2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Power, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribner, Serbia, Setting

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 450 pages; 2021.

Addiction, self-loathing, corruption — and shady property deals — form the heart of this darkly humourous novel that has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Affluent but adrift

Kevin Power’s White City is told from the point of view of 27-year-old Ben — the son of a retired South Dublin banker — who is in a rehab clinic trying to figure out how he lost control of his comfortably privileged life.

I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope. I have cheated and stolen and lied — lied to myself most of all. I have consorted with fraudsters and war criminals. In an effort to beat my father at his own game, I failed: at love, at money, at life.

The narrative charts Ben’s fall from grace, which begins with his father’s arrest for “stealing €600 million from the books of his own bank” and ends with him developing a serious drug habit that lands him in the St Augustine Wellness Centre for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation, which he describes as:

[…] a detox tank and monitored care facility for the rich and the rich-by-proxy, for the gouged, the spent, the luckless, for the terminally middle-class.

In between, he moves in with his girlfriend Clio (to save costs), takes a job with a dodgy marketing agency (which doesn’t pay enough to keep him in the manner to which he’s been accustomed) and bumps into an old school friend, James Mullens, who offers him the chance to get rich quickly (he takes it).

That decision to join James’ new business  — a property development in Serbia — ultimately leads to his downfall because what he doesn’t know when he signs up is that it’s a high-risk scam pitting a group of rich Dublin lads against a bunch of Balkan gangsters. The result is farcical — and dangerous.

Fast-paced romp

Told in the first person, White City is a fast-paced romp laced with biting humour. For all his selfishness, Ben demonstrates an astonishing amount of self-awareness, but the knowing nods and winks are probably for the benefit of his therapist, for whom he is penning a memoir of sorts.

How am I doing so far, Dr F? I hope you’re happy with the family stuff. I’d hoped to get through this whole account without mentioning my mother at all, actually — or perhaps by mentioning her only indirectly, like Perseus (is it?) looking at the Gorgon in his shield. If that’s okay with you, I might skip over the real childhood stuff, or save it up for later.

His story, largely told in chronological order, is intercut with his therapy sessions and includes his frank, sometimes cruel conversations with Dr Felix, his sponsor at the rehab clinic.

As his tale is fleshed out, and his life begins to spin out of control, it becomes clear that Ben’s financial dependency on his father has left him vulnerable, his relationship with both parents, tenuous and suspect as it is, becomes stretched to breaking point and his greed gets the better of him.

White City is wickedly funny throughout, but its razor-sharp commentary on materialism, the nouveau rich and the shallowness of modern life adds an extra layer of meaning. I think it rightfully deserves its place on the aforementioned shortlist.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy: A wickedly biting satire about all the speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending that led to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle: Set in 2003, when Ireland was awash with jobs and cash, this is a nihilistic drug-fuelled story about four teenage boys who are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results which will determine their future lives.

This is my 2nd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Julia May Jonas, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Vladímír’ by Julia May Jonas

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 320 pages; 2022.

First things first. Do not judge this book by its cover, for the image used on the front of Julia May Jonas’ debut novel, Vladímír, suggests the content is a steamy romance, perhaps a bodice ripper or an erotic thriller. It’s not. If anything, Vladímír is a #MeToo novel or even a campus novel. Regardless, it’s literary fiction — with a droll undercurrent of snark and black comedy running throughout.

Stand by her man

In a nutshell, this is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier.

At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my tacit understanding that they were happening. Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.

Most people expect her to reject her husband and support the women who have come forward, but she stands by him (in a passive doesn’t-want-to-get-too-involved kind of way) because they have a mutual understanding about pursuing extramarital pursuits. And partly because she feels he’s just as much a victim as his accusers.

I wanted him to accept the role of the penitent. But you can’t ask someone who feels like a victim, as John most certainly did, to live apologetically. And there it was, that twisted logic. Even as we railed against victim mentality, against trauma as a weapon, we took the strength of our arguments from the internal sense of our own victimhood. John was acting like the women who accused him. He had been wronged, goddamit.

But just as our (nameless) 58-year-old narrator is wrestling with her anger and sense of injustice, along comes a new male colleague, Vladímír, to distract her. He’s a handsome, young, married novelist who’s just accepted a tenured position as a junior professor and she becomes increasingly infatuated with him — to the point of obsession.

The cover of the UK edition

The outfall

The story is less focused on the sexual harassment case itself — indeed, we don’t fully know the details of it — but more on how the outfall affects the narrator’s day-to-day life and her career. Her popularity amongst the students, for instance, begins to slide, because they believe she is complicit in her husband’s actions.

Meanwhile, her obsession with Vladímír makes her do risky things and behave in ways that got her husband into trouble in the first place.

The novel asks important questions about sexual boundaries and consent and whether it is possible to judge past behaviour on the standards of today.

But it also looks at what it is to grow old and how women are held to different standards than men. Other topics include motherhood, ambition, marriage, sex and lust.

It’s written in a tone of voice that is, by turns, feisty, angry, confused, flummoxed, cynical and increasingly unhinged. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Mrs March in Mrs March.) She’s uncompromising on so many levels, but is far from arrogant: there’s just enough humility and vanity in her character to make you warm to her, whether you agree with her sentiments or not.

Vladímír is provocative and thought-provoking, the kind of novel that highlights timely issues about power and consent without offering right or wrong answers or being too heavy-handed about it all. It’s fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of a day) and leaves the reader with plenty to mull over and cogitate on.

Hat-tip to Kate, whose review of this novel made me want to rush out and read it myself.

Vladímír is out now in Australia. It will be published in the UK on 26 May. 

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kenneth Mackenzie, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Refuge’ by Kenneth Mackenzie

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 448 pages; 2015.

First published in 1954, Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Refuge is based on an intriguing premise: a newspaper reporter is tipped off about a young woman found dead in Sydney harbour, except he already knows the news because he committed the crime.

But the novel, deeply evocative of wartime Sydney and the paranoia affecting its citizens about Communism and European refugees, doesn’t live up to its promise. While it has moments of quiet brilliance, as a whole it is over-written — it contains pages and pages of purple prose — and over-wrought. This is a great shame because with some judicious editing (the novel is about 200 pages too long) there’s a brilliant story inside that is dying to get out.

That story is obviously framed around the murder — why it was committed, and how? And while those aspects are covered in a satisfying way, the narrative pacing is all wrong. So what should be a fast-paced tale riven with tension and suspense becomes a laborious, self-indulgent journey focused on the man who tries to justify what he has done. It’s billed as a mystery, but it’s not a mystery at all. It’s a literary novel with a deeply philosophical tone, but it’s uneven, patchy — and flawed.

Suspenseful start

The first chapter is compelling, fast-paced and suspenseful. Lloyd Fitzherbert, the police reporter with the Sydney Gazette, is getting ready to go home after his long shift when his contact in the CIB calls him about a woman currently lying in the morgue, who had been “netted” in the “harbour off Woolloomooloo”.

Coming in with the tide, I suppose. They tell me it’s a real beauty — a woman, and not a mark on her. Luck, eh? Only the colour’s wrong for a drowning.

The woman is Irma, a Dutch refugee, whom Fiztherbert had secretly married three years earlier and, then, as it turns out, had drugged and murdered for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of the book. But why did he marry Irma in the first place and then keep it secret from everyone he knew, including his teenage son? And why did they live in separate, albeit adjacent, apartments?

To answer these questions, the story spools right back to the beginning to explain how the pair met and then charts their fledgling relationship in minute, long-winded detail. Their romance is not straightforward. Irma is young — just 19 when she first meets Fitzherbert, who is 12 years her senior — and troubled. She’s a Communist fleeing Nazi Germany and she believes she’s been tailed by three men on the refugee ship who wish to destroy her.

Fitzherbert, the handsome Australian saviour, tries to help her. It would seem he has her best interests at heart and while he’s attracted to her — there are many descriptions of her “Slavic cheekbones” and beautiful eyes and lips and figure — he spurs her sexual advances, and she ends up running away. They do not see each other for six years.

In the meantime, Fitzherbert, who is a widower, raises his son, Alan, single-handedly. (Their relationship is close and tender and one of the strengths of the novel.) He diligently works on the newspaper (the descriptions of journalistic practices are rather wonderful) and leads a quiet, respectable, drama-free life.

When he is eventually reunited with Irma and marries her (under strange circumstances, it has to be said), he is blissfully happy but somehow fails to see that she is not. She makes at least one suicide attempt which is practically swept under the carpet as if nothing untoward has happened.

The events leading up to her murder are relatively predictable, and while nothing is spelled out, the author wastes a lot of time telling us the emotional toll this is having on Fitzherbert. We never do hear from Irma, who remains an enigma throughout the entire novel.

Overtly sexist

My main issue with The Refuge is the overt sexism and objectification of women throughout. This, no doubt, is simply indicative of the time in which it was written, but the introduction by Nicolas Rothwell in this edition makes absolutely no mention of this. (Rothwell is more inclined to place the story in historical context, to explain how Communism and immigration impacted the Australian psyche still reeling from the impact of the Second World War, which is fascinating and, importantly, does help to explain some of the racism in the book.)

On more than one occasion, I was reminded of all the problematic issues I had with Sophie’s Choice when I read it a few years ago. That novel was very much focused on a single character’s beauty and sexual appetite, whereas this one tends to portray women as a group of unfathomable creatures who think and act differently from men because of some innate biological makeup. This is just one of many examples:

Con used to say that women arrive at a remarkable number of correct conclusions by thinking with their livers. When I said, why their livers? he said, “Well, any of their organs that happen to be unnaturally affected at the moment.” Of course, I took the opening to point out to him that the brain is also an organ, but he said that was different — a woman never allowed her brain to interfere with what she called her thinking.

That said, the book isn’t a complete dud. When Mackenzie hits his stride and focuses on showing us, instead of telling us, how Fitzherbert is feeling, he’s excellent. The historical setting is evocative — large parts of the novel are set in the lead up to the Munich agreement in 1938 — and I loved reading about the hubbub of the newsroom and the quirky characters who inhabit it.

The Refuge was Mackenzie’s last novel (he has three earlier ones to his name) — he drowned in mysterious circumstances a year later.

I read this book as part of the 1954 Club, a week-long initiative hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy of Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings in which everyone is encouraged to read books published in — you guessed it — 1954. More on Kaggy’s blog here and Simon’s blog here.

I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author was born in South Perth in 1933 and raised on a property at Pinjarra, in the Peel region about 80km south-east of the WA capital. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2008.

When I was a teenager I read all of John Wyndham’s science fiction novels, including Day of the Triffids (which was a set text at school), The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids (my favourite and one that held up especially well when I re-read it in 2009). I know I read The Kraken Wakes^ but I have absolutely no recollection of the story, so re-reading it more than 30 years later was akin to reading it for the first time.

First published in 1953, it’s a rather “traditional” story of aliens arriving on earth and posing a threat. But it’s a bit more complex than that because the aliens can only survive underwater at very great depths and under extreme pressure. No one has any clear idea what they look like — or what they are capable of.

One school of thought suggests these creatures could happily co-exist with humankind because they are colonising parts of the planet that are inhospitable, but there are others who fear the aliens are making changes under the sea that could have harmful impacts, putting all humankind at risk.

Seen through a journalist’s eyes

The story, which is divided into three parts (or phases), is told through the eyes of Mike Watson, a journalist from the English Broadcasting Commission (EBC), and his wife, Phyllis, who is also a reporter.

The couple is honeymooning on a cruise ship when they first witness the start of the alien invasion — although, at the time, no one realises this is what it is. Just a handful of people spot fireballs landing in the sea, but as more and more of these events are reported across the world, it becomes clear these “brilliantly red lights” aren’t just randomly falling into the water; there’s some kind of plan in action that suggests there is an intelligence at work.

The British are particularly worried by the potential threat this might pose and so an investigation is arranged. A bathysphere — a spherical deep-sea submersible — is sent down to the bottom of the ocean (near a known entry point) with two scientists on board. Unfortunately, the mission does not go well; the two men are killed by the aliens and war, in all but name, is declared.

But thanks to the Cold War, which is in full swing, governments on either side of the political divide are unwilling to co-operate and are blaming each other for the situation.

Sinking ships

Later, when the aliens begin sinking ships, international shipping grinds to a halt and the world economy takes a nosedive, but no one really knows how to tackle the situation beyond attack. (The Brits, for instance, drop a nuclear device underwater as if that’s going to calm the situation down.)

To make matters worse, the aliens, now known to be aquatic invertebrates a bit like a jellyfish, begin venturing onto land, arriving in “sea-tanks” to capture humans. There are terrifying scenes across the world as the aliens make their surprise attacks.

The first sea-tanks must have sent coelenterate bubbles wobbling into the air before the men realised what was happening, for presently all was cries, screams, and confusion. The sea-tanks pressed slowly forward through the fog, crunching and scraping into the narrow streets, while, behind them, still more climbed out of the water. On the waterfront there was panic. People running from one tank were as likely to run into another. Without any warning, a whip-like cilium would slash out of the fog, find its victim, and begin to contract. A little later there would be a heavy splash as it rolled with its load over the quayside, back into the water.

Eventually, the aliens begin melting the polar ice caps so that sea levels rise. Civilisation breaks down as cities flood and political and social systems collapse.

Poor old Mike and Phyllis, stalwarts that they are, continue to report on events, before their life in London is so untenable they relocate to Cornwall (via boat through a flooded interior), where they hold up in their holiday cottage that oh-so, fortunately, is built on high ground. It is here that they discover that up to one-fifth of the world’s population has died, but things are looking better: not only have the waters started to recede, but the Japanese have also created a weapon that can kill the invaders…

Call for international cooperation?

Reading this novel, I kept wondering what Wyndham might have been trying to say about the issues of the day at the time he wrote it. In the early 1950s, the aforementioned Cold War was in full swing, so perhaps he was making a statement about the need for cooperation to end it?

There’s a lot of political infighting in this novel, a lot of inaction and poor decisions based on protectionism, patriotism and “the will of the people”, and little strategic what’s-best-for-the-world-as-a-whole kind of thinking.

I underlined many paragraphs that resonated in the sense that the author could have been describing events pertaining to all kinds of current global issues, such as climate change and the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how Phyllis, for instance, reacts to the British Government’s inaction in helping provide its citizens with weapons to defend themselves:

“[…] I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, and pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt. […] Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of the Age of the Ostensible Reason? I think that they are going to let thousands of people be killed by these horrible things rather than risk giving the powerful enough weapons to defend themselves. And they’ll have rows of arguments why it is best so. What do a few thouands or a few millions of people matter? Women will just go on making the loss good.”

Lots of detail

Admittedly, I think the reason that The Kraken Wakes didn’t stick in my memory is that it’s a bit bogged down in detail. There’s a lot of back story, of providing enough scientific information to support the theories being presented, but this means it does, occasionally, drag.

I have seen reviews criticising the melodrama, but without this, the story would be exceedingly dull. You need a bit of human tension and panic and fear to make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

That said, the dialogue between Mike and Phyllis is excellent — I like that Phyllis is an independent woman, although she’s often reliant on her “feminine wiles” to get information out of contacts, which is disappointing — and the pair really do carry the story along: they become the world’s eyes and ears, and the processes they use, under strict deadlines and difficult circumstances, to report events are fascinating.

Was it worth re-reading? I’m not so sure. If you’ve not read John Wyndham before, it might not be the place to start. Go for Day of the Triffids or the Chrysalids instead.

 

^ In the US, the book was published under the title Out of the Deeps.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, holocaust, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting, USA

‘Address Unknown’ by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 90 pages; 2015.

For such a slim book, this one packs a powerful punch!

First published in 1938, Address Unknown is a timely reminder of the invidious nature of fascism and the ways in which this warped ideology can tear once-close people apart.

It tells the story of a friendship between two men — a Jewish art dealer and his business partner — that is tested by political events in the lead up to the Second World War.

Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein run an art gallery together in San Francisco, but when Martin repatriates to Germany their friendship continues via correspondence.

An epistolary tale

Through their letters, which span the period from November 1932 through to March 1934, we come to understand the closeness of their relationship and the way in which it begins to fracture as events in Europe unfold.

When Max hears about political unrest in Germany, he is distressed by the news reports “that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland” and asks Martin to clarify what is going on:

I know your liberal mind and warm heart will tolerate no viciousness and that from you I can have the truth.

Martin’s reply, now on headed paper from his bank to avoid the censors, warns his friend to cease writing to him.

It is impossible for me to be in correspondence with a Jew even if it were not that I have an official position to maintain.

He makes deeply offensive antisemitic remarks further on in the letter, suggesting that he is now firmly on the side of Hitler, whom he refers to as “our Gentle Leader”. But Max refuses to believe that his friend has gone down this upsetting political path, writing:

I can see why Germans acclaim Hitler. They react against the very real wrongs which have been laid on them since the disaster of the war. But you, Martin, have been almost an American since the war. I know that it is not my friend who has written to me, that it will prove to have been only the voice of caution and expediency.

Within a few more letters their friendship lies in tatters, but Max does not give up easily, continuing to write even when he gets absolutely no response. There’s a sting in the tail though, one that demonstrates the life-and-death power which can be wielded by the pen.

Address Unknown takes less than an hour to read, but I dare say it will be a tale that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I came away from it reeling and I’ve been mulling over the implications, and the way in which Max levels the playing field, ever since.

Afterword by the author’s son

This edition, published in 2015, comes with an afterword written by the author’s son, Charles Douglas Taylor.

He explains that Address Unknown was originally published in Story magazine in September 1938, one of the first stories to expose “the poison of Nazism to the American public”. It was published as a book the next year and sold out in the USA and England but was banned in Europe. It was largely forgotten after the war but was reissued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

A French translation in 1999 brought it to the attention of European readers for the first time. By 2010, it had been translated into 23 languages. It has been adapted for stage and performed on both Broadway, in the US, and the West End, in London.

The author died in 1996, aged 93. You can find out more about her via her Wikipedia page.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Håkan Nesser, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, World Editions

‘The Summer of Kim Novak’ by Håkan Nesser (translated by Saskia Vogel)

Fiction – paperback; World Editions; 217 pages; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.

I’m going to tell you about a tragic and terrible event that marked my life — let’s call it “The Incident”. That fateful event is the reason I remember the summer of 1962 more clearly than any other summer of my youth. It has cast a dark shadow over so much.

So begins Håkan Nesser’s The Summer of Kim Novak, which follows the exploits of 14-year-old Erik who is drawn into an adult world of sex and drama that is beyond his ken. When the book jumps ahead 25 years, we meet an older, more reflective Erik looking back on that formative summer, analysing what happened and tidying away the loose ends that have plagued him for so long.

Most people will know that Håkan Nesser is regarded as one of Sweden’s foremost crime writers, but The Summer of Kim Novak is more akin to a coming-of-age tale that just so happens to have a murder in it. It’s not a police procedural nor is it a typical whodunnit or whydunnit. But it does have a surprise ending in which the offender is revealed, albeit too late to bring to justice because the (Swedish) statute of limitations has expired.

A dreamy boy obsessed with girls

When the book opens we meet Erik, the first-person narrator, who is a dreamy boy, obsessed with girls. He speaks in stock phrases he’s picked up from films and the adults around him, and secretly works on a comic book starring a hero called “Colonel Darkin”.

He has a crush on his relief teacher, Ewa Kaludis, who bears a striking resemblance to the Hollywood film actress Kim Novak.

She didn’t have to teach us. There was no need. We were plugging away. Whenever she entered the classroom, we sat in rapt silence. She would smile and her eyes sparkled. It gave us all the chills. Then she would sit down on the teacher’s desk, cross one leg over the other, and tell us to keep working on one page or another. Her voice reminded me of a purring cat.

When school finishes for the year, his father, a prison guard who works long shifts, warns him it’s going to be a rough summer. His mother is in hospital with cancer and it’s unlikely she will ever come home.

It’s arranged that Erik’s much older brother, Henry, a freelance reporter, will look after him during the long summer holiday before school resumes. Henry is taking the summer off to write a book and is staying in a summer house, which belongs to a relative, by Lake Möckeln, about 25km away.

Erik is allowed to bring his friend Edmund with him for company, and the pair are pretty much left to their own devices, swimming in the lake, fishing off the dock, cycling through the forest or hanging out in the nearest town. It’s a happy, carefree existence.

One evening they attend a summer fair and spot their teacher, Ewa, in the crowd. It turns out she’s engaged to be married, and her financé is a big-shot handball player, Bertil “Super-Berra” Albertsson. But when they witness Super-Berra beating up another man, leaving him for dead, they’re suddenly afraid for Ewa.

Later, when Henry begins bringing Ewa home with him, both Erik and Edmund are astonished, not least because Ewa now appears to be Henry’s girlfriend. No mention is made of her financé until she turns up one day with a black eye and a split lip…

Early novel

The Summer of Kim Novak was written in 1998, making it one of Nesser’s early novels — he has more than 30 to his name — but it took 20 years before it was translated into English.

I haven’t read anything else by him, so I don’t know how indicative this story is of his style, but it did feel rather basic and not particularly compelling. Perhaps because it’s essentially a coming-of-age story, there were some aspects of it that reminded me of Per Petterson’s work, but it has a very male mindset that I found a little troublesome.

I never really warmed to Erik’s tone of voice, particularly his attitude to girls (or “foxy skirts” as he once refers to them) — “If you missed your chance with one, there’d be a thousand more to take her place” — but knowing that it was written from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy I was prepared to cut some slack. Plus, I never subscribe to the theory that you have to like a character to like a story.

But even when we are reacquainted with Erik as an adult (towards the end of the novel the narrative jumps ahead by 25 years), he’s still obsessed with Ewa and prepared to risk his marriage to be with her. It all makes sense in the end though; I just can’t explain how at the risk of giving away crucial plot spoilers.

The Summer of Kim Novak showcases the agonies and ecstasies of young adolescence against the backdrop of a single languid life-changing summer. It’s a quick read with a surprise ending and was adapted for the screen in 2005 under the title Kim Novak Never Swam in Genesaret’s Lake.

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Men in My Situation’ by Per Petterson (translated by Ingvild Burkey)

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 291 pages; 2021. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.

The light from inside sifted gently down over the snow on the pavement, and the street lamps turned everything yellow and each street lamp had its own circle and no circle touched another and between them there was silence.

The King of Melancholia returns with what may possibly be his best novel yet.

Men in My Situation features many of Per Petterson’s trademarks:

✔️ A solo man, with working-class roots, a bit down on his luck and prone to introspection

✔️ A focus on past relationships (both sexual and familial) and how they have panned out

✔️ An emphasis on place

✔️ An exploration of grief, occasionally manifesting in violence

✔️ Loneliness, regret, melancholia and depression

And it’s written in prose, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, that is assured, eloquent and evocative, ripe with detailed and often beautiful descriptions of snow-filled landscapes and city streets.

Arvid is adrift

In this tale, we meet a recurring character, Arvid, who is 38 and newly divorced. (He was a teenager in Echoland; 37 and heading for divorce in I Curse the River of Time; and 43 in In the Wake.)

He’s a mildly successful writer (enough to be recognised by people in the street, anyway), but things aren’t going particularly well for him. He’s alone and adrift, desperately missing his three daughters, and clinging to the routines that mean something to him: driving his old Mazda around the quiet streets of Oslo (and sometimes sleeping in the car), going to bars and drowning his sorrows in booze, and occasionally going home with women for meaningless sex.

The breakdown of his marriage haunts him. He knew things were getting bad when he and his wife, Turid, stopped going to bed at the same time — “We’d become like magnets with identical poles turned towards each other, plus to plus, minus to minus” —  and started quarrelling more about silly things that “suddenly blew out of control”:

I didn’t understand why and wanted it to stop, I wanted to get away from it, but I didn’t know how, we were like two bicycle wheels stuck in a tram rail, and it felt ominous because she was unafraid whereas I wasn’t, and a trapdoor beneath my feet might open any second.

But overshadowing this is a fog of grief: a year earlier his parents and two brothers died in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster and he’s wrestling with how to process this loss. (Petterson himself lost his mother, father, young brother and a niece in the disaster, and it’s a recurring episode in the Arvid novels.)

Arvid measures time in the distance between his wife leaving him and the ship burning.

I thought, how does one measure grief, is there a yardstick for grieving, is there any difference, say, between grieving for one person as opposed to two or three persons, or even four, as in my case, did all this fit on a yardstick, or could the level of grief register as on an instrument, such as a Geiger counter, and the closer the instrument got to the full power, the full height, the full number, the faster and louder the instrument would emit its familiar beep. And how was I to know when there was grief enough, and if grief was liquid like melting silver, could one then pour the grief into a litre measure and conclude, under these circumstances, eight decilitres ought to be sufficient, and let the silver congeal hard and shiny not far below the rim. How was I to know.

Deeply introspective narrative

There’s not much of a plot, but this is not unusual in Per Petterson’s work. Instead, we get a deeply introspective narrative about a divorcé grappling with fatherhood and newfound circumstances, of a man who is acutely aware of his weaknesses but not confident enough to overcome them, someone who wants to be a better person but isn’t sure it’s worth the effort.

He fills in his time trying to repair the relationship with his young daughters — his eldest no longer wants to spend time with him, and she’s convinced her young siblings likewise — and getting back in touch with his old childhood friend, Audun. (Petterson fans will recognize Audun from an earlier novel, It’s Fine by Me.)

There’s a terrifying sequence in which he takes his daughters on a road trip, only to run off the road doing a dangerous, unthinking manoeuvre in a pique of anger, and while no one is injured, Arvid is aware that if his wife finds out his access to the girls may be taken away. The slide into desperation, of keeping secrets from his ex-wife and of behaving recklessly, becomes more acute as the story progresses.

But it’s not all predictable. Arvid’s melancholia and his tendency toward self-pity come into sharp relief when he discovers that his eldest daughter has health issues. This forces him to play the role of a caring, dedicated father, someone reliable and trusting, someone who can rise above “men in my situation” to do something positive and helpful.

The book ends on an optimistic note.

For another take on this novel, please see Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tim Winton

‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2010.

First published in 1988, Tim Winton’s early novella In the Winter Dark is a brilliant slice of Australian Gothic.

It builds on the myth of exotic big cats prowling the Australian bush to create a compelling tale of suspense and intrigue, one that is easily read in a single heart-in-the-mouth sitting.

Set in a deeply forested valley called Sink that has just three houses, a swamp and a river, it tells the story of four neighbours who are fearful of a mysterious creature prowling around their properties. It kills a small pet dog first, eats out the throat of a kangaroo that is found stuck in a fence and decimates a flock of Muscovy ducks and a goat. Later, a flock of 20 sheep is disembowelled.

Tension within the residents builds, not least because there are fears the creature may take a human next, but there are differences of opinion about how to handle the threat.

Old sheep farmer Maurice, who grew up in the valley and has lived with his wife, Ida, for decades, thinks it’s best to take matters into their own hands. He has a shotgun and knows how to use it.

But his neighbour, Murray Jacobs, who has recently sold his lawnmower business in the city to buy the old homestead set amongst orchards, wants to call in the authorities — someone from the shire council or maybe the police.

While Ronnie, a young drug-addicted woman who lives on the other side of the valley, just wants it sorted: she’s got other things to worry about such as the impending birth of her baby and whether her musician boyfriend will ever return from touring.

When the story begins, this quartet of diverse and distinctive characters barely knows each other; by the end, they are very well acquainted — whether they want to be or not.

Dangerous creature 

First edition

Told partly in the first person from Maurice’s point of view and the rest in the third person, the narrative flits around from character to character, sometimes feeling disjointed and confused.

I often had to re-read paragraphs to ensure I understood what was going on. But I think this disorientation is deliberate because it means you’re not sure who to trust or what to think about the dangerous creature supposedly lying in wait. Does it actually exist? Or is there a more rational explanation for the deaths of the farm animals?

He stopped, though, when something caught his eye. Something red. The wet-stiff grass seemed to shiver. Jacob reached for a stick. As he climbed through the fence, the stick snagged in the wire and he fumbled a second and left it there. From across the road, in the tall grass, he heard panting. Well, it might have been panting. He stood there in the road, wishing he could just walk away, but he was afraid to turn his back. Whatever it was, it was moving again. He could see its slow passage through the grass.

The claustrophobic atmosphere is enhanced by the setting. As ever in a Winton story, the landscape is a character in its own right. This time it’s the forest comprised of tall jarrah trees, which evoke that “big church feeling” and are shrouded in mystery thanks to “all those fairy tales […] all those stories we brought with us from another continent, other centuries”.

There’s no neat conclusion to In the Winter Dark, but it does have a dramatic ending — which is foreshadowed on the first page in which Maurice states he often feels “all hot and guilty and scared and rambling and wistful” when he thinks back on what happened 12 months earlier…

I just sit here and tell the story as though I can’t help it.

The film adaptation of In the Winter Dark, starring  Brenda Blethyn, Ray Barrett, Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto, was released in 1998 and was nominated for three AFI awards. Dark and moody, it is faithful to the book. You can watch it on YouTube:

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

A&R Classics, Australia, Author, Book review, Colin Jackson / Mudrooroo, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Wild Cat Falling’ by Mudrooroo

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 160 pages; 2001.

Mudrooroo was the pen name of Colin Thomas Johnson (1938-2019), a novelist, poet, essayist and playwright. He was once described as “the voice of Indigenous Australia” because his writing mainly focused on Aboriginal issues and featured Australian Aboriginal characters.

Wild Cat Falling, first published in 1965, was his debut novel. According to the publisher, it was held up as “the first novel by any writer of Aboriginal blood to be published in Australia”.

He traced his ancestry to the Noongar^ nation of Western Australia, but in 1996 Noongar elders rejected his claim.

Despite this controversy over his Aboriginality (of which you can read more on his Wikipedia page), I still wanted to read this novel as part of my project to read more books by First Nations Writers. From what I can gather, he was brought up as Aboriginal, thought of himself as Black and writes from personal experience.

What made this book unique at the time was the fact that it highlights how the Australian judicial system, and the wider community, was prejudiced against Aboriginal Australians, a systematic problem that still exists more than half a century later.

But all that aside, Wild Cat Falling plays an important role in the Australian literary canon because it’s a brilliant book in its own right. It’s stylish, compelling and memorable. And I ate it up in about two sittings.

Release from jail

First edition

A gripping first-person account of a young Aboriginal man’s life, Wild Cat Falling is narrated by a nameless youth who describes himself as a “bodgie” ^^. He is about to be released from Fremantle Prison where he’s been incarcerated for the past 18 months for petty criminality.

Today the end and the gates will swing to eject me, alone and so-called free. Another debt paid to society and I never owed it a thing.

His voice, intimate and forthright, is tinged with anger, the arrogance of youth and a melancholy sense of futility, that this is his lot in life and there’s no use hoping for anything better. Jail has been a refuge for him, a place where he’s been safe and accepted by others, had a decent roof over his head and three meals a day.

The story, which is split into three parts, charts what happens to him after he walks free, as he tries to adjust to life back in society as a “half-breed delinquent”.

It’s a tale of an emotionally detached man — “I trained myself this way so no phoney emotion can touch me” — who is desperate, perhaps unconsciously, to connect with others and to defy expectation.

But on his first day of freedom , there’s really only one thing on his mind, and that is sex.

An encounter on the beach

When he meets an attractive young woman, a psychology student, on the beach, he strikes up a conversation with her, explaining how his education, first at an ordinary school, then a boy’s home, followed by the Noongar camps and latterly jail, has been unconventional. And he makes no bones about the fact he has no real plans now he’s free beyond getting drunk and sleeping with women until his prison pay runs out because he’ll be put in jail soon enough even if he doesn’t do anything wrong.

The woman, June, is perplexed.

“You haven’t got a clue,” I tell her. “They make the law so chaps like me can’t help breaking it whatever we do, and the likes of you can hardly break it if you try.”
“How do you mean?” she asks.
“For one thing. We make the only friends we have in jail, but if we’re seen talking outside we’re arrested for consorting with crims.”

When she later accuses him of being lazy, of bludging on the taxpayer, he feels the “old bitter taste of resentment in my mouth”.

Nothing ever up to them. Only up to us, the outcast relics in the outskirt camps. The lazy, ungrateful rubbish people, who refuse to cooperate or integrate or even play it up for the tourist trade. Flyblown descendants of the dispossessed erupting their hopelessness in petty crime. I glare at her with concentrated hate. I want to wither her glib white arrogance with biting scorn, but I can’t find the words.

A friendly invite

Perhaps because she’s interested enough to get to know him a bit better, June throws down the gauntlet and suggests he meet her and her friends at the coffee lounge at her university the next evening, which he does. The encounter is enlightening — for it’s clear he’s there as a kind of social experiment, giving a group of white students a chance to speak to an Aboriginal for the first time. He plays up to it a bit, but his inner resentment is writ large on the page.

Maybe she thinks if she keeps it up [her racism masquerading as white empathy] I will leap out and do a corroboree in the middle of the floor.

Sick of the group’s condescension, he has a bit of fun with them by offering his bulldust opinion about a painting hanging on the wall — “a revolting mess of hectic semi-circles and triangles” — that seems to impress them. He holds his own talking about art and jazz, winning further admiration and a rare invite to an evening house party.

The narrative continues to unfurl in this kind of spontaneous manner as he goes about his business, sleeps with a couple of women, is reacquainted with his mother, hangs out with the university mob and reconnects with his former bodgie mob. But there’s trouble brewing because he’s finding it hard to suppress the memories from his troubled past that keep coming back to haunt him.

When he decides to steal a car and go on a road trip, a new, dangerous edginess creeps into the storyline — and any chance of redemption seems remote.

Dramatic ending

Wild Cat Falling is a powerful tale, of a Black man on the margins, someone who is indifferent to the two worlds in which he must navigate, a lost soul who doesn’t understand himself much less the culture and country that’s been denied him.

It has a dramatic climax, one that involves a policeman and a pair of handcuffs, which suggests the story is going to end exactly where it began — in prison.

Bill at The Australian Legend has also reviewed this book.

^ Also spelt Noongah, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah and Yunga.

^^ An informal Australian term for a teenage subculture from the 1950s, depicted as loutish and rebellious. See this Wikipedia entry for more detail.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

Please note, Wild Cat Falling is only available in Australia. International readers can order it from independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.