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

‘Untold Night and Day’ by Bae Suah

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

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

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

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

A simple story, extravagantly told

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

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

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

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

A sense of déjà vu

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

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

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

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

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

Strange and unusual

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

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

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

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

‘Mayflies’ by Andrew O’Hagan

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

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

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

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

A book of two halves

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

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

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

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

The Manchester scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change in gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you liked this, you might also like:

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

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

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

‘The Girls Are Good’ by Ilaria Bernardini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsessive sport

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

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

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

Intense competition

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

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

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

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

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

There is absolutely no sense of redemption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing a game of revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meticulous plotting but slow-paced

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

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

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

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

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu

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

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

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

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

But it is neither of these things.

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

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

Dead in the bath

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

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

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

Perplexing story

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of a city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

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

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

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

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

In her afterword, she says:

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

Raised by white settlers

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

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

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

Frontier wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An important novel

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

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

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


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

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


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

Ashley Goldberg, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Abomination’ by Ashley Goldberg

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 280 pages; 2022.

Ashley Goldberg’s debut novel Abomination is a wonderful examination of orthodox religion in a modern setting and how its rules, conventions and traditions can be used to protect people who do wrong.

Set in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it tells the tale of two friends who go to school together in the late 1990s but drift apart as adults.

Childhood friends

Ezra is the working class Jewish boy who gets a scholarship to the Jewish Yahel Academy, while Yonatan comes from a devout Jewish family and is expected to follow in the footsteps of his rabbi father.

When the book opens we meet the men as adults who have gone their separate ways. Ezra is a bored public servant with a lacklustre love life who is no longer a practising Jew, while Yonatan is still deeply embedded in the ultra-Orthodox community, is happily married with a child on the way and has become a respected rabbi who teaches at the school at which he and Ezra were both educated.

The story contrasts their two strikingly different worlds — secular versus religious — but brings them both together again when they attend a rally demanding that an Israeli-based teacher from their past be extradited to Australia to stand trial. That teacher had been accused of sexually abusing students at the Jewish Yahel Academy in 1999.

But while neither Ezra or Yonatan were direct victims, they recall the scandal that erupted at the time and hold strong beliefs that the accused must be brought to justice.

Closing ranks

Like the Catholic Church which has protected its priests from accusations of committing child sexual abuse, Goldberg’s novel shows how the Jewish faith has followed suit.

The author claims the story is a work of fiction but that he drew inspiration from the 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Reading the novel, I could clearly see parallels with the Malka Leifer case in which the headmistress of Melbourne’s Adass Israel School between 2001 and 2008 fled to Israel when she was accused of child sexual abuse.

That said, Abomination is not really a book about sexual abuse — there are no lurid descriptions, for instance, and it doesn’t feature any victims. Instead, it looks at abuse of power and the ways in which the Jewish community closed ranks and protected the teacher in order to protect themselves. It’s a fascinating account of how faith and religion are not immune to moral failings or errors of judgement.

It’s also a brilliant portrayal of male friendship, loyalty and faith, of two men coming to terms with their own frailities, memories and values while trying to figure out what makes a meaningful life.

The novel’s glimpse into a rarely seen world — that of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Melbourne — is riveting, while the careful pacing and intertwined storylines that switch between past and present gives the book a compelling, page-turning quality.

I ate it up in the space of a weekend and highly recommend it.

Abomination was shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award 2020. The striking cover design is by Alex Ross at Penguin Random House Australia.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Affirm Press, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Omar Sakr, Publisher, Setting, Turkey

‘Son of Sin’ by Omar Sakr

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 288 pages; 2022.

Sydney-based Arab Australian Omar Sakr is a prize-winning poet who has turned his hand to novel writing.

Son of Sin, his debut published earlier this year, is an eloquent, fierce and tender coming of age story about a queer Muslim boy coming to terms with his sexuality.

Written with a poet’s eye for detail and sublime imagery, it charts Jamal Smith’s life from his mid-teens to his mid-twenties.

It reveals how Jamal, the product of a Lebanese mother and a Turkish father, spends his adolescence and early adulthood grappling with the idea of being a good Muslim while all around him he sees his extended family — a motley collection of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents — being violent, smoking dope and getting into trouble with the law.

His unconventional upbringing creates additional challenges. Until the age of seven, he was raised by his mother’s sister (whom he still regards as his real mother), a cruel and abusive woman, and believed that his cousins were his siblings. He never really knew his father.

Bookish and gay

As an adolescent, Jamal is a square peg in a round hole. He loves books — “as long as he was reading, he was invisible” — and is sexually attracted to his male friends. He knows that both traits mark him out as different and that the latter must be hidden at all costs, for homosexuality is the “ultimate taboo” for Muslim men, something he is reminded of by family members — of both sexes — who often express anti-gay sentiments.

On top of the homophobia, Jamal must also navigate racism. He lives in the multi-cultural western suburbs of Sydney and experiences first-hand the racial profiling and vilification that people of “Middle Eastern appearance”  were subjected to following 9/11, the Cronulla race riots and, later, Trump’s Muslim ban.

When, as a young adult he drops out of university and fails to find a job he enjoys, he heads abroad to meet his estranged father. During his two years in Turkey, things begin to fall into place — he comes to learn of his family history and begins to reconcile his race and identity in the knowledge that it’s okay to not fit in.

Grace and humour

Despite these heavy subjects, Son of Sin isn’t an oppressive read; it’s written with grace and good humour and there’s a sense of hope and optimism, too. Jamal does find his tribe — his school friends are all outsiders like him from different ethnic backgrounds but have shared interests — and has sexual encounters that are tender and joyful.

As you would expect with a typical bildungsroman, there’s not much of a plot. Instead, the book is essentially a character study of an introspective young man trying to navigate his way in a world beset by prejudice, racism and complex family histories.

It seems fitting that my edition features a cover quote by Christos Tsiolkas because the book is highly reminiscent of Tsiolkas’ own work, in particular his debut novel Loaded. It shares similar themes — what it is to be a first-generation Australian of immigrant parents, hiding your homosexuality, toxic masculinity and violence — and is just as powerfully written, but it’s far less hard-hitting, nihilistic and grungy.

Fans of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel The Lebs will also find a lot to like here.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it not long after it was published in March this year. I have heard Omar talk at a few live-streamed book events over the past couple of years and he always comes across as a deep thinker with a lot of interesting things to say. I figured his book would be more of the same. I was right.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 104 pages; 2021.

Natasha Brown’s novella Assembly could be described as the tale of a woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside, but it is so much more than this. On a much deeper level, it is also a scathing examination of institutional racism and the colonialist structure of British society.

Portrait of British life

It’s written in a series of eloquent vignettes from the perspective of a successful Black British woman who has climbed the career ladder in banking and done well for herself, but at every stage of her life, from school to job to buying her own home, she has had to keep her head below the parapet to avoid the naysayers who might suggest she doesn’t deserve it because of the colour of her skin.

As she prepares for the visit to her white boyfriend’s family home, she thinks about all the events in her life which have led her to this point. She feels complicit in aspiring for a life of “middle-class comfort” without challenging the institutions — the universities, banks and government — which have limited her choices because she lacked the prerequisite connections or money to venture into anything other than the financial industry.

Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? […] The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities: I felt I couldn’t waste mine.

But this doesn’t sit well with her. She believes she’s become someone who knows her place in society and understands the limits to her ascent. She does not want the younger generation to have to deal with this too.

And she’s conscious that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her because they are “good, socially liberated” people, but she knows that it’s all an illusion, that they think it’s just a phase their son is going through and it’s not the kind of relationship that would ever develop into anything serious. If it did, it would threaten “a purity of lineage” — though not in “any crass racial sense” but in the family’s “shared cultural mores and sensibilities” — and it would “wreck the family name”.

But this is a microcosm of what she’s experienced her whole life, trying to fit in and be accepted but knowing that if you scratch the surface it’s next to impossible:

Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still never from here.

And interwoven through all these negative thoughts is an unwanted medical diagnosis that she is refusing to deal with perhaps because she’s suffered enough and more suffering does not faze her.

Compelling read

Assembly is a challenging and at times confronting read, and it is relentless in its dissection of racism, but it’s written with such eloquence (and fury) that it’s compelling and hypnotic.

It doesn’t paint a particularly nice portrait of modern British life. It is littered with examples of micro-aggression and sexism in the workplace, the lack of social mobility opportunities, the “hostile environment” adopted by the government and the ways in which the ruling classes are geared towards preserving a certain way of life.

And the ending, uncertain and undefined, is a pitch-perfect reflection of a country on the precipice of choosing which direction to go: backward or forward?

Brona liked this one too (review here) and so did Annabel (review here)

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from Collins Booksellers in Cottesloe last year. It’s the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, there is just so much in it, so I’m glad I purchased this one rather that borrow from the library.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Algeria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Morocco, Paul Bowles, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo Modern Classic; 285 pages; 1993.

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles‘ (1910-1999) debut novel.

It’s a rather enigmatic tale about a young American couple travelling through French North Africa after the Second World War, but what begins as a typical story (albeit in an atypical setting) of a marriage on the rocks morphs into something else entirely.

Part horror, part suspense (part WTF is going on?), it’s a chilling tale about strangers in a strange land and the unforeseen fates that can await the naive traveller.

On the move

The story goes something like this. Port and Kit Moresby*, a sophisticated American couple from New York, are exploring Morocco and Algeria with their friend Tunner. They don’t have a proper itinerary, they simply move from place to place when they feel like a change of scenery because, as Port puts it, they are not tourists but travellers:

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war, it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

But while the trio take their time moving around the country —  this Google Map I found online helpfully charts their journey — there are tensions at play.

In the opening chapters, for instance, Port spends a night with a local prostitute (a pattern that repeats throughout the novel) and puts himself in danger of being robbed or mugged.

Later, when the trio meet a young Australian traveller, Eric, and his mother, Mrs Lyle, a travel writer (whose vile views on Arabs and Jews make for uncomfortable reading), staying at the same hotel, they are offered a ride to Boucif by car. Port accepts, but Kit and Tunner go by train because there’s not enough room for all of them in the vehicle. It is during this long train journey that Tunner makes a pass at his friend, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle in which Kit constantly plays off her lover with her husband.

Port, who has his suspicions about his wife’s trysts, engineers it so that Eric gives Tunner a lift to the next city on the pretext that Kit and Port will catch him up in a few days. This is where things get tricky. Port’s passport is stolen and it’s dangerous to be a foreigner with no identifying papers. It’s also dangerous to be on the road during an outbreak of meningitis, and when Port falls sick on a long bus journey the sense of danger becomes even more heightened.

Strong sense of place

All the while the Saharan landscape and her ancient cities form an exotic backdrop in which the characters play out their petty dramas which quickly escalate to become life or death situations.

The writing is eloquent, spare and incisive, featuring authentic, animated dialogue and rich, vivid descriptions of place. Here’s how Bowles describes Aïn Krorfa, in Algeria, for instance:

Aïn Krorfa was beginning to waken from its daily sun-drugged stupor. Behind the fort, which stood near the mosque on a high rocky hill that rose in the very middle of the town, the streets became informal, there were vestiges of the original haphazard design of the native quarter. In the stalls, whose angry lamps had already begun to gutter and flare, in the open cafes where the hashish smoke hung in the air, even in the dust of the hidden palm-bordered lanes, men squatted, fanning little fires, bringing their tin vessels of water to boil, making their tea, drinking it.

But despite the wide-open spaces of the desert and the abundance of sunshine and stark light, the mood of the book soon becomes oppressive, heavy, fearful. The characters, especially Kit, behave in unexpected, not always sensible, ways, and it’s difficult to predict what might happen next.

I’ve refrained from going into the plot in too much detail, but it does take a dark turn somewhere around the halfway point when Port develops a terrible fever and the hotel in which they planned to stay refuses to take them in. Kit is suddenly forced to take action, to look after her sick husband and try to find medical help without drawing the ire of the authorities who won’t look favourably on foreigners without ID.

The final part of the story slides into a kind of farce in the sense that I found it a little hard to believe, but on the whole, The Sheltering Sky is a strange yet beguiling read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

* Call me childish, but there’s something funny about naming a character Port Moresby when we all know that’s the name of the capital city of Papua New Guinea. LOL.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it secondhand for $11.50 from Elizabeth’s Bookshop here in Fremantle in August 2020. I had previously read his 1966 novel Up Above the World which I had described as a “masterpiece of suspense writing”.