Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dead Europe’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 411 pages; 2005.

Dead Europe is not the kind of book you forget in a hurry.

It was the fifth novel by Christos Tsiolkas, the one immediately before he achieved international success with The Slap (in 2008).

Like that novel, it is confronting. It’s filled with complex, not always likeable characters and focused on what it is to be a first-generation Australian of Greek parentage but not fully belonging to either culture.

But unlike The Slap, which was a slice of realist drama (albeit one in which married couples had far more sex than you might expect), this one strays into Gothic territory, with elements of horror and religiosity thrown in for good measure. This makes for a rather absorbing, sometimes abhorrent, read.

It’s a proper page-turner, one that draws you into a world that feels familiar but isn’t quite real, leaving an indelible impression on the mind and the emotions. It is rather unforgettable — but it won’t be for everyone. You have been warned.

Dual narratives

Set in the early 2000s, it tells the story of Isaac, a struggling Greek Australian photographer based in Melbourne, who has been invited to stage an exhibition of his work in Athens. He jumps at the chance to visit Europe because he’ll be able to explore his roots a bit more, catch up with cousins and perhaps visit his mother’s village for the first time.

But what he finds is not the sophisticated Europe of his dreams, but a land haunted by its bloody, war-torn past, scarred by religious pogroms and massacres and ancient battles that have left behind an ugly legacy. He meets people bearing generations-long grudges against neighbours, a European culture beset by hate and hostility, and where he is immediately classified as a “naive Australian”, an innocent abroad, who isn’t experienced enough to understand history.

He’s perplexed by the myths and the superstitions that are still upheld, and unable to reconcile his new world outlook with his old world ancestry.

In alternate chapters, a second narrative unfolds: that of Isaac’s Greek ancestors, tracing them over countless generations from Greece to America and back again. Told in fairytale-like prose, this ancient storyline reveals the roots of prejudice, antisemitism and misogyny in a culture that is often upheld as civilised and sophisticated. At times this is a very ugly, murderous storyline, haunting and detestable by turn.

An innocent abroad

Isaac’s first-person narrative charts his travels across Europe (as well as Greece he goes to the Czech Republic, France and the UK) and details his encounters with cousins, friends and strangers. Every interaction forces him to reassess who he is, what he believes in. Here’s an exchange with his cousin, Maria, for instance:

—Do you believe in anything? [Maria]
I was silent. She punched me lightly on the arm.
—Well? Answer me.
—In Australia, I believe in lots of things. Here, in Europe, you all make me feel a little stupid. Do you understand? I don’t know if I believe anything in Europe.
—Australia seems a perfect place in which to finish one’s life. I imagine it’s a very quiet place, a very safe place.
I laughed […]
—Most Europeans know nothing of Australia.
—That’s true. We do not care.

This is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, of the naive traveller having his eyes opened as he comes to terms with the unsophisticated innocence of his homeland and seeing how outsiders view his Australian compatriots.

Here’s how an Algerian woman, caught up in a people-smuggling operation in France, describes it to him:

I have met very few Australians, Isaac, but I have always been struck by their innocence. They remind me of a character from Henry James, they have an innocence that the Americans have now lost. It’s very seductive but I think that if I was to live in Australia, I would learn to hate that innocence. I think it would drive me mad.

However, Isaac’s experiences on his travels aren’t entirely innocent. There’s a lot of gay sex in this novel, described in almost pornographic terms, which doesn’t always feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, and there are long conversations about religion, particularly the Jewish faith, which are deeply uncomfortable and highlight viewpoints that are abhorrent.

But these are not the only aspects that are disturbing. There is a vampiric element and a ghost element that combine to give an unexpected surrealistic slant to the story — but I’ll say no more for fear of ruining the plot.

A novel to experience

Dead Europe isn’t the kind of book you pick up for a relaxing read. This is the kind of book you experience. It gives you goosebumps and heart palpitations, it makes you angry, leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, occasionally makes you laugh out loud or nod in recognition.

As a book that essentially explores hatred — and its long-term, far-reaching legacy — it’s intelligent, wise, thrilling, shocking, chilling to the bone and completely unforgettable.

In 2006 Dead Europe won the Age Fiction Prize, and the Best Writing Award, Melbourne Prize. I can see why it made such an impression. It’s a brilliant novel about lies and myths and hate and truth, topics that are more relevant than ever before.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in Perth CBD last year.

Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Julia Leigh, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Hunter’ by Julia Leigh

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 170 pages; 1999.

Earlier this year the ABC’s streaming service, iView, placed a whole bunch of Australian films online, one of which was The Hunter, starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor.

This strangely hypnotic film, where not much seems to happen, is essentially a mood piece about one man’s obsession with finding the last Tasmanian tiger living in the wilderness. The ending left me in a bit of a tailspin and stayed with me for days afterwards.

I immediately decided I needed to read the novel upon which it had been based, and so this is how I came to purchase this disquieting book, which was first published in 1999.

Mystery man on a mystery mission

Julia Leigh’s The Hunter is not quite the same as the film. It’s a little more mysterious in that the so-called hunter is not a North American mercenary working for a bio-tech company; indeed we know very little about him at all. He claims to work for the University of Sydney, calls himself Martin John and says he is studying the Tasmanian devil, not the tiger.

All we know for certain is that he is on a secret mission to find the last remaining thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial, which died out in the 1930s but has recently been spotted in the wild. (You can read more about the thylacine via this Wikipedia entry.)

By John Gould – “Mammals of Australia”, Vol. I Plate 54 http://www.museum.vic.gov.au/bioinformatics/mammals/images/Thy_cyno.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3317748

We don’t know the end goal; is it to kill, study or capture the animal? We don’t know the name of his employer. We don’t know who has arranged his accommodation — staying with a single mother and her two children on the edge of the forest — between his 10- to 12-day forays into the wilderness. We don’t know why he does what he does.

Compelling and suspenseful

Much like the film, not much happens in the book. And yet it is strangely compelling — and suspenseful.

It basically charts the man’s expeditions into the forest as he pursues his prey on foot. These trips into the wilderness, in which he is away for up to 12 days at a time setting snares and traps and looking for any signs — footprints, scat and potential lairs — are broken up by short stays with the woman, Lucy, who rarely leaves her bed, and her two wild children, Sass and Bike.

Lucy, we soon learn, is grieving for her husband who went searching for the tiger but never emerged from the forest. It is unclear whether he got lost or succumbed to foul play. This mystery only adds to the forbidding nature of the story.

That sense of foreboding is enhanced by the man’s trips into town, for supplies, where he is treated as an unwelcome stranger and mistaken for a “greenie” responsible for closing the local lumber mill.

The only time the man appears to be at ease is when he’s roaming the wilderness and sleeping under the stars while in pursuit of his prey. But even then you get the impression he’s not entirely normal, that there are other unspoken forces at work.

A mood piece

Leigh is excellent at evoking mood without spelling anything out; in many ways, it’s what remains unsaid that gives this story its power. Her descriptions of the plants and animals and weather are evocative, and her understanding of the hunter’s mindset and practices feel authentic. Her depiction of the male perspective is believable, the man’s moody silences and his inner-most thoughts feel all-too-real.

And while the ending in the book is slightly different from the film, it’s just as thought-provoking, the kind that leaves more questions than answers and stays with you long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

The Hunter was Leigh’s first novel. She has one more to her name, Disquiet, which was published in 2008 and sounds like it is cut from similar suspense-filled cloth. More recently she has published a non-fiction book about IVF treatment called Avalanche.

This is my 20th book for #AWW2020.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Spain

‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2011.

Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family is a collection of exquisitely written short stories all framed around the idea of people — alienated and alone — seeking love or solace or a semblance of normality.

Many of them are set in Spain (Tóibín lived there from 1975-1978, as detailed in his travelogue Barcelona), with the rest in his native Ireland. They depict “lost” characters beset by family problems or issues — estrangements, absences, death — which have dominated and shaped their lives.

Each story is as finely crafted as his novels (many of which are reviewed here), written in that same eloquent prose and focusing on many of the themes that often occur in his work — missing mothers, childhood abandonment, unconventional families, hiding your homosexuality and exile abroad, just to name a few.

There are nine stories in total — all bar one (“Silence”) are set in the modern-day — and they vary in length from around 30 pages to 60 pages, but the last story (“The Street”) is 150 pages and has previously been published as a novella by Tuskar Rock Press. A handful feature explicit gay sex — you have been warned.

The New Spain

Rather than outline every story, I am going to focus on one that I really admired.

“The New Spain” examines what happens when Carme Giralt, a Catalan woman who has spent eight years living in London, returns to Spain after the death of her beloved grandmother.

Carme had previously been banished from the family home for being a Communist and was taken in silence to the airport by her father — “his rage against her palpable and elemental as he stood watching to make sure that she made her way through the departure gates” — but her grandmother sent her money every month to help her out.

In her will, her grandmother has left the family holiday home, on the coast in Menorca, to Carme and her sister. Carme has very fond memories of this house, of the sunshine, of the seafood, of endless days swimming at the beach. When she returns to the house after a long absence, she finds her parents holidaying there, along with her sister and her sister’s children. Her welcome is not a warm one. There are unspoken tensions.

Carme is surprised to find that the home, once surrounded by olive trees, is now surrounded by rows of new houses that obstruct views of the ocean. Even the path to the beach has become blocked by development. When she expresses her displeasure at the way in which this holiday spot has become an eyesore she is warned not to complain because her grandmother sold the land to developers so she could afford to send monthly payments to Carme in London. Her father was part of the development scheme and now he’s in financial trouble and wants to sell the bungalows.

Her family bemoan the fact that the area has changed, that it has become beset with tourists and now they prefer to swim in their own pool rather than go to the beach, yet they fail to see the role they have played in facilitating this change.

The story focuses on Carme’s decision to continue to do her own thing, to defy her family’s idea of what she should be and how she should behave. It looks at what happens when she discovers she now has power over her father for she’s inherited a clause that says if he wants to sell any of the new houses that he has built he requires her signature, as part-owner of her grandmother’s house, to do so.

Tóibín writes about complicated family situations so well, and he does a good line in fierce, independent women — this short story exemplifies this. What I also love about Toibin’s writing is that he manages to create entirely believable worlds and backstories, dripping with melancholia but never being too bleak, and often filled with tender moments. There is always a sense of hope, of optimism that things will turn out okay in the long run.

The New Spain highlights how a person’s interior world can barely compete with the change that happens in the exterior world. I liked how Tóibín juxtaposes the politics of Communism with the get-rich-quick-schemes of Capitalism without ever being obvious about it. He does everything in such a nuanced way, never shying from the contradictions and complexities that life and politics throw at us.

In fact, that could be said of all the stories in this collection. Nothing is black and white, cut and dried here, in much the same way as our messy family lives are just that — messy. I loved spending time in these perfectly encapsulated worlds.

The Empty Family was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it in paperback circa 2012, but read the Kindle edition, which I purchased in June 2019 having forgotten that I had a copy already. Does anyone else do this?

5 books, Anne Enright, Arrow Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Bruce Pascoe, Fiction, History, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Lloyd Jones, New Zealand, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, UK

‘The Book of Fame’ by Lloyd Jones

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 178 pages; 2000.

A book about rugby would not normally be my cup of tea, but Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame is a beautifully realised novel about the power of sport to transform lives, create history and engender pride in an entire nation.

Based on the real-life story of the Original All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby union team that toured the world in 1905-06, it reveals how a motley crew of young unknowns returned home as heroes having won every match they played, bar one (that was against Wales, who won 3-0).

These young men, who were farmers and miners and teachers in their normal everyday lives, had spent a year playing matches in Britain, Ireland, France and the US, storming to victory wherever they went and winning the hearts of sports fans who gathered to see them play. In a true spirit of sportsmanship, and in a time long before money and sponsorships put a different spin on sport, they were lauded wherever they went.

Astonishingly, given they had done little training apart from some exercises on the steamboat they took from New Zealand to Portsmouth, they only conceded 59 points, and won 976, across all the games they played in Britain. (Check this Wikipedia page for more detail.)

UK edition, published by John Murray in 2008

Unusual structure and point of view

Rather than tell the story from one person’s point-of-view, Jones chooses to tell it from a collective voice to further cement the idea that this is a story about a team. He structures it around seven parts, which chart the evolution of a successful sports team from a group of strangers. And he writes it in a lyrical manner, setting out his prose like stanzas in a 174-page long-form poem.

Somehow, despite this unusual structure, the book works as a powerful hymn to another time and place. It is a fascinating portrait of travel before the age of commercial airlines; of the world of sport before it became professionalised; and of a team that did things differently (the All Blacks famously introduced several innovations to rugby, including the idea that each player in the scrum had a specific role to play).

Space was our medium
our play stuff
we championed the long view
the vista
the English settled for the courtyard

 

The English saw a thing
we saw the space in between
The English saw a tackler
we saw space either side
The English saw an obstacle
we saw an opportunity
The English saw a needle
we saw its mean eye
The English saw a tunnel
we saw a circular understanding
The formality of doorways caused the English to stumble into one another and compare ties
while we sailed through like the proud figureheads we were
The English were preoccupied with mazes
we preferred the lofty ambition of Invercargill’s streets

Jones depicts the ups and downs of travelling between matches; the injuries the players put up with; the hopes and fears of the men, and their wonder at being abroad and discovering new people and places and food and customs; and the team’s encounters with local fans, including the women with eyes for rugged New Zealanders.

And by contrasting the team’s success against the political and global news stories of the day, he shows how the All Blacks tour often eclipsed everything in its wake, garnering column inches after column inches in all the leading newspapers.

On the field we moved to the whirring breath of cameras

Men crouched under black hoods aimed their tripods at us
or, as it sometimes happened
you might look up from breakfast
with a mouthful of toast
to find a man with a white napkin draped over his wrist
staring back

Admittedly, the style can wear thin after a while, but it’s a short read so it didn’t actually worry me. I found myself surprisingly enthralled by this tale of a rugby team that forged the All Blacks legend and now I want to read more by this talented writer.

This is my 2nd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this book secondhand last August. It wasn’t until I got it home that I realised it is a signed copy.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, William Trevor

‘The Love Department’ by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2014.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been reading a lot of William Trevor’s novels lately — and here’s another one.

First published in 1966, The Love Department was his third novel. Like his two earlier novels — The Old Boys and The Boarding House — it is set in suburban London (Wimbledon, to be precise), has a rather cutting comic element running throughout and stars a cast of suitably eccentric characters, including:

  • Septimus Tuam, a good-looking, seductive man, who charms married women and then runs off with their money;
  • Edward Blakeston-Smith, a 20-something chap desperate to make something of himself, who is hired (in a round-about way) to locate Septimus and stop him in his tracks; and
  • Lady Dolores, a ferociously over-the-top agony aunt in charge of the “Love Department” at a national publication, who hires Edward to find Septimus in order to stop more lovelorn women falling under his spell.

Fast-paced story

The narrative, which moves along at a cracking pace, charts Edward’s often farcical attempts to find his quarry. A nervous, anxious type, he’d much prefer to sit in the office and answer letters from readers, but Lady Dolores refuses to let him pen a word: she wants him out on the street doing old-fashioned detective work to track down the scheming Lothario breaking hearts and ripping off women in the suburbs.

It’s told in a dry, detached manner that only makes the humour — and the dialogue — more pronounced.

The Love Department is essentially a farce filled with uproariously funny moments — there’s one scene involving a pet monkey running amok at a dinner party that had me in stitches — but this is a William Trevor novel, so it’s tempered by pathos and there’s a rich vein of social commentary lying just beneath the surface, too, which examines loneliness, heartache and melancholia. It’s a very fine — and darkly comic — read, one that has proved to be my favourite of his first three novels.

This is my 13th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand several years ago (as part of a trilogy of Trevor’s early novels). You can read all my other reviews of his work on my William Trevor page.