Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

Love and loss, the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, growing up in outback Australia, and strained relationships between sisters all feature heavily in Gail Jones’ latest novel Our Shadows.

Outback setting

This gently nuanced novel is largely set in the outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth, in Western Australia.

Against this dramatic landscape, we follow the lives of two sisters, Nell and Frances, who are raised by their grandparents following the death of their mother sometime in the 1980s. (Their father flees — whether from shock or grief or a refusal to be responsible for his two daughters, we don’t know — and is never seen again.)

It charts the closeness of their childhood, united in orphanhood and by a love of art, reading and a desire to visit the sea. (The print of Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave, part of which is reproduced on the book’s cover, plays a key role in their childhood fantasy to one day paddle in the ocean.)

But when the book opens, the sisters, vastly different in temperament and personality, are now 30-something adults living in Sydney and they are estranged. Frances, the introverted one, is a widow, her husband having died from mesothelioma, an excruciating lung disease, and her days are now spent visiting her grandmother, Else, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.

The plot, which is is split into two parts, largely focuses on the sisters’ relationship, how it splintered and whether it can be repaired. It looks at the history of their parents (how they met, fell in love and got married) and their maternal grandparents (who, bowed by grief, had to raise their daughter’s children) to create a beguiling portrait of three generations of the one family.

The second part of the novel looks at Frances’ return to Kalgoorlie to rediscover her roots and find out more about the father she never knew.

Interleaved through this story of an outback family is another story — that of the real-life Irishman, Paddy Hannan, who was the first to discover gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893 and is largely known as the founder of the town.

An unexpected treat

Admittedly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this author. I have read four of Gail Jones’ books now and fallen in love with some titles (Five Bells and Sixty Lights), felt lukewarm about others (A Guide to Berlin) and not liked very much at all (Sorry), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. I didn’t have to worry. This was an unexpected treat.

I read Our Shadows on the seven-hour train ride back from Kalgoorlie, having visited for a few days earlier this month, and it certainly captured the feeling of this outback gold mining town with its super-wide streets (so that camel trains could turn around), rich colonial architecture and mining infrastructure, including the super pit gold mine, which is referenced a lot in the story (see my pictures below).

The Super Pit was visible from space. Everyone said so. She remembered the day of the inauguration, the mayor, the mining officials, the politicians in their grey suits, the way her class had to stand in the sun, squinting in lines on a dais, and sing the national anthem. As a child she imagined herself in space with a small rocket strapped to her back; she would look down and see the Super Pit reduced to a dark blot. It reassured her to imagine in this way, lofty and unconcerned.

There’s always something about reading a book set in a place you have visited (or are visiting) that makes the story resonate more, and that was certainly the case with this one.

As ever, Jones’ work is subtle, her writing polished and poetic, and she is an expert at nuance, expertly capturing moods, expressions and the interconnectedness between people that makes life so rich and varied. Her descriptions of people, places and time periods are evocative and her characters all-too-human, flawed but believable.

Our Shadows is not a fast-paced novel and, as such, it is not one to race through. Instead, it’s one to linger over, to savour the language and the feelings the story evokes.

This is my 22nd — and final — book for #AWW2020.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, Germany, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gail Jones latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, pays homage to Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer who inspired the title*, as well as the city of Berlin itself.

The book focuses on a group of six Berlin-based Nabokov fans from around the world — two Italians, a Japanese couple, an American and an Australian — who meet regularly to tell a “densely remembered story or detail” about their lives, what they dub “speak-memory** disclosures”.

The narrative largely revolves around Cass, the 20-something Australian who has decamped from Sydney to Berlin in pursuit of a dream: to write and to be near the family home in which Nabokov once lived. Here she meets Marco, the Italian academic/real estate agent, who organises the Nabokov get-togethers in empty apartments he’s trying to sell. And from there she is introduced to the others in the group: Victor from New York, Gino from Rome, and Yukio and Mitsuki from Tokyo.

Short stories woven together

The book is loosely structured around each character’s speak-memory, giving it the feel of a short story collection. It’s not quite as rigid as Jones’ previous novel, Five Bells, which follows the lives of five different characters in clearly delineated sections, but more fluid in the sense that Cass’s new life exploring Berlin is woven throughout the narrative: her adventures are simply punctuated by the Nabovok meetings she attends.

This helps to provide the story with a real sense of atmosphere. Jones does a lot of work telling us about Berlin’s haunted past and how its streets, shrouded in winter snow, almost echo with the footsteps of people long since dead. Indeed, Berlin feels very much like a character in its own right, and it’s beautifully evoked through the eyes of an antipodean experiencing a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time:

Before the snows truly began, the city was a desolating ash-grey, and bitterly cold. Cass had never seen such a grey city. It felt stiff and dead. There were the fleshless arms of cranes, slowly swinging, there was the rumble slide of ubiquitous trains and trams, there were busy buses, skidding pedestrians, instructive red and green lights blinking their cartoon man, but still Berlin seemed to her collectively frozen. The white sky was menacing. The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after a wartime bombing.

Stylistically superb

But I have to say I found A Guide to Berlin slightly disappointing. I can’t fault the prose, which is beautiful and elegiac and littered with Nabokov references that I’m sure fans will enjoy spotting. And there’s no doubting that Jones’ is a superb stylist, with every single word carefully selected to do a specific job, but that, on its own, isn’t enough to carry this relatively thin story, which occasionally feels fleshed out merely for the sake of it.

But I think my biggest gripe is this: it’s not a plot-driven novel, and yet, just as the reader begins to wonder how the story is going to end, the author relies on plot-driven devices to bring things to a head. The ending, as the blurb will tell you, is violent and shocking. But it also feels rushed — and far from authentic.

Yet, for all that, the story is an easy one to read, and I very much enjoyed spending time in Cass’s company and seeing Berlin through her eyes. I, too, have been a tourist a long way from home and I know of the torpor and melancholy that can arise when you’re suddenly confronted with horrendously oppressive weather day in day out and no support network to see you through.

This is a seemingly gentle and reflective story — about all kinds of things including truth, friendship, loyalty and travel — which slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion. I rather suspect if you’ve read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and liked it, you will like A Guide to Berlin too.

* A Guide to Berlin is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, which was first published in 1925.
** Nabokov’s memoir, published in 1951, was called Speak, Memory.

This is my fourth book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my third for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 224 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gail Jones is an acclaimed Australian writer with four novels to her name. Five Bells, her fifth, is set in Sydney on one day shortly after the new Labor Government has come to power, some time in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters as they criss-cross the city on a fine summer’s day.

There is Ellie, a tourist from rural NSW, who has ventured into the city to meet her old boyfriend, James, whom she has not seen for several years. Ellie’s home-life has been troubled, and James, now a school teacher, is recovering from a tragedy that has scarred him emotionally.

Then there is Catherine, from Dublin, who is embarking on a new life in Australia after the death of her beloved brother in a car accident. And, finally, there is Pei Xing, born in China, who is still trying to come to terms with the loss of her parents, who were killed in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Apart from Ellie and James, these characters do not know each other but there are fleeting moments when their lives intersect. Eventually they meet, but under unexpected and tragic circumstances, right at the end of the novel.

The book is not particularly plot-driven, but it is very much a story about characters, and, in particular, their inner lives. There’s a quote about three-quarters of the way through that sums up the premise of Five Bells perfectly. In it Ellie stands at a bus-stop processing the thoughts in her head: her dad’s untimely death; her mother’s quick and unexpected re-marriage; of having sex with Jamie in her teenage years.

A bus-stop wait could cover all this, all this complicated history. A woman standing still in a main street on a Saturday afternoon could carry all this: death, time, recollected acts of love-making — all together, simultaneous, ringing in her head.

In many ways that’s exactly what reading this book feels like. You become totally immersed in the interior monologues of the four different characters, holding their thoughts in your own head, like a simultaneous refrain, and waiting for the moments of shared experience, whether physical or mental, between them.

Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic backstory and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface. In many ways this is a book about the deep personal secrets we all keep.

Pei Xing is a prime example. Her self-reliance, friendliness and kindness belies her tortured past. Every week she makes a long trek by public transport to visit an elderly woman in hospital recovering from a stroke. The woman was once her prison guard in China, but it is not something she has ever told anyone. Who, for instance, would understand their complicated relationship? Pei simply sits with the woman and reads Doctor Zhivago, which her father translated, to her.

She did not speak of Mao. She did not mention their large-scale history, the three-year famine, or the anti-rightist campaigns; just as she did not tell the most private of her family memories, the red-coat day, her mother’s music, the times she had spent learning English and Russian from her father. And so it went by, the cosy lassitude of a hospital afternoon, washed in reminiscence and a snowy story from Russia.

The city of Sydney is also a central character in this book. There are recurring motifs throughout: Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House; an Aboriginal busker playing a didgeridoo; Circular Quay and the ferries plying the water; the Museum of Contemporary Art; the sunshine and the glittering harbour waters.

And in this there are echoes of James Joyce’s Dubliners, especially in the last paragraph which is reminiscent of Joyce’s great short story The Dead, substituting the snow over Dublin for rain over Sydney.

There is a lot of music in this novel, too, a soundtrack that mirrors the cacophony of city noises. Catherine has Elvis Costello’s I Want You trailing “mournfully through her head”, listens to Sinead O’Connor singing Raglan Road, and has a crush on U2’s Bono stemming from her teenage years; James has Coldplay’s Clocks in his mind (“it is the curse of his generation, to have a soundtrack enlisted for everything”) and is haunted by the disturbing images in the video for Nirvana’s Heart-shaped Box which he’d seen as a 19-year-old. Even Pei remembers her father telling her that everyone possesses an “inward music”.

Five Bells is an ambitious, beautifully written novel, full of the lovely rich language I’ve come to expect from Gail Jones (I’ve reviewed Sorry and Sixty Lights on this blog). It’s a moving, rather gentle, story about coming to grips with the past in order to move into the future, of the ties that bind us to our families, and of the things we never tell each other. And I’d like to think it might earn Jones a place on this year’s Booker long-list…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Sorry’ by Gail Jones


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 218 pages; 2008.

Gail Jones‘ fourth novel, Sorry,has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize as well as the Miles Franklin Award. Even before it was nominated for these prestigious literary prizes, I was looking forward to reading it. I gave Sixty Lights a glowing five-star review way back in 2006, so I expected high things from Jones’ new one and promptly ordered a copy from Amazon as soon as it was available in paperback.

But Sorry was disappointing. I wanted to love it. I wanted to find it so brilliantly readable I would find it impossible to put down. Instead, it was the opposite: I’d put it down and then find it almost impossible to pick up. This bugged me, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason for my unwillingness to finish the book. And then it occurred to me: I simply did not like any of the characters, a cast of kooky, unlovable and deeply confused people that, quite frankly, annoyed the hell out of me.

Is this a shallow reason for not liking a book? Probably.

That said, Sorry deals with some big themes, not the least of which is Australia’s shameful past treatment of Aboriginals in which children were taken from their families and raised with whites, what we now know as the “stolen generations“. Jones’ book is, indeed, timely, given that the country’s newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, recently apologised for a (now defunct) Government Policy that ruined so many lives and caused so much heartache and pain.

The story, which is set in the remote outback of Western Australia during the Second World War, deals with this issue in a rather oblique way. Indeed, many readers, particularly those who know nothing of this dark history, may not even pick up on it — although Jones provides a helpful, if slightly cloying, explanation of it in her acknowledgment at the end of the book.

The novel opens with the central character Perdita telling the story of her childhood in the Australian wilderness. Her parents, Nicholas and Stella, are English immigrants. Both are relatively complicated characters with a love of literature — their shack in the outback is filled to the brim with books, all imported from the Mother country — but their relationship is a loveless one. Indeed, Nicholas secretly engages in sexual relations with aboriginal women, while his wife slips into a dark depression (she is hospitalised on more than one occasion) and becomes increasingly obsessed by Shakespeare’s work.

Perdita, often left to her own devices, makes friends with Mary, an aboriginal teenager from an orphanage, who comes to live with them as the “hired help”. Their relationship becomes an especially close one, almost as if they are sisters.

It would remain wholly separate, Perdita’s time with Mary. There was something implacable, sure, about what they shared. Mary was by turns girlish and adult, but she looked after Perdita, daily attending her, offering companionship, knowledge and caring advice. She taught her poker (how to shuffle, to deal, how finally, to cheat), desert songs (learned from her mother from whom she’d been taken), and the lives of the saints (the strange details of which she had read about in the orphanage).

But this tender relationship — and one of the strengths of the book, it has to be said — comes to an abrupt end when Nicholas is brutally murdered one dark night.

It’s no plot spoiler to say that Perdita’s life is changed from then on, but I felt that the death came too early in the story (less than half-way through), because the book loses momentum after this dramatic event. I struggled to complete it, because although the murderer is not immediately obvious I’d already guessed who it was (the product of reading too many crime thrillers, perhaps?) and so I found the remaining 120-plus pages a bit of a drag — although the ending is a powerful, heart-wrenching one.

To suggest that Sorry is a little bit of a bore, a little dull, may be harsh, especially given that I simply cannot fault Jones beautiful, poetic prose, her pitch-perfect descriptions of the Australian bush and the sheer isolation of the country, far removed from the horrific events of the war in Europe. But the story lacks a certain something, although I can’t quite put my finger on it aside from its decided lack of lovable characters. Perhaps it’s narrative drive? Perhaps it’s a properly structured story arc?  Whatever the case, my overall opinion is that Sorry is a worthy book but not a brilliant one.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, historical fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Sixty Lights’ by Gail Jones


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2005.

Sixty Lights by Gail Jones is a compelling, captivating novel about one young woman’s drama-filled life in Victorian times.

Orphaned as a young child, Lucy Strange and her younger brother are brought up by a slightly eccentric uncle. Leaving their native Australia, the family moves to Dickensian London, a city that was “too vast, too chill and altogether too drear”. Later, Lucy sets forth for the more exotic India, where she sets up home with her uncle’s fey friend in a wealthy European enclave of Bombay.

Throughout the ups and downs of her life (love affairs, depression, oceanic travel) Lucy keeps a diary “bound in purple morocco and tied with a black ribbon” where she “recorded and stored her apprehensions, not of events, but of images”. She calls this diary Special Things Seen. Her eye for detail is so keen she becomes a photographer, recording the people, places and objects that so deeply affect her.

Given that Lucy is to meet her death when she is just 22 – this fact is revealed to the reader at the very start of the novel — her eye for beauty, photographic talents and passion for life resonates even more strongly, because you know (that she doesn’t know) that she’s running out of time to make every moment count.

As a previous post may have indicated, I fell in love with the grace and beauty of Sixty Lights. This is a gorgeous, evocative and handsomely written novel that defies description. It’s a book to wrap yourself up in, a book in which you can let the perfect, lyrical prose wash over you. There are sentences in Sixty Lights that make you stop and smile, others that you want to hold close and etch on your mind forever. (One of my favourites, from page 126, is this: “His shape above the desk was a human comma: everything about him paused.”)

It is ripe with symbolism and littered with references to photographic processes and techniques (for instance, from page 5,  “the blinding flash of a burnt magnesium ribbon”). There are multiple layers of meaning that aren’t fully appreciated on just one reading. I don’t re-read books but I feel that with this one, I must. And I know I will enjoy it just as much, if not more, second time around.