& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Tice Cin

‘Keeping the House’ by Tice Cin

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 242 pages; 2021.

I had heard plenty of great things about Tice Cin’s Keeping the House, but it didn’t really work for me. I just could not engage with the story, nor the characters.

The blurb claims it’s about three generations of a Turkish family living in North London who import into the UK heroin hidden in cabbages.

It features a cast of characters that is so vast it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. That’s despite the fact there’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book. (I read this on Kindle and, unlike a physical book, it’s next to impossible to flick back to the front to look up names as you’re reading, which ruins the experience.)

That narrative is broken up into dozens and dozens of chapters, most only a few pages long, and each is told from a different character’s point of view. No sooner did I come to understand that Ayla, for instance, was the mother, courageous enough to take the plunge in the illicit import business, than the chapter would end and a new perspective would be introduced from another character’s point of view. Right from the start, the storyline felt disjointed.

The time frames also jump backward and forward, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but I was struggling to keep track of all the characters so my poor overworked brain could not cope with the changes in chronology, too.

It began to feel like I was reading something that had been influenced by our busy online lives, flicking from one social media platform to another, following snippets of conversations and news from a myriad of sources, and yet, for me, this style and structure felt too chaotic to make sense.

Yet the characters are well-drawn (if occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another) and the scene-setting and insights into ex-pat Turkish culture are exemplary. The writing is lyrical, original, astute.  There are sublime poems dotted throughout the text, too.

Some of the chapters, especially those with lots of dialogue, are arranged like theatre scripts, minus the directions but clearly outlining who says what, which are fun to read.

Ali: Funny. So we have three things we’re going to do. I send your gear to Jersey, the rest we’ll sell off to this Jamaican dealer I know – all very street level – and then I send leftovers to some posh houses near Muswell Hill or something. Full of university people. You don’t want everything going off to one place if you want this to be quiet.
Ayla: Jersey?
Ali: Yes. Taking the stuff to Jersey is worth three times more. Little bags worth three thousand sell for seven thousand. Once you’ve gotten someone on board, the hundred miles there are no problems. There’s about a hundred users in the place, so police know when there’s stuff on the island. You can spook them with a boo, though. Their prisons are full of non-islanders.
Ayla: They can’t fit more than a hundred in one of their prisons?
Ali: Something like that.

There are lots of Turkish words and phrases, all translated in the text, too, which adds to the flavour of the novel. And there’s a dark brooding atmosphere that infuses the story, one that drips with an undercurrent of violence and often blatant misogyny.

Keeping the House is not exactly a “fun” read, but structurally the author is doing interesting experimental things and clearly has a lot of talent. It’s the kind of work you’d expect to see nominated for the Goldsmith’s Prize, for instance.

Maybe add it to your list if you’re looking for something challenging and different or if you know this part of north London well. For me, I think it might have been the case of the right book but the wrong time…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Liam Davison, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Woman’ by Liam Davison

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 154 pages; 1994.

Liam Davison’s novella The White Woman is a fictionalised account of the real-life search for a woman said to be lost in the wilds of Gippsland, Victoria, in the early 19th century.

Newspaper reports claimed she had been taken by Blacks who were holding her captive. But no one really knew who she was or exactly who had taken her. A cynical person — *cough, cough* me —  might think it was merely a cover to explain why so many Aboriginals were massacred at the time.

There were rumours of course, stories which couldn’t be discounted. She was the educated daughter of an English lord; the mother of children; a child herself. She had entered religious orders. In the end, all we had was the name the blacks had given her. Lohantuka. White woman. To be honest, I fear she was something different to each of us; mother, daughter, lover, wife. Or all of them.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of a man who participated in the search some 30 years earlier. The son of a fellow participant has contacted him, wanting to know what happened, so the narrator directs the tale at him using a second-person narrative.

His tale is intimate, with a tone of regret. He knows that the search was not actually about the so-called “virtuous woman lost in the bush, held by savages against her will” but about the men who wished to rescue her. And he knows that their view of the Blacks was prejudiced and wrong because it was simply easier to see them as “savages, brutes, the very opposite of what we are ourselves” than to seek out the truth.

That truth — ugly and dark — runs like a “heretical undercurrent” throughout the tale. It hints that the white men were the savages, the ones intent on blood thirsty acts using carbines, muskets and lengths of rope. These unsettling stories, not fully told or fully admitted to…

[…] still linger after all these years, snippets of gossip, part hearsay, part conjecture, but always with the possibility of truth behind them; things about ourselves so far outside the realm of acceptability we couldn’t hope to face them. They didn’t reach the papers. […] “The Highland Brigade”. “Sons of Scotland”. You’ve heard of them? Infamy doesn’t fade. You see, the stories still being told, their feats still grow in stature. Groups of men set out against the blacks – not spontaneous eruptions of violence, but calculated, well-planned expeditions. Sorties, hunts, call them what you want. They had a purpose.

Based on a real expedition

The book is based on the ‘White Woman Expedition’ led by Christian J. DeVilliers in 1846, a party of men who departed Melbourne for Gippsland, a treacherous journey by sea and land into wilderness not previously explored by Europeans. (You can read a bit more about the expedition in this summary of an academic paper published in 1999, which the author used as part of his research.)

It features beautiful descriptions of the bush and the waterways that are explored (including places that are well known to me such as Wilson’s Promontory and Port Albert on the South Gippsland coast). There’s a real sense of remoteness and a mild terror of the unknown. And the characters, which range from uptight to fearful, sanctimonious to petty, are depicted with great nuance. You really get to feel the tensions between rival parties (DeVilliers tried to work with the Gippsland police commissioner Tyers and the Border Police, who weren’t particularly cooperative) and even within Devilliers’ own party.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal the white woman is never found, but what the men do stumble across is horrific and stomach churning, the kind of evidence that history has long chosen to ignore. This important novella helps put everything in context and through the device of fiction reveals to us the long hidden truth. It’s a remarkable — and moving — achievement.

Lisa from ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book as part of a personal tribute to the author — Liam Davison and his wife were on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 when the Russians shot it down over disputed territory in Ukraine in 2014. There were no survivors.

Please note this book appears to be out of print. I purchased mine second hand at a charity book sale earlier in the year. 

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Thicker Than Water:  History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn: This is a travelogue-cum-historical-biography about the author’s great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837. McMillan was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland” but new evidence suggests he was responsible for massacring hundreds of Aboriginals. Unsurprisingly, he has now come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”. McMillan is the man who started the rumour of the missing white woman…

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Australia, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Chatto & Windus; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors, but I put off reading First Person for years because I had seen so many bad reviews of it. I guess I didn’t want to have my high opinion of him altered in any way.

But I now wonder if those reviews, all published in the UK when I was living there, just didn’t properly appreciate the fact the story was about a real-life fraudster, John Friedrich, who dominated the Australian media landscape in the 1980s and early 1990s. It turns out that when Flanagan was a struggling writer — while he was penning his first novel Death of a River Guide — he was contracted to write Friedrich’s memoir.

This novel is a fictionalised account of what it was like to act as the ghostwriter of “Australia’s biggest conman”, a man who lied about everything, including where he was born and gave Flanagan so little to work with he had to make large chunks of it up. It’s a book about truth and lies and the grey margins in between, and it’s a riveting exploration of ethics and morality in publishing long before the internet or social media blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

But first, let’s talk a bit about Friedrich because I think it’s important to really understand the strange and slippery character that is at the heart of this novel.

Australia’s biggest fraudster

Friedrich, who committed suicide in July 1991 just days after he appeared in court on charges involving defrauding the banks of almost $300 million, was a complicated man.

He came to Australia, from Germany, in the 1970s using a fake name and fake qualifications. After various stints in construction and the Uniting Church, he joined the National Safety Council of Australia in Victoria, where he later became executive director. He was lauded as a hero (he was granted the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1988) because he greatly expanded the council’s role to become a vital search and rescue operation, investing money in high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art aids, but when it collapsed financially, thanks to millions of dollars worth of bank loans that couldn’t be repaid, he went on the run.

When he was found, after an exhausting nationwide manhunt, he was charged with 92 counts of obtaining property by deception. It later transpired that he was not an Australian citizen and did not have a valid birth certificate. Who exactly was this man? And how had he pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes?

In First Person, much of Friedrich’s backstory is not fully explained — it’s assumed you know about this conman’s activities — but there’s enough information for you to piece together the idea that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s done bad things and that there are so many rumours swirling around him — did he work for the CIA, for instance — that it’s seemingly impossible to get a handle on who he really is.

And that’s the dilemma that faces the narrator in the story: how does he produce a truthful ghostwritten memoir of a man who is so lax with the truth?

Fictionalised tale

But, of course, this is a novel, not non-fiction, so the Friedrich character goes by the name of Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl, and the narrator is an impoverished writer from Hobart called Kif Kehlmann. Kif is writing a novel while working a series of unsteady jobs to make ends meet. He has a young daughter, Bo, and his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins.

The offer of a six-week job in Melbourne to ghostwrite the memoirs of a man due to go to prison tempts Kif because of its potential to break him into publishing, while also netting a much-needed $10,000 fee. But it comes with all kinds of strings attached (this novel does a nice send-up of the publishing industry and the bizarre “rules” of the trade), and when he meets Ziggy he does not like him very much and struggles to get any information out of him that could be used in the book.

Being nice doesn’t cut it, and Kif is too weak and ineffectual to deal with a hard nut like Ziggy who comes out with extraordinary words of wisdom and advice, quoting Neitzche and philosophising about life and how to live it.

You want to live without enemies, Heidl said, that’s your problem. You think if I am good and kind and don’t speak ill of others I won’t have enemies. But you will, you just don’t know it yet. They’re out there, your enemies, you just haven’t met them. You can seek them out or pretend they don’t exist but they’ll still find you. Trust me. You want to be like a dog that everyone likes, but there’s not a dog alive someone doesn’t want to kick or kill. You want everyone to be your friend. Why? Why bother?

Ziggy spends a lot of time having lunch with contacts, including investors he claims are going to help him build a space station in Queensland, while avoiding Kif as much as possible. Kif, in turn, spends a lot of time gnashing his teeth and then taking out all his frustrations on his poor hapless wife when he returns home for weekend visits to Hobart.

The narrative begins to build when it’s clear Kif is not going to meet deadlines or word counts set for him by the seemingly greedy publisher, Gene Paley, for whom he is working.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ziggy dies — though whether by his own hand or someone else’s is one of the puzzles Flanagan explores in this fictionalised account — at around the three-quarters mark, and then First Person loses a bit of steam. The remaining quarter of the novel is taken up with Kif’s life after the memoir is posthumously published, riffing on the idea that his exposure to so many lies and untruths has somehow infected his own psyche, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.

Kif seems unable to reconcile the idea that writing novels for a living is a noble profession. A woman he meets in a New York bar sums it up neatly for him:

It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things, Emily was saying. Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again. Novels disempower reality, the beard said.

First Person is an eloquent, if somewhat uneven, exploration of truth, corporate greed and the idea that the past always catches up with you.

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

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this book.

If you like this, you might also like:

This documentary on 9 Now, is a good summary of the John Friedrich case. It’s part of the Australian Crime Stories series, so it’s likely to be geo-restricted to those with an Australian IP address.

Otherwise, this promo (see below) for a documentary that I don’t think has ever been made sums it all up rather neatly:

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jock Serong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jack Serong

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

It seems ironic that the day I finished reading Jack Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, the Australian men’s Test captain, Tim Paine, resigned from his position, bidding a tearful farewell in what could have been a scene lifted directly from this novel.

In Serong’s brilliant book, all the cricket clichés we know and love are here, and the sport, which is regarded as a “gentleman’s game”, is shown as anything but with its sledging and corruption and bad-boy behaviour.

Its heroes, which are lauded in Australia and turned into holier-than-thou celebrities (even if it’s just to sell vitamins on TV!), are skewered beautifully in this wildly compelling and entertaining story about two talented brothers from Melbourne’s working-class western suburbs who grow up to represent their country in international cricket.

One brother is bad, another is good — and it’s this tension between the two that powers the story along faster than anything Dennis Lillee could ever deliver!

Childhood memoir

When the book opens we meet the narrator, Darren Keefe, who is locked in the boot of a car, bound and gagged, with gunshot wounds to his legs. The car is belting down a road somewhere, but we don’t know who is behind the wheel or what Darren has done to get into this precarious position.

I’m suspended in space here, between wakefulness and sleep, maybe even consciousness and death, and I fear the gag will suffocate me if I doze off. A world apart from the world in here.

The story then spools back to Darren’s childhood in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, and from his position in the boot of the car, he tells his warts-and-all story, from talented child cricketer to white-ball superstar before falling from grace and reinventing himself as a TV commentator and after-dinner events speaker.

His older brother, Wally, is more successful than him, rising to become captain of the Australian men’s Test team. He’s the more responsible sibling; he’s more level-headed, logical and steady, whereas Darren is a trouble-maker, a likable larrikin who enjoys women and drink and gambling and drugs too much to take anything too seriously.

One columnist says he’d pay to watch Darren Keefe because something amazing might happen, but he’d bet the house on Wally Keefe, because the necessary will happen. Journalists love the potential clichés we suggest: Cain and Abel, Jekyll and Hyde, Noel and Liam.

The one guiding force in their life is their determined and gutsy single mother, who recognises their talent when they are young boys, creating a perfect pitch for them in the backyard and working long shifts in the pub to pay for the best kit she can buy them.

Bad boy antics

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Darren has a wild streak in him that can’t be tamed. Here’s what he says about his school days:

I’d cheated on tests (detention), burned centipedes with a magnifying glass (caning), thrown a bolt-bomb on the road near the bus stop (caning) and fed a paper clip into a powerpoint (electrocution and caning). Most recently, I’d clean-bowled a grade-four during recess and, when he refused to vacate the crease, I’d spontaneously waved my dick at him. The timing was poor: Brother Callum was standing directly behind me as I did it, confirming that if you chant the Litany of the Saints often enough, the Holy Ghost will grant you invisibility.

But his talent with the bat means he rises through the ranks quickly — as a 12-year-old he’s playing in the seniors, by 20 he’s in the state squad and the leading run-scorer in Victorian district cricket — and before he knows it he’s playing white-ball cricket for Australia. He gets married but doesn’t really settle down — he likes partying too much.

It doesn’t help that his best friend has gangster connections (and may or may not be working for them), so there’s always plenty of drugs, mainly cocaine around, and with that comes violence and reputational crises to sort out. And then, when he’s offered a bribe to help “throw” a game, well…

Rip-roaring tale

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is one of those rip-roaring tales that take you in unexpected directions. I loved following the antics of these two brothers and their wonderful mother (who later succumbs to Alzheimer’s) and seeing how their careers unfold over two decades or so.

It’s a literary coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a crime story because how Darren ends up in the boot of a car is the consequence of illicit activities. Every new chapter begins with a reminder that Darren is in the boot against his will, and it’s these glimpses of his confusion and anger and pain during these moments that helps build the suspense, making the novel a page-turner because you want to find out why he’s there and whether he will ever escape.

But the story is also a kind of loose satire about cricket because there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek swipes at how Australia treats its sports stars and how sports stars use the media and their celebrity to build their profiles and career. It’s set in the latter half of the 20th century, before social media and the internet took over everything, just at the point when cricket became properly professionalised, but much of what is written here still resonates today.

There’s a lot here to unpick about morality and ethics in sport, about sibling rivalry and the lengths parents will go to to help their children succeed, but most of all The Rules of Backyard Cricket is just a great big enjoyable romp.

I suspect Jock Serong had a lot of fun writing this; I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. This one will be in my Top 10 reads of the year for sure.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott: an entertaining story about a 12-year-old boy, a talented spin bowler, who plays Test cricket at international level for Australia in between the wars.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘7½’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 360 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In 1963, the Italian film director Federico Fellini directed a film called in which a troubled filmmaker struggles to get a new movie off the ground. Weighed down by the project, he retreats into the inner world of his thoughts, recalling past and present romantic entanglements, which, in turn, begin to affect his film work so that it becomes increasingly more autobiographical.

Christos Tisolkas’ new novel, 7½, transposes that idea into the world of literature, placing himself as the central character who is working on a new novel, all the while getting lost in his own thoughts, remembering his childhood and writing a memoir of sorts.

Three storylines woven together

I have three stories I wish to tell. The simple nature of our craft is to vomit these stories out on a page. It is an ugly analogy but I think it is apt.

The book is comprised of three main threads, which evolve over time, and criss-cross over each other like an intricately woven tapestry. It’s a book that merges meta-fiction with auto-fiction, throws in some nature writing, offers lots of musings and thoughts about art and beauty, love and eroticism, and attempts to explain the meaning of literature and why novelists do what they do. But despite these many disparate threads, it feels like a seamless, effortless whole.

In the first thread, we meet a writer called Christos Tsiolkas who has headed to the southern NSW coast for a couple of weeks solitude to focus on his writing. Here, in a beach-side cottage, he goes for daily swims, breathes in the beauty of the world around him and shuts out all distractions, including his mobile phone which he locks away in a room, only using it to call his partner who remains behind in Melbourne.

The second thread is about writing and why Christos has decided to shun the usual topics — “Morality or Politics or Race or Class or Gender or Sexuality” — he covers in his work. We find out about the genesis of his new novel, which may or may not become a screenplay for a film.  He tells us how he came up with the idea, why it’s important to him and how he is struggling to write it — and then we get to read it in what feels like real-time as the story develops. This novel is about an American porn star, Paul Carrigan, who lives in Australia and is married to an Australian woman with whom he has a teenage son. Carrigan is offered $180,000 to sleep with an ageing fan in California, and the novel follows what happens when he makes the trip.

The third and final thread is the story of Christos’ own life, beginning with memories of his childhood in working-class Melbourne where he was raised by his Greek immigrant parents. Much of what he writes tries to explain how his personal beliefs, his homosexuality and his appreciation of art and beauty have all been shaped by his experiences.

A book about beauty

It can sometimes be a risk for a writer to include different threads in the one work because there’s always the danger that a reader will prefer one over another. But I enjoyed all of the storylines in 7½, perhaps because they were woven together so skilfully but also perhaps because they inform each other: you know, for instance, that Christos watched porn as a young man and that informed his decision to write a novel about a porn star.

I especially enjoyed his musings on literature — he doesn’t claim the novel is dead, but he does say it has become  “timid” and “cowardly”, with writers looking over their shoulders seeking approval from peers, colleagues, friends and social media, instead of being true to their selves. Later he accuses novelists of becoming homogenised:

Every bloody novelist sounds the same now, whether they are American or Austrian or Angolan or Andalusian or Australian. All the same cant, all the same desire to shape the world to their academic whims and aspirations. All this compassion and all this outrage and all this empathy and all this sorrow and all this fear and all this moralising and not one sentence of surprise in it.

Perhaps one of the most telling scenes in the book is when Christos has a frank conversation with his friend Andrea about his work. He confesses that he is writing a novel about beauty because it’s a challenge to capture beauty on the page.

“I want it to be simple, almost straightforward in its intent. If I were a poet, it would be easier. Or if I were a musician. It is harder to distil beauty into prose. The novel is treacherous.”

But she accuses him of taking the easy option, of no longer wanting to change the world with his writing.

“You can’t write about beauty,” she says calmly. “You  don’t have the talent.”

The usual topics

Despite what the author might say, doesn’t shun the usual, sometimes controversial or confronting, topics that are present in his earlier work (see all my reviews here), because you can’t write about beauty without discussing morality and politics and gender and class and so on. The topics might not be capitalised but they are still there.

He’s often at his “Christos Tsiolkas best” when writing about the erotic, the sensual and the pornographic, albeit seen through the lens of a gay man (he’s obsessed, it would seem, with men’s hands and armpits — indeed sweaty, smelly, unshaven armpits are mentioned a lot in this book, you have been warned). But if you have read his work before, this won’t surprise you.

But where this novel works best is in that grey space between memory and imagination, where creativity collides with memoir, and how noticing a particular fragrance or hearing a familiar song can transport us back to another time and place, and how that is deeply connected to our emotions and, in turn, our sense of self.

might not be your usual Tsiolkas novel, but it’s just as powerful and thought-provoking, if not more so, than anything he’s written before.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Fiona Scarlett, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by Fiona Scarlett

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 178 pages; 2021.

It sounded like Da was crying. I’ve never seen Da cry. He tells us that crying is a sign of weakness. That boys don’t cry. That boys should never cry. So we don’t. Ever. Unless we’re in private, when nobody sees.

If you took a big cooking pot and threw in Irish authors Roddy Doyle and Kit de Waal, then added the scriptwriters for the Irish gangster TV series Love/Hate and gave it a good stir, the end result might be Fiona Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry.

This novella about sibling love, divided loyalties, illness, grief and toxic masculinity is a heartrending — and heartwarming — read.

A tale of two brothers

Set in working-class Dublin, the story unfolds through the eyes of two brothers, who tell their version of events in alternate chapters.

Joe is 17 and a gifted artist. He’s been lucky enough to secure a place in a prestigious private school, but he is constantly aware that he is from a different social class and doesn’t quite fit in. He’s often bullied and expected to behave in a stereotypical way, purely because of his background.

Finn is 12 and a happy-go-lucky boy who loves playing sport and having fun with friends. He looks up to his big brother and adores his Ma and Da. But when he develops unexplained bruising on his arms and legs and begins suffering from bad nose bleeds, a question mark is raised over his health. Is he being physically abused at home, or is something else going on?

What makes the story so compelling is the way in which it is told, for each brother’s version of events is told in a different time period — Joe’s is AFTER Finn’s — but they are interleaved so that one loosely informs the other to make a more powerful read.

Working-class family

When I began reading this book, I literally had no idea what it was about. I have no memory of buying it and don’t know why I did so, other than it must have received a good review somewhere or I thought the subject matter appealed at the time. (According to Amazon, I purchased it on 1 May 2021.)

While it soon becomes clear that the family in Boys Don’t Cry is not your usual working-class family — Da runs a drug operation for the local kingpin, Dessie Murphy, but is now locked up in Mountjoy prison for shooting a policeman, who nearly died — it takes a while to figure out why everyone is wracked with grief and why Joe hates his father so much.

In fact, Joe, a complex character, is the heart of this story. He’s the one who holds the narrative together and makes it such a compelling read because you feel for him — and fear for him.

He’s clearly emotionally troubled — it takes some time to get to the root of why this might be the case — and he’s filled with hate for Dessie Murphy and wants nothing to do with him. But when his friend Sabine incurs a debt she can’t pay off, the temptation to do a one-off job for the gangster becomes hard to resist.

As a reader, you know that Dessie is grooming Joe to join the gang, but Joe is naive, oblivious to the dangers and realities of the criminal underworld: it’s never a case of just doing one job and walking away, once you’re in the “family” you can never leave…

A tear-jerker

Boys Don’t Cry is a remarkable read in so many ways. It’s a brilliant evocation of a family plunged in grief, of a teenager struggling to determine his own code of ethics and of a young boy grappling with mortality. It’s about heavy subjects but there are flashes of humour throughout to lighten the load.

The author is a primary school teacher and it’s clear she knows what makes children and teens tick; she really conveys their moods and feelings and mindset in an authentic way.

A word of warning though. I wouldn’t recommend reading this one in public — and I’d suggest having tissues on hand, because it’s a bit of a tear-jerker, ironic given the title, which is all about repressing emotions and keeping everything in check.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 293 pages; 2021.

Damon Galgut is one of my favourite authors. Ever since I belatedly discovered him in 2015, I’ve been steadily making my way through his back catalogue, and I am yet to meet a book by him I haven’t adored.

I love the recurring themes in much of his work about religion, racism and community, all seen through the lens of South Africa’s complicated history and issues arising from the dismantling of apartheid.

His new novel, The Promise, is his first in seven years, so its arrival came with some expectation. I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.

A family going to ruin

In a nutshell, The Promise is about the Swarts, a privileged white Afrikaner family, living on a farm outside of Pretoria. It charts their downfall over a period of some 40 years, using this as a metaphor for the decline of white colonial rule.

The book is structured around four family deaths, each about a decade apart, and is told in the third person using an ever-shifting perspective — pegged to different characters — to create a free-flowing big-screen narrative that wields a rather hypnotic effect.

(Admittedly, it does take a while to get used to this style, because the lines between a character’s thoughts, their actions and the commentary of the narrator do blur, but once you get “into” the story it is quite spellbinding as it ebbs and flows and weaves its magic.)

The omnipresent voice swings between intimacy and sardonicism, sometimes within the space of a paragraph, and has a gleeful, occasionally witty undertone. One of the characters, for instance, likes to hang out in a particular shopping mall because “nothing terrible could ever happen to you there”:

Though she did see a man having a fit once, maybe even a heart attack, in the pet food aisle in the supermarket. Imagine, your last sight in this world, a bag of dog food!

In another, a woman wants to help her niece…

…but leaving now would be terrible, it would be like when Ockie erased the who-shot-JR episode of Dallas from the VHA player by mistake before she’d seen it.

The titular promise, which is broken almost as soon as it has been uttered, revolves around Salome, the family’s faithful Black housekeeper, who is supposed to inherit the house in which she lives and the land upon which it stands when Rachel Swart dies. But it is never fulfilled.

Atoning for a broken promise

There are three children in the Swart family — their names all annoyingly starting with “A” (Anton, Astrid and Amor) — but it is the youngest, Amor, who spends her whole life trying to make good on the promise. As a young girl she overheard her mother, who was on her deathbed, urging her father, Manie, to do good by Salome even though, technically, it wasn’t possible under South African law at the time for Blacks to own land.

But Manie denies the promise was made and Amor’s protestations to the contrary are dismissed  — Amor, it turns out, was struck by lightning as a young child while out on the koppie and as a result her family think she is “not quite right” in the head. Anything she says is taken with a pinch of salt.

As the story unfolds against a backdrop of constant societal changes — “Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!” — we get to know these characters intimately. None, apart from Amor, are remotely likable. All harbour deep-seated prejudices against anyone who is not white, but they are human and all have been shaped by their upbringing and life experiences.

Manie, as the patriarch of the family, is headstrong, arrogant and ignorant. His refusal to take on board his wife’s wishes to be buried in the Jewish part of the cemetery is indicative of his whole attitude to other people.

Anton, the son, is a would-be novelist who thwarts opportunities to do good or to better himself. He seems unable to ever let go of the fact that he shot and killed a Black civilian while in the Army during national service (he went AWOL afterwards) and believes that the untimely death of his own mother, at around the same time, is his punishment.

Astrid, the oldest daughter, is spoilt and stuck-up. When she embarks on an extra-marital affair, she cannot understand why the Catholic priest, to whom she confessed, won’t absolve her of the adultery. Her sense of entitlement is palpable.

By comparison, Amor is deeply ashamed of her family. She cuts herself off from them, moves to Durban and devotes herself to helping others, becoming a  palliative care nurse on a HIV ward. It is here that she can atone for her family’s broken promise, all the while holding on to the idea that maybe at some point in the future she can honour it.

Personal made political

The Promise is a wide-ranging novel that deals with big themes, not least of which is religion, racism, integrity, honour and loyalty.

By focusing on the microcosm of a single family, Galgut highlights what has happened to South African society from the 1980s to now. As the narrative moves through time, history is brought to life in a way that feels real — using sporting events and political change, for example, as signifiers of certain periods.

The mellifluous prose is light and fluid and joyous to read. Yes, it meanders, but it’s the uncertainty of the journey and the ever-changing multiple viewpoints that provides the flavour of this accomplished novel. And while the overall subject matter is weighty, the humourous one-liners and funny commentary lighten the mood.

I’m not sure this “review” articulates the brilliance of this novel. It’s taken me two weeks to put my thoughts together, but even then I am at a loss to express how deeply affecting it is, how it marries the past with the present, how it shows the Swarts as products of their time but leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions about their place in history and whether it is ever possible to atone for past mistakes.

The Promise has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, which will be announced on 3 November 2021.

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers blog and Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Virginia Feito

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 304 pages; 2021.

I have been reading some quite serious and heavy books recently (some of which are yet to be reviewed), so how delightful it was to pick up Virginia Feito’s Mrs March for some wickedly good fun!

Set in New York’s exclusive Upper East Side, this debut novel tells the story of the titular Mrs March, who is married to celebrated author George March, a man 11 years her senior, to whom she is devoted, mainly because of the status and wealth his success brings. (They’ve been married a long time and it’s fair to say her love for him has waned somewhat.)

So imagine her horror when one day, out buying her regulation olive bread from the local patisserie shop, she discovers that readers believe that Johanna, the lead character in George’s latest bestselling book, is based on her. She’s outraged because Johanna is a whore past her prime, and Mrs March is a fine upstanding citizen, albeit slightly fake and needy, who believes that appearances are everything.

Distraught by this news, she comes home and pulls George’s book from the shelf. In the acknowledgements she notices that she has been thanked as “a constant source of inspiration”:

Mrs March clutched her breast, breathing hard, faintly aware that tears were falling amidst convulsive gasps. Then she shook the book, smashed it against the desk, opened it to the author photograph on the jacket flap, clawed out George’s eyes, scratched out the threaded spine, and pulled out fistfuls of pages—which flew around the room like feathers.

Losing her grip on reality

From this moment on, Mrs March’s behaviour becomes increasingly more bizarre and deranged. Having snooped in George’s study for more evidence, she discovers a newspaper clipping of a young woman who has gone missing and she somehow gets it into her head that her husband has murdered her. What follows is a slippery slope of mental anguish and upset, morphing into paranoia and a conviction that her husband is guilty.

Mrs March’s behaviour becomes farcical. But there’s nothing she won’t stoop to — including impersonating an investigative journalist from the New York Times — in a bid to get to the truth.

Of course, a story like this can’t help but be wildly funny. I tittered a lot through this novel. The abhorrent behaviour of Mrs March, her undisguised but unconscious snobbery, made me laugh. Take this simple example:

As the party progressed, the living room fattening with each new arrival, Mrs March tasked Martha with attending to the guest bathroom regularly, to fold the towels and freshen the toilet seat and floor with a light ammonia solution. The sharp antiseptic vapors merged with the sticky, sappy scent of pine, creating a smell so distinct that guests would, on future visits to hospitals or upon passing a storekeeper emptying a bucket of mop water onto the street, instantly recall that last party at the Marches.

Or this little snide remark about the noise of clacking high heels in the apartment directly above:

She didn’t know who owned the apartment right above theirs, but every time she saw a woman in heels in the lobby she would consider approaching her, maybe befriending her so that one day she could mention, in a casual, offhand manner, the surprising benefits of house slippers.

As you can tell from these quotes, the story is written in the third person, but very much from Mrs March’s point of view. We really have no idea what goes on in the head of her husband, nor her young son, Jonathan, with whom she has a rather detached relationship.

A black comedy of manners

This is a book about manners, a black comedy, if you will, with a dark twist, and it’s written with a big nod to Patricia Highsmith and perhaps even Michael Dibden.

I really loved following Mrs March’s increasingly outrageous antics, but I also worried for her sanity — and wanted to let her know that maybe she should just take a chill pill! It’s unsettling and disturbing, hugely suspenseful and a terrific page-turner. Most of all, it is simply great fun.

A movie adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, has been slated. I suspect it will be a hoot!

For other takes on this novel, please see:

Algeria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Andras, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Verso

‘Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us’ by Joseph Andras (translated by Simon Leser)

Fiction – paperback; Verso; 136 pages; 2021. Translated from the French by Simon Leser.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a short, powerful novella by French writer Joseph Andras.

Set at the height of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), it is based on the life of Fernand Iveton, a Communist working for the National Liberation Front (FLN), who was the only European executed during the War.

A highly unusual case

Fernand Iveton’s case is highly unusual for many reasons, so it is easy to see why an author might wish to tell his story. First, Iveton was a “pied-noir”  — a person of French origin living in French-ruled Algeria  (his mother was a Spanish Catholic and his father was French) — working on the anti-colonialist side.

Second, the bomb he planted in his locker at the power station where he worked was designed to go off when no one was in the building. He claims he did not want to kill people; he simply wanted to send a message to the authorities. In any event, he was arrested and the bomb located and defused before it ever went off.

And third, his trial lasted a single day, after which he was sentenced to death despite the fact he was not responsible for killing or injuring anyone. Attempts to have his sentence commuted by the then French president René Coty failed, and he was executed by guillotine on 11 February 1957.

Condemned to death

The story opens with Iveton preparing to plant the bomb provided to him by his accomplices, Jacqueline and Abdelkader Guerroudj, and closes with his death. (His accomplices were arrested and tried later, but neither were executed.)

In between, we learn about his arrest, interrogation and the ways in which he was tortured (mainly by electrocution and waterboarding). Later, we see how his lawyers tried to push for his death sentence to be commuted, but a high profile campaign in France had painted him as a terrorist and murderer and there was no room to sway popular opinion.

To offer some light relief, the narrative also traces Iveton’s romance and subsequent marriage to Hélène, a Polish woman who grew up in France and was a partisan in the French Resistance during the Second World War. They met when Iveton came to Paris to get an X-ray for a lung problem (which turned out to be tuberculosis) and she was a waitress at the hotel in which he was staying.

Fernand sits down and orders the set meal. Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…

When he returns to Algeria, he paves the way for Hélène to join him, along with her son, Jean-Claude, from her first marriage, and together they set up a happy home.

Armed struggle

The strength of the story is to highlight how the “armed struggle” is never black-and-white and that people choosing to pursue violence for political ends have their reasons for doing so.

Our client is conscious of fighting for more than himself [Iveton’s lawyers tell the President of France]. He’s fighting for his country, which he wants to see free and happy, a country which guarantees to each and every one of its citizens, Muslim or European, freedom of thought and equality. Our client wants nothing else.

I came away from it thinking how history just keeps endlessly repeating and how it’s just the countries, and perhaps the religions, that change. This story, for instance, could so easily be transferred to Northern Ireland in the 1970s or the Basque Country at any time in the 50 years leading up to 2011.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us was awarded France’s top literary prize for debut novels, the prix Goncourt du premier roman, in 2016, but the author declined to accept it, claiming that he didn’t believe writing should be a competition.

Author, Book review, Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 73 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Claire Keegan is a well regarded Irish writer best known for her short stories, which include the collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007), and her novella Foster (2010), which you can read for free on the New Yorker website if you wish to get a feel for her writing.

Her latest book, Small Things Like These, is being marketed as a novel, but it’s only 73 pages in length and feels more like an extended short story. It’s written in Keegan’s typical economical prose, but addresses big themes and big emotions.

It’s a beautiful portrait of a man carrying out a small act of defiance against the Catholic Church at a time when it controlled almost every facet of Irish life.

Ireland in the 1980s

The story is set in Ireland in 1985, a period of economic deprivation and political instability, when  “the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York”.

Bill Furlong is a hard-working coal merchant who is married with five young daughters. But he’s stuck in a rut and is beginning to wonder what his life is all about. Christmas is approaching and there’s a lot to do to get all his deliveries completed on time.

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of progress and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

His mind keeps returning to his upbringing by a single mother, who was a domestic servant in a Big House when she fell pregnant at 16. At this time, unwed mothers were condemned and their children stigmatised. Bill was fortunate that Mrs Wilson, the widow who owned the Big House, was kindly and maternal.

When his mother’s trouble became known, and her people made it clear that they’d have no more to do with her, Mrs Wilson, instead of giving his mother her walking papers, told her she should stay on, and keep her work. On the morning Furlong was born, it was Mrs Wilson who had his mother taken into hospital, and had them brought home. It was the first of April, 1946, and some said the boy would turn out to be a fool.

But even now, all these decades later, he still feels tarnished by the knowledge that he was born out of wedlock and that he has no idea who his father is. The only real male role model in his life has been Ned, the farmhand at the Big House, with whom he still keeps in touch.

Where was his father now? Sometimes, he caught himself looking at older men, trying to find a physical resemblance, or listening out for some clue in the things people said. Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it in his company for people were bound, he knew, to reveal not only themselves but what they knew, in conversation.

A visit to the convent

The pivotal moment in the story happens when Bill makes a delivery to the local convent — “a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river” — run by the Good Shepherd nuns. The nuns run a training school for girls on-site, along with a successful laundry business. Bill is aware of local rumours that the girls are of “low character” and that they work demanding hours in the laundry as a form of penance, but he has no proof, and what would he do about it anyway?

But when he discovers a thin, dishevelled and clearly frightened teenage girl locked in the coal shed, he begins to join the dots. Aware of his own five daughters at home and the knowledge of his own mother’s fate, he decides it’s time to do something to help. He is, in effect, paying forward Mrs Wilson’s kindness.

Small Things Like These is a short, powerful read, one that will linger in the mind for a long time. The author has dedicated it to the “women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries” and her afterword provides a brief history for those who aren’t aware of these scandalous Catholic institutions that housed unwed mothers and abused them.

Small Things Like These will be published in the UK on 21 October 2021 and in the US and Canada on 30 November 2021. In Australia, the Kindle edition will be available on 19 October.