20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), 2020 Miles Franklin, 2020 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tara June Winch

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

The Australian edition

Non-fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 272 pages; 2018.

Ten years ago, on 7 February 2009, in unprecedented hot weather conditions, a series of bushfires — 400 separate fires giving off the heat equivalent of 500 atomic bombs! — raged across the state of Victoria, wiping out everything in their path, including whole townships and hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland and bushland. One-hundred and eighty people lost their lives, making them the deadliest fires in Australian history.

On that particular Saturday — which later became known as Black Saturday — the Central Gippsland fires in and around the Latrobe Valley (just a 45 minute drive from where I grew up) burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people. It later transpired that the Churchill fire, which started in a pine plantation, was deliberately lit and a 39-year-old Churchill man was arrested on suspicion of arson.

That man, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison three years later, is the subject of Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary new book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

The UK edition

A true crime story

The book, which is essentially a true crime tale, is divided into three parts covering the police investigation into the fire, the defence lawyers’ case and the court proceedings.

It’s written in a clear but lyrical style with a journalist’s eye for detail. Hooper’s descriptions of the fire, taken from witness statements, are particularly powerful.

One man saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding.’ Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. ‘Everything was on fire, plants, fence posts, tree stumps, wood chip mulch, the inflatable pool. I put water on it, but it melted slowly to nothing.’ The aluminium tray of a ute [pick-up truck] ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.

Likewise, her “picture” of the arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, is even-handed and compassionate. She unearths his back story to find out how this single, unemployed man living on a disability pension had become a social outcast long before he lit the fire.

He was bullied at school and ostracised at work (he was a groundsman for 18 years, took stress leave and never went back). His odd behaviour as an adult, including the inability to make eye contact, poor interpersonal skills and his penchant for watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, marked him as “different”, never more so than on the afternoon of Black Saturday, when:

Brendan climbed onto his roof in Sheoke Grove and sat watching the inferno in the hills. His neighbours saw him and noticed that his face was streaked with dirt. He was wearing a camouflage-print outfit and a beanie. One hand shaded his eyes. All around, the sky was dark with smoke. Ash was falling. Tiny cinders burnt the throat on inhaling. Brendan glared down at the neighbours, then went back to watching his mother earth burn.

Firestarter motives

As per the book’s title, Hooper examines what makes an arsonist, in general, and why they do it. (Across Australia it is thought that 37 per cent of all vegetation fires are suspicious and that those that light them deliberately are usually “male; they are commonly unemployed; or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills”.)

And then she turns her focus on Sokaluk, who claims he accidentally lit the fire by throwing cigarette ash, wrapped in a serviette, out the window of his car when he was driving past the plantation. (The evidence suggests the fire was most likely started by a match or a cigarette lighter. It does not explain why there were two fires, one of either side of the road, which the police believe were both started by Sokaluk.)

This extraordinary case is brought to life by Hooper’s interviews with Selena McCrickard, Sokaluk’s Legal Aid lawyer, who comes across as being kind and compassionate but who is frequently frustrated by her client’s behaviour. When she has him mentally assessed, Sokaluk is diagnosed with autism, a condition that was practically unheard of in the 1970s when he was a kid and which goes some way to explaining his difficulties growing up and fitting into society.

Interviews with Sokaluk’s parents also help paint a much fuller picture of his childhood and day-to-day life and how they had always been worried about him but were unable to do much more than check up on him, take him on outings and ensure he paid his bills on time.

Fine reportage

The Arsonist is a fine example of true crime reportage. As well as examining this particular shocking crime in forensic detail, Hooper puts it in a much larger context — how common arson is in Australia, why it occurs, who commits it, the difficulties associated with investigating it and the hatred such a crime generates in the public — to provide a well-rounded picture of pyromania.

The book does not come up with any clear-cut answers as to how to prevent people becoming firebugs. “If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists,” Hooper writes.

But it’s clear that just like social outcast Martin Bryant, who shot dead 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996 (see my reviews of Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, and The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard, two books about this case), we ignore children’s mental impairments and interpersonal difficulties at our peril.

The message I took from this book was the sooner children can be diagnosed and given appropriate support the better, not just for society as a whole but for those children who might otherwise be bullied and ostracised as Brendan Sokaluk was for his entire life.

Added extras

Other Australian bloggers have reviewed this book including Lisa at ANZ Litlovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The UK edition of The Arsonist will be published in paperback by Scribner UK on 30 May.

To find out more about this case, including an interview with Chloe Hooper and footage of Brendan Sokaluk’s police interview, please check out this edition of Australian Story:

 

Note, I have also read and reviewed Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island and highly recommend it.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2019  

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Zsuzsi Gartner

‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner

Better-Living-Through-Plastic

Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 216 pages; 2011.

In September and October I had great pleasure in reading a bounty of Canadian fiction — which had been shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize — as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. In a rush to select our “winner” I never got around to reviewing Zsuzsi Gartner’s oh-so intriguing Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. And so now, two months down the line, I am making up for lost time.

Bold, edgy satire

Unlike my fellow jurors, I very much enjoyed this intriguing collection of short stories. I liked the boldness of Gartner’s ideas, the edginess of her subject matter and the satirical voice in which she writes much of her prose.

Each of the 10 charmingly named stories  — Summer of the Flesh Eater; Once, We Were Swedes; Floating Like a Goat; Investment Results May Vary; The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion; What Are We Doing Here?; Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika; Mister Kakami; We Come in Peace; and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives — offers a subversive take on modern life in North America.

And while they are firmly rooted in reality — our obsession with material goods and brand name items, our desire to be better (richer?) than our neighbours, our quest to drink more and more coffee from chain stores, our fear of terrorism, our narcissism (shall I go on?) — Gartner isn’t afraid to spice things up with a little off-the-wall kookiness thrown in for good measure. For instance, in the penultimate story, We Come in Peace, five aliens inhabit the bodies of an assorted collection of teenagers living in a suburban cul-de-sac in North Vancouver. Their mission? To discover the zenith of each human sense. (“Barman’s best guess was four years; Elyson thought a week or so should do it.”)

In Once, We Were Swedes, my favourite collection in the book (I’ve read this particular piece three times now), a high-flying foreign correspondent becomes a tutor teaching “journalism 101” to teenage oiks — and hates it. This is a realistic enough story about the world dumbing down until Gartner adds her signature “twist”: the 36-year-old teacher finds herself ageing rapidly (she is diagnosed with early menopause) while her husband not only refuses to grow up, he grows younger.

An unusual prose style

Admittedly, this sort of thing won’t appeal to everyone. Nor will Gartner’s occasional tendency to write in an overly verbose, convoluted manner. It took me awhile to get into the swing of her style. When I read the first story, Summer of the Flesh Eater — about the unusual lengths some people will go to sort out the neighbours from hell — I was a bit flummoxed. It wasn’t the subject matter that threw me, but the way she constructed her sentences. I’m not sure whether I simply got used to her style, because by story two it no longer bothered me, or whether it’s just the first story that is written in such an odd way.

But there’s a lovely vein of black comedy running throughout. And her social commentary and her satire is right on the money.

For me, the way in which she takes the surreal aspects of real life and heightens them further appeals deeply. She reminds me very much of Chuck Palahniuk, who is one of my favourite authors. If you like his work, it’s pretty much assured you’ll like Zsuzsi Gartner’s, too.

For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Butterfly’ by Sonya Hartnett

Butterfly

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 215 pages; 2009.

Sonya Hartnett is an Australian author who writes largely for the Young Adult audience. Butterfly, her latest novel, falls somewhere between two stools — it feels like a teenage novel, filled with typical teenage angst, but it also deals with subjects, including extra-marital affairs, that are surely a little more adult. Given it has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, I suspect the judges feel it’s one of those crossover books that deserves some attention. I’m not sure I agree.

Without wishing to damn Butterfly with faint praise, this is a highly readable book and one that I hungrily devoured in a day. And while I very much enjoyed spending time with Plum, a lonely 13-year-old girl with body-image and self-esteem issues, there were elements of this story that irritated me.

For a start, we don’t really get to know the full cast of characters that people this book. Plum has two 50-something parents, whom are mentioned only in passing, and even her brothers, Justin and the preposterously named Cydar, seem thinly veiled sketches. Indeed, it’s not until you are almost a-third of the way through the book that you find out that Justin, whom Plum adores, is 24 years old, and Cydar, 22. This revelation came as somewhat of a shock, because I’d assumed both were teenagers.

Ditto for the time period in which the book is set. It’s not until one of Plum’s school friends mentions that her father has secured tickets to the Moscow Olympics that you realise it’s 1980. Although I suspect I should have picked up on earlier clues, because Plum has a poster of David Bowie on her wall, wishes her bedroom was carpeted in white shag and hankers after a miniature television “set inside a sphere of chrome, with three stumpy legs and a rapier-like aerial”. There’s even a reference to a cricket match in which (Allan) Border is not out for 90, and Imran (Khan) is caught out by (Greg, or maybe Ian?) Chappell for nine. Where’s Wisden when you need it, right?

The first chapter is also riddled with metaphors and similes, to the point of distraction. For instance, Plum’s brother Justin is “as rangy as a tall ship, handsome as ship’s portrait”, Plum’s cheeks “are the pasty yellow of cereal left to float all day in milk” and when Cydar teases her she feels like a “deer in a huntsmen’s forest”. Later she “pounds through the house like a rock down a cliffside, storming up the stairs like a centurion”.

But if you can forgive the trying-too-hard prose there’s quite an interesting story here, one in which Hartnett has perfectly nailed the pain and confusion of being a 13-year-old girl, desperate to be liked and respected. The mood swings, the temper tantrums and the tears are all here in full unadulterated shameless glory, as evidenced by this outburst at the dinner table:

“You always laugh at me! I’m a person, I have feelings, I’m not a joke! Why can’t you all leave me alone?”

Her depiction of the petty bitchiness of school girls and the god-awful aspects of peer pressure are also superbly done. And while Plum is clearly not the angel she first appears to be, you can’t help but empathise with her plight.

But the story just doesn’t revolve around Plum. There’s a second, interwoven narrative strand, in which Maureen Wilks, Plum’s neighbour, plays a significant role. Maureen is a 36-year-old housewife, with a four-year-old son, who befriends Plum. As well as telling Plum things to boost her self-confidence (“You’re exactly the type of girl who could become a fashion model” and “I’m so glad we’re friends. I’ll learn a lot from you”), she convinces Plum to reinvent herself by changing her name to Aria. What you don’t realise is that Maureen has her own secret agenda. It is only when Plum figures out this agenda that the book comes to a head. But, even then, the conclusion feels somehow half-hearted, and not nearly as melodramatic as it could have been.

An interesting, entertaining book, but a Miles Franklin award winner? Probably not.

Ali Smith, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith

The_Accidental

Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 320 pages; 2005.

Ali Smith’s critically acclaimed The Accidental was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recently won the Whitbread Novel Award. Despite this, I did not know anything about the storyline. Even the dust jacket blurb gives very little away.

Reading a book ‘blind’ like this, does not happen very often for me. Often my book reading choices are determined by recommendations by friends, reviews I’ve read in print or online, or, when I’m browsing in a store, the book cover image, the blurb and the first page. This means I usually know what the story is about.

The first two chapters of The Accidental were hard work because I had no reference points to guide me. But I was lulled into continuing the book because of the hypnotic writing, the subversive use of language and the continual word play. Smith does not so much use words to convey a story but caresses them into submission.

She also litters her writing with modern day references, distinctly British events that happened at the time in which the novel is set (2003), and I took great delight in identifying them, so that reading The Accidental was like a game, trying to pin down the real life news stories within its pages.

That aside, what was this novel about? In short, it’s a stranger-on-the-doorstep scenario. Amber, a beguiling 30-something woman, arrives uninvited on the doorstep of a holiday home in Norfolk. Here, the Smart family are in residence for the long, hot summer, and, unbeknown to them, Amber is here to shake up their lives a little.

She is invited in by Michael, the philandering college professor, who thinks she has come to see his wife, Eve, an author. In turn, Eve thinks Amber is one of Michael’s ‘flings’ and doesn’t bother to pay her much attention.

Meanwhile Amber becomes the focus of affection for 17-year-old Magnus, who becomes her lover, and 12-year-old Amber, who develops a schoolgirl crush on her.

Over the course of the summer each member of the Smart household becomes changed and moulded by Amber’s presence, learning much about themselves in the process.

The beauty of this odd and intriguing novel is that each chapter is narrated by a different member of the family, so that you are able to gain an insight into the changes that are occurring within.

Did I like this book? I still don’t know. I admire the inventiveness (and cleverness) of the writing. And the ending was satisfying (and quite brilliant), but I did not particularly feel for any of the characters and I read most of it feeling slightly nonchalant about it all.

That said, I do suspect that this is going to be one of those stories that stays with me a long time. It does have a touch of the Paul Austers about it. And I’m sure a few months down the track I’m going to think, ‘you know what, I should have raved about that book a lot more’.