20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Giller Prize, Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Books in translation, dystopian, Eric Dupont, Fiction, Five fast reviews, literary fiction, Mercè Rodoreda, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Penguin, Publisher, QC Fiction, Quercus

Five Fast Reviews: Eric Dupont, Thea Lim, Alex Miller, Nuala O’Connor and Mercè Rodoreda

It’s been a crazy few weeks around here… and this blog has been much neglected (my last review was posted some three weeks ago). So, in a bid to get up to speed before December comes to an end, here’s five books, arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname, that I read during the year that I never quite got around to reviewing.

‘Songs for the Cold of Heart’ by Eric Dupont 

Fiction – paperback; QC Fiction; 603 pages; 2018. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Songs for the cold of heartSongs for the Cold of Heart was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, but it lost out to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. We chose it as our Shadow Giller winner — a totally unanimous decision.

Quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, this doorstop of a novel is epic in scope and unrivalled in ambition, one that makes for a truly immersive reading experience.

Full of vivid, well-drawn characters and wonderfully evoked settings, it’s a tale that spans several generations of the one Quebec-French family, with each new chapter able to stand alone as a short story. But the force of all those chapters working together creates a richly layered narrative in which motifs —  and even jokes — keep repeating themselves from one generation to the next, revealing unexpected connections and insights into a family whose reputation has been built on a combination of legend, invention and self-mythologising.  It brims with sex and humour, love and tragedy, empathy and arrogance, and is littered with tall tales, a smidgen of magic realism and much innuendo.

Expertly translated by Peter McCambridge (it must have taken an age to work on), this is a proper literary tour de force. Sadly, it is priced at an eye-watering £29 here in the UK, which is a shame, because it truly deserves a much wider English language audience.

‘An Ocean of Minutes’ by Thea Lim 

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 360 pages; 2018. 

An ocean of minutesYet another title that was shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes proved to be a great surprise. I was dreading this slice of dystopian fiction in which a 20-something woman time travels from 1981 to 1998 to escape a pandemic and be reunited with her one true love, but it’s hugely atmospheric and has a strangely haunting, elegiac tone. It totally swept me away, taking me through all the emotions from anger to heartbreak — and back again.

Reading between the lines, there are hints of social commentary — about modern slavery, the class system and immigration — and the ways in which we can become trapped by circumstances beyond our control, with no way to better ourselves or escape economic insecurity because of the systems that conspire against us. But this is also a story about courage, faith, taking risks and believing in the power of love and family.

‘The Passage of Love’ by Alex Miller 

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 584 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Passage of LoveIt’s no secret that Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors, and this novel, which is the thinly veiled story of his own life, is probably my favourite book of the year. Another truly immersive read, I devoured almost all 550-plus pages in the space of a weekend, but then eked it out for another fortnight because I simply did not want the tale to end.

It’s filled with angst, love and cruelty, as well as the struggle to be true to oneself, to find your place in the world and to find the courage to lead a creative life rather than a safe one. It’s a fascinating portrait of a complicated marriage, too, showing how we can never truly know the person with whom we are most intimate. And it’s a quintessentially Australian tale, not only in its achingly beautiful descriptions of landscapes and country towns, but of the gross injustices carried out against the First Peoples, whom Miller himself has lived and worked with and written about in previous novels.

Reading this book also helped me to appreciate the common themes in Miller’s extraordinary backlist; the pennies began to drop about his obsession with Germany and Holocaust survivors, the London Blitz, Aboriginal genocide, the writer’s life and his amazing psychological insights into love and intimacy.

‘Joyride to Jupiter’ by Nuala O’Connor 

Fiction – paperback; New Island; 157 pages; 2017. 

Joyride to jupiterI read Joyride to Jupiter as part of the #20booksofsummer challenge, but never got around to writing about it on this blog. I have previously read O’Connor’s novels, published under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, and found them both deeply moving and evocative.

This collection of short stories is more of the same, all written in eloquent, pared-back language and filled with well drawn, often troubled and flawed, characters struggling to make sense of the world. Some stories are only a few pages long, but even so, the reader is immediately immersed into the lives (and loves) of intriguing people, whether that be a young girl witnessing her father’s infidelity or a devoted husband dealing with his wife’s dementia. There are recurring themes — mainly sexual, it has to be said — but all the stories, which are set in various places around the world, are universal. It’s a quick read, but I can’t say it’s a particularly memorable one.

‘Death in Spring’ by Mercè Rodoreda

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 150 pages; 2018. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent

Death in springPart of Penguin’s  European Writers series, this novella packs a real punch despite the fact it has no real plot. Set in a remote village in Catalan where the citizens are sticklers for following tradition, it tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age and how he must forge his own path in a society that is both oppressive and cruel.

Said to be an allegory of life under Franco’s dictatorship, it’s a deeply disturbing read full of nightmarish scenes and vivid, no-holds-barred language. But it’s also very beautiful, with lush, lyrical descriptions of nature and the ever-changing seasons (indicating that life goes on regardless of whatever cruel acts humans do to each other). But, even so, Death in Spring leaves the reader unsettled, perhaps because it’s such a visceral, often challenging, experience.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Coal-Creek

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Coal Creek, published in the UK earlier this year, is typical of what I have come to expect from Alex Miller’s writing: quietly understated prose, slowly paced narratives, characters who are deep thinkers and themes which are universal.

Outback life

This story, set in the Queensland outback in the 1950s, unfolds gently but culminates in violence.

The narrator, Bobby Blue (short for Robert Blewitt), is a simple man with a strong moral compass, who finds it difficult to express himself so usually says nothing — occasionally to his disadvantage. He left school as a 10-year-old (“my mother never did get the chance to teach me nothing”) and became a stockman with his father and two others. Later, after the death of his father, he decides to work for the police, putting his horsemanship and knowledge of the bush to good use, tracking thieves and stolen stock and helping to settle the odd property dispute.

His boss, Constable Collins, is an ex-soldier who survived World War Two’s New Guinea campaign. He grew up on the coast but has accepted a bush posting, dragging his wife and daughters with him. He’s a bit out of his depth and is struggling to adjust to the scrub — he’s no natural bushman, which means he is increasingly reliant on Bobby’s skill and knowledge, although he is too arrogant to admit it.

There’s not much crime to investigate apart from the odd family feud and a bit of cattle rustling. Indeed, the previous constable used to turn a blind eye to much of this because he preferred to let people sort things out for themselves, but Collins is different: he only ever sees things in black and white, and believes his job is to police the community in the strictest possible sense. So, when an old aboriginal woman claims that Ben Tobin, an old school friend of Bobby’s, has hit Deeds, his aboriginal girlfriend, Collins is ready to throw the book at him — despite a lack of evidence.

And so Miller sets up his key theme — that of the stranger in a strange land (Collins) doing a job for which he’s ill-equipped — and pits him against the seemingly naïve and silent local (Bobby), who knows the landscape intimately and feels, if not at one with it, certainly a part of it.

First person narrative

The narrative, told entirely from Bobby’s point of view, is written in the voice of a simple, uneducated man — complete with grammatical errors —  who desperately misses his late mother and is starved of female company until Collins’ wife, Esme, encourages him to share meals with her family. Through this, Bobby develops a close friendship with the Collins’ 12-year-old daughter, Irie, who teaches him to read. But while these were simpler times and Bobby seems strangely asexual, this relationship between a man and a prepubescent girl threatens to destroy everything that Bobby holds dear.

And while I would describe Coal Creek as a proper slow burner — it took me a long time to get into — the story has a funny way of sneaking up on you and then holding on. This is largely due to the strong voice (and the wonderful storytelling), which puts you in the head of a narrator who is relating the story as it happened to him in the past (remember, things happen slowly in the bush). And because he often indicates that he wished he’d done or said something differently, a sense of doom, melancholia and regret begins to build. There’s lot of foreshadowing so that you know the narrative is going to culminate in an unhappy ending or dramatic event.

But what I liked most about this novel is the ways in which the landscape dominates the entire story; it’s beauty and strangeness, the way in which it makes man very small and insignificant, is a metaphor for the conflict between Bobby and Collins — that to survive in this land you need to understand it, or at least respect it.

We are only men. When you live as we had lived our lives in the scrubs you know you are not the boss of nothing and there is the sky and the eagles and the scrubs going on forever into them great stone escarpments. No man knows himself to be the boss of that.

Essentially Coal Creek is a love story — not only Bobby’s love for Irie, but of his mother and of the landscape and way of life. It’s also a very good examination of loyalty, trust, male friendship and the ties which bind mothers and sons. And it’s an eye-opening look at black and white relations, and the way in which remote rural areas are policed.

It is very much typical Alex Miller fare: richly evocative, intelligent and unsentimental, tethered to a strong sense of place and peopled by well-drawn characters. Don’t let the slow pace turn you off: this is one of the most absorbing stories I’ve read all year.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Setting

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

Landscape-of-farewell

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2008.

Landscape of Farewell is Alex Miller‘s eighth novel. It was first published in 2007 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008.

End of a life?

The story is told from the perspective of an elderly German academic, who is grieving over the death of his beloved wife, but finds new hope for his future in a rather unexpected way.

When the book opens, we meet Professor Max Otto as he prepares to die: he has the pills and the bottle of alcohol ready, but first he has to deliver his last public lecture entitled The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present — the title and subject matter is important — in front of his peers in the grand library at Warburg Haus.

After the applause has died down, he is challenged by a member of the audience — an Aboriginal Australian academic visiting Hamburg — who says: “How can this man presume to speak of massacre and not speak of my people?”

She was like a bright, exotic raptor spreading her gorgeous plumage in the midst of the ranks of these drab fowls. Her wild cry evidently called me to account. Once she had established an expectant silence, her voice rode upon it, her words filled with scorn and contempt. She was a woman in command of her audience and was clearly intent upon defending territory. In other words, she was young, intelligent and ambitious. With a touch of annoyance, I realised that I was not going to be permitted to slip away without being required to answer for my shoddy paper.

While Max is slightly stunned by the encounter, he’s not too worried by it — his suicide awaits. But on the walk home, his accuser, Vita McLelland (whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Dr Anita Heiss) confronts him again and the pair end up going for a drink, which distracts Max from his planned death.

The pair strike up a surprising friendship, and Max is invited to Australia to talk at a conference Vita is organising. During his visit he spends several weeks staying with Vita’s uncle, a cultural adviser and Aboriginal elder, in the Queensland bush, where he finally comes to terms with a past he has long sought to forget.

Sins of the fathers

The most surprising element of this book is the way in which it focuses on the “sins of the fathers” without ever once mentioning the word “Nazi” or term “Jewish holocaust” — and yet, clearly, this is what Max has been struggling with his whole life:

The subject of massacre, however, had obsessed me for a time in my youth, but I had found myself unable to make any headway in it owing to my emotional inhibitions, not least of which was a paralysing sense of guilt-by-association with the crimes of my father’s generation, and after several false starts I had abandoned the subject and fallen silent. It had remained an unexamined silence throughout my life and was my principal regret.

This keeping quiet about troubling events — or, as Vita puts it, “our inability to memorialise the deeds of our fathers” — is something shared by Vita’s uncle, the quiet and hard-working Dougald, whose great-grandfather, the warrior Gnapun, was responsible for the massacre of a white community in which 19 people died*.

When Dougald shares this story with Max, he asks Max to write it down for him so that it can be passed on to others and not die with him. This allows Max to see that there are ways to tell the truth about subjects that are hard to talk about and that shameful pasts are not unique to Germans unable to deal with what happened in the Second World War.

Common links

What I loved most about Landscape of Farewell is the way Miller takes two seemingly disparate cultures — Germans and Indigenous Australians — and shows their surprising similarities. Indeed, the message seems to be that we are all human, are all troubled by past wrongs but that it is up to successive generations to deal with that and to find their own truth in order to move forward.

But this is also very much a book about silence and the ways in which men find it difficult to open up to one another. It’s a significant turning point in the novel when Max and Dougald finally talk about important matters, because it is only then that the pair — and Max in particular — can reconcile their own individual pasts with the history of their respective countries.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that the landscape of the Australian bush plays a strong role in the novel too, for it is the silence of these wide open spaces that gives Max room to think, which, in turn, aids his “recovery”.

Landscape of Farewell is a wise, knowing and intelligent novel, not only about grappling with history, but of growing old, forging friendships and being kind to one another. It makes me even more keen to read the rest of Miller’s prize-winning back catalogue.

* In his Acknowledgements, Miller says this is based on the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, supposedly the largest-ever massacre of white settlers by Indigenous Australians in Australia’s history. You can read more about this event at Wikipedia.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Tivington Nott’ by Alex Miller

Tivington-Nott

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 180 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It somehow seems appropriate to post this review on the day of the Grand National, a horse race over jumps that has its roots in both hunting and steeplechasing (in which farmers would race their horses from one church steeple to another, jumping over ditches, hedges and whatever else happened to get in the way as they did so). Whatever you think of the National, there’s no doubt that it demonstrates the superb athleticism of the horse. It also demonstrates the special relationship between horse and rider — how the two can work as one to achieve great feats of courage and stamina.

That’s one of the central themes of Alex Miller‘s debut novel, The Tivington Nott, which was first published in 1989, but has just been made available to British readers for the first time thanks to a reprint by the publisher Allen & Unwin UK. It is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

An outsider’s view

The story is set in 1952 on a farm in Somerset, where the unnamed narrator is a teenage labourer from London struggling to fit in. The first part of the novel sets out to describe how he is at odds with everyone around him — he refuses to call his boss master as tradition dictates, gets bullied by local labourers and is viewed with disdain by the farmer’s wife (“Mrs Roly-Poly”) who believes “boys from London cannot be trusted”.

The only person with whom he should feel some affinity is another outsider, Major Fred Alsop, a retired Australian army officer trying too hard to be accepted by the locals who secretly despise him. The Major wears the attire of the landed gentry, talks too loudly and goes about as if he owns the place (“An Australian horseman in fancy dress prancing around on Exmoor. Out of a book, this bloke. A tourist!”). But even our narrator cannot fail to notice that the Major will never fit in —  he is tolerated because he has a rather impressive, and much sought-after, black stallion imported from Australia called Kabara.

It is Kabara that forms the bridging link between the first part of the story and the (far larger) second part, because our narrator ends up riding the stallion in the stag hunt, which is so evocatively described that you feel as if you are right there in the saddle with him.

Based on real people and events

Alex Miller makes no secret that this book is largely autobiographical — he, too, was a farm labourer in West Somerset when he was 15, before he emigrated to Australia alone when he was 17 . His “author’s note” at the front of my edition claims that all the characters are based on real people and that he even used some of their real names.

This probably explains why the novel feels so authentic and “animated”. You get such a sense of the claustrophobic closed social system in which he finds himself that it’s hard not to share his loneliness and alienation. And it’s easy to understand why he so identifies with Kabara, a gutsy stallion who defies the odds to compete with other horses more used to challenging West Country terrain than him, and the “Tivington nott”, a local stag that has no antlers rumoured to live in the area.

What I loved most about the book was the sense of adventure and excitement it conveys as the narrator rides second horse to the stag hunt. Every little moment of the chase is recorded — the uphill battles, the treacherous descents, the death-defying jumps — so that most of the time your heart is in your throat willing him to stay on the horse and keep in sight of the hounds. And all the time Miller is conscious of conveying the mysterious beauty of the natural world.

In front of me the wide silent ride winds deep into the dark green and dun shadows of the ancient woods. I peer down this track, shaded and thick on either side with bracken and underbrush. A bird is calling repeatedly in there; a sharp short urgent sound, again and again. Then it stops and everything is silent and still around me. Those great dogs are in there too, somewhere. They are intently unravelling the labyrinth of animal scents, some of them perhaps staying true to the peculiar signature of the Haddon stag, approaching his secret lair, working the complex line closer to him by the minute.

Threaded into this thrilling narrative are little insights into various characters — the houndsman Grabbe, the whipper-in Matthew Tolland, the red-coated huntsman Perry, the chairman of the Hunt Damages Committee Harry Cheyne and the master of the hunt, Mrs Grant, among others — so that a well rounded picture of this close-knit community, where class and social standing is everything, is evoked.

But this is not just a fast-paced spinetingling read: the conclusion is a deeply moving one as our narrator realises Kabara has found his place, but he still hasn’t quite found his…

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller

Autumn_laing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 446 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most non-Australian readers of this blog will not have heard of Alex Miller, much less read anything by him. Some may even have mixed him up with British writer Andrew Miller or A.D. Miller. This is a great shame, because Alex Miller, who is a London-born Australian (he emigrated when he was 16), writes extraordinarily lush literary novels which deserve a wide audience. It’s no exaggeration to say he has won practically every writing prize going in Australia — and was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 — so it’s about time the rest of the world caught up.

His latest novel, Autumn Laing, is his tenth book and has just been published in the UK (the Kindle edition is available in the USA). It’s a wonderfully confident, wise and funny novel, filled with beautiful language and unforgettable characters.

The price of illicit love

Just as Irish writer Sebastian Barry rescued his aunt’s untold history and fictionalised it so vividly in On Canaan’s Side, Miller does something similar with the story of Sunday Reed, an art patron who became the jilted lover of Australian artist Sidney Nolan. In this fictionalised account, Sunday is “played by” Autumn Laing, and Sidney Nolan’s role goes to the talented but struggling artist Pat Donlan.

The narrative is shaped as a personal confession — “my last chance to tell the truth” — written by Autumn over the course of a year. She is 85 years old and her conscience is eating away at her. Recently, she thought she saw Pat Donlan’s wife — the woman she wronged 53 years earlier — coming out of the local chemist shop, and now her mind is thinking back to that time in her life when she met Pat and started a rather erotic affair with him.

But this is more than a story about their affair and the price of illicit love; it also charts the changing face of Australian art — and the desperate need for it to be recognised in Europe — in the late 1930s, and how so much of an artist’s success was truly dependent on patrons to fund and champion it.

A brilliantly witty narrator

The best bit about Autumn Laing, aside from its intelligence, poignancy and wit, is the main character who is one of the funniest and most intriguing fictional creations I have come across in a long while. She’s feisty, cantankerous — and farts a lot, mainly because she consumes copious amount of cabbage on a daily basis.

Sadly, Autumn’s hugely engaging first-person narrative does not run for the entire length of the novel. Instead, the view point changes regularly and some of it is written in the third person as Autumn imagines scenes and events that happened when she was not present — for instance, the meeting between Pat and her husband, when Pat visited him in Melbourne to beg for money to support his art work. Initially, this is disorientating for the reader, but once you get over the initial shock that Autumn’s voice is having a momentary rest, you get used to it — and then you look forward to her interjections, which occur in alternate chapters.

I spent a good two weeks with Autumn (I was reading other things in between) and hugely enjoyed her company, and I was really sad to see her go when I came to the end.

Autumn Laing was shortlisted for the 2011 Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards (Individual category) and the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Fiction Award, and longlisted for the 2012 ALS Gold Medal and 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

Lovesong

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 354 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alex Miller is a London-born Australian writer with nine novels to his name. Two of these — The Ancestor Game (1993) and Journey to the Stone Country (2003) — have earned him the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His most recent novel, Lovesong, was released in Australia in 2009 but has just been published in the UK for the first time.

Having never read any of Miller’s work before — I’ve got three of his novels in my always-growing To Be Read pile — I was anxious to see if this one would live up to the high praise I had heard about. The short answer is this: it did. The long answer is the review which follows.

Lovesong is a story within a story. It’s not exactly metafiction, but it comes close. An elderly novelist searching for a subject to write about meets a middle-aged man with a story to tell.

Ken is on the verge of retirement (“My last novel was always going to be my last novel”), who lives with his 38-year-old daughter, Clare. Their relationship isn’t exactly fraught, but there are clearly tensions between them. And it doesn’t help that Clare only moved in for a few weeks when she was newly separated from her husband — and that was five years ago!

One day Ken notices a new pastry shop in his local neighbourhood, run by an intriguing couple: a North African woman in her early 40s — beautiful and self-possessed, but with a deep sadness in her eyes — and her Australian school teacher husband. They have a pretty six-year-old daughter.

Ken becomes slightly obsessed with them and wants to find out how they met, “this Aussie bloke and his exotic bride”, and engineers a meeting with the husband, John Patterner. Over the course of many afternoons, lingering over coffee in a local cafe, John tells Ken his story.

The story of himself and his wife, Sabiha, the beautiful woman from Tunisia whom he had married in Paris when he was a young man and she was little more than a girl. And the beautiful and terrible story of their little daughter Houria.

Ken then spends his evenings secretly typing up what he has been told. He can’t help himself: he needs to write — “During my life I had acquired no skills for not working and I soon found that not writing a book was harder than writing one was” — and these form the bulk of the novel Lovesong. What he had initially predicted as a “simple love story” is far more complicated, and tragic, than he ever could imagine.

John and Sabiha’s tale begins beautifully — and romantically — and brims with optimism for the future. But the couple work so hard running a busy and successful cafe in a seedy suburb of Paris that there is little time for anything else in their lives. By the time they realise they want different things — for Sabiha, a much longed for child, and for John, a permanent return to Australia — years have passed and it might be too late.

Lovesong is, indeed, just that: a love song. But it’s also a story about regret, about thwarted dreams, about the ways in which love between two people can change over time. It is incredibly romantic, but authentic — Miller really gets inside the heads of his characters, both male and female, and presents either side of the gender divide with aplomb.

There’s something about the cool, limpid prose that keeps sentimentality at bay. But despite its emotional detachment, this is one of the most affecting love stories I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the most thought-provoking. That’s largely due to the device of Ken — whose intelligent, writerly voice, only interrupts the main narrative on an occasional basis. But his presence begs the question: is he authorised to tell this tale? Or does John and Sabiha’s love story remain their’s alone to keep?