Book chat

Season’s greetings to you

Sunset over Fremantle Port, taken from my living room window on 22 December 2021

I don’t normally post a Christmas message on my blog, but this year hasn’t followed convention, so why should I?

Anyway, I just wanted to quickly wish you all the best for the festive season wherever you reside and however you choose to celebrate (if you celebrate at all). I hope you’re doing okay and staying safe.

I have 10 days off work and after the craziness of the past few weeks (a new boss, lots of changes in the office and my role) on top of a rollercoaster of a year, I’m looking forward to relaxing, reading lots of books, catching up on reviews and maybe having a little splurge or two in my local independent book store (wearing a face mask, of course).

The air-conditioner is having a workout today because Perth has been hit by a heatwave. It’s going to be 42°C today (107 Fahrenheit) and 44°C tomorrow. Then it’s a week of temps in the high 30s. (I’m writing this at 11am and it’s already 33°C.)

I’m not cooking Christmas dinner because who needs a fan-forced oven pumping out more heat? I have a bag of pre-cooked prawns, plenty of salad leaves, seafood sauce and avocado, so I’ll be tucking into my own take on a prawn cocktail later. This will be followed by meringues I made last night served with cream and fresh strawberries, mini pavlova style.

And there’s plenty of local beer in the fridge.

Now to chill out on the sofa with a good book… it’s hard to choose which one, but I think I might opt for John Banville’s Prague Nights because of its snowy setting. I can dream about cooler temperatures, right?

Thanks for all your comments, likes and follows this year. I appreciate the support. I’ll post my favourite books of the year list on New Year’s Eve. That’s at least one tradition I can stick to!

Author, Book review, Croatia, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, New York, Publisher, Sara Nović, Setting, war, Yugoslavia

‘Girl at War’ by Sara Nović

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 336 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Sara Nović’s debut novel, Girl at War, has the dubious honour of making me cry not once but twice.

This deeply affecting story is about a 10-year-old Croatian girl, Ana Juric, who is caught up in the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s.

After her parents are brutally slaughtered, she endures a short stint as a “child soldier”, before her godfather arranges to get her out of the country. Smuggled into the United States, she is adopted by an Italian-American family, where her life looks set to be a happy one, but ten years on, haunted by what she experienced, she returns to her homeland to make peace with what happened.

Idyllic childhood disrupted by war

The book follows a non-linear timeline, so when we first meet Ana she is living in Zagreb with her working-class parents and baby sister. She is a happy-go-lucky tomboy, hanging out with her best friend Luka, when the war breaks out and Yugoslavia divides itself along religious and ethnic lines.

In school, we’d been taught to ignore distinguishing ethnic factors, though it was easy enough to discern someone’s ancestry by their last name. Instead we were trained to regurgitate pan-Slavic slogans: “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo!” Brotherhood and Unity. But now it seemed the differences between us might be important after all. Luka’s family was originally from Bosnia, a mixed state, a confusing third category. Serbs wrote in Cyrillic and Croats in the Latin alphabet, but in Bosnia they used both, the spoken differences even more minute. I wondered if there was a special brand of Bosnian cigarettes, too, and whether Luka’s father smoked those.

As the bombs and gunfights and air raids begin to dominate everyday life, we experience the claustrophobia, confusion and fear from a child’s perspective. Ana can see the destruction all around her and then come home and see it being broadcast on TV.

As a side effect of modern warfare, we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television.

The book then jumps forward by 10 years. Ana is now living in New York, where she’s undertaking a degree in English literature, but we have no idea how she got there or what has happened to her in the intervening decade. Some of the gaps are filled in by a speech she is invited to make at the UN.

“There’s no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia,” I declared as the next slide flashed—two teenage girls sporting camouflage and scuff-marked assault rifles. “There is only a child with a gun.”

And this:

We were not like the children of Sierra Leone who, a continent away, were fighting their own battles that same year; we weren’t kidnapped and spoon-fed narcotics until we were numbed enough to kill, though now that it was over I sometimes wished for the excuse. We took no orders, sniped at the JNA from blown-out windows of our own accord, then in the next moment played cards and had footraces. And though I had learned to expel weapons from my everyday thoughts, speaking of them now I felt something I wasn’t expecting—longing. As jarring as the guns were to the pale crowd before me, for many of us they were synonymous with youth, coated in the same lacquer of nostalgia that glosses anyone’s childhood.

Hidden trauma

As an adult, Ana is deeply traumatised, perhaps suffering some form of PTSD, because she never sleeps and when she does, she experiences distressing night terrors. She passes as an American, not a Croat, so never tells anyone about her past. It is buried deep within. Not even her boyfriend knows her ethnic background.

In America, I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself. “It’s terrible what happened there,” people would say when I let slip my home country and explained that it was the one next to Bosnia. They’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in ’84.

But keeping up this pretence is exhausting. And the advent of 9/11 and the American’s “War on Terror” brings up all kinds of memories and conflicting emotions.

The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here.

Ana begins to realise that she needs to confront her traumatic past in order to get on with her life. She wants to know what happened to her friend Luka and his parents, for instance, and so, using her savings, and in defiance of her adopted family’s wishes, she goes back to her homeland to find answers to those questions.

Her trip is detailed in the final section of the book. It’s a painful return, but it allows Ana to rediscover the good things (as well as the bad) that have shaped her identity and it gives us, the reader, the opportunity to find out how she was smuggled out of the country in a daring operation that so many of her compatriots would never have been able to achieve.

Girl at War is a powerful story about grief, exile and war — and the trauma that endures long after hostilities have ceased.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Ella Baxter, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 240 pages; 2021.

Ella Baxter’s New Animal is one of the best books I have read all year. And I have read a lot of great books in 2021, so many in fact I’m wondering how on earth I am going to choose just 10 for my best books of the year post, which I generally publish on New Year’s Eve.

If I had to sum up in one word what this novel was all about, it would be this: grief.

This doesn’t make it sound all that interesting. And this may be why the blurb makes it sound like it’s a novel solely about sex. While sex — specifically one-night stands and BDSM — does feature heavily in this story, that’s not the prime focus. Indeed, sex is used by the narrator, 28-year-old Amelia Aurelia, as a displacement activity, a way to feel something with her body while her emotions remain very tightly held in check, but there’s more going on below the surface.

This is a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally — for Amelia works in a funeral parlour, where she’s employed as a beautician: she applies make-up to those bodies that will lie in an open casket.

I hold up a few of the foundations next to Jennifer’s face so I can see which one will suit, and settle on two. It’s good practice to use the client’s personal make-up mixed with some industry standards. For an undamaged face like Jennifer’s, you can just use an oil-based, full coverage foundation. Chemist brands are highly pigmented and do the job well. Most of us are already using the make-up that we will wear at our funerals, unless something severe happens.

 

UK edition

Despite most people thinking Amelia’s job is creepy, she loves it, not least because she gets to work with her beloved mother and step-father, who owns the business, and her brother who is in a live-in relationship with two other people. (It’s a proper family business, in that sense.)

But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Amelia is thrown into disarray. She does not want to attend the funeral, so books herself a ticket to see her father, who lives in Tasmania. It is here, holed up on his rural property, that she takes her sex life up a level by attending a bondage party with a bloke she meets online.

What ensues is horrific, but it doesn’t seem to put Amelia off. Instead, the pain and humiliation seem to be something she begins to seek out, begging the question: why is she doing it?

Quirky and humorous

This might make the story seem oppressive, but it’s not. It’s quirky, blackly funny and features some terrific one-liners and brilliantly humorous dialogue.

And while the characters are unconventional, they’re not caricatures. In fact, they are well-drawn, alive and believable.

The BDSM scenes are outrageously funny, although they’re also rather concerning because they indicate that Amelia is acting out in an attempt to obliterate past traumas. In as much as I never like to medically diagnose a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder if Amelia might be suffering from PTSD of some form.

Millennial angst

It could be argued that New Animal fits into that new genre of “Millennial angst” (see Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan et al), but it’s nowhere near as navel-gazing as most of those stories and is highly original. I’d go as far as to argue that Amelia is relatively happy. She has a job she loves, a supportive family and doesn’t dream of bigger, unattainable things.

Her problem is that she’s unable to emotionally process her feelings (or lack thereof), especially in relation to all the dead bodies she deals with in her job, many of them the result of suicide or accident, and uses sex as a means of escape.

What I needed was to be flattened, squashed and folded under another person. I can’t just remain all stretched out from the day. Like all the people I see in the late afternoons, or evenings, or early hours of the morning, he [her latest hook-up] was going to move me out of my head and into my body. He was going to fill me up with physical feeling to the point where emotions and thoughts were wrung out. And then, sayonara, thank you very much.

US edition

New Animal will be published in the UK by Picador and the US by Two Dollar Radio next February. (For the record, I much prefer the Australian cover.)

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessica Tu: This Australian novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams: Set in modern-day south London, this compelling debut novel follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom.

This is my 25th book for #AWW2021. 

Book review

Books that Made Us: Episode Three

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The final episode of the Australian TV series ‘The Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV last night. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here and Episode Two here.)

This episode was entitled ‘Power’ and looked at novels largely through the lens of the power dynamic between men and women, and white people and First Nations people. There was also one book about politics and corruption.

The books covered in episode three

Here is a list of the books mentioned in this episode. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews.

There was also a montage of books by indigenous writers, which would make an excellent reading list for those who want to explore more by our First Nation storytellers. The list includes:

To be honest, I thought this was the weakest of the three episodes. I would have loved to have seen Thea Astley’s ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ mentioned, which looks at the power-mad superintendent on a punitive mission for Aboriginals, but perhaps that novel isn’t well known enough.

And where were the novels about war? For instance, David Malouf’s ‘The Great World’, Roger McDonald’s ‘1915’ or Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Great North’. But again, maybe the program makers didn’t think there was a specific title that was popular enough to include and Flanagan had already had his name up in lights in the previous episode.

Interestingly, most of the books named in this series, not just this episode, have been adapted for the screen so there was plenty of footage to show and part of me wonders whether that was a prerequisite for inclusion.

And while I’m being a little critical, I must say as much as I do like Claudia Karvan, we did see an awful lot of her on screen — and how many times does she have to cry while doing a reading? I know she’s an actress, but the waterworks were a bit much.

But still, it was WONDERFUL to have our literature celebrated on the small screen like this. Be great if someone could now make a program about Southern Cross Crime, cos that’s recently put us on the world stage and there’s plenty to discuss and showcase.

Did you watch this TV series? If so what did you think? And regardless, do these lists make you want to explore more Australian fiction?

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Tice Cin

‘Keeping the House’ by Tice Cin

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 242 pages; 2021.

I had heard plenty of great things about Tice Cin’s Keeping the House, but it didn’t really work for me. I just could not engage with the story, nor the characters.

The blurb claims it’s about three generations of a Turkish family living in North London who import into the UK heroin hidden in cabbages.

It features a cast of characters that is so vast it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. That’s despite the fact there’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book. (I read this on Kindle and, unlike a physical book, it’s next to impossible to flick back to the front to look up names as you’re reading, which ruins the experience.)

That narrative is broken up into dozens and dozens of chapters, most only a few pages long, and each is told from a different character’s point of view. No sooner did I come to understand that Ayla, for instance, was the mother, courageous enough to take the plunge in the illicit import business, than the chapter would end and a new perspective would be introduced from another character’s point of view. Right from the start, the storyline felt disjointed.

The time frames also jump backward and forward, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but I was struggling to keep track of all the characters so my poor overworked brain could not cope with the changes in chronology, too.

It began to feel like I was reading something that had been influenced by our busy online lives, flicking from one social media platform to another, following snippets of conversations and news from a myriad of sources, and yet, for me, this style and structure felt too chaotic to make sense.

Yet the characters are well-drawn (if occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another) and the scene-setting and insights into ex-pat Turkish culture are exemplary. The writing is lyrical, original, astute.  There are sublime poems dotted throughout the text, too.

Some of the chapters, especially those with lots of dialogue, are arranged like theatre scripts, minus the directions but clearly outlining who says what, which are fun to read.

Ali: Funny. So we have three things we’re going to do. I send your gear to Jersey, the rest we’ll sell off to this Jamaican dealer I know – all very street level – and then I send leftovers to some posh houses near Muswell Hill or something. Full of university people. You don’t want everything going off to one place if you want this to be quiet.
Ayla: Jersey?
Ali: Yes. Taking the stuff to Jersey is worth three times more. Little bags worth three thousand sell for seven thousand. Once you’ve gotten someone on board, the hundred miles there are no problems. There’s about a hundred users in the place, so police know when there’s stuff on the island. You can spook them with a boo, though. Their prisons are full of non-islanders.
Ayla: They can’t fit more than a hundred in one of their prisons?
Ali: Something like that.

There are lots of Turkish words and phrases, all translated in the text, too, which adds to the flavour of the novel. And there’s a dark brooding atmosphere that infuses the story, one that drips with an undercurrent of violence and often blatant misogyny.

Keeping the House is not exactly a “fun” read, but structurally the author is doing interesting experimental things and clearly has a lot of talent. It’s the kind of work you’d expect to see nominated for the Goldsmith’s Prize, for instance.

Maybe add it to your list if you’re looking for something challenging and different or if you know this part of north London well. For me, I think it might have been the case of the right book but the wrong time…

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Ethan Frome’ to ‘Constellations’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate). I don’t generally participate in memes (they always feel like “filler” content to me), but I do like this one because it lets me explore my archive and share reviews of books that have been hidden away for a long time.

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton (1911)

I read this one back in the day I worked in the Myer Melbourne Bookstore (1990-94), then the biggest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere (or so we were told at the time), hence there’s no review on this blog. It was around the time the Martin Scorcese film adaptation of The Age of Innocence came out (all the staff went to a preview screening so that we could then push sales of the book). I read the book and enjoyed it so much I thought I would try something else by Edith Wharton and so that’s how I came to read Ethan Frome, which I loved. It’s a heartbreaking read about a man with a limp and how he came to acquire it under bittersweet circumstances.

‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator, Philip Carey, has a limp because he was born with a club foot. The story charts his life from the age of 9 when his mother dies and he is sent away to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a vicarage in the countryside. This, too, is another heartbreaking read, because Philip spends so much of his adult life struggling to just get by despite being sensitive and intelligent. I adored this book and found it so affecting I never wrote a review of it, but the thing that stuck in my head so much was how brutal life was for those in poverty when there was no welfare state to offer assistance of any kind.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarenmbga (2021)

A story about a woman fallen on hard times, this is another deeply affecting read that shows what happens when someone falls into poverty but is unable to rise above it despite having a university education and a lot of potential. I read this one last year and still occasionally think about it. There are two more novels in the trilogy which I plan on reading at some point…

Soviet Milk

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)

Another story about thwarted potential, this novella is set in Latvia when it is under Soviet rule. It shows the impact of an oppressive political regime on an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and their intellectual freedom. The story also looks at the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux (1988)

Damaged mother-daughter bonds are explored in this brutally honest memoir, which became a bestseller in France upon publication in 1988.  Ernaux not only examines the fraught relationship she had with her mother, but she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney (2019)

This collection of 12 essays explore the ways in which an entire family can be impacted when a loved one has Alzheimer’s — in this case, it was the author’s paternal grandfather. There are common themes throughout the essays — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Constellations book cover

‘Constellations’ by Sinéad Gleeson (2019)

This is another essay collection revolving around a personal response to illness. It includes highly personal accounts of issues and events the author has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors. It’s a hugely readable collection themed around the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a tragic accident that leaves a man with a lifelong disability to an essay collection about illness, via stories about poverty, thwarted potential and Alzheimer’s disease.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode Two

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The second episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV tonight. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here.)

This episode, called ‘Place’, was themed around cities and landscapes that have featured so strongly in Australian fiction, but it could easily have been called ‘History’ because it covered Aboriginal dispossession and our convict past, among other changes in Australian society over the years.

There were lots of wonderful interviews with most of the authors name-checked below, including footage of the late Patrick White, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first and only Australian to achieve that honour).

The books covered in episode two

Here is a list of the books mentioned in this episode. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews.

The next episode, entitled ‘Power’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Liam Davison, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Woman’ by Liam Davison

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 154 pages; 1994.

Liam Davison’s novella The White Woman is a fictionalised account of the real-life search for a woman said to be lost in the wilds of Gippsland, Victoria, in the early 19th century.

Newspaper reports claimed she had been taken by Blacks who were holding her captive. But no one really knew who she was or exactly who had taken her. A cynical person — *cough, cough* me —  might think it was merely a cover to explain why so many Aboriginals were massacred at the time.

There were rumours of course, stories which couldn’t be discounted. She was the educated daughter of an English lord; the mother of children; a child herself. She had entered religious orders. In the end, all we had was the name the blacks had given her. Lohantuka. White woman. To be honest, I fear she was something different to each of us; mother, daughter, lover, wife. Or all of them.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of a man who participated in the search some 30 years earlier. The son of a fellow participant has contacted him, wanting to know what happened, so the narrator directs the tale at him using a second-person narrative.

His tale is intimate, with a tone of regret. He knows that the search was not actually about the so-called “virtuous woman lost in the bush, held by savages against her will” but about the men who wished to rescue her. And he knows that their view of the Blacks was prejudiced and wrong because it was simply easier to see them as “savages, brutes, the very opposite of what we are ourselves” than to seek out the truth.

That truth — ugly and dark — runs like a “heretical undercurrent” throughout the tale. It hints that the white men were the savages, the ones intent on blood thirsty acts using carbines, muskets and lengths of rope. These unsettling stories, not fully told or fully admitted to…

[…] still linger after all these years, snippets of gossip, part hearsay, part conjecture, but always with the possibility of truth behind them; things about ourselves so far outside the realm of acceptability we couldn’t hope to face them. They didn’t reach the papers. […] “The Highland Brigade”. “Sons of Scotland”. You’ve heard of them? Infamy doesn’t fade. You see, the stories still being told, their feats still grow in stature. Groups of men set out against the blacks – not spontaneous eruptions of violence, but calculated, well-planned expeditions. Sorties, hunts, call them what you want. They had a purpose.

Based on a real expedition

The book is based on the ‘White Woman Expedition’ led by Christian J. DeVilliers in 1846, a party of men who departed Melbourne for Gippsland, a treacherous journey by sea and land into wilderness not previously explored by Europeans. (You can read a bit more about the expedition in this summary of an academic paper published in 1999, which the author used as part of his research.)

It features beautiful descriptions of the bush and the waterways that are explored (including places that are well known to me such as Wilson’s Promontory and Port Albert on the South Gippsland coast). There’s a real sense of remoteness and a mild terror of the unknown. And the characters, which range from uptight to fearful, sanctimonious to petty, are depicted with great nuance. You really get to feel the tensions between rival parties (DeVilliers tried to work with the Gippsland police commissioner Tyers and the Border Police, who weren’t particularly cooperative) and even within Devilliers’ own party.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal the white woman is never found, but what the men do stumble across is horrific and stomach churning, the kind of evidence that history has long chosen to ignore. This important novella helps put everything in context and through the device of fiction reveals to us the long hidden truth. It’s a remarkable — and moving — achievement.

Lisa from ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book as part of a personal tribute to the author — Liam Davison and his wife were on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 when the Russians shot it down over disputed territory in Ukraine in 2014. There were no survivors.

Please note this book appears to be out of print. I purchased mine second hand at a charity book sale earlier in the year. 

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Thicker Than Water:  History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn: This is a travelogue-cum-historical-biography about the author’s great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837. McMillan was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland” but new evidence suggests he was responsible for massacring hundreds of Aboriginals. Unsurprisingly, he has now come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”. McMillan is the man who started the rumour of the missing white woman…

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Australia, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Chatto & Windus; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors, but I put off reading First Person for years because I had seen so many bad reviews of it. I guess I didn’t want to have my high opinion of him altered in any way.

But I now wonder if those reviews, all published in the UK when I was living there, just didn’t properly appreciate the fact the story was about a real-life fraudster, John Friedrich, who dominated the Australian media landscape in the 1980s and early 1990s. It turns out that when Flanagan was a struggling writer — while he was penning his first novel Death of a River Guide — he was contracted to write Friedrich’s memoir.

This novel is a fictionalised account of what it was like to act as the ghostwriter of “Australia’s biggest conman”, a man who lied about everything, including where he was born and gave Flanagan so little to work with he had to make large chunks of it up. It’s a book about truth and lies and the grey margins in between, and it’s a riveting exploration of ethics and morality in publishing long before the internet or social media blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

But first, let’s talk a bit about Friedrich because I think it’s important to really understand the strange and slippery character that is at the heart of this novel.

Australia’s biggest fraudster

Friedrich, who committed suicide in July 1991 just days after he appeared in court on charges involving defrauding the banks of almost $300 million, was a complicated man.

He came to Australia, from Germany, in the 1970s using a fake name and fake qualifications. After various stints in construction and the Uniting Church, he joined the National Safety Council of Australia in Victoria, where he later became executive director. He was lauded as a hero (he was granted the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1988) because he greatly expanded the council’s role to become a vital search and rescue operation, investing money in high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art aids, but when it collapsed financially, thanks to millions of dollars worth of bank loans that couldn’t be repaid, he went on the run.

When he was found, after an exhausting nationwide manhunt, he was charged with 92 counts of obtaining property by deception. It later transpired that he was not an Australian citizen and did not have a valid birth certificate. Who exactly was this man? And how had he pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes?

In First Person, much of Friedrich’s backstory is not fully explained — it’s assumed you know about this conman’s activities — but there’s enough information for you to piece together the idea that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s done bad things and that there are so many rumours swirling around him — did he work for the CIA, for instance — that it’s seemingly impossible to get a handle on who he really is.

And that’s the dilemma that faces the narrator in the story: how does he produce a truthful ghostwritten memoir of a man who is so lax with the truth?

Fictionalised tale

But, of course, this is a novel, not non-fiction, so the Friedrich character goes by the name of Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl, and the narrator is an impoverished writer from Hobart called Kif Kehlmann. Kif is writing a novel while working a series of unsteady jobs to make ends meet. He has a young daughter, Bo, and his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins.

The offer of a six-week job in Melbourne to ghostwrite the memoirs of a man due to go to prison tempts Kif because of its potential to break him into publishing, while also netting a much-needed $10,000 fee. But it comes with all kinds of strings attached (this novel does a nice send-up of the publishing industry and the bizarre “rules” of the trade), and when he meets Ziggy he does not like him very much and struggles to get any information out of him that could be used in the book.

Being nice doesn’t cut it, and Kif is too weak and ineffectual to deal with a hard nut like Ziggy who comes out with extraordinary words of wisdom and advice, quoting Neitzche and philosophising about life and how to live it.

You want to live without enemies, Heidl said, that’s your problem. You think if I am good and kind and don’t speak ill of others I won’t have enemies. But you will, you just don’t know it yet. They’re out there, your enemies, you just haven’t met them. You can seek them out or pretend they don’t exist but they’ll still find you. Trust me. You want to be like a dog that everyone likes, but there’s not a dog alive someone doesn’t want to kick or kill. You want everyone to be your friend. Why? Why bother?

Ziggy spends a lot of time having lunch with contacts, including investors he claims are going to help him build a space station in Queensland, while avoiding Kif as much as possible. Kif, in turn, spends a lot of time gnashing his teeth and then taking out all his frustrations on his poor hapless wife when he returns home for weekend visits to Hobart.

The narrative begins to build when it’s clear Kif is not going to meet deadlines or word counts set for him by the seemingly greedy publisher, Gene Paley, for whom he is working.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ziggy dies — though whether by his own hand or someone else’s is one of the puzzles Flanagan explores in this fictionalised account — at around the three-quarters mark, and then First Person loses a bit of steam. The remaining quarter of the novel is taken up with Kif’s life after the memoir is posthumously published, riffing on the idea that his exposure to so many lies and untruths has somehow infected his own psyche, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.

Kif seems unable to reconcile the idea that writing novels for a living is a noble profession. A woman he meets in a New York bar sums it up neatly for him:

It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things, Emily was saying. Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again. Novels disempower reality, the beard said.

First Person is an eloquent, if somewhat uneven, exploration of truth, corporate greed and the idea that the past always catches up with you.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this book.

If you like this, you might also like:

This documentary on 9 Now, is a good summary of the John Friedrich case. It’s part of the Australian Crime Stories series, so it’s likely to be geo-restricted to those with an Australian IP address.

Otherwise, this promo (see below) for a documentary that I don’t think has ever been made sums it all up rather neatly:

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode One

The first episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV last night. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView.)

This episode, called ‘People’, was themed around great characters from Australian fiction. This was how it was described on iView:

As an actor, Claudia Karvan knows great storytelling is all about people, great characters. What truths we can uncover about ourselves through the fictitious characters of Australian novels?

Having been starved of Australian literary fiction for about 20 years while living abroad, it was a delight to see this beamed into my living room! I was so familiar with the names and had read several of the books. I had even interviewed one of the authors in the past (hello, Tim Winton) and met another a couple of times (hello, Christos Tsiolkas).

While there was perhaps a bit too much focus on Karvan in the show and too heavily weighted toward contemporary fiction, there was enough meat on the bones in this episode to keep me entertained. And I even learned a thing or two. It wasn’t highbrow or dumbed down, but tread a careful middle ground.

And, more importantly, it wasn’t all fawning over writers and praising their work. In her opening interview with Christos Tsiolkas, Karvan confessed she never finished the book because she hated the characters so much! I’m sure that’s not the first time Tsiolkas has had that criticism levelled at his book, but perhaps the first time he’s had to defend it on television. I think he did it pretty well!

The books covered in episode one

I thought it might be interesting to list the books covered in episode one. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews

  • ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ by Nino Culotta [not read, but we had a copy in the family home when I was growing up – amazed to discover it was written by an Irish-American, not an Italian immigrant]
  • ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey [abandoned in my pre-blogging days but as a much more experienced reader, I would be prepared to give this one another go]
  • ‘The Choke’ by Sofie Laguna [not read this, but in the TBR]
  • ‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko
  • ‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
  • The ‘Edith Trilogy’ (‘Grand Days’, ‘Dark Palace’ & ‘Cold Light’) by Frank Moorhouse [admittedly never heard of it but want to read immediately!]
  • ‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey
  • ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas
  • ‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton [read and loved when it first came out in the early 1990s and am probably due for a reread!]

The next episode, entitled ‘Place’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.