Author, Book review, Fiction, Julia May Jonas, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Vladímír’ by Julia May Jonas

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 320 pages; 2022.

First things first. Do not judge this book by its cover, for the image used on the front of Julia May Jonas’ debut novel, Vladímír, suggests the content is a steamy romance, perhaps a bodice ripper or an erotic thriller. It’s not. If anything, Vladímír is a #MeToo novel or even a campus novel. Regardless, it’s literary fiction — with a droll undercurrent of snark and black comedy running throughout.

Stand by her man

In a nutshell, this is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier.

At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my tacit understanding that they were happening. Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.

Most people expect her to reject her husband and support the women who have come forward, but she stands by him (in a passive doesn’t-want-to-get-too-involved kind of way) because they have a mutual understanding about pursuing extramarital pursuits. And partly because she feels he’s just as much a victim as his accusers.

I wanted him to accept the role of the penitent. But you can’t ask someone who feels like a victim, as John most certainly did, to live apologetically. And there it was, that twisted logic. Even as we railed against victim mentality, against trauma as a weapon, we took the strength of our arguments from the internal sense of our own victimhood. John was acting like the women who accused him. He had been wronged, goddamit.

But just as our (nameless) 58-year-old narrator is wrestling with her anger and sense of injustice, along comes a new male colleague, Vladímír, to distract her. He’s a handsome, young, married novelist who’s just accepted a tenured position as a junior professor and she becomes increasingly infatuated with him — to the point of obsession.

The cover of the UK edition

The outfall

The story is less focused on the sexual harassment case itself — indeed, we don’t fully know the details of it — but more on how the outfall affects the narrator’s day-to-day life and her career. Her popularity amongst the students, for instance, begins to slide, because they believe she is complicit in her husband’s actions.

Meanwhile, her obsession with Vladímír makes her do risky things and behave in ways that got her husband into trouble in the first place.

The novel asks important questions about sexual boundaries and consent and whether it is possible to judge past behaviour on the standards of today.

But it also looks at what it is to grow old and how women are held to different standards than men. Other topics include motherhood, ambition, marriage, sex and lust.

It’s written in a tone of voice that is, by turns, feisty, angry, confused, flummoxed, cynical and increasingly unhinged. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Mrs March in Mrs March.) She’s uncompromising on so many levels, but is far from arrogant: there’s just enough humility and vanity in her character to make you warm to her, whether you agree with her sentiments or not.

Vladímír is provocative and thought-provoking, the kind of novel that highlights timely issues about power and consent without offering right or wrong answers or being too heavy-handed about it all. It’s fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of a day) and leaves the reader with plenty to mull over and cogitate on.

Hat-tip to Kate, whose review of this novel made me want to rush out and read it myself.

Vladímír is out now in Australia. It will be published in the UK on 26 May. 

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Germany, Picador, Publisher, Ralf Rothmann, Setting, war

‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 208 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside.

Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring tells the tale of two 17-year-old boys enlisted to fight for Germany at the tail end of the Second World War.

Reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War novel All Quiet on the Western Front (first published in 1929), it’s a story that highlights the futility of war — from a German perspective.

Senseless bloodshed

Walter ‘Ata’ Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli are dairy hands forced to “volunteer” in the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) organisation. It’s 1945 and the war is entering its final stages. Both are reluctant to join. Fiete knows it is all a con:

They didn’t drag us across the whole of the Reich just so that we can peel potatoes behind the front. We’re fresh fodder, and we’ll be fed to the enemy.

After minimal training, the two are split up fairly early: Fiete goes to the front, where he is injured almost immediately, while Walter becomes a driver for a supply unit.

The story is told in the third person but largely from Walter’s perspective. While his role does not involve direct combat, what he witnesses on the road is no less gruesome or confronting — from the field hospital tents, where he could “hear groaning and screaming from behind the tarpaulins” to seeing partisans being tortured by his superiors who laugh while they do it.

Somewhere along the line, he hears that his father, a camp guard at Dachau, has been deployed to the front as a form of punishment because “he gave some cigs away to camp prisoners”. Later, he learns that he has died, and while father and son were not close — “Well, he wasn’t exactly a role model. He drank and hit me and felt up my sister” — Walter feels obliged to find his grave to pay his respects.

He is given a few days’ leave and the loan of a motorbike to carry out his search, which plunges him closer and closer to the front and where, by a great stroke of luck, he comes across his friend Fiete again. But the reunion is a tragic one.

A beautiful and powerful read

To Die in Spring is a gripping read about innocent farm boys having to grow up very quickly in a war that is not of their own making. Or as Fiete tells Walter:

Christ, what am I doing here? I mean, if I had voted for Hitler, like most of them… But I wanted nothing to do with this mess, any more than you did. I have no enemies, at least none that want to kill me. This is a war for cynics, who don’t believe in anything but might makes right… when in fact they’re only mediocrities and weaklings, I found that out in the field. Kick downwards, bow and scrape upwards, and massacre women and children.

It’s poignant and heartbreaking, full of vivid descriptions, whether of peaceful wintry landscapes or bawdy pubs and dancehalls, but its true power lies in the way it depicts a generation raised by men — damaged by a previous war — who are forced to repeat history.

For the contemporary reader, aware of the very many atrocities carried out by the Nazis, To Die in Spring does not overlook the barbarity of those men, nor does it wallow in self-pity or guilt. It simply offers up a haunting, searing — and compassionate — story, and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. The book is short enough to also qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is what you call killing two birds with one stone!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), BIPOC 2021, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Mieko Kawakami, Picador

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.

It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.

A secret alliance

Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.

Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.

There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.

When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.

“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.

Bullying behaviour

This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.

There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.

Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.

And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…

This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Kate Jennings, literary fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 192 pages; 2002.

What a beautiful little gem of a book this one turned out to be!

Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard is set in Wall Street during the 1990s and tells the story of an outsider — Cath, an Australian “bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger” — who works at an investment bank by day and looks after her ill husband by night.

Previously a freelance writer, she’s sold her soul to make big bucks as a speechwriter for the mid-level bank known as Niedecker Benecke. She needs the money to look after her husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

She knows nothing about finance but she can craft a sentence, although she finds the sexist world — and the politics — of the investment bankers and the communications department a challenge. Her only “friend” in the firm is Mike, a fellow cigarette smoker, with whom she spends her breaks, sitting outside in the plaza sharing confidences.

The book was reissued by Text Classics in 2015

Stark but beautiful prose

The story, which spans roughly six years, from Bailey’s diagnosis to his death, is told in forthright prose undercut with dark humour.

It reads like an insider’s guide to investment banking — its risk-taking, its greed, its unwritten rules, protocols and unfettered belief in the market — based on the author’s own experience working for Merrill Lynch. But it’s also an honest look at the challenges facing those who must look after loved ones* with chronic illnesses while juggling their own lives and careers.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between both worlds.

I was commuting between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder value.

The morality of greed

In fact, Bailey’s slide towards the loss of self could also mirror Cath’s own changes in values, her need to “play the game” to get ahead, to understand the tickings of the financial world and the increasingly risky behaviour of those around her.

While Moral Hazard is set more than a decade before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the cracks are already there and the shadow of the Barings Bank collapse, caused by employee Nick Leeson’s unauthorised trading, looms large, so when Mike tells Cath about a hedge fund that is likely to collapse, she has a moral dilemma: follow protocol and keep quiet, or speak out and tell her superiors?

She is similarly conflicted when Bailey insists she euthanise him should he become too ill even though they both know this is against the law.

Interestingly, in economics, moral hazard occurs when a business increases its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk. The concept could also apply to Cath’s care of her husband whose behaviour becomes wildly unpredictable and unmanageable as the story progresses, so much so that she has to put him into full-time care and hand over responsibility to others.

There are other metaphors in this short, sharply observed novel — the way the financial authorities bail out failing hedge funds, for example, and make no changes to the rules could be seen as if they, too, have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Portrait of office life

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Moral Hazard is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year. As well as its twin themes of illness and finance, I loved its portrait of office life, a subject that is rarely addressed in fiction despite the fact so many of us spend our working lives sitting at desks surrounded by others sitting at desks.

And it’s a lovely counterpoint to Jennings’ debut novel, Snake, which was set in the Australian outback as far removed from New York’s financial district as it is possible to get!

For another take on Moral Hazard, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

*  Jennings’ husband, the graphic designer Bob Cato, died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1999, so those aspects of the novel must surely be based on experience, too.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand last year. 

Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Diary of a Somebody’ by Brian Bilston

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019. 

If you like wordplay, puns and funny poetry, put Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody on your wishlist. I laughed all the way through it; the perfect antidote to the strange and anxious times we are living through.

The story follows (the fictional) Brian Bilston’s resolution to write a poem every day for an entire year, a way of distracting himself from the pain of a broken marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with his teenage son and an office job at which he’s failing.

His poems are dotted throughout the narrative, and each one is laugh-out-loud funny.

Duvet,
you are so groovet,
I’d like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.

And:

Poetry Club
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.

But it’s the constant wordplay that gave me the best giggles. This is a good example of what to expect:

How to Avoid Mixing Your Metaphors It’s not rocket surgery. First, get all your ducks on the same page. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking stride. Be sure to watch what you write with a fine-tuned comb. Check and re-check until the cows turn blue. It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake. Don’t worry about opening up a whole hill of beans: you can always burn that bridge when you come to it, if you follow where I’m coming from. Concentrate! Keep your door closed and your enemies closer. Finally, don’t take the moral high horse: if the metaphor fits, walk a mile in it.

Along with witty one-liners:

She put the phone down on me and I was left alone with the silence. It was a mute point.

Dear Diary

Written in diary format, it charts 45-year-old Brian’s attempt to make sense of his falling-apart world. He’s slightly self-absorbed, lacks self-awareness and is obsessed with custard creams.

There are times when there is simply no substitute for a custard cream. These times are typically from 7am to 10pm, at the following intervals: 00, 15, 30, 45. There is something about their vanilla-custard filling and the baroque carving of the outer sandwich layers which lends itself to the practice of contemplation and study.

His working life is full of management jargon and missed deadlines. And his home life isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem able to commit to anything. He can’t even finish a book despite starting a new one every month for his book club:

 In other news, I began to read Wuthering Heights this evening. I’m on page 12 already. It’s rather moorish.

He attends a regular poetry club but each meeting is somewhat disastrous as he tries to compete with the dastardly Toby Salt, who is a much better poet, attracts the ladies (including someone Brian has his eye on) and has a loyal and ever-increasing Twitter following.

I noted that on Twitter, I have now optimised myself for twenty-three people. Toby Salt has somehow managed 174 followers. I clearly need to deepen my digital footprint and I have made a vow, with the cat as my witness, to share more of my poems with my foolhardy followers as a next tentative digital baby step.

But when Toby mysteriously disappears not long after his first book is published, Brian unwittingly attracts the attention of the police: did he bump off his rival in a pique of jealous rage? The fun of this book is reading it to find out!

Original and inventive

There’s no doubting that Diary of a Somebody is wholly original and inventive. It’s a wonderful blend of satire and black comedy.

The jokes and the constant refrains — helping his neighbour remember when it is bin day, putting up with self-help mumbo-jumbo from his ex-wife’s new man, never finishing a novel, eating too many custard creams and so on — do begin to wear thin after a while.

Perhaps 12 months in the life of Brian Bilston is a bit too much and six months could have been chopped from his diary, but on the whole, this is an enjoyable novel about a man who doesn’t quite realise how funny (if somewhat pathetic) he really is! More, please.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I picked up a proof copy of this in early 2019 when I went to a Picador Showcase in London and the author did a reading, which had me in minor hysterics. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my copy with me when I moved back to Australia but when I saw it on Kindle for 99p earlier this year I couldn’t resist buying it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, James Salter, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Sport and a Pastime’ by James Salter

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 2007.

James Salter is one of those authors I had only ever heard good things about, so when I found A Sport and a Pastime in my local second-hand store (I live a few doors down from Elizabeth’s Bookshop in Fremantle), I couldn’t resist buying it.

First published in 1967, it tells the story of a love affair between an American college dropout and a French shop girl, who go on a road trip across France in the late 1960s. Their liaison, steamy and sordid, is imagined by an unnamed narrator, another American, who spies them from afar and lets his creative juices get the better of him.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novel, and not quite what I expected. It feels voyeuristic in places, misogynistic in others. Mainly it feels like a writer being a little self-indulgent as he lets his own sexual fantasies dominate the storyline.

But the writing, clear and lucid and full of heartache and a deep sense of longing,  is reminiscent of so many American writers of the era. I’m thinking Richard Yates, William Maxwell and William Styron. It’s a style I admire a lot.

Throughout this short novel, Salter is very good at capturing moods and heightened emotions, of the conversations, pithy and of little consequence, between people, but he really excels at conveying the beauty and history of the landscapes and villages of rural France. A Sport and a Pastime could very well double as a tourism advertisement for the French Tourism Board. Take this as an example:

The blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky, The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gilot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there’s the smell of bread.

Personally, I admit that I didn’t care much for the storyline, but the luminous prose made up for it. There were many turns of phrase that took my breath away — the line above about the streets smelling of bread is but one example; “over France, a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin” is but another — and I felt I was in the hands of an accomplished writer, one who had honed his craft and understood the power of words to enchant and hold the reader captive.

Perhaps A Sport and a Pastime, with its over-emphasis on eroticism and its blurring of the lines between the body and the soul, was not the place to start with Salter. It probably didn’t help that the entire book felt too similar to William Maxwell’s The Château, also written in the 1960s, which I read earlier in the year and found a bit tiresome.

That said, it has certainly made me intrigued enough to read more of his work. If you can recommend any titles, please do leave a comment in the box below.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Behrouz Boochani, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Papua New Guinea, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 374 pages; 2018. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin with “reviewing” this book. I read it more than a month ago now, and every time I sit down to try to commit my thoughts to this blog the words won’t come.

It’s an astonishing and lyrical account of a cruel and inhumane life at the hands of a cruel and inhumane government. It makes for very powerful reading, but it also serves to make the reader feel powerless. I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable fug that enveloped me as I read this.

For those of you who don’t know, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013.

Boochani’s tale, tapped out on a mobile phone, text message by text message, and smuggled out via WhatsApp, was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and it is bookended by a foreword by Australian author Richard Flanagan, a lengthy translator’s introduction explaining how the book came into being and a similarly lengthy essay by the translator at the very end.

It first came to prominence earlier this year when it won the Victorian Prize for Literature — the single most valuable literary award in the country — and the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. But since then it has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry’s non-fiction book of the year and Australia’s National Biography Award.

Ironically, Boochani has not been able to accept any of those awards in person. Although the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017, he has remained on the island since then — effectively stateless.

An collaborative memoir

The memoir — which Tofighian describes as “literary experimentation” and a “collaborative effort between author, translator, consultants and confidants” — reads very much like an adventure tale to begin with, before morphing into an almost Kafa-esque depiction of prison life.

It charts how Boochani decided to flee Iran when the offices of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he co-founded and produced, was raided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which arrested 11 of his colleagues. Fortunately, he was not in the office that day. In fact, he never went back. Instead, he went into hiding and eventually made his way to Indonesia, with a view to making a perilous ocean crossing to seek asylum in Australia.

But things did not go as planned. The Indonesian boat he was on, overcrowded with some 60 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy.  Everyone on board was taken to Christmas Island.

Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned…being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.

From there, Boochani was moved to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a detention centre in Papua New Guinea operated by the Australian Government. He was stripped of his name and, like every other prisoner, became known as a number only.

I can’t believe what is happening to me /
All that hardship /
All that wandering from place to place /
All that starvation I had to endure /
All of it… /
So that I could arrive on Australian soil /
I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus /
A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the book is a mix of eloquent, heart-felt poetry (as per the quote above), bitter diatribes about his predicament and observational stories about fellow prisoners and guards told with amazing psychological insight. It’s an almost soporific account of day-to-day life on Manus and what happens — or doesn’t happen — on those endlessly long, supernaturally hot days in detention.

It brims with a slow-burning anger but it is also filled with perplexity and confusion, for how could a country, so highly regarded, so wealthy and free, treat innocent people in such a cruel, dehumanising way?

Boochani’s story is littered with suicides (much sought-after razor blades being the instrument of choice) and horrendous examples of already traumatised men, many fleeing persecution and certain death at the hands of authorities in their respective homelands, now enduring further mental anguish.

His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment. He depicts the infighting, the emotional outbursts, the acts of moral cowardice, the riots, the hunger strikes, the way that certain people cling to their traditions and cultures when everything around them is foreign and frightening.

And he writes about his own inner turmoil, his desire to be alone, to not build allegiances with anyone, to quietly observe — and secretly document — all that he sees around him.

Compelling and confronting

There’s no doubting that No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary achievement. The contents are compelling and confronting, as is the story behind its creation.

Reading it is to become almost immune to the shock of all that Boochani endures. I suspect his writing, not only of this book but the many articles he has penned for the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Times et al while being imprisoned, has given him the creative outlet he needs to preserve his sanity — and his hope. He is a very cerebral person and a deep thinker.

It’s the kind of book that induces anger and shame in the reader. But it’s the sheer injustice of this system and the total lack of empathy and compassion towards our fellow humans that leaves me feeling most perplexed. I cannot comprehend it. Nor can I comprehend the waste — of time, of energy, of productive human lives — to maintain a policy that is so hostile and destructive.

Sadly, the people who need to read No Friend but the Mountains most — those that think asylum seekers should go back to where they come from, the policymakers, government officials and contractors that prop up this system — won’t read it. But if you’re an Australian, I almost think it’s your duty to do so, if only to know what is being done in your name.

For another take on this book, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This half-hour documentary (above) is a moving account of how Boochani wrote the book and smuggled it out.

This is my 13th book for #20BooksOfSummer. I bought it on Kindle after it won the Victorian Prize for Literature, but the copy I actually read was borrowed from Fremantle Library.