A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 281 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s fifth novel Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was first published in 1969. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1970.

It carries the black humour married with pathos that marks his early work. It also features a cast of truly eccentric characters, none more so than the titular Mrs Eckdorf who is, quite frankly, one of the most bizarre (and annoying) people I have ever come across in fiction.

A house of ill repute

The story is set in central Dublin, specifically a once-plush hotel that is now better known as a house of ill repute. 

Mrs Eckdorf, an English-born woman who resides in Germany (having married a rich German), arrives in Ireland to visit the hotel. She’s a photographer by profession and she wants to satisfy her curiosity: she had been told a story about the hotel by a barman on an ocean liner and it has intrigued her ever since. She’s convinced something tragic happened that changed the fortunes of O’Neill’s and she wants to hear all about it.

When she arrives she discovers that Mrs Sinnott, the deaf-mute owner, is about to celebrate her 92nd birthday. This is the perfect opportunity for Mrs Eckdorf to interrogate her under the pretence of photographing proceedings for a lavish coffee table book.

She moves into the hotel without having made a booking and then tries to ingratiate herself with its motley cast of characters. They include Mrs Sinnott’s feckless 58-year-old son, Eugene, who is addicted to drink and gambling on the horses; O’Shea, the loyal hotel porter, whose faithful greyhound follows him everywhere; Eddie Trump, the barman in the hotel’s Excelsior Bar; Morrissey, a man in his mid-thirties, who is a pimp and uses the hotel’s rooms for his clients’ “appointments”; Agnes Quin, who sleeps with men for money; and Father Hennessey, the local Catholic priest. 

‘As mad as a hatter’

It’s not an easy ride. They think she’s “as mad as a hatter”. Or, as Eugene says:

‘Your woman above in the hotel has a touch of the sawdust about her.’
‘Is that what she is?’ said Agnes Quin. ‘Out of Duffy’s Circus or something?’
‘Ah no, no.’ Eugene paused […] ‘You could see her on the back of a horse going round in the ring. She’s that type of woman.’

O’Shea has more time for her, believing that she’s here to buy the hotel and he longs for the establishment to return to its glory days, the kind of place that attracted the rich and famous. Mrs Eckdorf does not disabuse him of this notion, using it to try to get information out of him about the tragedy she suspects happened in the past.

‘O’Shea, what happened once in the hall of the hotel?’ He shook his head. The only thing he could remember that was of note, he said, was that a bookmaker called Jack Tyler had once fallen over the bannisters and landed in the hall and had not been hurt. He had not been sober at the time.

When she finally meets Mrs Sinnott she rudely reads the notebooks her visitors use to communicate with her (Mrs Sinnott cannot lipread and does not know sign language), thinking she might find some clues there. When she’s confronted about this, she shrugs it off.

‘I’ve read every page of those exercise-books.’
He stared at her and continued to stare. He said: ‘Those are private conversations. Those are the conversations that people have with Mrs Sinnott.’
‘Yes. And I have read them.’ 

A funny farce

The book is comprised of set pieces, largely involving Mrs Eckdorf (but not always), that are blackly funny. It’s almost like Mrs Eckdorf doesn’t have a filter between her brain and her mouth, and so she says the most outrageous things, or waffles on in a nonsensical manner. She’s loud and rude and narcissistic.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she’s having some kind of mental breakdown and losing her marbles. 

But she’s not the only one who’s odd or behaves badly — and that’s what makes the book such a richly comic read.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is a wonderfully farcical story featuring brilliant characters. It raises issues about madness, manners and declining morals. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

♥ This month Cathy is reviewing ‘The Boarding House’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘The Love Department’ and I plan to review ‘Miss Gomez and the Brethren’.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Frank Moorhouse, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘Grand Days’ by Frank Moorhouse

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 736 pages; 2018.

Grand Days, by the late Australian writer Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022), is the first in a trilogy of (chunky) novels exploring the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman making her mark in diplomatic circles on the world stage.

First published in 1993, but set in the 1920s, this novel charts Edith’s early career at the newly created League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s an enormously detailed look at office politics and corporate life through the lens of a headstrong and idealistic 20-something woman whom we might now dub “before her time”. Indeed, the novel could be described that way, too, because it takes an enlightened approach to 21st-century issues including gender fluidity, female agency and independence, sexual politics and “internationalism”.

It first came to my attention via the three-part ABC TV program ‘Books That Made Us’ (screened in 2021) when it was the only book mentioned in the first episode that I hadn’t heard of ( I had already read most of the others). I’m not sure why this one passed me by — I was working as a part-time bookseller when it was published so I must have sold copies of it — but I rather suspect that even if I had taken the time to read it I would have been too young and naive to appreciate it at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m in a much better place to value (and recognise) the richly detailed world that Moorhouse has created, with its focus on the minutiae of office life, the never-ending internal politics between rival colleagues and departments, and the failed idealism at its heart.

But the novel is much more than just a historical glimpse of “corporate” conduct: it’s also a wonderful coming-of-age story about a 26-year-old woman working out who she is, what she wants from life, falling in love and discovering sex.

A journey to a new life

When the book opens, we meet Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva en route to her new post at the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation designed to uphold world peace following the end of the First World War. (The history of the ill-fated League, which was disbanded in 1946, and later inspired the formation of the United Nations, is expertly woven into the narrative which includes real people, identified by their real names, and is largely based on documentary sources.)

In the train’s dining car, Edith meets Major Ambrose Westwood, unaware that he will become the single-most significant figure in her life, both at the League, where they become colleagues and allies, and at home, where they become secret lovers participating in a “sexually adventurous underworld” (as the blurb on my edition describes it).

In each gloriously named chapter (for example, How Edith Berry Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva, or The Tenets of Civilisation and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked Of) is like a self-contained story in its own right, which serves to move the narrative forward set-piece by set-piece. And from this, we see how Edith slowly transforms herself from a naive employee to an invaluable staff member — despite getting into various tricky predicaments with the serious potential to backfire — and inches her way up the career ladder, all the while figuring out her love life and building a solid circle of friends.

She goes through some pretty icky and challenging experiences but always manages to come out the other end stronger and more resilient than ever. But she’s also manipulative, with a head for scheming, which is probably why she is able to survive the internal machinations at work so adroitly. Not much seems to bother her. And even when her mother dies, back home in Australia, she seems remarkably unfazed by it.

Highly recommended read

Did I like this book? Yes. And no.

It’s too long and parts of it dragged. Sometimes it was a struggle to pick it up after I had put it down, and it took me the best part of three weeks to read.

But there was so much of it I enjoyed.

  • The heady idealism of everyone working at the League, including Edith’s deep belief that she’s doing important work for the world
  • The scheming and shenanigans and internal bickering in the office, which is so realistic even by today’s standards
  • The depiction of the Geneva nightlife, the glamourous parties, the seedy clubs
  • The history of the League and the people that worked there (the appendices detailing “who’s who” and some of the working practices are enlightening)
  • Edith’s transformation from a naive young woman to a woman of the world, even if she makes some dubious decisions along the way
  • The Australian abroad aspects, which will resonate if you have been an ex-pat for any length of time
  • The biting satire that underpins the storyline, but also the many wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes
  • The forward-thinking attitudes held by many of the characters

There are two more books in the series — Dark Palace, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001, and Cold Light — which I will look forward to reading in due course.

For another take on Grand Days, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

‘Grand Days’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Venice, William Trevor

‘Cheating at Canasta’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023


Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 252 pages; 2008.

To kick off ‘A Year With William Trevor‘ — which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 BooksI randomly selected Cheating at Canasta, a collection of short stories that were first published in the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review and Tatler

It proved a perfect introduction to this year-long reading project, because the tales here, so masterfully written, showcase Trevor’s recurring themes: the complexity of family dynamics and relationships between men and women; the darker side of human nature; missed opportunities; and the ways in which the past has a habit of catching up with the future. Fear and shame dominate.

There are 12 stories in this volume, all roughly the same length, some set in Ireland, the country of Trevor’s birth, and some in England, the country where he spent most of his long life. But the title story, “Cheating at Canasta”, is set in Venice, specifically, Harry’s Bar, where a man, who is losing his wife to dementia, returns to the place they both adored and finds his time there disrupted by a younger couple quarrelling on a nearby table.

Young people caught up in events

When the hardcover edition of the book was published in 2007 it garnered mixed reviews, including a rather churlish one by Adam Mars-Jones in the Guardian (which I’m deliberately not linking to) which claimed Trevor couldn’t write about young people very well. I beg to differ.

In “Bravado”, a teenage girl witnesses a deadly assault on a boy she doesn’t know by her boyfriend who does it to impress her, earning himself an 11-year prison sentence in the process. Before her boyfriend is arrested, Aisling knows she should speak up but she’s understandably conflicted, caught between the excitement of her first romantic love and the responsibilities of the adult world she’s yet to fully join. What really holds her back, though, is the fact that she doesn’t want her father to know she went behind his back and kept seeing the boy he had warned her to stay away from.

It’s all resolved in the end, and Aisling does the right thing, but it leaves a long-lasting mark on her:

In a bleak cemetery, Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.

Petty jealousy and imagined hurts

In ‘The Children’, an 11-year-old girl (and only child), Connie, handles the death of her adored mother with aplomb — “You’ve been a strength, Connie,” her father tells her after the funeral — and quickly adjusts to life without her.

But when her father falls in love with a local woman a few years later and installs her and her two children, one of whom is Connie’s best friend, into the house, Connie’s behaviour changes. She spends more and more time alone, hiding on the roof, which she’s forbidden to climb, to read her late mother’s books.

And in one instant she turns on her soon-to-be step-sister with the cruel words: “This isn’t your house.”  Connie’s sense of betrayal, of a deeply held hurt, petty jealousy and an inability to accept changed circumstances is palpable.

Teenager in danger

And in ‘An Afternoon’, teenage Jasmin meets up with an older man she’s only ever met online. Her naivety is alarming as she spends an afternoon in his company, laps up his attention — “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re pretty, Jasmin” — accepts the alcohol he offers her and agrees to go back to his house.

Again there was the ripple of excitement. She could feel it all over her body, a fluttering of pins and needles it almost felt like but she knew it wasn’t that. She loved being with him; she’d known she would.

She’s rescued at the last minute — Trevor doesn’t always let bad things happen to his characters — and the sense of relief, for this reader at least, is enormous but hard-earned.

The first is the best

The stand-out story of the collection, however, is the first one, “The Dressmaker’s Child”, which you can read online at the New Yorker, and which I had originally planned to read at the end of the year according to the schedule Cathy and I put together for A Year With William Trevor. (I didn’t know it was in this collection, so I’ll have to substitute that with something else and will let you know in due course.) 

In this story, Cahal, an Irish car mechanic, drives two Spanish tourists to see the “Weeping Virgin of Pouldearg”, a religious icon discredited by locals, and thinks nothing of charging them €50 for the privilege. On the way back to town, he runs over a child, the daughter of the local dressmaker, but does not stop to help. The Spaniards in the back seat are too busy kissing each other to notice the bump in the road.

What enfolds afterwards is a mixture of pure shame and fear and dread as Cathal wrestles with his conscience, even though the body is found not on the road, as expected, but at “the bottom of a fissure, half covered with shale, in the exhausted quarry half a mile from where she’d lived”. 

This strange development is quintessential William Trevor, a writer who likes to take seemingly ordinary characters and thrust them into unusual circumstances to see how things play out. Most of the stories in Cheating at Canasta contain moments of oddity that change the direction of the narrative. Each tale is an adventure. It’s like getting into a car and not knowing quite where you will end up…

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

This month Cathy has reviewed ‘The Old Boys’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2008.

When I was a teenager I read all of John Wyndham’s science fiction novels, including Day of the Triffids (which was a set text at school), The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids (my favourite and one that held up especially well when I re-read it in 2009). I know I read The Kraken Wakes^ but I have absolutely no recollection of the story, so re-reading it more than 30 years later was akin to reading it for the first time.

First published in 1953, it’s a rather “traditional” story of aliens arriving on earth and posing a threat. But it’s a bit more complex than that because the aliens can only survive underwater at very great depths and under extreme pressure. No one has any clear idea what they look like — or what they are capable of.

One school of thought suggests these creatures could happily co-exist with humankind because they are colonising parts of the planet that are inhospitable, but there are others who fear the aliens are making changes under the sea that could have harmful impacts, putting all humankind at risk.

Seen through a journalist’s eyes

The story, which is divided into three parts (or phases), is told through the eyes of Mike Watson, a journalist from the English Broadcasting Commission (EBC), and his wife, Phyllis, who is also a reporter.

The couple is honeymooning on a cruise ship when they first witness the start of the alien invasion — although, at the time, no one realises this is what it is. Just a handful of people spot fireballs landing in the sea, but as more and more of these events are reported across the world, it becomes clear these “brilliantly red lights” aren’t just randomly falling into the water; there’s some kind of plan in action that suggests there is an intelligence at work.

The British are particularly worried by the potential threat this might pose and so an investigation is arranged. A bathysphere — a spherical deep-sea submersible — is sent down to the bottom of the ocean (near a known entry point) with two scientists on board. Unfortunately, the mission does not go well; the two men are killed by the aliens and war, in all but name, is declared.

But thanks to the Cold War, which is in full swing, governments on either side of the political divide are unwilling to co-operate and are blaming each other for the situation.

Sinking ships

Later, when the aliens begin sinking ships, international shipping grinds to a halt and the world economy takes a nosedive, but no one really knows how to tackle the situation beyond attack. (The Brits, for instance, drop a nuclear device underwater as if that’s going to calm the situation down.)

To make matters worse, the aliens, now known to be aquatic invertebrates a bit like a jellyfish, begin venturing onto land, arriving in “sea-tanks” to capture humans. There are terrifying scenes across the world as the aliens make their surprise attacks.

The first sea-tanks must have sent coelenterate bubbles wobbling into the air before the men realised what was happening, for presently all was cries, screams, and confusion. The sea-tanks pressed slowly forward through the fog, crunching and scraping into the narrow streets, while, behind them, still more climbed out of the water. On the waterfront there was panic. People running from one tank were as likely to run into another. Without any warning, a whip-like cilium would slash out of the fog, find its victim, and begin to contract. A little later there would be a heavy splash as it rolled with its load over the quayside, back into the water.

Eventually, the aliens begin melting the polar ice caps so that sea levels rise. Civilisation breaks down as cities flood and political and social systems collapse.

Poor old Mike and Phyllis, stalwarts that they are, continue to report on events, before their life in London is so untenable they relocate to Cornwall (via boat through a flooded interior), where they hold up in their holiday cottage that oh-so, fortunately, is built on high ground. It is here that they discover that up to one-fifth of the world’s population has died, but things are looking better: not only have the waters started to recede, but the Japanese have also created a weapon that can kill the invaders…

Call for international cooperation?

Reading this novel, I kept wondering what Wyndham might have been trying to say about the issues of the day at the time he wrote it. In the early 1950s, the aforementioned Cold War was in full swing, so perhaps he was making a statement about the need for cooperation to end it?

There’s a lot of political infighting in this novel, a lot of inaction and poor decisions based on protectionism, patriotism and “the will of the people”, and little strategic what’s-best-for-the-world-as-a-whole kind of thinking.

I underlined many paragraphs that resonated in the sense that the author could have been describing events pertaining to all kinds of current global issues, such as climate change and the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how Phyllis, for instance, reacts to the British Government’s inaction in helping provide its citizens with weapons to defend themselves:

“[…] I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, and pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt. […] Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of the Age of the Ostensible Reason? I think that they are going to let thousands of people be killed by these horrible things rather than risk giving the powerful enough weapons to defend themselves. And they’ll have rows of arguments why it is best so. What do a few thouands or a few millions of people matter? Women will just go on making the loss good.”

Lots of detail

Admittedly, I think the reason that The Kraken Wakes didn’t stick in my memory is that it’s a bit bogged down in detail. There’s a lot of back story, of providing enough scientific information to support the theories being presented, but this means it does, occasionally, drag.

I have seen reviews criticising the melodrama, but without this, the story would be exceedingly dull. You need a bit of human tension and panic and fear to make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

That said, the dialogue between Mike and Phyllis is excellent — I like that Phyllis is an independent woman, although she’s often reliant on her “feminine wiles” to get information out of contacts, which is disappointing — and the pair really do carry the story along: they become the world’s eyes and ears, and the processes they use, under strict deadlines and difficult circumstances, to report events are fascinating.

Was it worth re-reading? I’m not so sure. If you’ve not read John Wyndham before, it might not be the place to start. Go for Day of the Triffids or the Chrysalids instead.

 

^ In the US, the book was published under the title Out of the Deeps.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tim Winton

‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2010.

First published in 1988, Tim Winton’s early novella In the Winter Dark is a brilliant slice of Australian Gothic.

It builds on the myth of exotic big cats prowling the Australian bush to create a compelling tale of suspense and intrigue, one that is easily read in a single heart-in-the-mouth sitting.

Set in a deeply forested valley called Sink that has just three houses, a swamp and a river, it tells the story of four neighbours who are fearful of a mysterious creature prowling around their properties. It kills a small pet dog first, eats out the throat of a kangaroo that is found stuck in a fence and decimates a flock of Muscovy ducks and a goat. Later, a flock of 20 sheep is disembowelled.

Tension within the residents builds, not least because there are fears the creature may take a human next, but there are differences of opinion about how to handle the threat.

Old sheep farmer Maurice, who grew up in the valley and has lived with his wife, Ida, for decades, thinks it’s best to take matters into their own hands. He has a shotgun and knows how to use it.

But his neighbour, Murray Jacobs, who has recently sold his lawnmower business in the city to buy the old homestead set amongst orchards, wants to call in the authorities — someone from the shire council or maybe the police.

While Ronnie, a young drug-addicted woman who lives on the other side of the valley, just wants it sorted: she’s got other things to worry about such as the impending birth of her baby and whether her musician boyfriend will ever return from touring.

When the story begins, this quartet of diverse and distinctive characters barely knows each other; by the end, they are very well acquainted — whether they want to be or not.

Dangerous creature 

First edition

Told partly in the first person from Maurice’s point of view and the rest in the third person, the narrative flits around from character to character, sometimes feeling disjointed and confused.

I often had to re-read paragraphs to ensure I understood what was going on. But I think this disorientation is deliberate because it means you’re not sure who to trust or what to think about the dangerous creature supposedly lying in wait. Does it actually exist? Or is there a more rational explanation for the deaths of the farm animals?

He stopped, though, when something caught his eye. Something red. The wet-stiff grass seemed to shiver. Jacob reached for a stick. As he climbed through the fence, the stick snagged in the wire and he fumbled a second and left it there. From across the road, in the tall grass, he heard panting. Well, it might have been panting. He stood there in the road, wishing he could just walk away, but he was afraid to turn his back. Whatever it was, it was moving again. He could see its slow passage through the grass.

The claustrophobic atmosphere is enhanced by the setting. As ever in a Winton story, the landscape is a character in its own right. This time it’s the forest comprised of tall jarrah trees, which evoke that “big church feeling” and are shrouded in mystery thanks to “all those fairy tales […] all those stories we brought with us from another continent, other centuries”.

There’s no neat conclusion to In the Winter Dark, but it does have a dramatic ending — which is foreshadowed on the first page in which Maurice states he often feels “all hot and guilty and scared and rambling and wistful” when he thinks back on what happened 12 months earlier…

I just sit here and tell the story as though I can’t help it.

The film adaptation of In the Winter Dark, starring  Brenda Blethyn, Ray Barrett, Richard Roxburgh and Miranda Otto, was released in 1998 and was nominated for three AFI awards. Dark and moody, it is faithful to the book. You can watch it on YouTube:

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Drewe, Setting, short stories

‘The Bodysurfers’ by Robert Drewe

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2009.

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne in 1943, grew up in Western Australia and became an award-winning journalist on the east coast before he turned his hand to fiction. The Bodysurfers, first published in 1983, is a collection of loosely connected short stories and I loved it.

There are 12 in total, each around 10 pages long, and they are mainly set in the coastal suburbs of Perth and Sydney, though there’s also a story set on the Californian coast. The beach is a central theme (surprise, surprise) and there are lush, vivid descriptions of the sandhills, the surf and the dangers that lurk within.

Intrigued as I am by the ocean, I am not an enthusiastic surf swimmer. […] Surf and tides turn malign too suddenly, waves dump you, sandbanks crumble in the current, undertows can catch you unawares. […] It isn’t the waves or the undertow that worry me when I do, however — it’s sharks. I imagine they’re everywhere. In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spay on the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.

And while the stories are varied in style and point-of-view (some are third-person, others are first-person, and one — Sweetlip — is written in the style of a confidential report), the ways in which men navigate changed circumstances is a central focus. In these tales, men lose jobs, lose wives, lose their sense of purpose or pride.

In one story a prisoner adjusts to life outside by ogling bare-breasted women at the beach, in another a man has an affair with a woman whom he suspects is cheating on him.

In Shark Logic a man stages his own disappearance following financial irregularities at the school at which he was the headmaster and begins living a low-key invisible life by the sea;  in The Last Explorer an elderly man lying in his hospital bed recalls his past achievements — specifically crossing the continent from east to west in a 10-year-old Model T-Ford in the 1920s — and cringes when the nursing staff ask if he’s “done a wee this morning”.

The Lang family chronicles

And threaded throughout these various tales are recurring characters from three generations of the same family. We meet the Langs in the opening story, The Manageress and the Mirage, when three children — Annie, David and Max — are taken to a beachside hotel for their first Christmas dinner after their mother’s death. Their father, Rex, is keen to maintain certain festive traditions, but what he doesn’t tell them is that he is having an affair with the hotel manageress, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, who pays them too much attention and actually joins them for dinner.

She announced to me, ‘You do look like your father, Max’. She remarked on Annie’s pretty hair and on the importance of David looking after his new watch. Sportively, she donned a blue paper crown and looked at us over the rim of her champagne glass. As the plum pudding was being served she left the table and returned with gifts for us wrapped in gold paper — fountain pens for David and me, a doll for Annie. Surprised, we looked at Dad for confirmation. He showed little surprise at the gifts, however, only polite gratitude, entoning several times, ‘Very, very kind of you’.

In later stories, we meet Max and David as adults, navigating their own marital problems and affairs, and in another — named Eighty Per Cent Humidity — it’s David’s son Paul who plays a starring role:

On Paul Lang’s worst day since being extruded from the employment market he makes several bad discoveries. In ascending order of disruption and confusion rather than chronologically they are flat battery in his old Toyota, the lump on his penis and the lesbian love poem in his girlfriend’s handbag.

This loose collection of stories offers an insightful glimpse into the lives, attitudes and obsessions of white middle-class heterosexual Australian men from the mid-20th century to the early 1980s. They’re occasionally witty, sometimes terrifying and often focused on jealousy, love, lust or death.

The Bodysurfers has been adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre. I have seen none of them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Orchard Thieves’ by Elizabeth Jolley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 132 pages; 1997.

The orchard thieves of the title of Elizabeth Jolley’s 1997 novella aren’t bad people stealing fruit trees but two little boys who pinch fruit to gobble up when they are staying at their grandmother’s house.

This rather delightfully told story is essentially about inheritance and taking what you think is rightfully yours — perhaps prematurely — and it’s framed around a grandmother who has a relatively large property in the outer suburbs of Perth.

It’s also an insightful tale about grandmothers — in particular, the love they hold for their children and their grandchildren — and what it is like to grow old, to look back on the past and to fear for the future of the people you will leave behind.

Pausing still outside the door, the grandmother wanted to go into the room. She thought of kneeling down beside the children. She longed to brush their soft hair with her lips. Sometimes she prayed inside herself that they would stay small and clean and good. Wholesome was a better word. For ever.

A tale in three parts

In The Orchard Thieves, the unnamed grandmother lives with her eldest daughter (who is dubbed “the aunt” throughout), who we might unkindly call a spinster. The youngest daughter is married and lives nearby (her two sons regularly stay over), while the middle daughter lives in London with a young daughter.

The story is divided into three parts — Three Miles to One Inch, The Orchard Thieves, and Three Times One-Third — but they could easily be seen as Before, During and After the arrival of the middle daughter who turns up and disrupts the pattern of everyone’s lives.

This daughter is pregnant but doesn’t have a partner and hasn’t told her family that there’s a baby on the way (her mother, the grandmother, has all kinds of theories including the possibility her daughter is a lesbian because she isn’t aware of any man on the scene). The daughter expects she can move into her old childhood bedroom, but neither her mother nor her older sister like the idea. The grandmother would prefer it if her daughter lived elsewhere and to perhaps go back to England if necessary.

But the middle daughter is a schemer and she thinks it might be a good idea to sell the property and to divide the proceeds between the three siblings. She tells the older sister, the aunt, it’s about time she talks to their mother about death and dying. “Old people need to be helped to let go,” she insists.

“There’s a fortune here, right here under our feet,” the middle sister said. “Once this house is knocked down, there’s enough space here for several units and a swimming pool.” The middle sister wanted a sale, she said, and she wanted — needed — one-third, a one-third share. Surely they both wanted what she wanted.

But this idea gets put on hold when the middle daughter gives birth to a baby in the house and then succumbs to what is likely to be neonatal depression (although this term is never used). The grandmother must then step in to look after the baby as well as the little granddaughter, all the while fearing for her grandsons, who she hopes will “not continue to be robbers”, and her older daughter, who she fears is lonely.

Eventually, things come to a head and everything gets more or less resolved. The grandmother realises that what happens to her loved ones is largely beyond her control, that her grandsons, during their lives, will “do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling”, and that her daughters will get on with the business of living. And this is all nicely summed up in the last line:

The grandmother, putting the baby up to her shoulder and feeling the softness of the baby’s cheek against her own, remarked that there was really only one week between a bad haircut and a good haircut.

Fable-like writing

There’s something about the prose style and the telling of the story that lends The Orchard Thieves a fable-like quality. No names — of people or places — are used throughout the text, except when the grandmother looks at her maps from her old life in England and she traces the contours of rivers and towns with which she was familiar in her childhood.

This is further evoked by references to Ceres, a Greek goddess of fertility, motherly relationships and the growth of food plants, and Demeter who wished to make her grandson immortal by placing him in a fire, an action his mother did not understand and prevented. When the middle daughter runs a bath for her baby that is far too hot, it’s hard not to see the parallels that Jolley is making between Greek mythology and the life of the grandmother.

The Orchard Thieves is a rather beautiful book, rather different to other Elizabeth Jolley novels I have read, but one that explores common themes in her work about isolation, ageing and family ties.

I could write much more about it, but I won’t. I urge you to read it if you can find a copy. I suspect it is long out of print — I picked mine up second hand and lo-and-behold it’s a signed edition, something I didn’t realise when I bought it and only noticed when I sat down to read it on the weekend.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this novel.

I read this book for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 4 Week, which celebrates women who began writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

And because the English-born author settled in Perth, this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

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 written by Christos Tsiolkas 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.