20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 288 pages; 2020.

Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It defies convention because it’s a seamless blend of literary fiction, myth, fairytale and dystopia. Perhaps it could best be described as an “eco fable”? Regardless, it’s a wonderfully evocative and compelling tale about humankind’s obsession with exploiting nature to make money — seemingly at any cost.

Fairytale about a mythical bird

In this masterfully created tale, which is split into four parts, we are introduced to the rain heron, a mythical bird that brings rain wherever it goes. It has blue-grey feathers that are so pale you can see straight through them, and whenever it flaps its wings a thick spray of water falls from them, almost as if it generates its own rain.

In a world beset by drought, it’s a much sought-after creature, offering abundance and helping boost harvests, but it also comes with risks: the bird is also associated with frosts, floods, destruction — and sometimes death.

In Part 1 we meet Ren, an older woman who is living in a cave on a mountainside in the forest. She’s self-sufficient, eating berries and other plants, hunting deer for meat and occasionally trapping a fish for her supper. She barters with a man and his young son living nearby, with whom she exchanges items — fleece gloves, vitamins, boots, vegetable seeds — that she cannot get elsewhere.

The trio is careful to avoid contact with other humans, especially the soldiers that have recently infiltrated the area and who are on a mission to find and capture the sole rain heron that they believe lives in the vicinity.

Ren knows where the rain heron lives. She was introduced to it by her mother as a young girl. But when the soldiers find her and become threatening, she’s left with no option other than to show them where it roosts. This sets into motion a drastic — and deadly — chain of events.

Back in time

The story, which reads like a fairytale, doesn’t have a single narrator, nor follow a linear route. We go back in time to meet the female soldier — Harker, as she is known —  who puts so much pressure on Ren to offer up her secrets. In Part 2 we discover her way of life before the military coup that transformed the world into such a strange and menacing place.

This change in direction is a little disorientating to begin with, but it sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Here, we discover that Harker had a happy childhood living with her aunt, who made her living from the “inking grounds” — a secret location out at sea where squid are caught, drained of their ink and then released back into the water without harm. (This, by the way, is not how ink is actually removed from squid — in the real world the squid are caught and killed first.)

This sustainable practice comes under threat when a northerner arrives in the port town seeking a way to make a lot of money quickly. He knows that the locals farm ink, which is worth a lot of money, but he doesn’t know how to do it and no one wants to share the secret with him.

Capitalistic tensions

This tension between a capitalist wanting to turn a secret into a business idea really does set the theme and tone of The Rain Heron, which is very much a book about humankind’s incapacity to just leave nature alone, to appreciate it intrinsically rather than trying to make money out of it.

In the final parts of the novel, which are essentially a road trip beset with danger and violence, this theme is developed further: how far would you go to capture a creature that may make you rich or give you an advantage over others?

It’s a beautifully realised tale told in graceful, elegant prose, which includes lush descriptions of landscapes and minimal dialogue. There’s a fable-like feel to the story, one that conjures up memories of other books I have read — think The Road meets Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and all those Narnia books) meets The Girl with Glass Feet meets The Silver Crown.

I love that we don’t know anything about this world — the politics or the events which have lead to soldiers taking over — nor the specific location (although I imagine it’s Tasmania, seeing that is where the author is from). Arnott simply plops you into this universe he has created and it all feels so real and vivid that you don’t need any explanations: you just accept it for what it is.

The ways in which he explores our fragile relationship with the environment is wonderfully evoked. It’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. This is the kind of novel you can really get lost in. I loved it.

The Rain Heron has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced next week (15 July). And yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’d be very happy to see this one take the prize.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it in July last year.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Ruth Gilligan, Setting

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 304 pages; 2020.

Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers proved to be an unexpectedly immersive, totally compelling and incredibly SURREAL novel that will stay with me for a long time.

Set during the BSE crisis of 1996, this is yet another book that could be classified as “pestilence fiction” or “pandemic lit”. (I seem to be reading a string of them recently… all purely by accident… see Nemesis and Anna.)

But this one eschews the bad things that can happen when there is a disease outbreak in favour of the opportunities it can provide. In this case, the ban on British beef — put in place by the EU in March 1996 to prevent people contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) through eating infected meat — meant that Irish farmers were well placed to capitalise on a “Celtic Beef Boom”.

Wrapping the story in a 22-year-old mystery gives it a page-turning, fairytale-like quality.

I told you this book was surreal.

A mesmerising book about meat

It might sound a bit off-putting for a novel to focus on the Irish meat industry but Gilligan tells her story in such a mesmerising way that I did not want this book to end. (And I say this as someone who has not eaten red meat since 1991!)

She does this by creating a cast of intriguing characters, inventing a wholly believable myth about how cattle are slaughtered in Ireland, throwing in some crime and corruption, and then placing a mystery at the heart of the story.

This is all set within the context of ancient customs and rituals (including Catholicism) having to give way to “modern” Ireland, in which the power of the Church was declining while the Celtic Tiger was beginning to take hold.

A mystery to solve

When the book opens we are in New York in January 2018. An Irish photographer is holding an exhibition of his work. The star piece is a photograph he took 22 years earlier of a fully clothed butcher hanging upside down from the ceiling, bloody wounds apparent in his feet. But who is the man and how did he come to die in this way?

This is the central hub of the novel which focuses on four main characters, who each take turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters. These are:

  • Grá, who is married to one of  The Butchers of the title, a group of eight men who travel around Ireland for a year slaughtering cattle following an ancient Irish custom cloaked in secrecy;
  • Grá’s 12-year-old daughter Úna, who longs to follow in her father’s footsteps, even though The Butchers are exclusively male;
  • Fionn, a smallholder dairy farmer, who is looking for a quick way to make a lot of money so he can send his dying wife to Dublin for treatment; and
  • Davey, Fionn’s son, who is in his final year at school, is a bit obsessed with Greek mythology and longs to head to the city to be free of small-town prejudices.

As the narrative unfolds we begin to understand how the crisis impacts each character — whether positively or negatively — and to discover their connection to the dead-butcher-turned-art-exhibit.

Myths and customs

As befitting a story that revolves around Irish folklore giving way to modernity, there is much focus on mythology — and meat. Here’s how Úna describes the rituals that The Butchers follow:

‘They hang each animal by its feet, bleed and skin it, check the organs. Then they clean and process – that means butchering it all into cuts. Then on the last day of their travels, they do a special ritual for the final cow. They split the meat between all eight of them to take home to us, their families.’ The bowls arrived before them steaming. Úna picked up her tarnished spoon. ‘And it’s tastier than any of that rubbish you would find at McDonald’s!’

And here’s how The Butchers came to be created:

She explained how a farmer’s wife had lost her entire family way back in some ancient war, so in her devastation, she had placed a curse which dictated certain rules around killing cattle. Henceforth, no man could slaughter alone; Instead, seven others had to be by his side … And ever since then, Úna warned, these rules had had to be adhered to or else the widow’s grief would be forgotten and the whole of Ireland would become diseased.

I could say a lot more about The Butchers — there really is a lot to discuss and I’ve only covered a fraction of it — but I should end things here. It is, in short, wonderfully realised, ambitious in scope (and plot) and wholly original. I loved it. Five stars!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber: An unforgettable and surreal tale about a woman who picks up hitchhikers in Scotland. The story explores many issues, including meat consumption.

‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett: This is a story about an older man, working in the fur trade, who falls for a younger colleague that he cannot have. This dark novel, with its nod to Beauty and the Beast, is akin to a Gothic fairytale, albeit set in 1960s London.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Africa, TBR40

‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 249 pages; 2009.

Money, morality, loneliness and being true to yourself are the central themes in Damon Galgut’s sixth novel, The Imposter, first published in 2008.

Set in the “new” South Africa, after the dismantling of apartheid, it tells the tale of Adam Napier, an unmarried white man, who loses his job and his home and then reinvents himself as a struggling poet.

Rejecting his younger brother’s offer of a job working in his (dubious) property development company, he heads to a remote township in the Karoo, a semi-desert region in the Western Cape. He moves into a decrepit four-roomed house, with an overgrown garden, which his brother bought years ago but never lived in.

The house, filled with dust and a depressing mix of furniture, is a metaphor for Adam’s falling-apart life. He is warned that the place is filled with “presences from the past” and he convinces himself that his own shadow is a ghost with whom he has conversations.

He has one neighbour, whom he dubs the “Blue Man” because he’s always wearing blue overalls, but the pair rarely speak — it takes months before either of them is prepared to acknowledge the other’s existence. And even then they “dance” around each other, frightened of what might ensue if they develop a friendship.

Struggling writer

Adam struggles to put pen to paper and fails to write a single poem. And even when the local mayor orders him to clean up his overgrown garden or risk being fined, he doesn’t pull out any weeds, nor chop down the offending trees he’s been told to remove. It’s like he settles into a gripping listlessness and doesn’t know how to shake it off.

From this ennui, he’s offered a reprieve of sorts when he runs into an old childhood friend, Canning, who has inherited a large estate called Gondwana, comprising a hunting lodge and safari park, a short drive away. He invites Adam to come to stay for the weekend and he accepts, even though he can’t quite place Canning in his memory.

As soon as he meets Canning’s exotic black wife, Baby, he’s drawn into the couple’s lavish lifestyle, spending every weekend at their home, drinking fine wine, eating great food and exploring the stunning landscape. But there’s something not quite right. Canning is too effusive, too needy, too generous and Adam is too embarrassed to admit he can’t remember a thing about him from their school days.

Meanwhile Baby, enigmatic and mysterious, become’s Adam’s muse, sparking his imagination and giving him the inspiration to finally compose those elusive poems he’s been so desperate to write.

As the narrative progresses, Adam’s friendships, with both Canning and Baby, come under strain — in different ways — and a sense of foreboding ensues. As he unwittingly becomes drawn into a web of intrigue and corruption, with all-too sinister implications, one wonders where — and how — it’s all going to end.

A literary thriller

The Imposter is the kind of novel that draws you in. It reads like a literary thriller, but it’s really a dark exposé of modern South Africa, highlighting how the new world is colliding with the old, how some people — both black and white — are becoming incredibly wealthy, while others are still living lives of servitude.

Through Adam’s eyes we see how personal ethics are challenged on every front as the country finds its new feet and we also see the deadly repercussions that can result if you put your head above the parapet.

The book features Galgut’s typically dreamy prose, which has an almost fable-like quality to it (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King). He uses simple language but has an eye for poetic detail and his descriptions of the savannah landscape, for instance, are especially evocative. He also has an uncanny ear for authentic dialogue.

But what made the story so compelling for me — and made me keep speedily turning the pages — was the slow build up of suspense and the dark undercurrents bubbling away underneath the surface.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought The Imposter was a terrific read — and one that only furthers my admiration for this very talented writer.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 24th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in August 2017 as part of my plan to read his entire back catalogue. As it currently stands I’ve now read five of his novels — there are three more to go!

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Meena Kandasamy, Publisher, Setting

‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy

When I hit you

Fiction – hardcover; Atlantic Books; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Shocking. Disturbing. Oppressive. But not without hope. These are the first words that spring to mind to describe Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018, and longlisted for both the Jhalak Prize 2018 and the Dylan Thomas Prize 2018, this short novel is a ferociously powerful story about a young woman who endures an abusive marriage but manages to escape it in what appears to be the nick of time.

A brief, tumultuous marriage

When the book opens, the unnamed narrator has fled her unhappy marriage which lasted just four months. It’s five years after the fact, and her mother, with whom she now lives, “has not stopped talking about it”.

But the “writer is the one who controls the narrative” and so, by chapter two, we are thrust into the young woman’s past life as a new bride, living in an unfamiliar city in a small house where, within the space of two months, she has already learned to escape her husband’s wrath by dressing as dowdily as possible:

I should be blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out. Like a house after a robbery. Like a mannequin stripped of its little black dress and dragged away from the store window, covered in a bedsheet and locked off in the godown.

The book charts the disintegration of this mismatched pairing between a vibrant, worldly-wise middle-class woman, who is a writer, and a dashing university lecturer, who is abusive and controlling. It begins with small things — he forbids her from using Facebook, for instance, and then deletes her email account — and then, once he’s totally isolated her from family, friends and colleagues, slides into more damaging psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Thematic chapters

Kandasamy doesn’t tell the story in a straightforward narrative arc. Yes, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, but the book is structured around thematic chapters: there’s the one about the narrator mourning all the lost lovers she never had; another about the two-year long love affair she had with a politician who was 20 years her senior; another looking at what prevents a woman from walking out of an abusive relationship; another about her husband’s slide into paranoia and delusion. But it’s the entire chapter devoted to rape within marriage, which makes for particularly uncomfortable (and sickening) reading.

Always there is the threat of violence in the air, the feeling that one must tip-toe around the home — no longer a place of sanctuary — to avoid being punished.

My husband is in the kitchen. He is channelling his anger, practising his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

The prose, as you can probably tell from the excerpts I have quoted, is eloquent and heavy with metaphors and similes. I normally shun the clichéd phrase “beautiful writing”, but it’s a perfect description for what Kandasamy does here. She’s also a poet and I think that is very much evident in her narrative style, which feels so effortless to read.

Intellectual rigour

Yet on every page there are lines and entire passages that are ripe with meaning. There’s an intellectual rigour at play too, which may not be a surprise given that the author is also an academic who is outspoken on a range of issues including feminism, violence against women and annihilation of caste. I underlined so much of its contents I fear I may have ruined the book’s pages forever.

And while the contents are dark — boy, are they dark — the reader comes away feeling hopeful that the narrator has the potential to forge a new, happier life for herself, free from the shackles of a man who wanted to destroy her.  Intriguingly, Kandasamy says the book is based on her own brief, violent marriage in 2012. (This interview with her in The Wire explains more.)

When I Hit You was named in the Guardian‘s Best Books of 2017, the Daily Telegraph‘s Best Books of 2017, the Observer Best Books of 2017, and the Financial Times Best Books of 2017. It will probably appear on my best books of 2018 list at the end of the year.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Small Circle of Beings’ by Damon Galgut

Small Circle of Beings

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 224 pages; 2012.

First published in 2005, Small Circle of Beings, by Damon Galgut, comprises a novella and four short stories.

All five narratives in the book venture into very dark territory and all are set within the confines of the family unit, what Galgut terms a “small circle of beings”.

Childhood illness

It is the titular novella which is perhaps the most disturbing story of them all. In it we meet a cowardly mother who fails to take her nine-year-old child to hospital when he is seriously ill because she puts her needs before her son’s: she is scared of the city and does not want to leave their secluded home on a dusty road in the mountains. Her husband, a farmer, is no better. He is emotionally detached, “keeps his distance and speaks of silly things”. He does not love his son.

When a doctor pronounces that there is nothing wrong with their child they accept his proclamation, but things get worse and David is later found to have a strange growth in his throat, which puts his life at risk.

In this account of two parents struggling to come to terms with their son’s illness in vastly different ways, Galgut throws a light on the tensions and strains between husbands and wives forced to confront their greatest fears: the loss of a child. He shows how different priorities — a mother’s over a father’s, for instance — can have devastating consequences for all involved, and how incidents from our childhood can have far-reaching repercussions long into our adult lives.

Written in delicate prose from the mother’s point of view, Small Circle of Beings wavers between claustrophobia and anxiety, love and anger. It is emotionally complex and the reader will find themselves torn between empathising with the mother and hating her for her passivity. I came away from it feeling a mix of heart ache and oppression. It is one of the most memorable novellas I have ever read.

Four stories

The four short stories that follow — Lovers, Shadows, The Clay Ox and Rick — tread similar territory, focusing on dysfunctional families, abusive parents, domestic violence and exploitation of black South Africans, all with an uncanny eye for detail and an emphasis on observational nuance.

There’s not much light relief, but it’s not Galgut’s style to shy away from humanity’s deepest flaws and failings. What he presents is ordinary white people thrust into extraordinary situations. He lets them manage for awhile, then has them flounder and it’s while they’re floundering, struggling to make sense of a new situation, that he looks at what happens to them under stress or when they think their power or sense of entitlement is under threat. The result is not always pretty.

Small Circle of Beings is a book filled with hatred, violence and antagonism. But for all the angry emotion portrayed here, Galgut is a superb stylist, making every word count and creating light-as-a-cloud prose that feels as if it might float off the page. I loved it.