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

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teenage pregnancy

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

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

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

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

Letter to an unborn child

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

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

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

This is my 20th book for #AWW2021 

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

‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff

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

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

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

A long train journey

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

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

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

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

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

Universal truths about travel

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

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

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

Gentle humour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Heidi Everett, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ultimo, Wales

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett

Non-fiction – memoir; Ultimo Press; 182 pages; 2021.

Depression is commonly referred to as the ‘black dog’. In Heidi Everett’s memoir, My Friend Fox, her mental illness is essentially a ‘fox’, a wild, misunderstood animal often viewed as an outsider, a creature of terror and beauty.

In this evocative book, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the author, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules.

Everett, who was born in Wales but emigrated to Australia with her working class parents as a child, has a complicated diagnosis:

I am psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age: 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, ? juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.

She spends her time in and out of psychiatric institutions. On one occasion, safe at home where she lives with her beloved dog Tigger, she goes on the run, believing she’s being spied on by cameras in the wall. It’s the middle of winter, cold and dark, and she’s dressed in nothing more than jeans and a light shirt.

I’m not dressed to go out tonight but I can’t go back. This is an emergency; I’ve got to get away. I quickly walk up to the end of the road, turn left and keep walking. Tigger and I won’t stop walking for the next two weeks.

Interspersed with Everett’s terrifying account of running from her own paranoia and her adventures in and out of psychiatric care, are her memories of a happy childhood in rural Wales contrasted with her troubled adolescence in suburban Australia (when her illness began to manifest itself).

She often speaks of her love of the countryside and her admiration for foxes, in particular, the urban foxes she comes across in Melbourne. She wends the tale of a suburban fox on the run throughout her narrative, a metaphor for her own life, misunderstood and never quite able to mix with other people.

She also writes movingly of the love she has for her dog and of her obsessive hobbies — music and drawing — and the ways in which they give her life meaning and take her outside of her illness.

Her lyrical prose is filled with original, occasionally breathtaking, descriptions — a fox she meets has “gemstone eyes”, for example, while the wind blows “a vomit of sea in its mouth” and “the trees begin a free jazz session of syncopated dripping” after a rainstorm.

My Friend Fox is quite an astonishing read — short, powerful and fable-like. The depiction of mental illness and the impact it has on one person’s life is arresting and illuminating. And despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with optimism — and hope.

This is my 19th book for #AWW2021 

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Consolation’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 394 pages; 2020.

Consolation is the third book in Garry Disher’s “Constable Paul Hirschhausen” series of crime novels. Last week it won Best Crime Fiction at the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards.

I have previously read and reviewed the two earlier novels in the series — Bitter Wash Road and Peace — and thought both immensely rewarding crime reads. Consolation is more of the same.

Crimes in winter

In this novel, which is set in the middle of winter (about six months on from the previous book in the series), things are relatively quiet for Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, who runs a one-man police station in Tiverton, a small town about three hours north of Adelaide. Much of his work is proactive and community-based. Twice a week he carries out long-range patrols, driving through cold and muddy conditions, to visit remote properties to check on residents.

The only thing that is causing concern is the presence of a “snowdropper” — Australian slang for someone who steals clothing from a clothesline — in town. He (or she) has a penchant for old ladies’ underwear and is causing a bit of a stir.

But that ongoing crime soon gets superseded by a string of other potentially more serious crimes, including a stock agent said to be ripping off local investors in a failed “get rich quick” property scam. The agent has pissed off two investors, a father and son team, who have decided to take the law into their own hands, with potentially devastating (and violent) consequences.

Meanwhile, a school teacher tells Hirsch that she is worried about one of her remote students whom she teaches via the internet. When Hirsch drives out to the property to carry out a welfare check, he finds the girl living in appalling conditions, tied up in a caravan, and has to take drastic action to save her.

And no sooner is Hirsch investigating that situation than he is alerted to another problem: an elderly lady in town has discovered that she’s been defrauded of thousands of dollars. But who is the culprit? Her hippy niece? Or the well-meaning neighbours who have eyes on her property?

All these myriad crimes, which have to be investigated concurrently, occur just as Hirsch’s boss, the sergeant based in the next biggest town, is forced to take sick leave. This means Hirsch is now acting sergeant, leading these investigations while looking after two younger officers only a year out of police school. Is he up to the job?

UK edition

For those that have followed this series from the start, Consolation offers some rewarding character development.

Hirsch, a whistleblower banished to Tiverton from the city in the first novel, has finally found his feet after a rocky start. He is familiar with the area now, knows all the people who live in it, and even has a steady girlfriend: Wendy Street, whom he first met in Bitter Wash Road. (The charming relationship he has with his girlfriend’s daughter is particularly edifying and is one of the nicest things about this book.)

He’s more “rural wise”, too, and knows how to handle the roads, the conditions and the remoteness of the area, constantly looking for those “two bars” on his mobile phone whenever he thinks he might be entering dangerous territory and in need of quick communication.

Realistic police procedural

I think what’s interesting about this series is that Disher isn’t solely focused on throwing in one big crime and having his protagonist solve it. In this novel, Hirsch is dealing with multiple crimes, from fraud to child neglect, and running the investigations on a shoestring, sometimes with the help of more senior police from the city, but always having to do it against the clock while managing local sensitivities.

Perhaps the only element of Consolation I wasn’t too sure about was a storyline involving Hirsch being stalked by a lonely woman who takes a shine to him, only because it didn’t always ring true.

That aside, this is another fine example of “rural noir” by Garry Disher and I hope he’s penning a new one in this series. If he is, I will be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 20th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store when it was published late last year.

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

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

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

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

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

Multi-layered story

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

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

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

Twin narratives

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

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

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

2006 edition

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Ele Pawelski, Fiction, general, Publisher, Quattro Books, Setting

‘The Finest Supermarket in Kabul’ by Ele Pawelski

Fiction – paperback; Quattro Books; 124 pages; 2017.

Given the appalling events that have played out in Afghanistan recently following the United States military withdrawal, this novella was a timely read.

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, by Ele Pawelski, is set in Afghanistan in 2011, some ten years after the Taliban was ousted by the US invasion. It is based on a real event in which a supermarket, popular with foreigners, was targeted by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of at least eight people.

The book opens with that deadly bomb attack, before telling the stories of three distinct characters caught up in the blast:

  • Merza, a young idealistic Afghan man who has been elected to Parliament and is now receiving death threats;
  • Alec, an American journalist, who has been embedded with a US platoon in Kandahar but is now in Kabul hoping to write some yet-to-be-commissioned pieces about life in the Afghan capital; and
  • Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer, who is helping to train female magistrates but is being sexually harassed by a male justice.

The story, which is told in simple, stripped-back prose, spans a single day, giving us just a brief glimpse into the lives of these well-drawn, if slightly clichéd, characters.

Too much explanation

While the novella moves along at a clip, it doesn’t skimp on detail, but it does feel like there’s a lot of information shoe-horned in to fill the reader in on background detail that most of us are probably pretty familiar with anyway. (For example, that Hamid Karzai was leader, that women’s lives were less restrictive now the Taliban had been banished, that English-speaking Afghans working with foreigners were regarded as “infidels” and putting their own lives at risk.)

In short, everything is explained; the reader doesn’t have to figure a single thing out. Here’s just a random example:

Nearing the city centre, the traffic is busy as I’d anticipated. A decade ago, just after the Americans came, foreigners started to arrive in bulk, so now congestion is the norm. The embassies and offices built for them to work in, and the government offices and courtrooms refurbished for their protégés, are all located in the centre. To protect these so-called important buildings, long concrete barriers, watchtowers and checkpoints have been placed along this main road and its side roads, effectively boxing in the city centre. Policemen are stationed at the checkpoints to check IDs and ask questions. Ring of Steel is the official name of this security setup. Soon, we’ll probably be barred from driving to the centre altogether.

I struggled with the authenticity of the voices, too, particularly Merza’s, which just felt like a Muslim stereotype, and Alec’s, which was full of journalistic clichés. And the dialogue often felt clunky and too formal.

Jakob thrusts his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, pressing hard. “Even though there’s a lot of us here, the expat community is actually rather small. Even smaller when you are in the same profession.”
[…]
“Hard to believe the Finest was targeted,” Jakob says, wiping his brow. “This will affect expats pretty badly. We all shop here because it’s one of the prime places to get stuff from home. Any of us could have been inside.”

Given that The Finest Supermarket in Kabul was written by an expat (the author, who is Canadian, has previously lived in Afghanistan), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the story is told through an expat lens.

And while I know you should never review a book on what you think the book should have been about, I can’t help feeling this was a wasted opportunity to find out more about the Afghan people and life in Kabul outside of the expat bubble.

On the plus side, I did like the way the author draws the three characters together in unexpected ways, but on the whole, this story was far too simplistic for me. Reviewers on GoodReads see things a bit differently: The Finest Supermarket in Kabul has plenty of four- and five-star ratings. Well, it’d be boring if we all liked the same things, right?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Peace’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 432 pages; 2020.

Peace is the second in Garry Disher’s trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”.  I read the first, Bitter Wash Road, late last year and considered it one of the best Australian crime novels I had ever read.

This one is just as good, but it’s (pleasingly) not more of the same. There’s a shift in focus to rural policing and the insidious ways in which city crime can seep into isolated locations, helped partly by the rise in social media. There’s also a minor narrative thread about an unrecognised massacre of the local indigenous population by a pioneer of the district, suggesting that crime has always permeated the ground upon which Hirsch now treads.

In fact, it’s the isolated rural setting (the northern part of South Australia, about three hours from Adelaide), which gives this police procedural a distinctive Australian flavour.

In this dry farmland country, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen runs a one-cop station and spends a lot of his time on the road carrying out welfare checks and following up on petty crimes such as vandalism and the theft of household items. But in this novel, set during the supposedly festive season, the crimes Hirsch has to investigate escalate from the predictable Christmas time pub brawls, drunk driving offences and traffic accidents to more serious incidents, including murder.

First, a middle-aged woman from the local “crime family”, crashes her car into the local pub. Later, a young child is locked in a hot car and almost dies.

But when the local pony breeder has several of her show ponies slaughtered in a vicious attack, attracting the attention of the national media, the entire community feels put on alert and Hirsch knows he’s not going to have a particularly peaceful Christmas. Who would brutally stab animals and leave them to die slow, painful deaths? What sort of criminal is living in the town’s midst? And will he (or she) turn their attention to humans next?

The UK edition of Peace

A slow burner, but worth the effort

Peace is a bit of a slow burner and not quite as complex as its predecessor. This novel is more about small-town life, the characters that live in it, the (small) power plays that go on between citizens and the grudges and resentments that people harbour against neighbours and acquaintances.

To get to the bottom of what’s going on, Hirsch must use his social and networking skills as much as his police skills.

It’s only when the “heavy-duty” crime occurs — a murder of a woman in an isolated farmhouse — that the book becomes a proper page-turner involving car chases, line searches and a dogged hunt for the perpetrator. The investigation, which isn’t straightforward, draws in other police, including those from Sydney, some of whom have questionable agendas of their own.

It all makes for a cracking read, one that addresses bullying, animal cruelty, domestic violence and police corruption.

As ever the characterisation is spot on whether Disher is writing about the small town crims, the local male meddler, the dedicated GP, the troubled community “outcast”, the shop girl or the neighbouring police sergeant.

I raced through it in no time, and look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy soon.

Peace was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was a Sunday Times “crime pick of the month” in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store in November 2020.

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

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

And it was.

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

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

A comedy of manners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A successful business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ by Polly Samson

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2021.

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

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

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

Teenage narrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immersive reading experience

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

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

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

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

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