basis of her gender.

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey (2020)

A deeply contemplative novel about a woman who builds a labyrinth by the beach as a way to deal with the knowledge that her son committed a brutal murder.

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald (2020)

In this debut novel, a woman from Melbourne eases her restlessness by walking along the Thames while she is in London working on a research project about Virginia Woolf.

‘The Ruin’ by Dervla McTiernan (2018)

A  compelling police procedural set in Galway, Ireland, in which a jaded Detective Inspector must confront a crime that has haunted him for 20 years.

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe (2021)

Narrated by the Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles, this highly original novel tells the story of the artwork, which was controversially purchased by the Australian Government in 1973, and the equally controversial artist who created it.

‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald (2021)

A crime novel about a family GP who decides to take the law into her own hands after dealing with one too many domestic violence victims.

‘The Second Son by Loraine Peck (2021)

An action-packed gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women who have married into it.

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1929)

This notorious Australian classic was the first Australian novel to feature a loving relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman — and created a scandal upon publication.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat in Melbourne is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann (2020)

A fast-paced eloquently written literary crime novel in which a woman on the run from her abusive husband loses one of her children en route — but did he just wander off or was he kidnapped?

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts (2021)

A coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman working as an emergency call dispatcher at a time of unprecedented ecological disaster.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

You can see all my wrap-ups for previous years of the Australian Women Writers Challenge as follows: 2020 here, 2019 here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.

In 2022 the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is switching focus to help raise the profile of women writers from the 19th- and 20th-century who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked. Visit the official website for more info. 

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2021

[UNDERSTATEMENT WARNING] 2021 has been strange and absurd and crazy and stressful and happy and sad and all kinds of things, hasn’t it?

But the one consistency in this rollercoaster of a year has been all the books I have been able to buy, borrow, read and review. I have read so many excellent novels I have been putting off choosing the best 10 because it’s just so difficult to pick which ones to include and which to leave out. So this year, I’m making an exception — and choosing a Baker’s Dozen instead.

I read a total of 89 books, just a few more than last year, and most were published in 2021, but the books I am going to select here aren’t all new, they’re simply ones I chose to read between 1 January and 31 December regardless of the year they were published.

In fact, I made a concerted effort to read older books by embarking on a plan to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May in a project I dubbed #TBR21. I actually managed to complete this but never did a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fifth time and managed to successfully read 20 books from my TBR — all listed here.

Other projects I did this year included running Southern Cross Crime Month in March and #BIPOC2021, which was my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the year (I read 12 in total). Once again, I attempted to read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist but only managed three out of five. (It didn’t help that I was in the throes of purchasing a new apartment at the time.)

I also participated in various other challenges and blogger events across the year, including the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 (a wrap-up post will follow tomorrow), Bellezza’s Japanese Literature ChallengeGerman Literature Month, Novellas in November hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, and non-fiction November.

Phew! That’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito (2021)

A wickedly fun story about a narcissistic, paranoid, upper-class woman who believes her writer husband has used her as inspiration for one of his unsavoury characters in his latest best-selling novel.

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (2021)

Tracing the downfall of a white Afrikaans family over the space of 40 years, this year’s Booker Prize-winner is framed around four funerals, each about a decade apart, and uses a style and structure inspired by filmmakers to create a dazzling novel that feels fresh and new.

‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy (1981)

Set in tropical Darwin in 1967, this masterful coming-of-age story is about a teenage boy who takes piano lessons from a renowned Austrian musician with a shady past.

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

A brilliant gem of a novel set in the 1990s, it recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan (2020)

A haunting tale of a long-distance lorry driver trying to come to terms with the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

A deeply affecting dystopian novel set on an island in which residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects — including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars — by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police which round-up and  “disappear” anyone who disobeys.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jock Serong (2017)

A hugely entertaining tale of two brothers, one good and one bad, who rise to become successful cricketers on the world stage.

‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff (1931)

An utter delight to read, this heartwarming tale perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside.

‘Here we are’ by Graham Swift (2020)

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, this is a truly immersive story about three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

I hope you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2021, I’d love to know.

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2021 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Handke, Publisher, Setting

‘The Left-Handed Woman’ by Peter Handke (translated by Ralph Manheim)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 68 pages; 2020. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.

Perhaps because it was written in 1976 when the idea of a woman being independent was more radical than it is now, Peter Handke’s novella The Left-Handed Woman is a relatively odd story.

Written in cool, detached prose, it explores what happens (hint: not very much) when a woman called Marianne decides to leave her husband.

She has a young child, Stefan, but it’s hard to know how old he is other than he goes to school. Her husband, Bruno, runs a porcelain company and is often away on business trips. Perhaps this is why she gets it into her head that one day Bruno will leave her permanently and so she makes the first move: she asks him to move out of the marital home.

There’s no argument, no pleading, no reaction really at all. It’s all very strange.

Bruno smiled and said, “Well, right now I’ll go back to the hotel and get myself a cup of hot coffee. And this afternoon I’ll come and take my things.”
There was no malice in the woman’s answer — only thoughtful concern. “I’m sure you can move in with Franziska for the first few days. Her teacher friend has gone away.”

And so Bruno moves out and into Franziska’s spare room and that’s kind of it. (Of course, we never really hear his side of the story, so perhaps he’s relieved he doesn’t have to deal with his wife any more?)

The woman takes a job as a translator for a publisher, who comes to her house armed with flowers and Champagne. The overtones are slightly creepy. He knows she is alone.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Marianne is visited by lots of different people, including her father, Franziska and Bruno, because they are worried about her being alone. “Don’t be alone too much,” her husband warns her, “it could be the death of you”.

And while Marianne does go through a period of adjustment — avoiding people in the supermarket, staring into space a lot, sinking into a kind of malaise and cutting herself off from others — she realises that she can survive perfectly well on her own.

The final scenes of the novella have almost everyone Marianne knows — and those she’s only just met, including an actor, her publisher’s chauffer and a random salesgirl with whom she’s recently interacted — arriving at her house for a spontaneous party. It’s only when they are gone and she is able to relax and put her feet up that a sense of contentment settles upon her. Perhaps having a life of one’s own will be okay after all.

This is a strange novella. The conversations between characters are often vague and dispassionate. People behave in odd ways and say odd things. The overall feeling is one of confusion, discombobulation, frustration and angst.

The main message I came away with is reflected by the afterword, a quote by Goethe from his 1809 novel Elective Affinities, which could well sum up what it has been like living in the grips of a global pandemic:

And so they all, each in his own way, reflectingly or unreflectingly, go on with their daily lives; everything seems to take its accustomed course, for indeed, even in desperate situations where everything hangs in the balance, one goes on living as though nothing were wrong.

Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2019, not without controversy (see this New York Times story and this Guardian opinion piece). I have previously read his 1970 novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which is a cold-eyed account of a once famous soccer player committing a brutal murder.