Author, Bae Suah, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Korea, Vintage

‘Untold Night and Day’ by Bae Suah

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 156 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Where do I even begin with this strange and cryptic novella from South Korea?

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a bit like a fever dream with no seemingly coherent narrative thread. It feels disorientating and disjointed, but peel away the chaotic tumbling of words, repeated phrases and motifs, and you discover a world that feels a lot like this one yet doesn’t quite follow the same rules.

Time, for instance, is warped; the past and present collide in a way that is far from linear, and sometimes it’s hard to follow the identities of people, so you’re never sure if you are following multiple characters or a single character with multiple identities.

A simple story, extravagantly told

On the face of it, the story is a simple one: it charts the movements of a young woman across the space of a single day and night (hence the title) in the middle of summer.

During this short period, Ayami — who may or may not be an actress, or may or may not be a poet — finishes up her shift at an audio theatre for the blind, bumps into a former businessman, searches for a missing friend and looks after Wolfi, a visiting poet from Germany.

But so much happens — and doesn’t happen — that the edges of reality seem blurred, confused, dizzying. There’s a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the prose which shifts between poetic eloquence and a plain-speaking simplicity, sometimes within the space of a single paragraph. And it offers a richly multi-sensory experience.

Someone bumped into Ayami and muttered an apology, muffled and inarticulate, as though they had spoken into their scarf or collar. When they moved past the faint scent of cat came from their clothing. Or it might have been the smell of a pine marten or badger. Ayami was sitting alone in the outdoor smoking area. A withered, neglected hydrangea was tangled against the wall. Ayami was watching her own huge shadow wavering on the wall.

A sense of déjà vu

It’s the kind of writing, with its recurrent motifs — “exposed skinny calves corded with stringy muscle”, “pathetically small feet” and “sunken eyes” are just some of the many examples dotted throughout the text — that provides an ongoing sense of déjà vu. Haven’t I read this before, I kept asking myself?

And that’s what also provides the narrative with a beguiling feeling of time collapsing in on itself.

Ayami was her future self or her past self. And she was both, existing at the same time. In that other world, she was both the chicken and the old woman. That was the secret of night and day existing simultaneously.

Yet, despite the lush language and the simultaneous experiences that occur, the book is rooted in philosophy, asking serious questions about the meaning of life. Most of the characters rail against loneliness, seek meaning in beauty and are looking for direction — in love and careers. They are all seeking a life less ordinary.

My whole life, I’ve only ever walked well-trodden paths. I’ve been afraid of being alone. Thinking about it now, it’s not clear whether it is loneliness or meaningless that I’ve truly feared. Even so, I’ve always failed to get people to agree to things. That smell of the suburbs, of people who have jobs, have mainly been sinecures, I’m well aware of how it pervades me.

Strange and unusual

Untold Night and Day isn’t an easy book to love. It’s complex and confusing, but it also does amazing things to the brain and images seep into the subconscious only to arise when you least expect them. In that sense, it’s hugely reminiscent of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, a series of interlinked short stories in which characters move from one tale to another and recurring images and motifs work together to create a dreamlike reading experience.

I enjoyed the experience of reading this one, but it’s not a book to go into lightly — it’s one that demands focus and attention, the kind of tale to get completely lost in, metaphorically, of course.

For a more eloquent and detailed review of this book, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

Andrew O'Hagan, Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Mayflies’ by Andrew O’Hagan

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 277 pages; 2020.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish writer and literary critic with several award-winning novels and non-fiction books to his name.

Mayflies, his sixth novel, won the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose in 2020, with the judges describing it as “exuberant and heartbreaking”.

They weren’t wrong. This is a rare novel that starts out full of bonhomie and youthful energy and a cheerfulness that resonates off the page. By the end, the reader is left feeling bereft in the knowledge that life, for some, can be full of challenges despite our very best efforts to make something of ourselves. But there is also an aching awareness of the importance of love and friendship in all stages of our lives.

A book of two halves

Mayflies is a coming-of-age story framed around a group of working-class Ayrshire lads growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and is divided into two equal parts. The first is set in the summer of 1986; the second, some 30 years later, in the autumn of 2017.

It’s narrated by Jimmy, a bookish 18-year-old who has “divorced” his parents, and largely hangs out with his larger-than-life friend, Tully, whose family have pretty much adopted him as one of their own.

It’s this friendship between the quiet, thoughtful schoolboy Jimmy and the mischevious and fun-to-be-around lathe-turner Tully that forms the heart of the novel.

Together with a group of friends — Limbo, Tibbs, Dr Clogs and Hogg — they head to Manchester for a weekend of music and mayhem, a weekend that turns out to be one of the most formative experiences of their lives, filled with banter, booze, adrenalin and a sense of freedom.

The Manchester scene

For those of us of a certain, a-hem, age (O’Hagan is just a year older than me), Manchester was the musical Mecca of the world in the mid-to-late 1980s and beyond, and O’Hagan beautifully captures the awe and excitement of seeing those quintessential bands of the time, as punk merged into New Wave, and offered up the likes of Joy Divison, New Order and The Smiths.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu*. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things.

The novel is shot through with references to the record stores (Picadilly Records), music venues (G-Mex), nightclubs (Hacienda) and record labels (Factory) of the time, which lends a ring of authenticity — and nostalgia.

I was a record-shop obsessive in my day, so this quote particularly resonated:

We were all obsessed with record shops. The major churches of the British Isles, with their stained glass, rood screens, and flying buttresses, were as nothing next to some grubby black box under Central Station, or some rabbit hutch in Manchester, which sold imports, fanzines, and gobbets of gig information.

But I also enjoyed the name-checking of bands and films and books and political events — the UK miner’s strike et al — and I laughed out loud at the scene in which Jimmy and Tully spot the members of The Smiths coming down the stairs of the hotel they were drinking in and going out into the street.

I thought I was seeing stuff — nobody else in the foyer seemed to notice. I elbowed Tully and he turned to see Morrissey and Marr. A lurch in the stomach. The singer was wearing a red shirt and he hit the air like a chip-pan on fire. Right behind him was Johnny Marr, light and young as his melodies and smoking a fag. The word ‘vermillion’ came to mind, and so did his lyrics, all the band’s images, and that’s how it works when you’re a fan who thinks Keats might save the world. In an instant, without a word being exchanged, Tully and I were through the doors and onto the pavement, just in time to see the famous Mancunians stepping into a Rolls-Royce.

Change in gear

When the book reaches the halfway point, there is a definite change in gear. Gone is the exuberance and energy of the first half, instead, there is a sombre, more serious tone to the writing reflected in the age of the characters who are now middle-aged men living quietly middle-class lives, far removed from the working-class roots of their fathers.

Jimmy is a successful writer living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre; Tully has gone back to school to transform himself into an English teacher and he is now Head of English at a school in Glasgow. He has a long-term partner, Anna, and is relatively happy and settled.

A phone call brings them back together again and what follows tests both men’s friendship, Jimmy’s relationship with Anna, and their worldviews.

This part might sound depressing, but it’s shot through with humour — Tully never loses his zest for life and his penchant for banter — and there’s a wedding that brings together many of the lads from the Manchester trip who haven’t seen each other for decades, as well as a holiday to Sicily that is depicted with charm and vividness.

Throughout, O’Hagan treads a fine line, showing the contrast between middle age and youth, without sliding into sentimentality. Yes, it’s occasionally wistful and there’s an undercurrent of pathos, but the story, as a whole, is evocative and poignant.

It explores many issues including the positive long-term impact a teacher can have on a student’s future; the importance of defending working-class rights but not their prejudices; the far-reaching consequences of Thatcherite politics on an entire generation and the ways in which the more recent Brexit referendum will do something similar. But I especially loved its depiction of music, male friendship and mortality.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life, Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal, and Annabel’s review at Annabookbel.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle: Male friendship, family and music form the central themes of this frank and funny novel about a man grappling with his own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

* This is how I felt about London when I first arrived in the summer of 1998! 

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Harper Collins, Ilaria Bernardini, literary fiction, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘The Girls Are Good’ by Ilaria Bernardini

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 205 pages; 2022.

The dark side of competitive gymnastics is explored in this fast-paced story by Ilaria Bernardini, an Italian novelist who writes in English.

The Girls Are Good is narrated by Martina, a teenage girl taking part in an elite international competition being held in Romania, whose cynical voice acts as a form of armour.

She’s the least accomplished of the girls in her team and comes from a much poorer background; there’s the constant feeling that she’s not good enough and never will be, and yet, as the reader comes to discover a little later on, she’s been brave enough to speak out about the abuses happening in her squad.

That abuse is sexual and, initially, is only hinted at:

[As gymnasts] Our body is our most precious possession. That’s why we live and travel with a physio. And that’s why we have daily sessions with him. In theory, the sessions are there to protect our most precious possession. In reality, it’s in there that it all gets broken.

Martina explains how the girls are in a constant battle against puberty; that to achieve success in the sport their bodies must remain small and undeveloped. They can control some of this through diet  — they are all anorexic to some degree — but they can’t stop themselves from getting tall or developing breasts.

She-who-puts-on-weight is done for. She-who-grows-tall is done for. She-who-grows-boobs, done for, unless she can endure very tight wrapping.

Obsessive sport

To help her cope, Martina has little rituals — or obsessive-compulsive tics — that she carries out. She taps things twice and pulls the zipper of her jacket up and down ten times in a row, all in a bid to achieve success.

Maybe we are all a bit obsessive […] and in the end we usually all turn a blind eye to each other’s monsters and manias and we’ll pretty much take any spell that we think will make us win and not die.

During the trip, Martina is forced to share a room with Carla and Nadia, the two best (and meanest) gymnasts in the squad who have an almost claustrophobic symbiotic relationship going on. They share a bed and are so close, physically and mentally, that they shut everyone else out, increasing Martina’s sense of isolation and “otherness” even more.

Intense competition

The story is structured over the seven days of competition — from Monday to Sunday — and is set up in the style of a literary thriller.

The page-turning danger comes in many different forms, including the risk of death from an accident on the high beams or pommel horse and the ongoing sexualisation and pedophilia that exists in the sport. But it actually ends in the grisly murder of a rival competitor.

While the premise is intriguing (it’s what drew me to the book in the first place), I found the ending a bit of a let down. What I did like was the voice of the narrator — cynical, matter-of-fact, free from sentimentality or any emotion at all — and the insider’s look at the brutal side of a sport that looks beautiful from the outside.

The Girls Are Good is about the pursuit of perfection and the risks that come with it. It’s about the destructive force of obsessive friendships and the ways in which girls can be silenced by those supposedly responsible for their care.

It’s not a pretty story. The near total absence of adults in this book and the claustrophobic and cruel world presented, with its deep-seated “traditions” and acceptance of immoral or questionable behaviour, is both shocking and stomach-churning.

There is absolutely no sense of redemption.

Apparently, the book has been optioned by Indigo productions along with All 3Media (the company behind Fleabag) for an eight-part TV series.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries Volume II, 1987-1995’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

I think I might burn all these diaries. What if I died and people got hold of them and read them? Their endless self obsession, anecdotes, self-excuses, rationalisations. Meanness about others.

One Day I’ll Remember This is the second volume in Helen Garner’s diaries, of which there are currently three. (I have reviewed her first volume, Yellow Notebook, here.)

This one covers the period 1987 to 1995 and begins with the news that Garner, now in her mid-40s, is splitting her time between Melbourne, where she lives, a rural retreat called Primrose Gully, and Sydney, where her lover, the writer dubbed “V”, resides. She later marries him — her third marriage —  but it’s not all smooth sailing.

In her richly detailed prose, she pours out her heart and shares her innermost thoughts about life and love and friendship and the creative urge — and everything in between.

A writer’s life

And, because she is a writer, we find out what she’s reading —  John McGahern, Janet Malcolm, Slyvia Plath, Patrick White, old copies of the TLS, Sally Morgan’s My Place, among others — and get a ringside seat as she works on her own screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous and, a little later, her novel Cosmo Cosmolino (which I haven’t read).

Towards the end of this volume, she’s penning The First Stone, a non-fiction book (about a sexual harassment case) that turned out to be especially divisive — even before it was published.

A friend called: ‘Listen, the shit’s really going to hit the fan with this book. The street word is you’re running the line that women get raped were asking for it.’

Self-aware but fearless

Not that Garner is too worried about what anyone thinks of her. Throughout this volume, it’s clear she’s her own harshest critic.

I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?

She’s plagued by self-doubt, not only in her work but in her life as well, both as a mother and as a wife.

I say, ‘I’m no good at marriage. I think I’d be awful to be married to.’

She spends a lot of time beating herself up about things — she has a falling out with a close friend, frets about her adult daughter leaving home and no longer needing her, wonders what it would be like to confront her lover’s wife to tell her about the affair — but she’s also good humoured and drops many witty one-liners.

My front tooth is dead. I have to have a root canal. But I swam eight laps of the Fitzroy Baths.

Gorgeous writing

Her powers of observation are extraordinary, and the way she paints scenes in just a few words is dazzling — particularly when you know she’s not writing for an audience; these were personal diaries never intended to be published.

Late summer morning. Swam. Pool very beautiful. Sun giving out long, oblique rays of pink and gold.

Similarly, in just a line or two, she is able to transport us to a different time and place —  the “miracle” of receiving a fax message, the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the joy of the Berlin Wall coming down — and yet these diaries don’t feel dated.

That’s because the writing, at all times, is alive and wonderous, full of daring thoughts and brimming with heartfelt emotion and honesty. Thank goodness she never did get around to burning them.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I rushed out and bought it as soon as it was released at the tail end of 2020, where it remained in my TBR for longer than I planned. In fact, it was lying in my TBR for so long, the publisher had enough time to publish a third volume  — which has been sitting in my TBR for more than six months now!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Publisher, Setting, Vertical

‘The Name of the Game is Kidnapping’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – hardcover; Vertical; 238 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Jan Mitsuko Cash.

Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino has once again broken the conventions of the genre with his standalone novel The Name of the Game is Kidnapping, which was first published in 2002 but only translated into English by American publisher Vertical in 2017.

In this story, a disgruntled employee takes an opportunity to scam a client who has complained about him — but with unforeseen consequences.

The book is not a typical whodunnit or even a whydunnit — it’s really a howdunnit and showcases Higashino as a true master at plotting, something that is apparent in all of his novels (or at least the ones I have read, which you can view here).

Playing a game of revenge

The Name of the Game is Kidnapping is narrated by Sakuma, a project leader for a PR and advertising firm who is booted off a campaign for a car manufacturer, Nissei Automobile, when a newly appointed executive vice president (EVP) decides he wants someone else in charge.

Sakuma decides to play it cool, although he’s raging inside — “It was as though rage and humiliation were filling my entire body; I felt as though if I said anything, I’d yell, and if I moved, I’d throw my glass” — so when an opportunity comes along to wreak a form of revenge he grabs it.

Except he doesn’t see it as revenge; he sees it as playing a game, a business game that “requires scrupulous planning and bold action”.

That game — as the title of the book suggests — involves kidnapping the EVP’s daughter, Juri, who is in on the game because she has a troubled relationship with her father and wants to get her inheritance early.

The narrative charts how the kidnapping unfolds and shows how cool-headed Sakuma plans the whole thing while holding down his job and sheltering his “victim” from any unwanted public attention or police investigation.

Everything goes perfectly to plan — perhaps too perfectly — and just when Sakuma thinks he’s got away with the entire scheme something happens that turns the game on its head. It’s a heart-hammering twist that makes the novel’s last 40 or 50 pages especially exciting.

Meticulous plotting but slow-paced

That said, the pacing is a little slow. It’s not until around page 200 that things take off, so to speak, which is a lot of pages to wade through beforehand if you are expecting a crime thriller.

The prose is pedestrian and full of exposition — which is fine because I have read enough Higashino novels to know you don’t read them for their literary merit — but I found the narrator’s voice, which is arrogant and misogynistic, a little grating.

Despite these faults, the novel’s meticulous plotting and its brilliant twist of a conclusion make it worth reading, especially if you are already familiar with Higashino’s style.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, true crime, Wendy Davis

‘Don’t Make a Fuss: It’s only the Claremont Serial Killer’ by Wendy Davis

Non-fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 2016 pages; 2022.

This is a story about the tragic consequences for all women when one woman speaks up and nobody listens.

The above line, quoted on the back cover of Wendy Davis’s memoir Don’t Make a Fuss, perfectly encapsulates the moral of this story.

Wendy, a 40-year-old social worker at a hospital in Perth, was randomly attacked at her workplace by an onsite contractor in 1990. He grabbed her from behind while she was sitting at her desk alone in her office. He put a cloth over her mouth so she couldn’t scream and tried to drag her into a nearby toilet cubicle. Wendy managed to fight him off and ran for help.

The culprit, a Telecom (now Telstra) technician, was charged with the relatively minor charge of common assault, told to undergo counselling and kept his job. Meanwhile, Wendy’s shock, trauma and concerns were dismissed by the police, by Telecom (who claimed the man was having “relationship problems” and was a “good worker” with a “good future ahead of him”) and even by her husband (a policeman), whom she later divorced.

She buried her fears and never talked about what happened. She left her job, even though she loved it and had worked hard to achieve her position, and tried to put it all behind her. She remarried and moved to Tasmania.

Claremont serial killer

Meanwhile, the man that attacked her went on to murder two women, and a suspected third, in what became known as the Claremont serial killings, which occurred in 1996-1997. He remained undetected for almost a decade, but in 2016 he was arrested by the Special Crime Squad which had ploughed extra resources into investigating the killings.

Bradley Robert Edwards, 48, was charged with…

the wilful murders of 23-year-old Jane Rimmer and twenty-seven-year-old Ciara Glennon, who had disappeared from Claremont in 1996 and 1997, the abduction and rape of a seventeen-year-old woman in Claremont in 1995, and the sexual assault of an eighteen-year-old woman in Huntingdale in 1998, with both of the latter offences including deprivation of liberty. […] Police were still investigating the 1996 disappearance of another woman from Claremont, eighteen-year-old Sarah Spiers.

Response to arrest

Wendy’s memoir is written as a response to the news of Edwards’ arrest, which affected her deeply. She had spent 25 years pretending the attack hadn’t happened, burying it deep in her subconscious, until she received an unexpected call from Western Australia police at her current home in Hobart, which made it all come rushing back.

I had forced the trauma deep down. As people, especially women, of my time were taught to do, I just ‘got on with it’. I didn’t make a fuss.

Her story is written in an intimate but forthright style and swings between Wendy’s life in the immediate aftermath of the attack and the resurgence of anger and grief she felt more than two-and-a-half decades later. She details her involvement in the state trial (she was called as a witness), which took seven months and was conducted without a jury, but actually took years to get to trial.

What emerges is a portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful and resilient woman, now in her 60s, who effectively suffered three traumas: the attack itself, in 1990; the dismissal of her concerns by the authorities immediately afterwards; and a resurgence of psychological trauma upon news of Edwards’ arrest and the subsequent trial.

Taking concerns seriously

The issue that hits home hardest, however, is the importance of taking women’s concerns seriously. While Wendy’s story is written with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see how Edwards’ terrible deeds may have been stopped if Wendy’s “incident” had been taken more seriously in the first place.

A meeting with Telecom, just a week after Edwards had tried to abduct her, is a case in point. Wendy attends the meeting with her husband, not sure what it is going to be about, but then discovers it’s the company’s way of making excuses for their employee and of ensuring that Wendy won’t go on to sue them.

The manager went on to say that, although he understood that I was shocked by what had happened, it would not benefit anyone if this promising employee lost his job, his career. I was rendered speechless for a moment or two. When I recovered, I told him that I thought I was going to lose my life. I told him it was not normal behaviour to attack a complete stranger because you were having difficulties in your relationship. I said that he’d had cable ties in his pocket, that he’d put something over my mouth, tried to drag me into the toilet, that I was still bruised and in shock.

The manager tells her that it wasn’t unusual for Telecom employees to carry cable ties, that he’d never done anything like this before and that counselling would help him with his “current personal issues”. Wendy claims the manager was “clearly not hearing my account of the events” and that she left the meeting feeling anxious, angry, concerned and totally disempowered.

It’s hard to read this compelling memoir and come away from it without feeling the same.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it new from Dymocks not long after it was released.

And because the author grew up in Western Australia and lived in Perth for much of her life, this book qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), An Yu, Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 226 pages; 2020.

An Yu’s novel Braised Pork is a little bit of an enigma.

I came to it with a couple of preconceptions — both of which proved to be wrong:

  • I mistakenly thought the novel would be ideal for Women in Translation month (which runs throughout August), but it wasn’t until I began reading that I realised the author, who is Chinese and was raised in Beijing, writes her fiction in English.
  • I thought it was a crime novel because in the opening pages a woman finds her husband dead in the bath.

But it is neither of these things.

Instead, this is a novel about a widowed woman coming to terms with a new future that has opened out in front of her.

Its careful blending of mythic elements — I hesitate to describe it as magic realism, but it’s certainly got some of those qualities — with real-life trauma, gives it an unusual, almost esoteric, edge.

Dead in the bath

The story is set in modern-day Beijing and is told from the point of view of Jia Jia, a young woman married to a wealthy older man.

One morning in November she finds her husband, Chen Hang, crouching facedown in the bath, his “rump sticking out of the water”, his body stiff from rigor mortis. Next to him is a piece of folded paper bearing a crudely drawn figure — a fish’s body with a man’s head — something Chen Hang had recently dreamt about while on a solo trip to Tibet.

This sets Jia Jia on a quest to discover the meaning behind the “fish man”, a quest that becomes a journey of self-discovery, one that traverses grief, loneliness, family and freedom.

Perplexing story

The “fish man”, which is a recurring motif throughout the novel, lends a perplexing element to the story. This puzzlement is further increased by a scene in which Jia Jia’s bedroom floor transforms into a watery abyss.

Looking down at the floor, she discovered that it did not exist any more, and what replaced it was the surface of a deep sea, as if she was sitting on the edge of a ship watching the reflection of the starless sky in the water. The darkness rippled like silk.

In another scene, a painting becomes a portal into a parallel world. It’s all very strange. Later, on a quick trip to Tibet, Jia Jia meets others searching for the same mythical “fish man” figure and is astounded to find a sculpture carved into a tree trunk that resembles what her husband had drawn.

Meanwhile, as Jia Jia readjusts to life without the man who provided her with everything, including a luxurious Beijing apartment, she comes to understand her marriage was loveless, and that she had been prevented from pursuing her career as an artist.

Her loneliness and cool detachment — which is mirrored only by the dispassionate prose style — is soothed by Leo, a local bar owner with whom she begins a fairly relaxed romance, and family members who encourage her to sell up and move in with them.

Portrait of a city

For all its strangeness and aching melancholia and inability to pigeonhole as a particular type of literary novel, Braised Pork is a wonderful portrait of metropolitan Beijing, with its pollution, expensive property and rampant consumerism.

The emergence of new social classes and the conflict between generations as a result of changes to long-held Chinese traditions gives the story added depth.

In one scene, for instance, a character bemoans the need to buy his children things — a soft mattress, shoe cabinets for trainers bought in New York, a tennis racket, ballet shoes  — that were unimaginable when he was young. In another, Leo is frustrated by his parents’ refusal to link their bank accounts to their phone apps “for fear of their money being stolen” and their inability to understand that opening their windows to let in what they believed to be “fresh air” was detrimental to their health — he had brought them an air purifier for this reason.

On the whole, I enjoyed Braised Pork even though I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. I loved the cool, hypnotic prose style, the main character’s journey of self-discovery and the portrait of modern-day China.

I’ve not read any Haruki Murakami (apart from his non-fiction book about running, reviewed here), but many of the reviews I have seen online draw comparisons to his work. If you are a fan, then An Yu’s novel might be worth hunting out.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from my local secondhand book warehouse in April for $15.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘England, Your England: Notes on a Nation’ by George Orwell

Non-fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 188 pages; 2021.

George Orwell’s England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a collection of five essays brought together in one volume published by Pushkin Press last year.

The subjects covered are incredibly varied but all share a common theme: English life and culture in all its peculiarities.

The essays were penned between 1931 and 1946 and showcase Orwell’s gift for observation and his masterful ability to convey the political machinations that underpin society. And everything is written in his distinctive pared-back prose style that makes it an effortless read.

Essays one and two

The first essay, Decline of the English Murder, is an almost satirical look at the tabloid press’s obsession with true crime reportage, and reading it now, more than 75 years later, not much seems to have changed.

[…] one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer would be a little man of the professional class —  a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.

In Shooting an Elephant, he reveals his personal experience in the early 1920s when, as a policeman in Burma — then a province of British India — he was required to shoot a rampaging elephant.

He made the decision to play the hero as a way of proving himself to the locals, who had taken against him, even though he did not want to shoot the animal because he was squeamish and regarded it as murder. He has an alarming sense of self-awareness:

Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece, but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Essay three

Perhaps the most interesting essay, or at least the one that is most shocking (to this reader anyway), is Down the Mine, a look at what it was like to be a coal miner deep underground in the 1930s.

Orwell’s first-person piece, which first appeared in his book The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937), details the hardships and sheer grunt work the men do in dangerous, claustrophobic conditions in tunnels so small they cannot even stand up to wield their picks and shovels.

He marvels at the speed at which they do their work — shifting coal at around two tons an hour — and is amazed by the idea they often have to walk, or crawl, more than a mile underground to reach the coal face.

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

Essay four

The grim theme continues in The Spike, which is about life inside a workhouse. In this 1931 essay (which you can read in full online at The Orwell Foundation website), Orwell details an overnight stay when he was deliberately living as a vagrant as part of his studies for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Acting as a passive observer, he paints pen portraits of the men that eat and sleep there and contrasts life inside the institution — dank, depressing, grim — with life outside, on the road, where “the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky”.

He explains how the men are given a bath, a medical inspection, a bed to sleep in for the night and an enormous meal, but are then thrown back out onto the street and left to fend for themselves once again. In between, they are locked up inside, denied their tobacco and forced to talk to one another to pass the time.

It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.

The masterpiece essay

The book culminates with Orwell’s three-part essay on English socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn, which was first published in 1941 and outlines his opinions on the Second World War and the role that Britain was playing in it at the time.

His analysis of the British character, the class system and Empire seems remarkably on point more than 80 years later, particularly in light of Brexit and the political shenanigans currently happening in the UK.

I underlined so many pertinent sentences and paragraphs and, indeed, entire pages, that I couldn’t possibly summarise or review this essay in any meaningful or articulate way. Instead, let me share some of my favourite quotes:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.

Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled by largely the old and silly.

I could go on… but I won’t.

England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a gem of a collection: forthright, thought-provoking and an astute observation of English life from another generation but one that still resonates today.

This is my 8th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from the independent book store Crow Books here in Perth last Christmas using some money I was given by Mr Reading Matters to treat myself to “books and beer”! I love the look and feel of this Pushkin Press edition. There’s a second one in the set, “Inside the Whale: On Writers and Writing”, that I now need to hunt out.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Julie Janson, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Magabala Books; 356 pages; 2020.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence tells the story of the early days of European settlement in Australia but with one important twist: it’s told through the eyes of a young Aboriginal girl.

Written as a rebuttal to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River*, a novel that dared to talk about frontier violence from a white perspective, Janson uses a First Nations lens to tell the other side of the story.

The author, who is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation, says it is a work of fiction but is based on historical events in and around the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney.

In her afterword, she says:

The characters are derived from Darug, Gundungurra and Wonnaruah Aboriginal people who defended their lands, culture and society. Muraging is based on my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas, who was a servant on colonial estates in the Hawkesbury area. The other characters in the novel are inspired by historical figures and my imagination, except the governors who are based on historical documents.

Raised by white settlers

Benevolence spans 26 years (1816 to 1846) in the life of Muraging (later renamed Mary), who finds herself caught between two cultures.

Raised and educated by white settlers at a boarding school set up for Aboriginal children, she desperately misses her family and for most of this novel, she swings between the two: working as a servant when she needs food and shelter, heading on country to be with her people when she needs to get back in touch with her culture and traditions.

But even when she is with her own kind she stands out, for she wears European, albeit servant, clothes, can play the violin (she totes one around with her) and speaks English. In white society, the colour of her skin marks her out as different and her pretty looks attract the unwanted attention of often violent men. No matter where she is, she is “othered” and her desire to fit in is only made harder by the children she bears (with white men) and must raise on her own.

Frontier wars

But this is not just a tale about one indigenous woman’s experience, it’s a larger tale about the frontier wars, which rage on in the background, and of the violence committed on First Nations people by white settlers determined to keep the land for themselves, declaring Australia terra nullius and treating the original inhabitants as nothing more than vermin to be shot and exterminated.

From the start, Mary is aware of the danger that white men pose to her race because she has heard the rumours circulate at  school:

Days go by and Mary hears other children’s stories whispered in the night. Many have seen, and still see, the bodies of their parents shot and hung on trees with corn cobs in their mouths. They still watch in horror as crows peck out living eyes and black beaks pick brains.

Later, as an adult, she knows about the Bells Falls Gorge massacre, north of Bathurst, in which women and children jumped to their deaths after white settlers opened fire on them — and she is terrified she could be caught up in something similar.

She’s also increasingly aware of the destruction white people are causing and the implications this poses for local tribes. When she’s on country, for instance, the women in her tribe struggle to gather enough food to eat because “the white hunters have massacred all the local kangaroos” and there is little game nearby. The new settlers are also wreaking havoc in other ways:

The men discuss the thousands of newcomers arriving in ships in Sydney Town and how they crash through the bush smashing the fragile undergrowth, cutting down the oldest, tallest and most sacred trees – even carved burial trees. Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.

Throughout the story, we see how Mary’s Christian upbringing — supposedly designed to deliver her from sin — simply entraps her. It’s a feeling that never quite goes away, messes with her sense of identity and makes her reliant on white settlers who don’t always have her best interests at heart.

An important novel

Benevolence is an important book because it puts a human face to an Aboriginal perspective, a perspective that has previously been ignored or written out of history.

At times, I felt it lost momentum, perhaps because it is just so detailed, covering every aspect of Mary’s life, which includes time on the run in the bush, various jobs as a servant, a lusty romance with a white reverend and a short stint in jail. But on the whole, it’s a comprehensive account of all the many challenges and tragedies to which Mary must bear witness.

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


* The Secret River is based on Grenville’s ancestor Soloman Wiseman, a Thames waterman who was transported to Australia for theft, and who later settled on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wisemans Ferry. He is mentioned in Benevolence as follows:

Wiseman’s Ferry is a large raft where loads of flour are winched across the river by a metal wheel driven by a horse. The old ferryman and innkeeper is Solomon Wiseman. His inn is called The Sign of the Packet; he is an ex-convict and lighterman from the Thames in London. Along the riverbank, the convict road workers are dressed in torn, dirty shirts, their skins tanned from the sun and hunger etched on their faces.


This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it in July 2020, began reading it and then got distracted by covid lockdown shenanigans and never returned to it. I also read it this year as part of my project to read more books by First Nations writers. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, essays, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sean O'Beirne, Setting

‘On Helen Garner’ by Sean O’Beirne (Writers on Writers series)

Non-fiction – hardcover; Black Inc.; 138 pages; 2022.

On Helen Garner is the latest volume in an ongoing series about Australian writers written by Australian writers. There are ten in the series so far (see below) and this is the latest to be published.

Sean O’Beirne is a Melbourne writer, so it seems fitting that he would write about Helen Garner, who is also a Melbourne writer. I’m not familiar with O’Beirne’s work, but according to the blurb, he wrote a satirical short story collection, A Couple of Things Before the End, which was shortlisted for several awards. He also works as a bookseller at Readings at the State Library Victoria.

In this essay, it’s clear he is a deep thinker and not afraid to write intimate details about himself, traits he shares with Garner.

His main thesis is that Garner writes a “closeness to self” that allows her to be completely honest and open, to say the things that others may think but never say, and in doing so this allows her to get closer to the truth.

He argues that she does this in both her fiction and her non-fiction. Her fiction, he says, is particularly close to the truth because much of it is based on her first-hand experiences or people she knows, and, indeed, Monkey Grip, her debut novel, was basically her diaries just with the names of people and locations and dates changed, something to which she confessed later on in her career.

He compares this approach with other writers, including himself, who may get to the truth but only by using fictional characters as a foil to say the things the actual writer would be too guarded to say in non-fiction. He puts it like this:

And I notice too that in this whole book I haven’t given you one specific incident, telling as me, about my family, my dad, my mum. About Mr and Mrs O’Beirne. I can’t, I can’t give them to you. But ‘Mr and Mrs O’Dingle’ — I’ll tell you what those people did. As soon as I make some new names, as soon as I get the freedom of some substitution, it is remarkable, I get a feeling in my head like all the lights coming on, my own lit-up feeling of permission.

He explains how it isn’t just as simple as the use of first-person narratives, of inserting an “I” in the story, to get to this truth. The use of “I” is to act as an eye witness, to give a “sort of limited verification” of being present, that “I was in the room, these things happened, I saw them”.

But for many writers, including Janet Malcolm whom he references (and whom I love), this is a device used to suggest that the writer is a “participant observer” and that they know about the subject and are reporting it with a level of intelligence.

But what Garner does, argues O’Beirne, is to go one step further and not be afraid to admit that she’s confused or frustrated or angered or is out of her depth in situations in which she is reporting. And in doing that, the veil of objectivity, of being a passive observer, is lifted.

The book looks at Garner’s novels and short stories as well as her non-fiction books to make these points. Anyone who is familiar with Garner’s back catalogue will enjoy the references.

I have not read much of Garner’s fictional work so these did not resonate as much as her narrative non-fiction, including The First Stone (read pre-blog), Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief and her diaries. It does make me keen to explore those works of fiction, though.

Writers on Writers series

The 10 books in the series are as follows:

And there’s a new one forthcoming: ‘On Tim Winton’ by Geraldine Brooks, which I will look forward to reading when it is available.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it earlier this year because I am a Garner fan and thought this would make for an interesting read.