Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, BIPOC 2021, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Larissa Behrendt, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.

The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).

A painful past

In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.

The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.

Twin narratives

The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.

Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time,  but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.

By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.

But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.

Grand tour

The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.

Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.

Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.

This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.

Gentle humour

But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)

Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!

The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.

For other thoughts on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Brona’s at This Reading Life.

This is my 21st book for #AWW2021 and my 9th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Ele Pawelski, Fiction, general, Publisher, Quattro Books, Setting

‘The Finest Supermarket in Kabul’ by Ele Pawelski

Fiction – paperback; Quattro Books; 124 pages; 2017.

Given the appalling events that have played out in Afghanistan recently following the United States military withdrawal, this novella was a timely read.

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, by Ele Pawelski, is set in Afghanistan in 2011, some ten years after the Taliban was ousted by the US invasion. It is based on a real event in which a supermarket, popular with foreigners, was targeted by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of at least eight people.

The book opens with that deadly bomb attack, before telling the stories of three distinct characters caught up in the blast:

  • Merza, a young idealistic Afghan man who has been elected to Parliament and is now receiving death threats;
  • Alec, an American journalist, who has been embedded with a US platoon in Kandahar but is now in Kabul hoping to write some yet-to-be-commissioned pieces about life in the Afghan capital; and
  • Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer, who is helping to train female magistrates but is being sexually harassed by a male justice.

The story, which is told in simple, stripped-back prose, spans a single day, giving us just a brief glimpse into the lives of these well-drawn, if slightly clichéd, characters.

Too much explanation

While the novella moves along at a clip, it doesn’t skimp on detail, but it does feel like there’s a lot of information shoe-horned in to fill the reader in on background detail that most of us are probably pretty familiar with anyway. (For example, that Hamid Karzai was leader, that women’s lives were less restrictive now the Taliban had been banished, that English-speaking Afghans working with foreigners were regarded as “infidels” and putting their own lives at risk.)

In short, everything is explained; the reader doesn’t have to figure a single thing out. Here’s just a random example:

Nearing the city centre, the traffic is busy as I’d anticipated. A decade ago, just after the Americans came, foreigners started to arrive in bulk, so now congestion is the norm. The embassies and offices built for them to work in, and the government offices and courtrooms refurbished for their protégés, are all located in the centre. To protect these so-called important buildings, long concrete barriers, watchtowers and checkpoints have been placed along this main road and its side roads, effectively boxing in the city centre. Policemen are stationed at the checkpoints to check IDs and ask questions. Ring of Steel is the official name of this security setup. Soon, we’ll probably be barred from driving to the centre altogether.

I struggled with the authenticity of the voices, too, particularly Merza’s, which just felt like a Muslim stereotype, and Alec’s, which was full of journalistic clichés. And the dialogue often felt clunky and too formal.

Jakob thrusts his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, pressing hard. “Even though there’s a lot of us here, the expat community is actually rather small. Even smaller when you are in the same profession.”
[…]
“Hard to believe the Finest was targeted,” Jakob says, wiping his brow. “This will affect expats pretty badly. We all shop here because it’s one of the prime places to get stuff from home. Any of us could have been inside.”

Given that The Finest Supermarket in Kabul was written by an expat (the author, who is Canadian, has previously lived in Afghanistan), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the story is told through an expat lens.

And while I know you should never review a book on what you think the book should have been about, I can’t help feeling this was a wasted opportunity to find out more about the Afghan people and life in Kabul outside of the expat bubble.

On the plus side, I did like the way the author draws the three characters together in unexpected ways, but on the whole, this story was far too simplistic for me. Reviewers on GoodReads see things a bit differently: The Finest Supermarket in Kabul has plenty of four- and five-star ratings. Well, it’d be boring if we all liked the same things, right?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Candice Carty-Williams, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Trapeze

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams

Fiction – paperback; Trapeze; 392 pages; 2019.

In the past couple of years, I have read dozens of novels about young Millennial women trying to find their place in the world, but none of them was quite like Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie. This brilliantly entertaining read has an upbeat narrator and wears its heart — and its politics — on its sleeve.

Set in modern-day south London, it follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom. The pair have been together for three years but are now on a three-month “break” to refresh their relationship. Or, at least, that’s the way Queenie, a glass half full type of person, presents it; Tom has other ideas.

When the book opens, Queenie is at a sexual health clinic getting a contraceptive coil fitted. The medical staff tell her that she has uterine scarring, which indicates she previously had a miscarriage, something she had been unaware of, and now she’s caught up by the idea that she could have had a baby with Tom. It’s a devastating realisation, but it’s too late to tell him because he’s already told her to move out of their shared flat.

As she enters the dubious, grubby world of share house living, things go from bad to worse (the scenes in which Queenie inspects properties with lecherous landlords and is interviewed by overly fussy tenants with rooms to let would be outrageously funny if they weren’t so close to the bone), but she remains cheerful and upbeat through it all, telling her tight group of friends that it’s only a temporary arrangement — she’ll be back living with Tom soon enough.

Meanwhile, determined to find herself a new man to occupy her time, she makes a string of bad choices, sleeps with men who don’t quite have her best interests at heart and succumbs to the advances of a stalker-like guy at work who turns out to be not all that he seems. (Be warned, there’s a lot of casual sex in this novel — and quite a few visits to a sexual health clinic as a result.)

And all the while she tries to make a name for herself at work as a writer on a newspaper that keeps turning down her ideas for politically outspoken features because they aren’t “palatable” enough for a supposedly white-liberal audience.

Yet the more Queenie forges ahead with her new life without Tom, the more she mourns his loss and the more she tries to compensate for this by looking for love in all the wrong places. This begins to take a toll on her working life and her mental health to the point at which something has to give…

A Millennial Bridget Jones

Queenie is essentially Bridget Jones for the 21st Century — with one important difference. Bridget Jones didn’t have to spend her whole life dealing with casual racism.

It’s Queenie’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways in which she is constantly made aware that she comes from a non-white background that gives this story its edge. There are many toe-curling scenes involving white people behaving badly, saying clearly offensive things and failing to understand what they’ve done wrong. Even Tom doesn’t get it: on more than one occasion he doesn’t even bother standing up to relatives who make slurs against his girlfriend, excusing them because “they’re old and don’t know any better”.

It’s relentlessly dispiriting and yet Queenie keeps forging on, helped in part by an amazing group of girlfriends (Kyazike, her Ugandan friend, is a stand-out character, outspoken and resilient, the kind of person who says all the things you think but are too afraid to say) and a loving set of maternal grandparents whose Caribbean ways don’t always chime with what’s best for their granddaughter.

It also helps that Queenie’s got a wicked sense of humour — her constant wisecracks really do give the novel its wry comic flavour even if the story does stray into some very dark territory.

I admit that I raced through this novel in the space of a weekend, unable to forget about Queenie’s many problems whenever I put the book down.

It’s a thoroughly modern tale, complete with WhatsApp chats and work emails integrated into the narrative, and tackles all kinds of issues, including racism, sexual harassment, domestic violence, mental health and identity, without banging the reader over the head. I loved spending time with Queenie, her crazy cohort of friends and her proud grandparents.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from my local independent bookstore last year. It is also my 8th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, general, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR 21

‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Sophie Hardcastle

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

If any book was going to slot into the #MeToo genre of novel, Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck would be right in there.

This simple yet moving story of a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past should probably come with a trigger warning. And while the assault is just one aspect of this story, it comes like a sucker punch to the stomach and its aftermath informs everything that follows.

But this is not a heavy tale. Hardcastle writes with a lightness of touch. She sandwiches the traumatic event with more light-hearted aspects so you never feel too weighted down by it.

Oli at sea

The story follows 20-something Olivia — Oli — who is estranged from her parents and lives with her grieving (and grumpy) grandfather while she goes to university. She has a boyfriend, whose controlling behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men — he doesn’t think she should accept the offer of a postgraduate internship with a prestigious investment bank, for instance, because that would make her more successful than him — but when she finds herself “kidnapped” on a boat her life takes a different turn.

The “kidnapper” is, in fact, a lovely older man called Mac, who loves to go sailing, and his partner is Maggie, a blind woman with synaesthesia — “It’s where you see colours when you think of or hear sounds, words, numbers — even time” — with whom she develops a fond friendship. Oli, too, has synaesthesia, processing her world and her feelings via colour. Maggie, for instance, is “velvet lilac”, Wednesdays are “blood orange”, two is “red” and nine “dark pink”.

Islands come into focus the way you wake up on a Sunday morning: slowly, like a painting, layer by layer. Block blue, at first. Then daubs of green, the outlines of trees, a band of white sand. A brown slab takes shape, all wrinkled and folded rock, until the cliff face opens its eyes.

It is the guiding light of this older couple that gives Oli her new-found strength to escape her controlling boyfriend, to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected death of her grandfather and to seek new adventures. She reinvents herself as a sailor, but it is a fateful trip several years later that puts her in danger. She sets sail with an all-male crew from Noumea to New Zealand and finds herself the subject of unwanted sexual attention.

Several years later, now a curator at an art gallery in London, Oli falls for a man who is perfect for her. He’s gentle, kind and devoted, but her past keeps holding her back.

Overcoming trauma

Without wishing to sound dismissive, I think I am probably too old for Below Deck to truly resonate, but I imagine if you’re a young woman this story would have a lot to say. It’s about misogyny and standing up for yourself, of finding your own voice, of learning to trust people, of making better life choices and dealing with past traumas so that you can move on.

Hardcastle deals with the issue of sexual assault with delicacy. The actual scene — “rape is the deepest red I have ever seen” — is deftly written, skirting over descriptions of the physical act, focussing instead on the ways in which Oli chooses to survive the assault, the voice that screams in her head, the emotions she goes through along the way. It is haunting and claustrophobic and harrowing.

But sometimes the narrative feels forced and lacks detail, jumping ahead too quickly. And yet when Hardcastle does focus on detail her writing really sings, especially when she focuses on the sea.

She enters the sea the way you come home, dropping your keys on the table, breathing out. A sigh of relief, the way the ocean holds her.

She has a particular penchant for similies. A gaze, for instance, drifts “across my skin like clouds across the sky”; waves lap at the shore “like gentle kisses in the middle of the night”; where cold weather is all-consuming “like falling in love. Total and unapologetic”.

Below Deck is an ambitious novel about an emotional reckoning, the beauty and language and colours of the sea, and about a young woman trying to navigate parts of her history she would rather forget. It won’t be for everyone — what book is? — but it will appeal to those looking for a quick-paced read with an emotional depth.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2020 and my 1st novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it earlier in the year, partly attracted to the cover I have to admit. 

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tony Birch, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 263 pages; 2019.

Tony Birch is an award-winning indigenous writer with several novels and a handful of short story collections to his name. The White Girl is his latest.

It’s set in the fictional rural town of Deane in an unspecified state of Australia. (The capital city is always referred to as “the capital city”, perhaps in an effort to make this story a federal / universal one.)  It’s the 1960s, the height of the Menzie’s era, when Aboriginal Australians are not regarded as citizens.

Under the 1905 Aborigines Act, their freedom of movement is curtailed and they must apply for a travel licence if they wish to leave their local area. Every Aboriginal child up to the age of 16  is under the legal guardianship of the state (represented, for instance, by the Chief Protector of Aborigines) and authorities are permitted to forcibly remove indigenous children away from their families, a devastating government policy we now refer to as the Stolen Generations.

Living under this Act is Odette Brown, whose own daughter did a runner more than a decade ago, leaving her to bring up her granddaughter Sissy single-handedly. Sissy is now on the cusp of becoming a teenager and is attracting the unwanted attention of the local hoodlums. Odette fears for her safety.

Odette also fears that the new overzealous policeman in town, Sergeant Lowe, is going to take Sissy away on the basis that she’s legally under his guardianship and is fair-skinned (therefore making her easier to adopt out to a white family). Keeping Sissy safe becomes Odette’s one abiding objective, but she finds this difficult because she’s struggling with an ongoing health issue that she’s hiding from everyone. That’s because she knows that if she is hospitalised, Sergeant Lowe will step in and remove Sissy from her care.

This story of an older Aboriginal woman doing everything she can to keep the authorities away from her granddaughter is essentially the entire basis of the plot. Will she succeed or won’t she?

Commercial fiction

I must admit that I was disappointed by this book. I had pigeon-holed Birch as a literary writer (this is the first book by him that I have read), but what I got here was commercial fiction. It’s a very linear story, told in a simple manner, and did not tell me anything I don’t already know about the Stolen Generations. Its simplicity and the easy going entertaining nature of the storytelling brought to mind Bryce Courtenay on more than one occasion.

The Australian literary critic Geordie Williamson apparently labelled the characterisation of this novel as “easy binaries”, for which Lisa of ANZLitLovers took him to task in her excellent review. I haven’t read Williamson’s review (because it is behind a paywall), so I can’t say whether his criticism is fair or not. But what I can say is that the story did feel a bit — no pun intended — black and white to me. It felt too simplified and some of the characters, especially Sergeant Lowe, too caricatured.

But I’ve come to the realisation that I am perhaps not the target audience for this book. It’s the kind of story that anyone could pick up, perhaps people who read infrequently or think books are a waste of time, and they would find it enjoyable and easy to read.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I actually think that it’s vital that this novel attracts as wide an audience as possible because this story, which is rooted in reality and all-too recent (and shameful) Australian history, is an important one to tell. Sue, at Whispering Gums, says it better than me in her review, claiming that “we need more novels like this [… that] are accessible, page-turning novels that have the capacity to reach a wide audience”.

So while The White Girl didn’t set my world on fire, I truly hope it’s a commercial success. The more readers who learn about the shocking ways in which Aboriginal Australians were treated by their colonial oppressors for nearly 60 years the better.

I read this book as part of ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, which coincides nicely with NAIDOC Week (7-14 July) here in Australia.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Melanie Cheng, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 271 pages; 2019.

Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger is a beautiful, bittersweet story about finding friendship in the most unexpected of places.

I loved this debut novel so much I ate it up in the space of an evening; I simply could not put the book down without finding out what happened to the two central characters.

Those characters are poles apart in age and upbringing and cultural background.

Meg Hughes is in her 70s, has never married and lives alone with her talkative pet African grey parrot in a small suburban house 10 km from the centre of Melbourne. She’s still mourning the death of her younger sister, a paraplegic, whom she looked after for many years.

Andy Chan, who is almost 22, is a biomedical student from Hong Kong. He’s on the brink of failing his university course but as an only child feels the pressure to succeed to please his working class father.

The pair are thrown together when Meg decides to rent out her spare room — the one her late sister lived in — because she’s recently experienced a violent break-in and thinks some male company might make her feel safer. Andy takes the room because he needs to cut costs following the collapse of his father’s business back in Hong Kong. But when he moves into Meg’s home it’s not all plain sailing.

As soon as dinner was finished, Andy retreated to his room. Meg sat in the lounge, alone, watching ‘The Voice’. When Meg had applied to the homeshare program, she’d been seeking the protection of an extra body — preferably male — inside her house. She’d hoped for somebody quiet, somebody who kept to himself. She’d said as much to the skinny lady with kind eyes at the homeshare office. But now Meg wondered if perhaps she wanted more than that — some company, a snippet of conversation, some remedy for the loneliness she’d felt since Helen had passed away. And while she’d slept more soundly these past few nights knowing Andy was in the next room, now she found herself scrutinising their interactions. Why didn’t he make eye contact? Did he hate her? What did he do for all those hours, locked away in his room?

The book charts the relationship between Meg and Andy as it slowly thaws and the pair come to know each other a little better.

It’s lightly humorous throughout — particularly in the interactions with Atticus the parrot who has a wide vocabulary — but is undercut with some serious issues, including loneliness, racism, sexism, stress and health in older women.

It’s told in short, sharp chapters, with each character taking turns to tell their side of the story.

Through the subsidiary characters we meet along the way — including the small group of friends Meg meets for coffee every week and her would-be suitor Patrick, and Andy’s student friend Ming, also from Hong Kong, and Kiko, the young Japanese woman he admires from afar — we see how thinly stretched their social circles and connections really are.

As the tale gently unfolds we learn that both Meg and Andy have closely held troubles of their own — Meg feels like she’s wasted her life looking after other people; Andy thinks his father blames him for his mother’s psychiatric problems — but despite their 50-year age difference they have more in common than they might think. It’s only when a dramatic event takes place that they come to understand the closeness of their bond.

Room for a Stranger is a simple story about ordinary people trying to find their place in the world, but it’s told in such a warm, empathetic way — free from cliché and sentiment — that it’s a true joy to read. I loved it.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2019.

Author, Book review, Daunt Books, Fiction, general, Kathleen Rooney, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney

Lillian Boxfish takes a walk

Fiction – Kindle edition; Daunt Books; 302 pages; 2017.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a rather sweet novel about an 84-year-old lady, once America’s highest paid female advertising copywriter, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

As she takes her evening stroll en-route to a party she’s been invited to, she meets and interacts with ordinary New Yorkers and recalls the highs and lows of her extraordinary life and career.

It’s an easy read and nothing too taxing, the exact kind of story I was looking for while I nursed a sore mouth having undergone some rather invasive oral surgery recently. I simply switched the brain into neutral and enjoyed accompanying Lillian around the streets of New York.

Said to be inspired by the life of Margaret Fishback, who worked at R.H. Macy’s and was the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s, the book is as much about one woman’s rise to the top of a male-dominated industry as it is about the changing fortunes of Manhattan, from the Prohibition era in the 1920s to sky-high homicide rates in the 1980s.

Admittedly, I didn’t much warm to Lillian, whose tone of voice is forthright and arrogant (what you might call brimming with chutzpah), but her story is such a fascinating one it hardly seemed to matter. Plus, her tale is laced with plenty of self-deprecating humour and great one liners so it’s a fun read — and the advertising poems dotted throughout give a light-hearted tone to the narrative.

Mind you, there are some heart-rending moments, too, which knocks the self-confidence out of Lillian and lets the reader see her in a new, more human, light.

A quotable story

I had a grand old time highlighting passages that appealed to me: the book is dotted with “wisdoms” and viewpoints that chime with my own. I’m a great believer in walking to clear my head, boost my creativity and find solutions to problems. It seems Lillian is too:

Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problem I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

And Lillian’s preference for living in the city, as opposed to the suburbs, but liking the ability to go on little escapes could have come out of my mouth:

I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not to just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun. And were I catching the subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray. But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.

Lillian’s at her most poignant when she reflects on how time moves on and things change.

The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926; it has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.

And:

‘The city is a city,’ I say. ‘But it is also a house. This city is my house. I live in this city, and this part is being remodelled. The ceiling of the highway has been pulled down, and the floor’s been extended, and the water’s farther away. But this is my house. It is still my house.’

I also loved her love of literature — she becomes a published poet alongside her advertising career — but she’s also acutely aware of how quickly fame and success can disappear:

In certain instances, walking alone in Manhattan is actually safer at night. Passing by the Strand, for example, at Twelfth and Broadway. I usually walk past that bookstore with intense ambivalence: delight because I have been frequenting it since the 1930s, when it was over on Fourth Avenue, just one among nearly fifty similar shops; dread because on more than one occasion in the past two decades I have found my own poetry collections derelict on the sidewalk carts, on sale for mere cents, and with no one watching over them because if they get stolen, well, who cares? At night, at least, the carts have been rolled away and there’s no chance I’ll be confronted with evidence of my grim literary fate.

But probably my favourite quote is this:

Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.

Thanks to blogger Susan at A Life in Books for the recommendation.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Honeyman, general, Harper Collins, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or to hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old single woman, who lives in Glasgow and works as a finance administrator in a design firm. She has no family and no friends. Her life is guided by routine: lunchtimes doing the crossword puzzle in The Telegraph, evenings in front of the TV, and weekends spent at home consuming two bottles of cheap vodka.

Then there’s the regular Wednesday night phone call with “mummy”, who is locked up in an unspecified facility (read jail) and badgers her daughter about her “special project”. That special project, it turns out, is Eleanor’s plan to woo a man she’s been admiring from afar: a rock singer she thinks is “the one”.

But when that project goes off the rails, Eleanor’s fragile grip on life (and reality) threatens to derail more than just her one-sided romance.

Comic novel with tragic undertones

This astutely written debut novel by Gail Honeyman is quirky and humorous and deeply affecting. It goes into some very dark places, but emerges with a strong feeling of hope and optimism for the future.

Its central character, the eponymous Eleanor Oliphant, is an oddball: she lacks self-awareness, finds it difficult to make friends, is socially awkward and yet she’s never afraid to do her own thing.

Her contrary, judgemental voice gives the novel a distinctive flavour, peppered as it is with archaic language and outrageous comments — a red-faced man, for instance, is said to have “the pasty look of someone who has never eaten an apple”;  a woman’s makeup is described as being as subtle as if it had “been intended for a stage performance in the Royal Albert Hall”; and her friend is said to be wearing “the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it.”

Black comedy is never far away:

The last party I’d been to – apart from that appalling wedding reception – was on Judy Jackson’s thirteenth birthday. It had involved ice skating and milkshakes, and hadn’t ended well. Surely no one was likely to vomit or lose a finger at an elderly invalid’s welcome home celebration?

But balancing out the snide laughs and the eyeball rolls is a sense of pathos and empathy, as the author oh-so casually and ever so slowly offers a steady drip feed of information that forces the reader to constantly reassess their opinion of this opinionated narrator.

We know that Eleanor struggles to fit in, but when we discover early on in the book that she has a badly scarred face, there’s a sudden “a-ha” moment. Other hints about a dark past and the ongoing strained relationship with her mother, makes the reader want to know more: how did Eleanor’s injuries occur? Why does she have to see a social worker? Why is her mother locked up? Why does she feel the need to dampen down her feelings with so much vodka?

All these questions combined with exemplary narrative pacing makes Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a proper page turner. Forgive the capitals – and the book reviewers’ horrible cliché — but I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

Thoughtful and kind-hearted story

As you will undoubtedly know if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, I usually run the other way when the bandwagons come along, but this book really is as good as the hype. It might be slightly too long, and Eleanor’s voice takes a while to warm to, but once you’re in the throes of the story it’s hard to resist its charms. I predicted most of the plot turns, but it’s such a genuinely thoughtful, kind-hearted and touching novel I didn’t really mind.

I loved its perceptive examination of loneliness, the human need for companionship and the ways in which the past can continue to haunt the present and the future. But overall I loved the message that you cannot live your life by a timetable: change, spontaneity and daring to try new things are much more important.

Finally, I must also mention that this book gets extra kudos for the simple fact that it name-checks (and pokes the fun out of) a magazine I once worked on. Notting Hill (the film), eat your heart out:

‘I don’t see her as a Take a Break reader, somehow. It’d be something much weirder, much more random. Angling Times? What Caravan?’ ‘Horse and Hound,’ said Billy firmly, ‘and she’s got a subscription.’ They all sniggered. I laughed myself at that one, actually.