Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting, Text

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2022.

With just two novels under his belt, Robbie Arnott has made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most exciting, original and acclaimed literary writers.

His debut, Flames (2018), was nominated for almost every prize going (see his publisher’s site to see all his prize listings) and earned him a Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize. His second, The Rain Heron (2020), won the Age Book of the Year award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Voss Literary Prize, amongst others.

His latest book, Limberlost, is sure to earn him more accolades, although this novel is far less experimental and more “traditional” than his earlier work. But what it does share with those books is the same magical sense of wonder for Nature and the rich, evocative descriptions of the Tasmanian landscape.

Dreams of adventure

Set on an apple orchard in Tasmania during the Second World War, it tells the story of teenager Ned, whose two older brothers join the Army, leaving him behind with a taciturn father and a bossy older sister.

While the narrative largely unfolds over the course of a summer, it also weaves in glimpses of Ned’s future life as a husband and father to show how the choices he makes as a 15-year-old have long-lasting repercussions in the decades ahead.

As a teenager, he keeps to himself but he works hard to gain his dad’s approval and his sister’s respect. He spends his spare time trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts as part of the war effort. But while he knows the rabbit fur is used to make the Army’s distinctive slouch hats, he’s not doing it as a patriotic act — he simply wants to save up enough money to buy himself a boat.

That boat, he believes, will not only give him a sense of freedom to explore beyond the orchard perimeter, but it will also allow him to sail to the mouth of the river where, as a young boy, his father took him and his brothers to see a “mad” whale that had destroyed several fishing boats and wreaked havoc with its fluked tail, an experience that has stuck with him ever since.

If he killed enough rabbits, he might earn enough to buy his own boat […] Nothing fancy, just a small, single-sailed dinghy he could run into the river. Out of the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires — all would be open to him if he had a boat. If he killed enough rabbits.

Be careful what you wish for

Most of the story charts Ned’s pursuit of his dream and then shows what happens when it is realised. The boat, of course, is not just a boat. It’s a conduit that brings him closer to his father — and, to some extent, his sister — as well as his friend Jackbird and Jackbird’s gun-toting sister, Callie, who later becomes Ned’s wife.

It’s also a metaphor for Ned determining the direction of his life, of longing to experience the adventure and excitement that his older brothers are encountering in the war, and of making tangible that emotion he felt when he saw the whale thrashing in the sea years earlier.

Emotion, it turns out, is something Ned feels keenly. He might think nothing of killing rabbits, but when he finds a badly injured quoll in one of his traps, for instance, he’s too kind-hearted to put it out of its misery: he takes it home, hides it away in a crate and looks after it as best he can.

Later, when he goes mustering as a 30-year-old man, he witnesses a cow drowning in a river and blames himself for the incident because he hadn’t been able to chase it down and rescue it. He tells himself that his brothers, Toby and Bill, would never let something like that happen and wonders when the “surefootedness” and  “the natural competence of other men would come to him”.

It’s this tendency for self-reflection, of beating himself up about things, combined with his empathy and gentleness that makes Ned who he is, but in a world of strong males (every male character in this book makes a living off the land in one form or another), he sees these as character flaws, not strengths. Even his university-aged daughters challenge him:

Ned met her gaze. Felt her condescension tear a new wound in him. He felt off-balance, disoriented, angry. His daughters had never spoken to him like this before. Nobody had.

Of course, these traits as an adult have their long roots in his teenage years, particularly that formative summer involving the boat, the quoll and his budding friendship with Callie.

Favourite read of the year

I absolutely adored this book. From the lush prose and its gorgeous descriptions of the natural world to the way Arnott taps into the rich interior world of a lonely teenage boy, it’s a truly moving coming-of-age novel about kindness, loss, love and family.

And there’s something about the passing of time and the nostalgic tone of the story — without ever resorting to sentimentality — that makes this such a powerful read. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and had a good old sob when I came to the end of it!

There’s no doubt that Limberlost will be my favourite novel of 2022.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers, Brona’s at This Reading Life and Susan’s at A Life in Books.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. It has been published in the UK and if you hurry you might be able to pick up a Kindle version for just 99p if you don’t mind buying books from that bad corporate citizen known as Amazon.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Milena Agus, Publisher, Setting

‘From the Land of the Moon’ by Milena Agus (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Europa editions; 108 pages; 2011. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

From the Land of the Moon earned debut author Milena Agus the prestigious Zerilli-Marimò Prize for Fiction in 2008.

It’s a simple tale but it packs an emotional punch — and it’s the kind of book you want to reread as soon as you reach the final page. That’s because there’s a little unexpected twist right at the end that turns everything on its head and makes you reassess all your assumptions about the characters and the way they chose to live their lives.

Sardinia setting

Set in Sardinia, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who tells us the story of her grandmother, who, in 1943, was forced to marry a man she did not love. She was 30 and considered an old maid; he was more than 40 and a widower.

There was a “veil of mystery” over her and a troubled history that few knew about, much less discussed. Just days before meeting her husband, for instance, she had thrown herself down the well but had been miraculously rescued by her neighbours. She had a penchant for blades, secretly cutting the veins in her arms and hacking off her hair so that she “looked like a mangy dog”.

After their wedding, her new husband continues to frequent brothels. She doesn’t mind because it relieves her of her conjugal duties, but when she discovers the cost she makes an offer: “Explain to me what you do to these women, and I’ll do the same.”

A spa trip

In 1950, after several miscarriages, thought to be due to kidney stones, she is prescribed thermal treatments and sent to a spa on the mainland. Here she meets a handsome well-dressed man, an army veteran, who has a crutch and a wooden leg. The pair fall in love and she shows him the self-inflicted cuts on her arms (which she claims are from working in the fields), as well as the passionate love poems she has been secretly writing all her life.

He shares with her his love of music and reveals how he would play the piano at home for hours and hours.

Here at the baths he missed the piano, but that was before he began talking to grandmother, because talking to grandmother and watching her laugh or even feel sad, and seeing how her hair came loose when she gestured, or admiring the skin of her slender wrists and the contrast with her chapped hands — that was like playing the piano.

Return home

When she returns to her husband in Sardinia, she bears him a son — coincidentally, exactly nine months after her spa trip — but can’t stop thinking about her lover.

With him, she felt no embarrassment […] and since her whole life she had been told that she was like someone from the land of the moon, it seemed to her that she had finally met someone from her own land, and that was the principal thing in life, which she had never had.

When her son (the narrator’s father) is seven she takes two jobs as a maid to fund the piano lessons she organises for him. As an adult, he becomes a world-famous concert pianist, but she never goes to listen to him; it is too upsetting for her.

Many years later, in 1963, on a family trip to Milan to visit her sister and brother-in-law who had moved there, she wanders the streets alone in search of the Veteran’s house. Her plan is to run away with him, even if that means abandoning her husband and son, because she has such “heart-stopping longing” for him…

Devastating read

From the Land of the Moon is a quick, devastating read. It’s bittersweet, romantic, and tinged with melancholia but also punctuated by small moments of joy. And it asks important questions about love and marriage, commitment and desire, and the role of women in 20th-century Italian society.

The prose is charming, understated and rich with historical detail (particularly in relation to the Second World War and the devastation it wreaked on cities, people and the economy). And while the pacing is slow and steady, it builds to a surprising climax, one that had me turning back to the first page to begin the story all over again.

Any wonder this is an international bestseller.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 192 pages; 2021.

If America is a nation of immigrants, then this debut novella is a quintessential American story.

A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez, was first published in 1995. It’s framed around an American woman looking back on the lives of her working-class immigrant parents and includes aspects of her own struggle with identity as a multiracial person.

The novella is structured in four parts — the story of the narrator’s Chinese father, the story of her German mother, her own life as a ballerina, and her love affair with a Russian immigrant — each of which could be read as a standalone story in its own right. (This is not to say there’s no overarching thread tying everything together, for there is, and that comes in the first-person narrator telling the story, but the overall narrative feels slightly disjointed.)

An unlikely partnership

Both the first part, Chang, and the second part, Christa, are detailed pen portraits of two very different people.

Chang is a quiet, introverted man, who was born in 1911 in Panama of Chinese parentage, and despite more than 30 years in America has never quite mastered English. His wife, the narrator’s mother, is the complete opposite. She’s loud, confident, speaks excellent, if heavily accented, English, and is proudly German.

The pair met shortly after the end of the Second World War when Chang was stationed in a small southern  German town (he had been drafted into the US Army and saw action in France and Germany). He was 34 and Christa was 18. In 1948 they settled in the US, where they set up home in the housing projects of New York, and had three daughters, two of them born out of wedlock.

Their relationship is complex and fraught. The narrator does not understand either parent, or their marriage, but in looking back at their lives she begins to empathise with their situations, their struggles and the ways in which their different backgrounds came to shape their personalities and, in turn, her own identity.

By putting herself in her father’s shoes, for instance, she begins to see how life as a father of three American daughters must have been for him:

We must have seemed as alien to him as he seemed to us. To him we must have been “others”. Females. Demons. No different from other demons, who could not tell one Asian from another, who thought Chinese food meant chop suey and Chinese customs were matter for joking. I would have to live a lot longer and he would have to die before the full horror of this would sink in. And then it would sink in deeply, agonizingly, like an arrow that has found its mark.

There are similar revelations about her mother, who refuses to apologise for being German despite the atrocities of the Nazis coming to light:

It was not to be hoped that any American — let alone an American child — could grasp what this unique quality of being German was all about. I don’t recall how old I was, but at some point, I had to wonder: If you took that quality away from her, what would have replaced it? What sort of person might she have been? But her Germanness and her longing for Germany — her Heimweh — were so much a part of her she cannot be thought of without them. To try to imagine her born of other blood, on other soil, is to lose her completely. There is no Christa there.

Forging your own life

The second half of the novella explores the narrator’s own life. As a ballerina, the goal was to be as light as “a feather on the breath of God” (hence the book’s title), which meant constantly starving herself. This is a direct contravention of her childhood, in which her mother, brought up during the war, insists everyone eat every little morsel on their plate.

I was never thin. Not even at ninety pounds. To see how long I could go without solid food (up to five days) was a favorite game. How beautiful the hollowed gut, the jutting bones.

Later, as a teacher of English as a second language, she embarks on an illicit affair with a married Russian student who has a shady past but is dedicated to learning the language. This reminds her that love and language are intertwined, furthering her inability to comprehend how her parents ever communicated with one another.

Whenever I praise his English he says: “I did it for you.” Not the whole truth, of course, but it cannot be denied: he studied hard for me.
“My dear, can I say, ‘I dote on you’? Is it correct?” “Can I say, ‘I adore you’?” “I search my dictionary for ways to tell you.”
My heart runs out of me.
In all those years, my father never learned enough English to tell me how he felt about me.

A Feather on the Breath of God is an intriguing story of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture and a new way of life as seen through the eyes of their youngest daughter.

As a tale about personal identity — specifically how much of it is shaped by our ethnicity and cultural upbringing — it is unwavering in its lack of sentiment. It’s bold and brave and compelling.

I have reviewed several books by Sigrid Nunez in recent years. You can see all my reviews here.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jay Carmichael, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Marlo’ by Jay Carmichael

Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 160 pages; 2022.

If we believe that one of literature’s aims is to give voice to the voiceless, to tell the tales of those unable to write it themselves, then Jay Carmichael’s novella Marlo has hit the bullseye.

This short, sharp, powerful story is set in Melbourne in the 1950s at a time when homosexuality was punishable by law and seen as a medical condition (and therefore “curable”) rather than as an identity.

Carmichael explains in his Author’s Note that “there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived as a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia”.

To fill that gap he has imagined what it was like to live in fear of being branded a “sexual pervert”, of being outcast from family and friends, of being beaten up by strange men, of police entrapment, and “of arrest, exposure, infamy, and disgrace”.

Anonymous city life

The story is told in the first person by Christopher, a young gay man, who has fled his small repressive town in rural Gippsland — the Marlo of the title — to try living in the city where no one knows his name — or his preference for men.

But Chris is shy, quiet, not particularly sociable and far from worldly-wise. He moves in with Kings, an old school friend, who has no idea of Chris’ sexual orientation, winding him up about “birds” and “sheilas”, and begins working as a car mechanic.

When he meets Morgan, a young Aboriginal man, in the Botanic Gardens, a renowned gay beat, he befriends him and escorts him home on the train. An exchange of correspondence occurs over a few weeks and the pair fall in love.

Finding his place in the world

Meanwhile, Chris is introduced to a homosexual cafe, hidden away in downtown Melbourne, where he struggles to find his tribe — “these aren’t my people” — and continues to feel out of place and out of step with the rest of the world.

For Morgan, an Indigenous gay man, the struggle is even more difficult. Originally from NSW, he must carry ID papers with him, to prove he’s exempt from the Aborigines Protection Act, because he has a white father and can move freely about. He calls this a “dog tag” and is embarrassed by it, never more so than when he courts Christopher at the zoo and the pair are accosted by a policeman who orders them to leave but not without first checking Morgan’s papers.

The zoo visit was meant to be so raucous, with children chasing pelicans and mothers chasing children and fathers sweating by the snakes, that Morgan and I would be invisible. Our invisibility would have allowed us to wander, to find common ground. But common people […] disliked two men like us walking across their ground; even worse, when one of us was even less like them.

Quiet dignity

Marlo is written in beautiful, restrained prose and conveys a mood of poise and quiet dignity. The text is accompanied by striking black and white photographs, many of them courtesy of the Australian Queer Archives, which evoke a certain mood and capture time and place so magnificently.

I really enjoyed this evocative novella. In reclaiming a previously untold history, the author has created a bittersweet story that is as much about growing up and navigating a complex world as it is about living an authentic life under constant fear of exposure.

For other takes on this book, please see Lisa’s review at Anzlitlovers, and Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

The title will be released in the UK  in paperback on February 9, 2023; a Kindle edition is currently available in the UK and US.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott: a thinly veiled memoir based on the author’s first-hand experience struggling to keep his homosexuality secret while growing up in Sydney in the 1930s-40s.

‘Gents’ by Warwick Collins: an unusual tale about three West Indian janitors working in a central London toilet block that is frequented by cottagers. It explores many big themes, including homophobia, racism and religion.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. And because it’s by an Australian writer, it also qualifies for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Ricarda Huch, Russia, Setting

‘The Last Summer’ by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

First published in 1910, this German-language novella is a delightfully different — and completely compelling — twist on a psychological thriller.

The Last Summer was written by Ricarda Huch, a German intellectual who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. It was translated into English by small press Peirene for the first time more than a century later.

Set in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of Yegor von Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg, who closes the state university to quell student unrest. Beset by threats (real and imagined), he retreats to his summer residence, taking his wife Lusinya and their three adult children — Katya, Velya and Jessika — with him.

To protect them from would-be assassins and intruders, Lusinya hires a secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu, for her husband, unaware that Lyu, a clever and handsome young man, sides with the student revolutionaries and has a devious plan of his own.

An epistolary novella

Composed entirely of letters between a handful of characters, the novella charts the impact of Lyu on the close-knit family and their existing household.

He charms them all into believing he has the family’s best interests at heart, while he scribbles letters to an unseen Konstantin updating him on the situation and outlining his proposed method of attack.

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed: indeed, the circumstances appear even more favorable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary. If the governor has made inquiries into my person, this cannot have done any harm, as all the way from elementary school to university my reports have been outstanding.

Jessika, the youngest daughter, is so charmed she falls in love with him. It’s really only the eldest daughter Katya who doubts Lyu’s loyalty and eventually, in a fit of pique, leaves the family home to avoid him.

As letters fly backward and forward between various family members — Jessika to her aunt Tatyana; Velya to Peter, a childhood friend who is expected to marry Katya; Lusinya to her sister-in-law; and Lyu to Konstantin — we see how events are unfolding, how suspicions are beginning to arise and how such doubts are also being dispelled.

One-sided correspondence

The correspondence is largely one-sided so we never hear directly from all the recipients. Tatyana, for instance, remains silent throughout, and we only hear from Yegor in a single short letter to his two eldest children (who have been sent away to Paris to continue their education) right at the very end.

This gives the reader room to interpret events and misunderstandings, to see how conversations are deliberately skewed or taken the wrong way, and allows one to put together the clues and to see the bigger picture that eludes all the main players in the story.

Admittedly, it takes some time to warm to the epistolary style, which feels disjointed and confusing to begin with, but once you understand who is who and work out their role in the narrative, it all comes together beautifully — and the final letter punches a particularly devastating blow.

I loved this wonderful multi-layered novella which explores family loyalty, betrayal, trust and ideology but does so in a completely understated way. It’s an unexpected treat that demands more than one reading.


I read this for Lizzie’s #GermanLitMonth. The book is also short enough to qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is called killing two birds with one stone, or reading one book for two reading challenges!

 

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

‘A Brief Affair’ by Alex Miller

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The self and how we reveal different parts to different people is the central theme in Alex Miller’s latest novel.

The title, A Brief Affair, might suggest a romantic dalliance, and while that does form an element of the story — indeed, it’s a brief affair that acts as a catalyst for all that follows — it’s not the heart and soul of the book.

Instead, this rather gentle story focuses on two women, a generation apart, who must deal with the unintended consequences of forbidden love.

Twin narratives

For married academic and mother of two Dr Frances Egan, a one-night stand with a handsome stranger while on a business trip to China has long-lasting repercussions on her inner life. For Valerie Sommers, the forced separation from her female lover, at a time when same-sex couples were outlawed, lands her in a mental hospital.

Fran’s story is set in the present day using the third person with an emphasis on inner dialogue, while Valerie’s is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is told in confessional style through diary entries, which include prose and poetry.

The link between the two women comes when Valerie’s long-lost notebook is discovered at Frances’ workplace, which was once an asylum. But as Frances reads Valerie’s writings and begins to discover intimate details of this stranger’s life, she seeks to find a more personal connection and strives to find common ground even though she knows Valerie’s suffering has been immeasurably different from her own.

She wanted a definite connection between herself and Valerie. She knew, her instincts knew, that such a link existed if only it could find its way through her tumult to an expression of itself. She needed time to think. Time to reflect. There was never any time. Then the simplicity of it would unfold. Valerie’s poetry would become her own moment in a landscape of real reality.

Their twin narratives are interleaved, but the focus is mainly on Fran who is grappling with the intense afterglow of her own affair, a marriage that has hit a rocky patch and troubles on the career front thanks to a sexist boss who is demanding and condescending by turns.

A rich inner life

There’s not much of a plot, but the story is a compelling one because of the way it charts Fran’s inner life, her views on motherhood and marriage, and the intimate details that make up her personality, including her hopes, dreams, desires and fears.

Miller is exceptionally good at nuance and his well-drawn female characters are authentic, flawed and believable. He has incredible insight into the female psyche and the issues with which women grapple on a day-to-day basis:

When you have children you are no longer free to do as you like with your life. Does everyone know this before they have children? Or does it come as a surprise? Margie was born during the night. An easy birth. Out she came. Pink and ready to make a go of it. And three days later Tom drove us both home. It took a couple of weeks — or was it months? Then I woke up one morning knowing I had paid with my life for the privilege of motherhood.

A Brief Affair is a beautifully told tale that explores the self we present to the world, the self that changes over time and the secret part of ourselves we keep hidden from the world. It’s a story about memory and experience, the compromises we make along the way, the relationships we form and the paths we navigate as life unfolds.

I really enjoyed this quiet, subtle book, the perfect balm for these unsettled times.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. Please note it is currently only available in Australia, but his novels generally do get published worldwide, so you might just need to be patient. If you can’t wait, you can order direct from the publisher.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘The Man Within’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 219 pages; 2011.

First published in 1929, The Man Within was Graham Greene’s first novel.

It’s a relatively simple tale of a young smuggler who dobs in his colleagues and then faces the consequences of his betrayal.

Split into three parts, it follows Francis Andrews who goes on the run after he denounces his fellow smugglers — who are running sprits from France — after a fight breaks out and a man is shot dead.

He seeks refuge in a  Sussex cottage owned by a young woman called Elizabeth (with whom he falls in love), but later returns to Lewes, by the coast, where he stands witness in the trial against his fellow smugglers.

When they are acquitted of murder, he returns to Elizabeth’s cottage to warn her that her own life is now in danger, because he had named her as an alibi.

The ending, which has an unforeseen twist, ties up a lot of loose ends but leaves enough room for the reader to make up their own mind about what comes next.

Human relationships

Central to the story is Andrews’ relationship with Carylon, the leader of the smuggling ring, who has become a father figure to him, but their relationship is fraught and one-sided and Andrews is scared of him.

There’s a definite focus on father-son relationships and what it is to be a good man. Andrews’ own father, who died at sea, was well-liked by others, but feared at home:

His father to his crew was a hero, a king, a man of dash, initiative. Andrews knew the truth–that he was a bully who killed his wife and ruined his son.

The result is that Andrews can’t stand up for himself, considers himself a coward, and now realises that his betrayal, one of the bravest things he has ever done, now puts him at risk, especially from Carylon, who has previously killed other men and won’t be afraid to do the same to him.

But by the same token, Andrews doesn’t take any responsibility for himself — here’s an early exchange with Elizabeth, after he barges into her cottage unannounced:

‘I never meant any harm to you,’ Andrews muttered, and then added with a convulsive pleading : ‘It was only fear that made me come. You other people never seem to understand fear. You expect everyone to be brave like yourself. It’s not a man’s fault whether he’s brave or cowardly. It’s all in the way he’s born. My father and mother made me. I didn’t make myself.’

The way in which he falls for Elizabeth, one of the only women he’s ever had any interactions with without paying for it, seems spontaneous and presumptive. His early conversations with her are littered with cruel sentiment.

Looking down at her dark hair, pale face and calm eyes seemed to infuriate him. ‘You women,’ he said, ‘you are all the same. You are always on your guard against us. Always imagine that we are out to get you. You don’t know what a man wants.’

But when he returns to see her for the second time, he’s convinced himself he’s in love with her and feels at home with her:

‘We get tired of our own kind,’ he said, ‘the coarseness, hairiness–you don’t understand. Sometimes I’ve paid street women simply to talk to them, but they are like the rest of you. They don’t understand that I don’t want their bodies.’ ‘You’ve taught us what to think,’ she interrupted with a faint bitterness breaking the peace of her mind. He took no notice of what she said.
‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘a reason why I came back. You can laugh at me. I was homesick for here.’

He also sees Elizabeth as someone who can offer him stability — and sanity.

‘You are so sane,’ he said sadly. ‘You women are all so sane. A dream is often all there is to a man. I think that you are lovely, good and full of pity, but that is only a dream. You know all about yourself, how you are greedy for this and that, afraid of insects, full of disgusting physical needs. You’ll never find a man who will love you for anything but a bare, unfilled-in outline of yourself. A man will even forget his own details when he can, until he appears an epic hero, and it needs his woman to see that he’s a fool. Only a woman can love a real person.’
‘You may be right,’ she said, ‘though I don’t understand most of it. I once knew a man, though, who so forgot his own details as you call them, that he believed himself a coward and nothing else.’

Basic plot

The plot is basic, and relies too much on coincidence to work, and the execution is patchy. Greene, who wrote the book when he was 22, describes it as “embarrassingly romantic” and the style derivative, claiming the only quality it possesses is its youth. And there’s some truth in that.

But it’s good at building tension and the prose is eloquent (in places). There are some beautiful mood-evoking descriptions of place, such as this:

Along a white road a scarlet cart crawled like a ladybird along the rim of a leaf. The Surrey hills peered through a silver veil, as though they were an old man’s face, austere, curious and indestructibly chaste. A cock a mile away crowed with frosty clarity and a lamb bewildered and invisible cried aloud.

But on the whole, The Man Within is a fairly mediocre story although it brims with that same energy, fierceness and psychological insight that underpin the large body of work that follows. Reading it provides a glimpse into Greene’s early interests in topics that recur in his later work: the differences between men and women, religion and spirituality, good and evil.

If you haven’t read him before, this probably isn’t the place to start.

I read this book for The 1929 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 24-30 October 2022.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Leila Mottley, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Nightcrawling’ by Leila Mottley

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2022.

Seventeen-year-old Kiara ‘Kia’ Johnson is a character that will stay with me for a long time.

Her jailbird father is dead, her mother is in a halfway house and her older brother is unemployed and spends his days making music in a makeshift recording studio, thinking he’s going to hit the big time. There’s no one looking out for her, and yet she takes it upon herself to look after Trevor, a nine-year-old boy, who lives in the same decrepit apartment block, while his mother goes missing for days at a time.

Meanwhile, as the threat of eviction looms large, Kia must figure out a way to pay the rent for both her apartment and Trevor’s. The solution she stumbles upon is not pretty — and leads to a life-changing court case that puts her in the public eye.

Based on true events

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley was inspired by a real-life scandal in which several police officers, from various police departments in the Oakland area of California, had “participated in the sexual exploitation of a young woman and attempted to cover it up”. (See this newspaper article published in the Guardian in 2016 to find out more.)

The story is told from Kia’s point of view in an engaging first-person narrative which showcases the character’s alarming naivety, her chutzpah and stoicism, her ingenuity and resilience, and her fierce independence. 

She stumbles into sex work almost by accident when she gets drunk in a club and follows a white man out onto the street. 

He cracks another smile, just like he did in the sweat of he club. “Look, it’s late and I don’t want to have to pretend we aren’t here for the same thing.”
He’s speaking, but the only thing that I can absorb is the way the wind keeps whipping his hair back. I don’t know what he’s referring to and I don’t have enough energy to figure it out.
“I know a spot,” he says.
“A spot?” My knees feel increasingly less reliable with the sloshing inside me.

From there, it’s a free fall into walking the seedy streets of Oakland, hooking up with strange men (usually in the back of their cars) and making enough money to keep a roof over her head.

But one evening she’s picked up by a cop — and things change, not in the way you might expect because instead of being arrested she becomes the Oakland Police Department’s go-to hooker of choice and is invited to sex parties at which she services dozens of men — and sometimes they don’t even pay her.

She cannot tell anyone what is happening because, first, she doesn’t really have anyone to tell, and second, because she’s living under threat that the police will arrest her brother, who has now turned to drug pushing to finance his pursuit of becoming a musician.

The police department’s horrendous exploitation of her only comes to light when one of the policemen commits suicide and names her in the note he left behind.

An audacious debut

As well as being an eye-opening account of the sexual misconduct of a morally corrupt police department, Nightcrawling is a bold and vivid portrait of the Black underclass in urban America.

It’s a depressing, oppressive portrayal and yet Kia’s boldness and persistence lend the story a sense of self-confidence, of cheeky resistance, of survival against the odds. I liked her forthright nature, her dogged determinism and her compassion and care for young Trevor who is in a worse situation than herself.

The book is a tale about power and corruption, but in giving a voice to the powerless it shines a light on truth, justice and racism in modern-day America. It’s an impressive and audacious debut.

Nightcrawling was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

Author, Book review, Donal Ryan, Doubleday, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Doubleday; 240 pages; 2020.

Given my penchant for Irish literature, you would think that I would have read a Donal Ryan novel by now. Admittedly, I did give his debut novel, The Spinning Heart, a go when it was first published in 2012 but abandoned it because it wasn’t working for me. I almost did the same with this one.

Family problems

Strange Flowers, published in 2020, is a novel spanning three generations of one family.

Set in rural Ireland in the early 1970s, it tells the story of Moll Gladney, a young woman who one day leaves the family home without explanation and does not return.

Her distraught parents, Paddy and Kit, believe they will never see her again, thinking their daughter “was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse”. They continue on with their lives as best they can, their existence a “solemn half-life of work and prayers and weakening hope”.

Five years go by and then, completely out of the blue, Moll returns, dragging a troubled past with her. That past includes a husband — a black man named Alexander Elmwood  — and a child, Joshua, both of whom she has left behind in London.

A new life

The story follows what happens when Alexander turns up in Ireland to try to find his wife, how the pair settle into rural life and the close bond Josh develops with his grandparents. Later, when Josh is an adult, he repeats his mother’s pattern of behaviour by fleeing to London.

Despite being told in a disjointed manner employing different points of view along the way —  Strange Flowers is broken into six parts named after sections in the Bible — it’s easy enough to follow and all the loose ends are nicely tied up at the end. We even find out why Moll went on the run in the first place, right back in 1973, which makes for a satisfying read.

And while the narrative is occasionally devastating and sad and brims with melancholia and a sense of history repeating, there was something about it that just did not work for me.

I hesitate to use the word “twee” but it’s the first one that springs to mind. The Irishness feels overdone to the point of being “Oirish” and ditto for the breathless nature of the prose in which some sentences are up to a page long.

I also had difficulty with the portrayal of Alexander’s family in London and the way in which an English black man could be so readily accepted by a small Irish community (he experiences little to no racism).

On the whole, I felt rather lukewarm about this novel, but realise this puts me out of step with many other readers and critics, all of whom have heaped praise on it.

Strange Flowers won the An Post Irish Novel of the Year in 2020 and has been described by the Sunday Independent as “one of the greatest novels of this century”. 

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.