Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Author, Book review, Daunt Books, Fiction, general, Kathleen Rooney, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney

Lillian Boxfish takes a walk

Fiction – Kindle edition; Daunt Books; 302 pages; 2017.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a rather sweet novel about an 84-year-old lady, once America’s highest paid female advertising copywriter, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

As she takes her evening stroll en-route to a party she’s been invited to, she meets and interacts with ordinary New Yorkers and recalls the highs and lows of her extraordinary life and career.

It’s an easy read and nothing too taxing, the exact kind of story I was looking for while I nursed a sore mouth having undergone some rather invasive oral surgery recently. I simply switched the brain into neutral and enjoyed accompanying Lillian around the streets of New York.

Said to be inspired by the life of Margaret Fishback, who worked at R.H. Macy’s and was the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s, the book is as much about one woman’s rise to the top of a male-dominated industry as it is about the changing fortunes of Manhattan, from the Prohibition era in the 1920s to sky-high homicide rates in the 1980s.

Admittedly, I didn’t much warm to Lillian, whose tone of voice is forthright and arrogant (what you might call brimming with chutzpah), but her story is such a fascinating one it hardly seemed to matter. Plus, her tale is laced with plenty of self-deprecating humour and great one liners so it’s a fun read — and the advertising poems dotted throughout give a light-hearted tone to the narrative.

Mind you, there are some heart-rending moments, too, which knocks the self-confidence out of Lillian and lets the reader see her in a new, more human, light.

A quotable story

I had a grand old time highlighting passages that appealed to me: the book is dotted with “wisdoms” and viewpoints that chime with my own. I’m a great believer in walking to clear my head, boost my creativity and find solutions to problems. It seems Lillian is too:

Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problem I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

And Lillian’s preference for living in the city, as opposed to the suburbs, but liking the ability to go on little escapes could have come out of my mouth:

I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not to just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun. And were I catching the subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray. But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.

Lillian’s at her most poignant when she reflects on how time moves on and things change.

The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926; it has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.

And:

‘The city is a city,’ I say. ‘But it is also a house. This city is my house. I live in this city, and this part is being remodelled. The ceiling of the highway has been pulled down, and the floor’s been extended, and the water’s farther away. But this is my house. It is still my house.’

I also loved her love of literature — she becomes a published poet alongside her advertising career — but she’s also acutely aware of how quickly fame and success can disappear:

In certain instances, walking alone in Manhattan is actually safer at night. Passing by the Strand, for example, at Twelfth and Broadway. I usually walk past that bookstore with intense ambivalence: delight because I have been frequenting it since the 1930s, when it was over on Fourth Avenue, just one among nearly fifty similar shops; dread because on more than one occasion in the past two decades I have found my own poetry collections derelict on the sidewalk carts, on sale for mere cents, and with no one watching over them because if they get stolen, well, who cares? At night, at least, the carts have been rolled away and there’s no chance I’ll be confronted with evidence of my grim literary fate.

But probably my favourite quote is this:

Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.

Thanks to blogger Susan at A Life in Books for the recommendation.

Author, Book review, Daunt Books, Fiction, Leonard Michaels, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Sylvia’ by Leonard Michaels

Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 144 pages; 2015.

If literature “ought to be depressing” — as this NYRB Tweet shared by my friend Armen suggests — then Leonard Michael’s 1992 novella, Sylvia, has truly fulfilled its function.

A portrait of a dysfunctional marriage in 1960s Manhattan, this story is about as depressing as they get.

Said to be semi-autobiographical and based on the author’s own bad marriage, it’s a beautifully crafted novel, written in short, to-the-point sentences, but it’s also a terribly sad one.

A fateful relationship

When the book opens we meet the young 20-something nameless narrator. He’s just returned to New York after two years of graduate school in Berkeley “without a PhD or any idea of what I’d do, only a desire to write stories”. He’s now living at home with his Jewish parents in Lower East Side Manhattan, where his mother pampers him and his father thinks he’s a disappointment.

One day he visits his friend Naomi, who lives in Greenwich Village. She’s sharing a rather squalid apartment with a dark-haired Asian woman called Sylvia and it is from this one meeting that a fateful relationship is set in motion.

After being abandoned by Naomi and her boyfriend on a walk through Washington Square Park, the narrator and Sylvia “continued together, as if dazed, drifting through dreamy heat”. They return to the apartment “like a couple doomed to sacrificial assignation” and “made love until afternoon became twilight and twilight became black night”. And that’s when Sylvia nonchalantly mentions she already has a boyfriend.

Infidelity and lustful sex aren’t Sylvia’s only tropes. Our narrator soon learns that Sylvia, who has no immediate family and is essentially all alone in the world, is also wildly unpredictable, argumentative, prone to violent outbursts, jealous rages and self-harming. And yet, for all the difficulties and drama she creates, he cannot seem to say no to her.

He encourages her to go to university, while he struggles to find any paid work. Against his own wisdom, the pair get married. They spend their spare time hanging out in bars, conducting screaming matches or having angry, compulsive sex. Neither of them appears to be happy. It all seems doomed to failure.

A toxic marriage

Written as a retrospective narrative, the book is interspersed with diary extracts of the narrator’s innermost thoughts at the time which includes quotes from Sylvia’s  diatribes to show how cruel and mad she could be. Sadly, these extracts are not laid out any differently to the rest of the text so it’s easy to mistake them as part of the main narrative until you see the tiny date stamp at the end. Using a different font would have easily solved this problem.

That aside, the most interesting thing about Sylvia is its focus on a toxic marriage from the husband’s point of view (instead of the wife’s).

In Sylvia, the narrator is a passive male character, who is constantly manipulated by his “crazy” wife. She uses emotional blackmail to harangue him and makes idle threats to end her life to gain his full attention. It’s heart-rending to read knowing the narrator is caught between the social mores of the time — his parents believe he should stand by his wife no matter what — and his inability to get Sylvia to seek the medical help she so clearly needs.

This is a fast-paced stylish read. Its undertone of latent violence makes it feel like a noirish thriller, but there’s also a raw melancholic power that gives it a mad intensity, almost as if you, the reader, is living through the self-destructive love of this doomed couple. It’s not an easy read, nor a comfortable one, but its shock ending with its nod to redemption makes it worth the effort.