Alice Pung, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Black Inc, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung

Fiction – paperback; Black Inc; 244 pages; 2021.

A mother’s obsessive love for her daughter is at the heart of Alice Pung’s profoundly moving novel One Hundred Days.

I have previously read Pung’s extraordinary memoir Her Father’s Daughter, a moving account of what it was like growing up in Australia with Cambodian parents who had fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, so I was keen to read this one. I was not disappointed!

In this gripping story, certainly one of the best I have read in 2021 (I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year), teenage Karuna is smothered by her mother’s desire to protect her.

Because she didn’t have many small things when she was growing up, she made me her Big Thing. It was both deliberate and accidental, the way most important decisions are. […] Until the summer I turned thirteen, I hadn’t realised that she had been narrating the story of my life, including the dialogue. Until then, I believed her fairytales, because I was at the centre of them.

The pair live together in a one-bedroom housing commission flat in Melbourne, where they share a bed, making privacy between mother and daughter near on impossible.

Karuna’s mother (referred to as “Grand Mar” throughout) is a Chinese Filipino, whose life is dictated by tradition and superstition. She once ran her own make-up business for wedding parties but had to give that up when Karuna’s Greek father moved out of the family home to live with a much younger girlfriend. By day she works as a hairdresser in a busy salon run by the indomitable but kind-hearted Mrs Osman, and by night she works in a Thai restaurant.

Teenage pregnancy

When 16-year-old Karuna, who is smart and bright, falls pregnant to “a boy I liked” she refuses to tell her mother who the father is.

I can feel her head turning on the pillow, and then she asks, “Who is it?”
When I don’t answer, she says, “Do you even know who it is? Because if you don’t know who it is, we can get the police to look for them and catch them and lock them away.” She says this to me like I am five years old and don’t know about the law. “In jail,” she adds.

What ensues is a battle of wills. Karuna wants to carry on her life as normal, going to school, hanging out with her friends, but her headstrong mother has other ideas. She gets her a job in the salon, where’s she’s paid $5 a day as an apprentice (“We’ll need every cent we can get,” her mother explains because “soon there will be three mouths to feed”) but in reality, does nothing more than sweep the floors and make tea for clients.

Later, when Karuna is a month away from giving birth, her mother begins locking her indoors as part of a 100-day confinement (hence the title of the book). She controls everything she eats and everything she does, all under the guise of protecting the baby, ensuring it is born happy and healthy. But for Karuna, it is all too much and she dreams of running away, starting afresh and maybe spending more time with her dad — if only she could find the key to the lock.

Letter to an unborn child

Told entirely from Karuna’s point of view, and written as a letter to her unborn child, the narrative is fast-paced (I ate it up in a day) and not without humour. We often get glimpses of Karuna’s rage and frustration, but we can also imagine her rolling her eyes when her mother subjects her to another bit of Chinese quackery.

It’s set in the 1980s and the ongoing references to Labyrinth, a film about a Goblin King who persuades a teenage girl to swap her baby half-brother for her dreams, has parallels with Karuna’s own situation: her mother wants to raise Karuna’s child as her own so that she can go on and do other things with her life beyond motherhood.

It’s those kinds of layers of meaning, and the ways in which Pung teases out the delicate line between parental love and psychological control, that elevate One Hundred Days to a very fine novel indeed. I loved its examination of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, the wonderful voices of both characters, and the understanding that soon grows between them when the baby finally arrives.

This is my 20th book for #AWW2021 

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, R.C. Sherriff, Setting

‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 336 pages; 2017.

If you are looking for a lovely, gentle story from a more innocent time, then please put R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September on your reading list.

This novel, first published in 1931, perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside. Not very much happens in the story, but it’s written in such a mannered, yet insightful, way, that it hardly seems to matter.

A long train journey

There’s a long build-up, introducing us to each member of the Stevens family — Mr Stevens, an office worker (we never really find out exactly what it is he does), his devoted wife Mrs Stevens, and their three children, Mary, 20, Dick 17, and Ernie, 10 — as they make their preparations for their time away, ensuring the milk order is cancelled, that their pet budgerigar has been given to the next-door neighbour to look after, that the gas has been turned off and everything is locked up.

Their journey to Bognor Regis, on the West Sussex coast, is described in exacting detail, including the walk to the train station from their terraced house at 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich, and then the long journey by train, via Clapham Junction, and then onwards to “Seaview”, the apartments they have taken every year since their honeymoon more than 20 years earlier.

Finally, he turned, and said rather lamely—“Well, here we are.” They had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start. With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey.

At Bognor Regis, they have their meals prepared for them by the elderly landlady, Mrs. Huggett, and their days are spent at the beach, playing cricket and swimming. They pass their evenings taking strolls along the promenade or visiting the amusement parlours on the pier. Occasionally, they listen to musical performances at the bandstand. Mr Stevens also sneaks off the local pub for a quiet pint, free from the constraints of his family.

It is all very quaint, predictable and safe, but the holiday is tinged with melancholia, for Mr and Mrs Stevens realise this may be the last holiday they enjoy together as a family because Mary and Dick are adults now — they have jobs and lives of their own — and Mrs Huggett’s establishment has become rundown and dated. (It’s only near the end of their holiday that the Stevens’ learn that they have been the only people to stay during the season — everyone else has cancelled and gone elsewhere; not for the first time, Mr Stevens wonders if his loyalty has been misplaced.)

Universal truths about travel

Even though this story is 90 years old and recounts a time when travel comprised what we would now call “staycations”, it is packed with universal truths: the plotting and planning that accompanies every journey, for example; the budgeting required; the nervousness about missing scheduled services (in this case trains, but in today’s modern world who hasn’t fretted about missing a plane or getting your boarding gate mixed up?); the mild panic when you realise you are more than half-way through your holiday; and the sadness you feel when it’s time to pack your suitcase to go home.

I particularly enjoyed Mrs Stevens’ thoughts about Clapham Junction, where they have to change trains, because I used to visit that station daily on my commute (for about two years) from Kensington Olympia and it is absolutely the worst train station in the world with its 17 platforms, crowds of people and confusing walkways (above ground and underground):

Hell, to Mrs. Stevens would be a white hot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.

Gentle humour

The story is written in a gentle-mannered tone but there’s a vein of mild humour running throughout. For instance, the holiday apartments are called “Seaview,” because “from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamp post on the seafront”, and to cure Ernie’s travel sickness…

Mrs. Stevens had tried starving the child: she had tried strong peppermints—to no avail. Ultimately she learnt of a good plan from her neighbour Mrs. Jack, whose little Ada was just the same. Mrs. Jack always carried on railway journeys, in her purse, two or three small paper bags. They could be quickly opened—easily applied and conveniently dropped out of the window. So adept had Mrs. Jack become that she boasted sometimes of getting the whole incident over before her surprised fellow passengers knew what had happened.

In another scene, Mr Stevens sits on a soft upholstered chair that practically swallows him whole:

Mr. Stevens, lacking his wife’s foresight, sat right back in his: he sank down and down until he felt his feet jerk off the ground as the edge of the chair straightened out his knees. Ernie watched his father’s struggles with mingled curiosity and dismay: he had a vague feeling that he ought to run and look for a life belt, but Mr. Stevens soon recovered himself, and was just in time to rise as Mrs. Montgomery came in.

There’s some great one-liners too. The sand is crowded with people “as tightly packed on their strip of beach as the blight upon Mr. Stevens’ beans”; a driver is described as looking like “the kind of man who drove ghostly coaches over precipices on dark, stormy nights”, and the pier, which is “black and gaunt” resembles “the skeleton of a gigantic monster with its front legs planted in the sea”.

The Fortnight in September is a real balm for the soul. It’s about an ordinary family momentarily escaping the confines of their mundane lives, but it’s also a fascinating historical look at the minutiae of domestic travel in a different era. I loved it.

UPDATE 14 September: Karen at BookerTalk informs me that this book has recently been BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. It has been serialized into 10 episodes, which are available to listen to for the next 3 weeks.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 306 pages; 2004.

Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book is a novel inspired by the work of Australian ex-pat writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who moved to the Greek islands in the 1950s (and which is depicted so beautifully in Clift’s twin memoirs Mermaid  Singing and Peel Me a Lotus) to concentrate on their creative lives while bringing up a young family.

I read it hot on the heels of Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, another novel that uses the Clift-Johnston story as inspiration, but found Johnson’s novel more eloquent, more literary — and more heartbreaking.

Multi-layered story

The Broken Book is complex and multi-layered. It reimagines Charmain Clift as a would-be writer called Katherine Elgin who is working on a manuscript called ‘The Broken Book’.

‘The Broken Book’ is about a character called Cressida Morley who falls pregnant at a time when unmarried mothers were frowned upon, bringing great shame upon her family, which is headed by a local newspaper editor.

Cressida Morley, as it turns out, is the name of a character that pops up in George Johnston’s novels and is said to be based on Clift. (And for those who don’t know, Clift had a secret child who was adopted out before she married Johnston, so everything in this extraordinary novel mirrors real life albeit with a creative spin.)

Twin narratives

These two narrative threads — Katherine’s story, which spans three decades and includes her time living in Sydney, London and Greece, and the half-written manuscript she’s working on about Cressida — are interleaved to create a complex tale that explores what it is like to pursue a creative life, how difficult it can be to balance marriage and motherhood, and how a woman’s beauty (and sexual agency) can stifle all else.

It is written in elegant prose dripping with metaphor and meaning, the kind of writing that isn’t afraid to explore emotional truths.

I used to believe there was a pattern to life, or at least you could see in retrospect where a particular life had twisted itself into the wrong shape, buckled by rogue bad luck. I used to think my moment came when a handsome young man who smelled like Sunlight Soap burst like a firework inside me, turning me incandescent. Now I don’t think there is any pattern, any shape whatsoever. All is randomness, chance.

2006 edition

I ate this book up in a matter of days. There’s something about the mood of it  — romantic, melancholy, nostalgic — that is hard to pin down but which envelopes the reader even after this extraordinarily wise and passionate novel has been finished.

I realise I haven’t really explained much about it, but it’s a difficult story to describe. The joy of the book is just letting the dual narratives, which inform one another as they jump back and forth across decades, wash over you.

The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. It can be ordered “print on demand” via the publisher’s website.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2021 and my 19th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it secondhand earlier this year having read, and loved, many of Susan Johnson’s previous novels.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 156 pages; 2006.

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond
life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

A book about a bookshop seems hard to resist, right?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — first published in 1978 — has languished in my TBR for years, but I was only encouraged to read it after I watched the film adaptation last week (it’s streaming on SBS on Demand for anyone in Australia who fancies checking it out). Unfortunately, the film was a bit on the dull side (despite great performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy), so I wanted to find out whether the book was better.

And it was.

While the film is faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue, characters and plot, it somehow fails to capture the subtle humour and the little digs at busybodies and those who wish to keep a good woman down, as it were.

And it also neglects to even mention the supernatural element of the storyline in which the lead character, Florence Green, is pestered by a poltergeist (or “rapper” as the locals call it)^^. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that might distract from the main storyline, which is a bittersweet tale about a widow who opens a bookshop against the wishes of the community “elite” who would rather an arts centre was established in the town.

A comedy of manners

Set in East Anglia, in 1959, the book is essentially a comedy of manners. It’s about petty-minded villagers who rail against Florence’s plan to open a bookshop in the small town of Hardborough on the coast — although it’s never made entirely clear why they think it is so objectionable.

Florence is kind-hearted but she’s also determined to do her own thing. (And maybe that’s why the locals are so against a bookshop being set up — women, after all, should be home makers and looking after children, but Florence is widowed and child free and she has a dream she wants to fulfil.)

She buys the Old House — “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams” — which has been vacant for years and is rumoured to be haunted by a poltergeist.

The noise upstairs stopped for a moment and then broke out again, this time downstairs and apparently just outside the window, which shook violently. It seemed to be on the point of bursting inwards. Their teacups shook and spun in the saucers. There was a wild rattling as though handful after handful of gravel or shingle was being thrown by an idiot against the glass.

Florence isn’t put off by this. She ignores the noise and the unexpected occurrences and gets on with the business of opening her shop, which also includes a lending library. She hires a local school girl, the forthright 10-year-old Christine, who helps out after class even though she doesn’t like books and isn’t particularly studious. Her working class parents, it seems, need the money.

The relationship between the older woman and her young charge is one of the sweeter elements of the book. Florence tolerates Christine’s rudeness and her sharp manner and tries to help her study for her 11-plus exam which will determine whether she goes to a grammar school or a technical school.

Other relationships develop over the course of the book. A strange older man by the name of Mr Brundish becomes a loyal customer and helps Florence decide whether she should stock the controversial Lolita to sell to the inhabitants of Hardborough. “They won’t understand it,” he tells her, “but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” She orders 250 copies.

By contrast, the charming (read slightly sleazy) Milo North, who commutes to London where he works at the BBC, is often on her case. When they meet at a grand party for the first time he asks her whether she is “well advised to undertake the running of a business” and claims that he will never visit her shop. He’s on the side of Mrs Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”, who wants the Old House to be used as an arts centre for chamber music, lectures and art displays even though the building had been on the market for six months and no one but Florence had expressed an interest in buying it.

A successful business

Despite the local animosity and the challenges that confront Florence, including from her own solicitor and the opening of a rival store in a nearby town, the business is a relative success, and the story, while not exactly light-hearted, has a vein of gentle comedy running throughout it.

‘I don’t know why I bought these,’ Florence reflected after one of these visits. ‘Why did I take them? No one used force. No one advised me.’ She was looking at 200 Chinese book-markers, handpainted on silk. The stork for longevity, the plum-blossom for happiness. Her weakness for beauty had betrayed her. It was inconceivable that anyone else in Hardborough should want them. But Christine was consoling: the visitors would buy them – come the summer, they didn’t know what to spend their money on.

Sadly, there are greater unseen forces at work which put Florence’s livelihood at risk and the novel, for all it’s comic moments, nuanced observations and evocative descriptions of the Suffolk landscape, ends on a terribly sad note.

I enjoyed its commentary on class and ambition, courage and optimism, and think it’s probably the kind of story that benefits from a close second reading. The introduction to my edition, by novelist David Nicholls, is worth reading (but only after you have finished the book), as is the preface by Hermione Lee, who has written a biography about the author.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The winner that year was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

^^ Update 20 August: Apparently the supernatural element wasn’t ignored, I just did not notice it when I watched the film.

This is my 17th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback so long ago that I can’t remember the date, but I also have it on Kindle, which is how I read it for the purposes of this review.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Polly Samson, Publisher, Setting

‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ by Polly Samson

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2021.

Polly Samson’s novel A Theatre for Dreamers was very much inspired by Charmian Clift’s extraordinary 1950s memoir Peel Me a Lotus, which is about her time living on the Greek island of Hydra.

Clift was an expat Australian who decamped to the Greek islands with her husband, the celebrated war correspondent and budding novelist George Johnston, and their two young children in the mid-1950s to focus on her writing.

Samson mines Clift’s experience to create a lush story about the tangled lives of an eclectic collection of writers, poets, musicians and artists escaping the trappings of ordinary life to follow their dreams and creative yearnings.

Teenage narrator

A Theatre for Dreamers is narrated by Erica, an 18-year-old who has inherited a sum of money from her late mother to “chase her dreams”. Escaping the claustrophobic confines of her London life and a cruel, overbearing father, she travels to Hydra, accompanied by her older brother, Bobby, and her boyfriend, Jimmy, harbouring the idea of becoming a writer.

Here, she tracks down Charmian Clift, who was her mother’s friend, and is welcomed into the Johnston family like a long-lost older daughter.

But as much as Erica plans to focus on her writing, she gets sidetracked by endless summer days, drinking wine and going to parties with the Bohemian set, exploring the island on foot, swimming in the sea and sleeping with her boyfriend with whom she’s deeply in love.

I climb to the top road, up the twisting steps that rise between ever more tumbledown houses, some lots marked only by rubble and boulders clad in vines, occasionally a brave bread oven or a chimney left standing where nature reigns. Crumbling stone walls host fig trees and passion fruit, sudden clear vistas to the sea, wild squashes and capers, a family of kittens. The low sun burnishes every tuft and seed head softest gold and releases the scent of night jasmine. From above, a donkey is playing its violin face at me and I clamber up the loose wall to its tether and scratch all the places it tells me are itching.

Not much happens plot-wise in this novel, which is essentially a coming-of-age tale, but its vivid descriptions of the island and its characters — all clearly inspired by Clift’s own writings — make for a deeply evocative read.

The increasing tension within Clift’s marriage to Johnston is a central focus, as is the growing love affair between Canadian poet (later turned singer-songwriter) Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ilhen. These relationships, filtered through the eyes of a teenage Erica, are embued with a romanticism and sheen that perhaps only the young can see.

But as events unfold slowly over the summer, Erica begins to realise that appearances can be deceiving and that the heart can be wounded so very easily. And she begins to see that idyllic island life is but an illusion: humans and their relationships are messy and convoluted and happiness can be fleeting.

Immersive reading experience

Admittedly, I do not generally get on with contemporary British fiction (which is why this blog tends to focus on literature from other parts of the world), so it came as a bit of a surprise that I liked this one so much. And yet I think if I had not read Peel Me a Lotus immediately beforehand, much of the power and beauty of Samson’s novel might have been lost on me. There was something about reading Clift’s work followed by A Theatre for Dreamers that made it a cumulative and immersive experience.

This effect, I hasten to add, was heightened by having watched on Apple TV earlier this year Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love about Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ilhen’s love affair  (and which is now screening on Netflix Australia and which I highly recommend if you are in any way interested about Hydra and the Bohemian set at that time).

It could be argued that a novel must be able to stand on its own, so I’m not in a position to judge whether this one can do that given that I felt like I already knew the characters in it. Yes, their lives have been fictionalised here, but so much about them felt rooted in fact, providing a ring of authenticity — and charm — to the storyline.

Regardless, A Theatre for Dreamers is a wonderfully sensual read about love and art and the challenge of living a creative life. It’s a little like a soap opera in the sun, complete with heightened drama, troubled characters — and a tragic ending.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it earlier this year after I watched the Broomfield documentary cited above. 

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

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams

Fiction – paperback; Trapeze; 392 pages; 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Millennial Bridget Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 books of summer, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gerbrand Bakker, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Twin’ by Gerbrand Bakker

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 345 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker is a quietly understated novel that brims with a slow-moving rage and a gentle, long-lived grief. It’s a story about loss, resentment and thwarted opportunities and examines what happens to people who — for whatever reason — don’t take things into their own hands, letting circumstances and family obligations dominate their lives.

A farmer’s lot

Told in the first person from the perspective of a 55-year-old farmer, Helmer Van Wonderen, nothing much seems to happen and yet a lifetime of hurt is encapsulated in this coolly observed tale.

It’s set in the Waterlands region of the Netherlands, where Helmer now runs the family farm — 20 sheep and a handful of milking cows — single-handedly. His aged father, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has been installed in a bedroom upstairs, seemingly locked away and treated like an unwelcome lodger.

The tension between father and son is long-running, stemming from the death of Helmer’s twin, Henk, more than 30 years ago. Henk was the favoured son. He was in love with a girl called Riet and was set to inherit the farm. But when he died in a car accident, Helmer had to put his university studies on hold and return home. He has remained there ever since.

I’ve been scared all my life. Scared of silence and darkness. I’ve also had trouble falling asleep all my life. I only need to hear one sound I can’t place and I’m wide awake.

Now, having never married nor had children, Helmer is reassessing his life, wondering how he has so little to show for all the years that have come to pass. He realises he is the last in the line of Van Wonderens and becomes sentimental by this fact.

Without a wife, without kids and with a decrepit father who’s never wasted a word on family in my presence, I never expected myself to get sentimental about my own flesh and blood. Is it the farm? Our farm? A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me?

He’s becoming increasingly agitated with his father, telling his neighbour Ada that his dad is going senile and that’s why she can’t go upstairs to say hello to him. There are other disturbing behaviours that indicate Hemler has a cruel streak.

But he’s also a man who has dreams. When he finds out another neighbour has sold his farm and moved to Denmark, Helmer wonders why he can’t pursue that kind of path, too. He sells three sheep so he can buy a detailed map of Denmark, which he gets framed and hangs on his bedroom wall. Every night, before sleep, he stares at the map and says aloud three or more town names, almost like an affirmation that one day he will get to visit them for real.

His ennui is further shaken by news the local livestock dealer is retiring, quickly followed by the milk tank driver. Is it time for Helmer to do something different too?

A stranger calls

When Riet, newly widowed, gets in touch three decades after Henk’s death, Helmer is presented with an opportunity to have his life shaken up a little. Riet asks him whether her son, who is also named Henk, could come and stay awhile, perhaps working as a farmhand, to which he reluctantly agrees.

And when Henk arrives, a new side of Helmer is revealed, a more caring, fatherly side. But he’s also occasionally provoked into fits of violent anger, for Henk is selfish and lazy, prone to sleeping in, shirking responsibility and speaking his mind.

Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there. He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit. A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law.

Their relationship, tender and confrontational by turn, shows Helmer he can connect with people if he so wishes. He doesn’t need to remain passive. He can take control of his own life, steer it in the direction he chooses, and that he can move on without his twin, who has cast such a long shadow over his entire adult life.

I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body. No more shoulder to shoulder, no more chest to chest, no more taking each other’s presence for granted. Soon I’ll go and do the milking. Tomorrow morning I’ll milk again. And the rest of the week, of course, and next week. But it’s no longer enough. I don’t think I can go on hiding behind the cows and letting things happen. Like an idiot.

An unexpected delight

The Twin is an unexpected delight of a book.

Its slow-moving, gentle narrative, written in pared-back prose, combined with its rural setting, is highly reminiscent of the Irish fiction I love so much.

It presents an old-fashioned world dominated by closed-off men, the kind of men that might have a deep love of nature but can’t communicate with people or express emotion beyond pent-up anger. It’s confronting in places, deeply sorrowful in others, but there are also light-hearted scenes and funny moments, and it ends on a satisfying, hopeful note.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 10 March 2013 for £5.22. I actually think it was a book club choice but for whatever reason, I didn’t read the book or attend the discussion. Sometimes it does take me an AGE to read books on my TBR – this one only took 8 years!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dead Europe’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 411 pages; 2005.

Dead Europe is not the kind of book you forget in a hurry.

It was the fifth novel by Christos Tsiolkas, the one immediately before he achieved international success with The Slap (in 2008).

Like that novel, it is confronting. It’s filled with complex, not always likeable characters and focused on what it is to be a first-generation Australian of Greek parentage but not fully belonging to either culture.

But unlike The Slap, which was a slice of realist drama (albeit one in which married couples had far more sex than you might expect), this one strays into Gothic territory, with elements of horror and religiosity thrown in for good measure. This makes for a rather absorbing, sometimes abhorrent, read.

It’s a proper page-turner, one that draws you into a world that feels familiar but isn’t quite real, leaving an indelible impression on the mind and the emotions. It is rather unforgettable — but it won’t be for everyone. You have been warned.

Dual narratives

Set in the early 2000s, it tells the story of Isaac, a struggling Greek Australian photographer based in Melbourne, who has been invited to stage an exhibition of his work in Athens. He jumps at the chance to visit Europe because he’ll be able to explore his roots a bit more, catch up with cousins and perhaps visit his mother’s village for the first time.

But what he finds is not the sophisticated Europe of his dreams, but a land haunted by its bloody, war-torn past, scarred by religious pogroms and massacres and ancient battles that have left behind an ugly legacy. He meets people bearing generations-long grudges against neighbours, a European culture beset by hate and hostility, and where he is immediately classified as a “naive Australian”, an innocent abroad, who isn’t experienced enough to understand history.

He’s perplexed by the myths and the superstitions that are still upheld, and unable to reconcile his new world outlook with his old world ancestry.

In alternate chapters, a second narrative unfolds: that of Isaac’s Greek ancestors, tracing them over countless generations from Greece to America and back again. Told in fairytale-like prose, this ancient storyline reveals the roots of prejudice, antisemitism and misogyny in a culture that is often upheld as civilised and sophisticated. At times this is a very ugly, murderous storyline, haunting and detestable by turn.

An innocent abroad

Isaac’s first-person narrative charts his travels across Europe (as well as Greece he goes to the Czech Republic, France and the UK) and details his encounters with cousins, friends and strangers. Every interaction forces him to reassess who he is, what he believes in. Here’s an exchange with his cousin, Maria, for instance:

—Do you believe in anything? [Maria]
I was silent. She punched me lightly on the arm.
—Well? Answer me.
—In Australia, I believe in lots of things. Here, in Europe, you all make me feel a little stupid. Do you understand? I don’t know if I believe anything in Europe.
—Australia seems a perfect place in which to finish one’s life. I imagine it’s a very quiet place, a very safe place.
I laughed […]
—Most Europeans know nothing of Australia.
—That’s true. We do not care.

This is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, of the naive traveller having his eyes opened as he comes to terms with the unsophisticated innocence of his homeland and seeing how outsiders view his Australian compatriots.

Here’s how an Algerian woman, caught up in a people-smuggling operation in France, describes it to him:

I have met very few Australians, Isaac, but I have always been struck by their innocence. They remind me of a character from Henry James, they have an innocence that the Americans have now lost. It’s very seductive but I think that if I was to live in Australia, I would learn to hate that innocence. I think it would drive me mad.

However, Isaac’s experiences on his travels aren’t entirely innocent. There’s a lot of gay sex in this novel, described in almost pornographic terms, which doesn’t always feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, and there are long conversations about religion, particularly the Jewish faith, which are deeply uncomfortable and highlight viewpoints that are abhorrent.

But these are not the only aspects that are disturbing. There is a vampiric element and a ghost element that combine to give an unexpected surrealistic slant to the story — but I’ll say no more for fear of ruining the plot.

A novel to experience

Dead Europe isn’t the kind of book you pick up for a relaxing read. This is the kind of book you experience. It gives you goosebumps and heart palpitations, it makes you angry, leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, occasionally makes you laugh out loud or nod in recognition.

As a book that essentially explores hatred — and its long-term, far-reaching legacy — it’s intelligent, wise, thrilling, shocking, chilling to the bone and completely unforgettable.

In 2006 Dead Europe won the Age Fiction Prize, and the Best Writing Award, Melbourne Prize. I can see why it made such an impression. It’s a brilliant novel about lies and myths and hate and truth, topics that are more relevant than ever before.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in Perth CBD last year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, literary fiction, Publisher, Thomas H. Cook

‘The Crime of Julian Wells’ by Thomas H. Cook

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 292 pages; 2012.

The Crime of Julian Wells by American writer Thomas H. Cook is an intriguing and unusual detective story, but this is not a crime novel — at least not in the traditional sense.

What’s even more unusual is that the two main characters in the book are dead and the only way we learn anything about them is filtered through the eyes of a kindly narrator, Philip Anders.

Philip is a literary critic, and his best friend, Julian Wells, was a successful non-fiction writer whose books focused on the darkest crimes of the 20th century. But now Julian is dead, his body having been found in a small boat drifting on a lake in New York, and Philip wants answers.

A life in books

To prepare a eulogy, he begins to reread all of Philip’s books, which include stories about massacres, torturers and serial killers, but the more he reads, the more he becomes convinced that maybe Philip has committed a crime, too, and this would partly explain why he’s obsessed with the darker side of life.

And this gets him thinking about a young Argentinian woman the pair met in Buenos Aires when they were young men travelling the world. Her name was Marisol and she worked for the American Consulate as an English-speaking guide. Later, she had been “disappeared” and Julian had developed an unhealthy obsession about finding out what happened to her. Now Philip wonders if his friend might have played a part in her death.

This unease worsens when Philip goes to Paris to sort through Julian’s effects and discovers a series of photographs, mainly of Marisol, that look like they have been taken by surveillance cameras. In a bid to find out more, Philip embarks on an investigative journey that takes in Oradour, London, Budapest, Čachtice, Rostov (in Russia) and, finally, a return to Buenos Aires.

And the more he travels, the more he discovers…

Gothic undertones

There’s a decidedly gothic feel to this story, which plunges the reader into a world of horrific, and often famous, crimes from the past in “exotic” places such as Hungary and Russia and Slovakia and what was once Nazi-occupied France. Its often gruesome accounts of tortures and massacres are counterbalanced with the narrator’s memories of the past, his love for his friend and his own desire to find out the truth.

There are recurring themes, about friendship, deception and betrayal; good and evil;  spies, double agents and surveillance; politics and fighting for causes you believe in; and what it means to “make a difference”.

I loved its dark undertones and philosophical wandering, the way it plays with perceptions and makes you think you have the solution all figured out but then reveals a satisfying ending, the kind that makes you reassess your own assumptions.

This is a clever book, one that defies description — it’s part spy novel, part crime, part road trip, part suspense, perhaps even a touch of Dracula-like horror.  But, above all, as a novel that is essentially about humankind’s ongoing inhumanity to one another, The Crime of Julian Wells is a very humane and compassionate story.

This is my 7h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from a charity book sale last September for $3 knowing absolutely nothing about the book nor the author.