Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Virginia Feito

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 304 pages; 2021.

I have been reading some quite serious and heavy books recently (some of which are yet to be reviewed), so how delightful it was to pick up Virginia Feito’s Mrs March for some wickedly good fun!

Set in New York’s exclusive Upper East Side, this debut novel tells the story of the titular Mrs March, who is married to celebrated author George March, a man 11 years her senior, to whom she is devoted, mainly because of the status and wealth his success brings. (They’ve been married a long time and it’s fair to say her love for him has waned somewhat.)

So imagine her horror when one day, out buying her regulation olive bread from the local patisserie shop, she discovers that readers believe that Johanna, the lead character in George’s latest bestselling book, is based on her. She’s outraged because Johanna is a whore past her prime, and Mrs March is a fine upstanding citizen, albeit slightly fake and needy, who believes that appearances are everything.

Distraught by this news, she comes home and pulls George’s book from the shelf. In the acknowledgements she notices that she has been thanked as “a constant source of inspiration”:

Mrs March clutched her breast, breathing hard, faintly aware that tears were falling amidst convulsive gasps. Then she shook the book, smashed it against the desk, opened it to the author photograph on the jacket flap, clawed out George’s eyes, scratched out the threaded spine, and pulled out fistfuls of pages—which flew around the room like feathers.

Losing her grip on reality

From this moment on, Mrs March’s behaviour becomes increasingly more bizarre and deranged. Having snooped in George’s study for more evidence, she discovers a newspaper clipping of a young woman who has gone missing and she somehow gets it into her head that her husband has murdered her. What follows is a slippery slope of mental anguish and upset, morphing into paranoia and a conviction that her husband is guilty.

Mrs March’s behaviour becomes farcical. But there’s nothing she won’t stoop to — including impersonating an investigative journalist from the New York Times — in a bid to get to the truth.

Of course, a story like this can’t help but be wildly funny. I tittered a lot through this novel. The abhorrent behaviour of Mrs March, her undisguised but unconscious snobbery, made me laugh. Take this simple example:

As the party progressed, the living room fattening with each new arrival, Mrs March tasked Martha with attending to the guest bathroom regularly, to fold the towels and freshen the toilet seat and floor with a light ammonia solution. The sharp antiseptic vapors merged with the sticky, sappy scent of pine, creating a smell so distinct that guests would, on future visits to hospitals or upon passing a storekeeper emptying a bucket of mop water onto the street, instantly recall that last party at the Marches.

Or this little snide remark about the noise of clacking high heels in the apartment directly above:

She didn’t know who owned the apartment right above theirs, but every time she saw a woman in heels in the lobby she would consider approaching her, maybe befriending her so that one day she could mention, in a casual, offhand manner, the surprising benefits of house slippers.

As you can tell from these quotes, the story is written in the third person, but very much from Mrs March’s point of view. We really have no idea what goes on in the head of her husband, nor her young son, Jonathan, with whom she has a rather detached relationship.

A black comedy of manners

This is a book about manners, a black comedy, if you will, with a dark twist, and it’s written with a big nod to Patricia Highsmith and perhaps even Michael Dibden.

I really loved following Mrs March’s increasingly outrageous antics, but I also worried for her sanity — and wanted to let her know that maybe she should just take a chill pill! It’s unsettling and disturbing, hugely suspenseful and a terrific page-turner. Most of all, it is simply great fun.

A movie adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, has been slated. I suspect it will be a hoot!

For other takes on this novel, please see:

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.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Leah Swann, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 308 pages; 2020.

Sheerwater by Leah Swann is one of those rare treats of a novel that marries beautiful prose with wonderfully realised characters and then combines this with a compelling, fast-paced plot and lots of thought-provoking current issues to lend it relevance.

It’s probably best described as a literary crime novel, though it also ticks boxes for suspense and psychological thriller, too.

The third-person narrative spans three tense days and culminates in a shocking, yet totally credible ending, the sort that could have been lifted from today’s news. I came away from it reeling and I have been thinking about it ever since.

An eventful drive

The story is framed around Ava, a young woman, who has quit her job and left her husband. With two young children, Max and Teddy, in tow, she makes a long drive towards the coast, where she plans to begin a new life in a little town called Sheerwater, somewhere off the Great Ocean Road.

But en route Ava witnesses something that will thwart her plans: she sees a light plane go down in a field and decides to stop and help. Imploring her boys to remain in the car with their pet dog, Winks, for company, she attends the accident scene, but when she returns to the car, having done all she could to help the injured, she discovers that her boys are gone. Only the dog remains.

The police are called and an investigation ensues. The boys’ father is number one suspect, but how did he know Ava’s whereabouts? And why is she on the run from him?

Multiple points of view

While the story is largely told from Ava’s point of view, we also get to hear from her husband, Laurence, and her son, Max, in standalone chapters written from their individual perspectives. This is a clever device because it not only lets us see what happens to the boys and gives us some background on Ava’s marriage, it also makes the reader question who is telling the truth? Which perspective is correct?

Max’s voice is particularly well done because we get to see the complexities of the scary adult world through a sensitive nine-year-old boy’s eyes. It is, by turns, warm and tender, heart rending and brave. I can’t be the only reader who didn’t want to step into the pages to give him a protective hug.

The ending, which draws together this trio of narrative threads, is unexpectedly shocking.

Sheerwater is a truly memorable read. It’s devastating but beautiful, too, and I’m hoping this debut author turns her hand to something else soon. If it is half as good as this novel, I will be clamouring to read it.

Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed this one, too.

About the author¹: Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.   (1. Source: Harper Collins website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 9th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 7th book for #AWW2021.  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book lists, Book review, Catherine Jinks, dystopian, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Fourth Estate, Heather Rose, historical fiction, literary fiction, Meg Mundelle, Michelle de Krester, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher, Setting, Text, University of Queensland Press

5 Fast Reviews: Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Catherine Jinks, Meg Mundell and Heather Rose

The past two months have been fairly hectic around here, mainly because I started a new job and I’ve had to learn a whole new role in a new industry and I’ve really not had the energy to read books much less review them.

The books I have read haven’t exactly set my world on fire — perhaps because I’ve been distracted by other things — so I haven’t been inspired to write proper full-length reviews. Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve read recently:

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 96 pages; 2017.

I’ve read a couple of Michelle de Kretser’s novels before — The Life to Come was one of my favourites last year — so I was delighted to find this novella in my local library. Billed as a ghost story, it’s not typical of the genre. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not a ghost story at all but a richly written tale about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city. The “ghosts” — for want of a better word — are the memories associated with the place you leave behind.

The story is about a married couple, Frances and Charlie, who are grappling with a move from Melbourne to Sydney. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to them. Frances spends a lot of time exploring on foot with her dog — there are lots of lush descriptions of the city’s parks and gardens coming into bloom written with de Kretser’s typical literary flourishes  — and it’s while she’s on her wanderings that she comes across a haunting sight in a neighbour’s garden. This “apparition”, which alarms her greatly, could also be seen as a metaphor for the ghosts in her husband’s past, which she is trying to decipher.

Easily read in a sitting, Springtime is about ghosts of the past haunting a marriage as much as it is about the eerie goings-on in the neighbourhood. I’d argue that it’s really only for die-hard fans of de Kretser; it felt slightly too ephemeral for me to get a real handle on the story. For a more detailed review, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 375 pages; 2011.

Originally published in 2003 under the author “anonymous”, The Bride Stripped Bare is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening. Written in diary form as a series of lessons numbered from one to 138, it tells the story of a young woman who has never felt sexually fulfilled in her marriage and then acts, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, on her impulse to take a lover.

Her relationship with Gabriel, a handsome older man who turns out to be a virgin, gives her the chance to explore her own needs and desires without fear of judgment. Intoxicated by the power of her newly developed sexual prowess, she begins to take chances she shouldn’t and the double life she’s leading pushes her perilously close to the edge.

Admittedly, this book got me out of a reading slump, probably because it’s written in a compelling tone of voice (in the second person) and surges along at an octane-fuelled pace, helped no doubt by the exceedingly short chapters, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read the two follow-ups, With My Body and I Take You. And the whole idea that you could find a willing 40+-year-old virgin hanging around London seemed too ludicrous for me to take the story all that seriously…

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019.

Shepherd tells the tale of a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840. The narrative swings backward and forward in time, detailing Tom’s old life in England, and then contrasting it with his new life assigned to a shepherd’s hut, where he helps to protect a flock of sheep with a trio of violent prisoners.

This fast-paced story is essentially a chase novel, for it follows what happens when Tom becomes caught up in events that may lead to his death at the hands of a vicious killer known as Dan Carver.

Initially, I really liked this tale, especially Tom’s warm, empathetic voice, his wisdom, his concern for the “blacks” and his desire to know the plants and animals of the Australian landscape, but it soon began to wear thin when I realised there was not enough show and too much tell. There was too much violence in it for me, too, and the chase dragged on for too long to sustain my interest. Without wishing to damn it with faint praise, it actually felt like a novel that teenage boys might like, so it comes as no surprise that the author has several award-winning children’s books to her name.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 278 pages; 2019.

If ever a novel was to be a nod to the shenanigans of Brexit or Australia’s shameful immigration detention policy, this is it. The Trespassers is a dystopian tale set on a crowded ship bound for Australia. Onboard are Brits escaping the disease-ridden UK. They have all been carefully screened, but midway through the voyage disease breaks out, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.

The story is told through the eyes of three different characters, all superbly drawn, who take turns to narrate their side of events in alternate chapters: there’s a nine-year-old Irish boy who is deaf, a singer-turned-nurse from Glasgow and an English schoolteacher in need of money.

By the time the ship gets to its destination several people have died and there’s no guarantee the immigrants will be allowed to disembark on Australian soil. This is a riveting story that reads like a thriller but has all the intelligence and wisdom of a literary novel not afraid to tackle big issues such as healthcare, immigration, human trafficking and politics. I really loved this book and hope to see it pop up on literary prize lists in the very near future.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 424 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tasmanian writer Heather Rose will be known to most people for her award-winning The Museum of Modern Love, a book I loved so much I convinced my book group to read it even though it hadn’t yet been published in the UK (we all bought it on Kindle). Bruny, her latest novel, has arrived with much fanfare, but it’s completely different in almost every possible way to what preceded it.

Set in Tasmania some time in the very near future, it tells the story of the bombing of a massive bridge being built to link mainland Tasmania with the island of Bruny, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The terrorist attack brings the bridge down, but it also brings worldwide attention to this usually quiet and sleepy part of the world. New York-based UN conflict resolution expert Astrid Coleman returns home to help her twin brother, the state premier, soothe troubled waters. Matters are complicated further by a dysfunctional family: her sister is the Opposition Leader; her mother barely talks to her; and her father, who is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s, can only communicate in Shakespeare quotes.

A sharp-eyed and intelligent political satire come thriller (reminiscent of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon), the book is fast-paced and written with wit and verve. But as much as I enjoyed reading it, I just didn’t buy the premise — that a massive bridge would be built in this part of the world and that terrorists would take the time to blow it up — and had a hard time taking it seriously. And even though I went to the Perth launch and heard Rose talk about the story in great depth (she was very careful not to give away crucial plot spoilers), I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is simply preposterous — but I’m sure that won’t stop it being shortlisted for awards aplenty.

These books are all by Australian women writers. They represent the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd books I have read this year for #AWW2019.

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‘The Van Apfel Girls are Gone’ by Felicity McLean

Australian edition

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 296 pages; 2019.

Modern history is littered with true-life stories about missing children who are never found — think the Beaumont children (in Australia) or Madeline McCann (in the UK). Felicity McLean takes this idea as the focal point of her debut novel The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, which tells the story of the fictional disappearance of three blonde sisters — the Van Apfel children of the title — from the perspective of their childhood friend, Tikka Malloy.

Falsely billed as “a Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation” (it isn’t), I had mixed feelings about this novel.

Here’s what I liked about it

The era

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is set in Australia in 1992, which makes it a kind of historical novel. McLean cleverly reminds us of the era, not by stating the year repeatedly, but by making reference to certain elements, such as TV shows popular at the time (A Country Practice, for instance, which is a complete throwback to my teenage years), food items (Bubble O’Bill ice-creams, which I used to love when I was about 13) and news stories. She uses the Azaria Chamberlain case, which was coming to its final conclusion in 1992, as a backdrop, reminding us that when children disappear everyone has an opinion about what happened and who’s to blame — and they’re not always correct.

The mystery element

McLean paints a realistic portrait of what happens when children go missing — the police investigation, the search parties out looking and the fear that permeates through the community — but refrains from offering any easy answers. Indeed, the girls are never found and no one knows what happened to them, but McLean drops enough clues for the reader to figure things out for themselves. (I suspect this would make for a terrific book group discussion because each reader will have a different theory about why, and how, the sisters vanished.)

The humour

The story is largely told from Tikka Malloy’s point-of-view. She was eleven and one-sixth years old when the girls vanished. Her voice is whip smart and funny, often because she’s unaware of her own naivety, but also because she wants to impress the adults around her by proving she knows more than they do about certain things. Some of the things she says — and does — are quite funny, not least the skit she puts on as part of her school’s Showstopper concert held on the night of the girls’ disappearance.

UK Edition

Here’s what I didn’t like about it

The switch between past and present

The narrative is told largely from the perspective of Tikka as a young girl, but it opens — and ends — with her as a 30-year-old returning home momentarily after more than a decade living abroad. The voice between the young Tikka and the older Tikka isn’t much different, and the switches between past and present felt a bit clunky. I wasn’t actually convinced that the older Tikka was even necessary to the storyline, because all it really shows is that 19 years on the Van Apfel girls are still missing — and that could have been done in a much simpler way.

The secondary storyline involving Tikka’s sister

Similarly, I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for Tikka’s older sister, Laura, to be diagnosed with cancer as an adult. In my view, this didn’t add anything overall to the story, and Laura was too thinly drawn to give the narrative any extra weight. Perhaps all it did was give Tikka a reason to come back to her childhood home. But… so what?

The uneven tone and style

The prose is often beautiful in places, but is inconsistent, almost as if McLean is still finding her voice. The storyline felt slightly disjointed, too, and I couldn’t help thinking a few structural edits would have helped smooth things out.

All up, I was disappointed by The Van Apfel Girls are Gone. It’s billed as a mystery thriller but really it’s a coming-of-age story set in the 1990s. It’s endearing in places, and heartfelt too, but it lacked a certain panache and reading it felt more of a chore than an entertainment. That said, it will be interesting to see what McLean comes up with next…

This is my 12th book for #AWW2019.

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Catherine McKinnon, dystopian, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I read Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland about a month before it was longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award. I’ve been in two minds about reviewing it, because it’s not available outside of Australia*  — which makes it frustrating for those of you in the rest of the world who’d actually like to read it — but I’m hoping the prize listing might change that situation, for this is a superb book deserving of a wide (international) audience.

Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales, Storyland is essentially a fictionalised history of Australia, spanning four centuries. Its focus is very much on how people are shaped by the environments in which they live and vice versa — or, as one of the characters explains in the first chapter, “The land is a book waiting to be read. Learn to read it and you will never go hungry”.

It’s also a timely warning about how we treat the land and the indigenous people who know it best.

‘See that lake there,’ Uncle Ray says, looking along the side of his house to the water. ‘That was here before any of us, and the creek that runs down from the mountain into the lake, that was here too, and the mountain, and the trees, and the birds. We’re part of their story, not the other way around.’ ‘Like they were here first,’ I say. ‘You got it, like they were here first,’ Uncle Ray says. ‘But it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.’

Unusual structure

Many of the reviews I have read online compare it to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — a novel I thought showy and pretentious — but the only real similarity is the structure, for McKinnon’s tale weaves together five interlinking stories, from the late 18th century through to 2717 and then goes backwards in time to the beginning.

All the characters live on the same tract of land but at different time periods, a clever device that allows the author to show how development and progress changes a place, not always for the better.

The time periods and characters are:

  • 1796: Will Martin, a 15-year-old cabin boy, onboard the Tom Thumb with real life explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass when they discover Lake Illawarra, a large coastal lagoon, about 100km south of Sydney, which forms the setting for the rest of the novel.
  • 1822, Hawker: a desperate ex-convict, who commits a horrendous crime against a local indigenous woman.
  • 1900, Lola: a headstrong young woman who runs a dairy farm with her brother and sister, both of whom have indigenous blood and are subjected to horrific racist abuse and violence when a local girl goes missing.
  • 1998, Bel: a 10-year-old girl, who spends one carefree summer rafting on the lagoon with two neighbourhood boys and then gets caught up in a dispute between a violent man and his girlfriend.
  • 2033 & 2717, Nada: a woman whose world begins to crumble apart in a chilling — but believable — dystopian view of the future.

Recurring themes

Throughout each of the five narrative threads, there are recurring motifs and landmarks — the lake, the shoreline, an ancient fig tree and a stone axe — which helps tie the stories together, and many of the characters are related across the generations. It’s fun trying to spot the connections.

But what really marks this novel as an exceptional one is McKinnon’s eloquent and haunting prose. She’s at her best when she describes landscapes and our connection to particular places, as the following quote demonstrates:

Darkness settles on the forest that runs alongside the field. Cornhusks quiver in the cooling breeze. In this place the heat of the day runs into a noisy night full of jumping beasts with luminous eyes. Here, the night does not entomb the earth, instead it breathes alive ghostly shadows, as if the buried are rising up.

Thematically, there’s a lot going on, including environmental destruction, racism and fear of the Other — just to name a few. I loved its subtle exploration of these issues and its examination of the stories that tie us to the land. The message, it would seem, is that the land (and nature) will outlive us all, but we need to learn to live according to its rules. It will always be here, even if we are not. We mistreat it at our peril.

Down through the trees I see the roof of our home. But what makes a home? Not wood, not bricks; safety, surely. The year that has just passed, all the news reports, protests, referendums, were about national security, or about individual safety, but as if the threat was elsewhere. Yet the biggest danger came from our home itself, only we didn’t know what our home was. We thought it was bricks and mortar, but a home is more than that, it is land and sea and sky.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Bill’s at The Australian LegendLisa’s at ANZ LitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.

This is my 2nd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 12th for #AWW2018

* I scored my copy from the publisher who pitched it to me when it was released last year. I was sent an e-copy but this got lost somehow when I switched to a new Kindle in the summer and I only rediscovered it lurking in the Cloud quite recently. Apologies to the publisher for my tardiness in reviewing!

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Kate Jennings, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 154 pages; 2001.

Sometimes it’s the things that aren’t said which make a book more powerful than a verbose, overly written one. That’s certainly the case for Kate Jenning’s debut novella, Snake, which was first published in the UK in 2001.

A portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia, it’s written in bare, lean prose — the word “skeletal” comes to mind — and yet the story has an intensity that only comes when the author has taken the care to make each and every word count.

A novella in four parts

Snake comprises fragmentary “chapters” reminiscent of the style used in recent novels, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, some of which are only a page long, and is divided into four parts.

The first part introduces us to Rex, whose wife Irene despises him and whose children ignore him. It’s written in an almost scathing tone of voice, but its second-person style is not indicative of the rest of the novella: it simply sets the scene for what follows. Or rather, it tells us how this man’s life has turned out after many years of marriage, which begs the question: how did it all go so drastically wrong?

That’s fleshed out in the rest of the novella, which, in part two, rewinds to the wedding day: one that brims with promise even if “man-crazy” 20-year-old Irene has rushed down the aisle without proper regard for whether the union is likely to be a long-lasting one. In just 13 pages (and six chapters) we get an overview of the newly married couple and their respective parents  from a variety of perspectives — and it’s clear this is not going to be a love match made in heaven.

Perhaps Billie, Irene’s bridesmaid, sums up the mismatch best:

Her eyes skipped over the guests until she located the groom, whose name was Rex. He was chatting with Irene’s parents, a handsome fellow with a gentle manner and a modest row of medals pinned to his uniform, and of interest beyond his role as groom, being freshly returned from the Victory March in London. Billie found it easy to understand why Irene had fallen for him. But, poor lamb, he did look bewildered, rather like a schoolboy who’d lost his lunch money.

A failed marriage

The rest of the book follows the course of the marriage through its ups (of which there’s not very many) and its downs. The couple settle in an old house on an 800-acre irrigated farm that once belonged to Irene’s father. It’s 500 miles from the nearest city — and Irene hates the isolation, especially when her first child, Girlie, comes along. (A boy, named Boy, follows shortly after.)

Before long she takes her irritation out on all those around her — “Irene’s moods filled the house; there was no escaping” — while Rex, who wonders if there might be something wrong with this wife, only loses his temper when he’s been goaded into it; he mainly remains quiet. This is the routine to which their lives fall, and not even infidelity and other distractions (gardening, a new job at the local radio station, raising the children) can break the pattern of bad behaviour and non-communication.

While there’s plenty of black humour throughout, it’s heartbreaking in places, for the absence of love not only marrs their marriage but it also affects their children, neither of whom seem to have much respect for their parents. It seems pertinent that the snake, usually a symbol of fertility and the creative life force, is used throughout as a metaphor for the poison at the heart of the union between Rex and Irene.

In its examination of lives sullied by disappointment, contempt and regret, Snake is a commanding novel: one that will leave an impact. And despite its flat, matter-of-fact prose style, the narrative reads like a series of hypnotic poems brimful of acute observations and eloquent language. I read it in the space of an afternoon and when I came to the end it felt like emerging from a powerful dream. More please.

This is my 28th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 19th for #AWW2016.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, London, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 224 pages; 2009.

The late Australian writer Madeleine St John (1941-2006) first came to my attention when I read her debut novel —a rather delicious black comedy called The Women in Black — several years ago.

A Pure Clear Light, which was first published in 1996, was her second novel. This one is set in London — Hammersmith and Notting Hill, to be precise — where the author, herself, resided, having emigrated to the UK in 1966 (she was a contemporary of Bruce Beresford, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes — how’s that for a star-studded line up?) It could be best described as a domestic comedy, but its humour is tempered by pathos and an exploration of all the complications and chaos of modern life, which makes for a fiercely intelligent read.

Middle-class London life in the 1990s

Set over the course of around six months, it focuses on Simon and Flora Beaufort, a middle-class couple with three children — Janey, 13, Nell, nine, and Thomas, five. Their lives are comfortable but hectic — David, who directs and writes TV plays, is on the constant look-out for the next big thing, and Flora is busy running her own business with a friend importing and selling third-world textiles.

Right from the very start, we find out that Simon is having an affair with an accountant called Gillian Selkirk and they’ve been spotted having a romantic meal in a French brasserie by one of Flora’s friends. The story then rewinds to show how the affair began — and how Simon carries on his subterfuge right under his wife’s nose without her ever realising.

On the face of it — and indeed going by the blurb alone — you would think this was a story about a marriage falling apart through Simon’s betrayal, but it’s much more than that. The over-riding theme is the transitory nature of life and the need to “live in the moment”. This is brought home to Simon very early on when he wanders the streets of his neighbourhood while Flora is away on holiday with the children:

You could hardly live in Hammersmith without being all but overwhelmed with the realisation of life’s essential transience; the place was a monument to transience; and if there was a paradox, so much the better. Simon, in his family’s absence, had taken to walking in the long summer evenings: one walked for a few miles, and then one came to a pub; one had a few pints and walked home again, and went to bed. One walked down impossible blighted streets, past lovely, blighted houses, the motorway roaring overhead, the river coming into view, every transient item supporting a stream of transient life: their only absolute reality was their passing.

Flora, too, is ever aware of the passing of time and looks for solace in religion and spiritual growth. A lapsed Catholic — Simon, a non-believer, talked her out of it when they had first got together — she begins attending the Anglian church even though “she didn’t sufficiently believe in God”. She’s not quite sure what she’s looking for, only that something is missing.

Simon, too, thinks something is missing but can never put his finger on it. When Thomas takes up ballet and dances for him, he feels momentarily delighted:

‘That’s the stuff,’ said Simon. And he felt as happy as a person can ever be. Why isn’t this enough? he wondered. Why do we always want something more? How can this be?

A quick, light read 

If I’m making the book sound heavy, I don’t mean to, because there’s a lightness of touch — dare I say a transience to the writing? — which makes it a quick and light read. The chapters are exceedingly short — there’s 81 of them, and some are only two or three pages long — and most of the story is told through dialogue, which is short and snappy and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

For instance, there’s a terrific (or should that be ‘triffic’? see below) set piece at the opening of an art exhibition that takes the mickey out of Australians in London, which had me guffawing over my Kindle. It relies very much on stereotypes, so it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the book, and because the author is Australian herself I think she gets away with it, but anyone else and I’d be feeling slightly insulted!

‘Gidday,’ said the antipodean amiably, ‘likewise.’
‘Well –’ said Lydia, ‘they’ve certainly got a crowd in tonight. Everyone’s here.’
‘Yeah, it’s beaut!’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance yet to see the paintings properly – so many people in the way.’
‘No worries; they’ll be up for two more weeks.’
‘Yes, I must come back during the day.’
‘You do that.’
‘Yes. Anyway, I do hope you’re enjoying London – but then I dare say you’ve been here before.’
‘Oh yeah, I have; it’s bonzer.’
‘Oh good.’
‘Yeah, I’ve been havin’ a beaut time.’
‘Oh, beaut. Oh, sorry – I mean –’
‘No worries!’
‘Oh good. Anyway – where are you staying exactly?’
‘Oh, I’ve got a loan of a triffic flat in Notting Hill.’
‘Oh yes, Notting Hill.’
‘Yeah that’s right – beaut place.’
‘So you know lots of people here, do you?’
‘Oh, well, I know a few. I’ve met some more here. They’re bonzer people.’
‘Oh, are they?’
‘Yeah, right; triffic!’

The story is also populated by a vast cast of the Beaufort’s friends and colleagues, many of whom only have brief appearances in the novel, but this helps create the very real feeling that both Simon and Flora lead chaotic, always busy lives.

A Pure Clear Light feels like something Muriel Spark might have cooked up with Nina Bawden or Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a fast-paced read, with a healthy dose of flippancy and humour to balance out the deeper themes — love, marriage, family, religion and the temporary nature of life itself.

This is my second book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my second for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published in the UK, but US and Canadian readers may have to search online for secondhand copies.

Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

The-grass-is-singing

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.

 

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘An Experiment in Love’ by Hilary Mantel

An-experiment-in-love

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 272 pages; 2010.

Whenever I feel like I am reading too many newly published books, I seek out something that has been languishing on my shelves for more than a year or two. In this case, it wasn’t so much my shelves, but my Kindle — yes, I have a virtual TBR as well as a physical one — and that was how I came to read Hilary Mantel‘s An Experiment in Love, which was first published in 1995.

I have only read a couple of Mantel’s novels — Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black — as well as her extraordinary memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and enjoyed them all. Previously, I would have described her as an under-rated and under-appreciated writer, but winning the Booker prize for Wolf Hall, which I am yet to read, has put paid to all that.

A novel based on personal experience

Even though An Experiment in Love was her seventh novel, it feels semi-autobiographical. The main character and first person narrator, Carmel McBain, comes from a poor Catholic family in northern England — just like Mantel — and she attends university in London to study law — just like Mantel. I wouldn’t like to draw further comparisons, because I am sure authors hate been accused of pilfering their own lives for creative content, but even the year in which the novel is set — 1970 — is the same year in which Mantel went to university for the first time.

While largely set in Tonbridge Hall, a hall of residence for female students, the novel is not so much a university (or college) novel, but one about a young woman, breaking free of her childhood roots to find her place in the real world. Carmel describes it as “a story about appetite: appetite in its many aspects and dimensions, its perversions and falling off, its strange reversals and refusals”. That’s probably a good summary, because in its broadest sense An Experiment in Love revolves around appetites for sex, education, food, freedom and equality.

It is also one of those stories that begins full of optimism and hope, but as the narrative progresses, becomes tinged by melancholia and tragedy. It is not a cheery read, but its depiction of young womanhood at a time when society was changing rapidly — it was the era of the contraceptive pill and feminism — feels particularly authentic and poignant.

Tied to her past by an ever-present childhood friend

The narrative is one that flips backwards and forwards in time as Carmel recalls incidences from her childhood — all of which relate to Karina, who grew up on the same street and is now living in Tonbridge Hall. The relationship between the two women is complicated, because they are very much alike — studious, intelligent, independent — but also polar opposites in other respects — Karina is a “big girl”, while Carmel is so thin she becomes anorexic; Karina does not have a boyfriend, while Carmel is sexually experienced; Karina is prone to making hurtful remarks, while Carmel passively accepts them.

They effectively hate one another but cannot escape their shared — and “shackled” — history.

And yet the proximity of Karina, the sight of her stumping out into the London traffic and dirt, the presence of her name in our mouths—all these things led me helpless back into the past, memories pulling at me strong and smooth as a steel chain, each link hard and bright and obdurate, so that I was hauled out of my frail, pallid, eighteen-year-old body, and forced to live, as I live today as I write, within my ten-year-old self, rosy-skinned but rigid with fear, on my way by bus to take my entrance exam for the Holy Redeemer.

A fast-paced narrative

While not much happens in the book, it is a fabulously gripping read. There’s a real sense of excitement following Carmel and her student friends as they take their first tentative steps into the world of adulthood.

It is the immediacey of the writing which makes it a page turner, almost as if Carmel has taken you into her confidence and is letting you in on family secrets. And while Carmel is far from perfect — she can be petty, jealous, filled with self-loathing and occasionally xenophobic — she has a rather dry wit, which provides some unexpected laughs. Here’s an example:

In London that summer the temperatures shot into the mid-eighties, but at home the weather was as usual: rain most days, misty dawns over our dirty canal and cool damp evenings on the lawns of country pubs where we went with our boyfriends: sex later in the clammy, dewy dark. In June there was an election, and the Tories got in. It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t old enough to vote.

Clear prose but rich in detail

Mantel’s writing is free from literary flourishes, but she has an uncanny eye for detail — the “angry-looking women” in the cotton town of her childhood wear “shoes like boats”; the factory walls are “plum-coloured brick, stained black from the smoke and daily rain”; and thin girls at university “blow up like party balloons”. And she has her finger on the pulse in terms of social — and femininst — commentary:

Still, our lives were neither free nor pleasant. There was an agenda. We were to be useful to society. We would graduate, then marry, then be mothers, also nurses and teachers, brainy, dowdy, overstretched: selfless breeders with aching calves, speaking well of support stockings by the age of thirty-five, finding our comfort in strong tea with one sugar. We would be women who never sat down, women with rough hands and a social conscience, women with a prayer in their heart and a tight smile on their lips; women who, seeing an extra burden offered, would always step forward and suggest ‘Try me.’ You have heard of schools that train life’s officers: this was a school that trained life’s foolish volunteers.

As a portrait of the claustrophobic life of a women’s hall of residence — where the poor rub shoulders with the rich, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and where a good meal is hard to find — this is an extraordinarily vivid novel. And Carmel’s battle to come to terms with her past in order to move into the future, is also brilliantly realised — and structured.

In 1996 Mantel was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love. You can listen to her discuss the novel on the BBC Radio 4 archive. She has some very interesting things to say about women’s education.