2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Grove Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘The Unknown Terrorist’ by Richard Flanagan

UnkownTerrorist

Fiction – hardcover; Grove Press; 336 pages; 2007.

Australian author Richard Flanagan‘s latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist, is dedicated to David Hicks, the Australian-born Taleban fighter captured by US forces in Afghanistan in November 2001. Hicks was detained by the US Government in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for more than five years, before he was tried and convicted of supporting terrorism in 2007. His ongoing detention without trial made him a cause célèbre in Australia.

If nothing else, this particular case highlights that those accused of terrorism are not subject to the normal “rules” under the justice system as it operates in most democratic countries: if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time you could be locked away without trial and, what’s more, you could be mistreated and tortured on the simple basis that you are presumed guilty with no legal right to defend yourself.

Since the advent of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, we live in dangerous times, but who is in danger? Innocent civilians who may be blown up at any moment? Or innocent people accused of plotting to blow things up on the flimsiest of “evidence”? It’s a blurry line and it is exactly this line that Flanagan exploits for the purposes of this thrilling, thoroughly modern novel.

Set in Sydney across five hot, summer days, the story follows Gina Davies, a lap dancer known as the Doll, on the run from the law having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. But Gina is entirely innocent. Her “crime” has been no more than having a one-night stand with an attractive stranger, Tariq, who is blamed for three unexploded bombs found at Homebush Olympic Stadium the previous day.

Broadcast journalist come television celebrity Richard Cody — whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Ray Martin — is onto the story straight away for a prime time current affairs program called Undercurrent.

Cody has had a secret “encounter” with the Doll at the club and thinks there’s something mysterious about her. What ensues is a media beat-up about the “unknown terrorist” that becomes increasingly fantastic as time goes on, with little grounding in reality. But despite Cody’s occasional twinges of guilt — he realises the Doll has no motive for the crime — he justifies his decision to “move the story on” because ASIO spook Siv Harmsen tells him that “we need stories that remind people of what horrifying things might happen”.

And so standing together they watched the same footage run again — the same bomb in the same kid’s backpack; the same bad photograph of the same bearded man in Arabic-looking dress; the same slow-motion grainy images of Tariq and the Doll hugging each other. The repetitive images clicking over filled the TV like loose change filling an empty poke. The Twin Towers fell again; the same children’s bodies were laid out once more in Beslan; the same man or woman dressed in black brandished the same machine gun; the Doll continued dancing naked. And there were new scenes — a murky London tube train moments after it had been bombed; the Sari nightclub burning after the Bali bombing; wounded being taken away from the Madrid train bombing, the montage culminating in a shot that zoomed in on the Sydney Opera House before being blowing out to white, a cheap effect accompanied by an ominous rumble.

The Doll closed her eyes.

When she opened them she saw Osama bin Laden. George W. Bush. Missiles being launched. Men in robes firing grenade launchers. Great buildings exploding into balloons of fire. Women covered in blood. Hostages about to be beheaded. New York! Bali! Madrid! London! Baghdad! The Doll disintigrating into dancing squares of colour, herself pixellated, smiling a smile that was never hers.

Without wishing to spoil the plot, Gina’s life — and that of her best friend, Wilder — is put in increasing danger until the dramatic, heart-thumping climax. This is a genuinely intelligent thriller, quite unlike anything Flanagan has written before but with the same beautifully written prose for which he is renowned. I love the ways in which he uses analogies and similes to bring his writing to life. The book is littered with hundreds of examples, but this one, in which he compares a policeman’s dying marriage to that of a dying tree, demonstrates his particular brand of originality.

They stayed together and watched each other slowly become strangers, watched their love die as you watch a great old gum tree succumb to dieback. The affair was over for him, but it was just beginning for her. She never found out then, but it was as if each day now she lived another day of those years of lies and deceit; and his punishment was to witness her suffering. First just the leaf tips in the distant crown brown a little at the edges, then whole leaves, then a branch here and there. Still the tree lives, and everyone says it will be fine, that it is the weather, or one of those things, or anything but the death of something as natural and as seemingly permanent as a tree. But when his marriage began dying back, Nick Loukakis discovered nothing is fine. Each day some small thing — a joke, a shared intimacy, a sweet memory — he found to have withered and died. Caresses fell like dead leaves. Conversations cracked and then broke. And in the end there was nothing to quicken the trunk with the rising sap that fed and was fed in return by the branches, by the twigs, by the leaves. And in the end what remained, Nick Loukakis discovered, was nothing; nothing to keep it going, just a large thing still standing erect and proud, only everything about it had withered and died.

This is a very knowing novel, carefully constructed to expose the kinds of puppetry that goes on behind the scary headlines and news bulletins that bombard us on a daily basis. As well as dropping cynical observations about media manipulation, The Unknown Terrorist also takes a pop at the politics of fear mongering.

It’s by no means a perfect novel — there are far too many coincidences throughout, and the entire plot is far too contrived — but it’s a genuinely exciting and thought-provoking read about the shallow yet dark times in which we live.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan

Soundof

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 425 pages; 1997.

I seem to be on a roll with Australian books. This one, my third in a matter of weeks, is by Richard Flanagan, who first came to international prominence with Gould’s Book of Fish, which I read several years ago and loved very much. The book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2002.

Prior to this Flanagan had written two other novels: Death of a River Guide, in 1994, and The Sound of One Hand Clapping, in 1997. Like Gould’s Book of Fish, both are set in Tasmania, an island state of Australia, where the author resides.

At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.

This is a book that possesses a strangely heady mix of bleakness and despair, tempered by moments of clarity and joy. Initially I wrestled with the writing style, because Flanagan is prone to overly-long sentences that sometimes so twist and bend out of shape you feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster:

In that long Autumn of 1959, when elsewhere the world was sensing change so big and hard in its coming that it was like the trembling of the earth announcing the arrival of a yet to be seen locomotive, in that month of April in the city of Hobart, nothing much looked like it could ever change around a town that had grown used to never being anything but the arse end of everything: mean, hard and dirty, where civic ambition meant buying up old colonial buildings and bulldozing them quick and covering the dust promptly with asphalt for cars most people were yet to own, where town pride meant tossing any unlucky ferro found lying in the park into the can, and where a sense of community equated with calling anybody with skin darker than fair a boong bastard unless he worse snappy clothes in which case he was a filthy wog bastard — in that month of April when the cold slowly began its winter’s journey, spreading its way down over weeks from the mountain’s steel-blue flanks, on an early Saturday morning, an FJ was wending its way through the scummy back streets of north Hobart to the home of Umberto Picotti.

And it can be hard to get a foothold on the essence of the story when the narrative is non-linear, shunting backwards and forwards in time, and told from two different perspectives.

But in many ways this is what makes The Sound of One Hand Clapping such a wonderfully rich and beguiling read. Hypnotic and unbearably sad in places, it’s a very human tale about two people locked together by a shared past who struggle to rise above the pain of their circumstances.

The story begins in 1954 when Slovenian couple Bojan and Maria Buloh, both scarred by the horrors of the Second World War, immigrate to Australia. Bojan, along with hundreds of other European immigrants, finds work as a labourer on a construction project to build a massive hydroelectric dam in the rugged Tasmanian highlands. Here the weather is harsh and living conditions primitive. One stormy evening Maria packs her bags and leaves her husband and three-year-old daughter Sonja behind. She is never seen alive again.

What enfolds over the next 35 years is essentially the nub of this compelling novel. Bojan drowns his grief in drink and struggles to make a decent life for his daughter. Sonja, unbearably miserable, eventually flees to the mainland. It is only when she is about to become a mother herself that she decides to re-establish contact, returning to Tasmania to make amends with her now elderly father. Her life’s story is then told in a series of flashbacks intercut with chapters from Bojan’s point of view.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a book about new beginnings that shatters the myth of Australia as the “lucky country”. It does not shy away from presenting white Australians as uncouth, uncultured and racist at a period in the country’s history at which immigration was running at an all-time high. For that reason alone, it is a refreshing — and challenging — read.

This critically acclaimed novel won the 1998 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Best Novel, the 1999 ABA Australian Book of the Year Prize and was shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award. It was made into a film directed by Richard Flanagan in 1998.