20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Giller Prize, Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Books in translation, dystopian, Eric Dupont, Fiction, Five fast reviews, literary fiction, Mercè Rodoreda, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Penguin, Publisher, QC Fiction, Quercus

Five Fast Reviews: Eric Dupont, Thea Lim, Alex Miller, Nuala O’Connor and Mercè Rodoreda

It’s been a crazy few weeks around here… and this blog has been much neglected (my last review was posted some three weeks ago). So, in a bid to get up to speed before December comes to an end, here’s five books, arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname, that I read during the year that I never quite got around to reviewing.

‘Songs for the Cold of Heart’ by Eric Dupont 

Fiction – paperback; QC Fiction; 603 pages; 2018. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Songs for the cold of heartSongs for the Cold of Heart was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, but it lost out to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. We chose it as our Shadow Giller winner — a totally unanimous decision.

Quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, this doorstop of a novel is epic in scope and unrivalled in ambition, one that makes for a truly immersive reading experience.

Full of vivid, well-drawn characters and wonderfully evoked settings, it’s a tale that spans several generations of the one Quebec-French family, with each new chapter able to stand alone as a short story. But the force of all those chapters working together creates a richly layered narrative in which motifs —  and even jokes — keep repeating themselves from one generation to the next, revealing unexpected connections and insights into a family whose reputation has been built on a combination of legend, invention and self-mythologising.  It brims with sex and humour, love and tragedy, empathy and arrogance, and is littered with tall tales, a smidgen of magic realism and much innuendo.

Expertly translated by Peter McCambridge (it must have taken an age to work on), this is a proper literary tour de force. Sadly, it is priced at an eye-watering £29 here in the UK, which is a shame, because it truly deserves a much wider English language audience.

‘An Ocean of Minutes’ by Thea Lim 

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 360 pages; 2018. 

An ocean of minutesYet another title that was shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes proved to be a great surprise. I was dreading this slice of dystopian fiction in which a 20-something woman time travels from 1981 to 1998 to escape a pandemic and be reunited with her one true love, but it’s hugely atmospheric and has a strangely haunting, elegiac tone. It totally swept me away, taking me through all the emotions from anger to heartbreak — and back again.

Reading between the lines, there are hints of social commentary — about modern slavery, the class system and immigration — and the ways in which we can become trapped by circumstances beyond our control, with no way to better ourselves or escape economic insecurity because of the systems that conspire against us. But this is also a story about courage, faith, taking risks and believing in the power of love and family.

‘The Passage of Love’ by Alex Miller 

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 584 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Passage of LoveIt’s no secret that Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors, and this novel, which is the thinly veiled story of his own life, is probably my favourite book of the year. Another truly immersive read, I devoured almost all 550-plus pages in the space of a weekend, but then eked it out for another fortnight because I simply did not want the tale to end.

It’s filled with angst, love and cruelty, as well as the struggle to be true to oneself, to find your place in the world and to find the courage to lead a creative life rather than a safe one. It’s a fascinating portrait of a complicated marriage, too, showing how we can never truly know the person with whom we are most intimate. And it’s a quintessentially Australian tale, not only in its achingly beautiful descriptions of landscapes and country towns, but of the gross injustices carried out against the First Peoples, whom Miller himself has lived and worked with and written about in previous novels.

Reading this book also helped me to appreciate the common themes in Miller’s extraordinary backlist; the pennies began to drop about his obsession with Germany and Holocaust survivors, the London Blitz, Aboriginal genocide, the writer’s life and his amazing psychological insights into love and intimacy.

‘Joyride to Jupiter’ by Nuala O’Connor 

Fiction – paperback; New Island; 157 pages; 2017. 

Joyride to jupiterI read Joyride to Jupiter as part of the #20booksofsummer challenge, but never got around to writing about it on this blog. I have previously read O’Connor’s novels, published under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, and found them both deeply moving and evocative.

This collection of short stories is more of the same, all written in eloquent, pared-back language and filled with well drawn, often troubled and flawed, characters struggling to make sense of the world. Some stories are only a few pages long, but even so, the reader is immediately immersed into the lives (and loves) of intriguing people, whether that be a young girl witnessing her father’s infidelity or a devoted husband dealing with his wife’s dementia. There are recurring themes — mainly sexual, it has to be said — but all the stories, which are set in various places around the world, are universal. It’s a quick read, but I can’t say it’s a particularly memorable one.

‘Death in Spring’ by Mercè Rodoreda

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 150 pages; 2018. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent

Death in springPart of Penguin’s  European Writers series, this novella packs a real punch despite the fact it has no real plot. Set in a remote village in Catalan where the citizens are sticklers for following tradition, it tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age and how he must forge his own path in a society that is both oppressive and cruel.

Said to be an allegory of life under Franco’s dictatorship, it’s a deeply disturbing read full of nightmarish scenes and vivid, no-holds-barred language. But it’s also very beautiful, with lush, lyrical descriptions of nature and the ever-changing seasons (indicating that life goes on regardless of whatever cruel acts humans do to each other). But, even so, Death in Spring leaves the reader unsettled, perhaps because it’s such a visceral, often challenging, experience.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Hungary, memoir, Miranda Doyle, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Quercus, Sacha Batthyány, Setting, Sigrid Rausing, Sweden

3 memoirs by Sacha Batthyány, Miranda Doyle and Sigrid Rausing

Three memoirs

‘A Crime in the Family’ by Sacha Batthyány

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Quercus; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A crime in the familyA Crime in the Family is a compelling memoir that looks at two of my favourite subjects: moral culpability and intergenerational guilt.

Written by Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyány in an engaging but forthright tone, it combines autobiography with family history (the Batthyány family is so distinguished it has its own Wikipedia page) and explores what it is like to discover that one of your ancestors has carried out a horrendous war crime that has remained secret for decades.

The book’s main focus is one particular night in the spring of 1945 when Sacha’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, threw an extravagant party for German aristocrats and Nazi SS officers in her ancestral home —  a castle — in the Hungarian village of Rechnitz. Part of the “entertainment” included the “sport” of shooting 180 Jewish workers dead and burying them in a mass grave.

Batthyány uses family diaries from the time to tell the story and marries this with accounts of his own therapy sessions and journalistic research. At times the book reads like a travelogue, as Batthyány, often accompanied by his father (with whom he has a troubled relationship), visits landmarks associated with his dark family history, including the gulags of Russia and the extermination camp at Auschwitz. He also travels to South America to meet the descendants of some of the Jews who were killed in the massacre.

This is a tragic and moving memoir about complicity, reconciliation and shining a light on the truth. Highly recommended.

‘A Book of Untruths’ by Miranda Doyle

Non-fiction – memoir; hardcover; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A Book of Untruths is an unusual but thought-provoking memoir that raises more questions than it answers.

Structured around a series of lies — 70 “untruths” in total — Doyle explores not only the complicated nature of her family (her parents had a troubled marriage and her father was a larger-than-life unpredictable character), but also the unreliability of memoir writing as a whole. How dependable are our memories? Where does fact become fiction? How does storytelling help us make sense of our own lives and the world we live in?

Doyle’s desperate need to understand the complicated nature of her parent’s marriage and her own messy, tangled upbringing (including her complex relationship with her three siblings), lends this memoir a ring of authenticity. Written in exquisite but punchy prose, A Book of Untruths isn’t a misery memoir, but it is fuelled by a deep anger and is undercut with enough self-deprecating humour to make it an enjoyable if somewhat curious read.

‘Mayhem: A Memoir’ by Sigrid Rausing

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2018. 

Many people may know Sigrid Rausing as the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books, but she is from a wealthy Swedish family which made its fortune from food packaging (her grandfather co-founded Tetra Pak). Curiously, this memoir isn’t about Rausing’s life; instead it is about her sister-in-law’s death.

Eva Rausing, one of the wealthiest women in the UK, died of a drug overdose aged 48  in the summer of 2012. Her body was found in the London mansion she shared with her husband, Hans (Sigrid’s brother), under a pile of clothes in a barricaded bedroom. Hans was charged with preventing the lawful and decent burial of his wife and later sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Mayhem: A Memoir looks at the outfall of this death on the Rausing family, but much of its focus is on the years preceding the tragedy, for both Hans and Eva were drug addicts (they met in rehab) and were so entrapped by their respective addictions they had given Sigrid and her husband Eric custody of their four children.

Heartfelt, searing and deeply reflective (but occasionally tinged with self-pity), the book emphasises the collateral damage that drug addiction wreaks on entire families and shows that being born into immense wealth offers no protection against tragedy.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s Giller Prize season and, once again, thanks to the kind invitation of KevinfromCanada, I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller Jury for the fourth time. (You can find out more about the jury at Kevin’s blog.)

The longlist was announced last week. It featured many authors who were unfamiliar to me, but I was aware of Heather O’Neill, whose second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was on the list. I had previously enjoyed her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which I read in 2008.

A Bohemian coming-of-age story

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure.  The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.

And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

When the pair eventually meet the mother who walked out on them, Nouschka suddenly realises that the kind of fame they’ve “enjoyed” has never filled the mother-shaped hole in their lives.

Nicolas and I immediately shot a knowing, wary glance at one another. She had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody else knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.

This may partly explain why Nouschka sleeps around — often with much older men — and marries the first person her age who asks her.

Colourful characters

Admittedly, I initially struggled to get into this story, perhaps because the characters, who are all exceptionally well drawn, felt almost too ludicrous and “unreal” to be true. But before long I got completely caught up in Nouschka’s funny little life — her dramas, her fears, her complicated relationships — and found myself warming to her, even though I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made.

Unfortunately, the narrative drags a little in places — it could easily lose 100 pages and I’m sure the story would be all the stronger for it. But I did love the backdrop of the Québécois search for a kind of freedom of their own (the irony of reading it while the Scottish Referendum was being held wasn’t lost on me), which gave the story an added depth.

The prose style, which is straightforward and “clean”, occasionally feels a little pedestrian, for want of a better word, but then O’Neill has a habit of dropping in a line or two that makes you sit up and take notice, such as:

He was running in and out of doors like a ball in a pinball machine, waking people up.


White round petals were all over the ground as if the polka dots had fallen off a woman’s dress.

Needs time to settle

I actually think this is one of those books that needs time to “settle” after you’ve read it, because in thinking about this novel (which I finished five days ago) it’s already grown fonder in my mind.

It’s very much a book about parental responsibilities and our desire to be loved by our mothers and our fathers, even if they are not present in our lives. While it is important to forge our own path in life, it’s always helpful to have parents show us the way. (Or, as Nouschka so eloquently puts it, mothers are “like North Stars that guide you when you are completely lost”.)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night might not be an obvious prize-winner, but I admired its kookiness, its themes, and its crazy little characters. It might be depressing in places — when Nicolas loses custody of his own child there’s a very real sense of history repeating itself, for instance — but it ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, which makes one feel that Nouschka’s struggles might have been worth it after all.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Wayne Macauley

‘The Cook’ by Wayne Macauley


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 304 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I thought the Brits were obsessed with cooking shows and celebrity chefs, until I got sucked into watching MasterChef Australia on satellite TV last year.  The series, which is based on the original British MasterChef but is 100 times more sensational and loud and bombastic, was screened six nights a week for several months and turned cooking into an Olympic-like sport. It was so over-the-top ridiculous (and puffed-up) that most of the time I watched it so that I could take the mickey out of the contestants rather than because I wanted to learn about fine dining.

So it’s no surprise that it took an Australian author to prick the bubble of pretentiousness which surrounds “celebrity” cooking and the entire “foodie” industry. But Wayne Macauley‘s The Cook is more than just a brilliant satire, it’s a viciously funny black comedy with an oh-my-goodness-I-didn’t-see-that-coming shock ending.

Learning to become a chef

The story is narrated by 17-year-old Zac, a young criminal who is given a choice: he can go to a young offender’s institute or enrol in a rehabilitation scheme that teaches teenagers how to cook. (Think Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen apprentice programme, which was turned into a television show about ten years ago.)

Zac chooses to go to the cooking school, which is presided over by a rich and glamorous Head Chef, who is rarely seen (if this book was turned into a film, Head Chef would probably be played by Gordon Ramsay). The students are taught to “do restaurant food top-class top-shelf” by Sous Chef Fabian, a hard-working but rather stressed out character, with a heavy emphasis on provenance (they grow their own fruit, vegetables and meat) and French gastronomy.

Zac discovers that he is rather natural cook and becomes slightly obsessive about food and goes to extraordinary lengths to raise lambs (and later ducks) that taste exceptionally delicious based on the kinds of food that they are fed and the ways in which they are slaughtered. He becomes so good at cooking that he is offered a job as a private chef before he finishes the course — and so that is how he ends up working for a rather rich family “in one of the best suburbs of Melbourne”.

The Cook is essentially a book of two halves: the first is all about Zac’s time at cooking school; the second follows his exploits living with and working for middle-aged housewife Deidre Fletcher — “but you must call me Mistress” — her rich husband and their two spoilt teenage daughters, Melody and Jade. It is while working as the Fletcher’s private chef that Zac begins to dream big — all his experience, hard work, passion and drive is one route towards getting his own restaurant sometime in the future.

A compelling voice

The most interesting thing about this novel is the narrator’s voice, which is honest and intimate. It’s also semi-literate, because the book is written without the use of commas. This can take some getting used to, but once you find the rhythm this is an exceptionally clever literary device because you immediately assume that Zac’s not the sharpest tool in the box and feel some empathy towards him. And because he is prepared to work hard to get what he wants, this endears him to you even more. It’s only later that you begin to wonder if he might not have taken his obsession just a step too far.

Much of the book is laugh out loud funny. I really loved the way it pokes fun, tongue-in-cheek style at the way restaurant food is described grandiose-style on TV and in the press. And Macauley’s commentary on the restaurant business, in which the chefs are there merely to serve rich people who can afford expensive gourmet meals, seems to be exceptionally biting — and probably accurate.

I found the entire tale deliciously dark and subversive and on more than one occasion I was reminded of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, which treads similar territory. The Cook is a deeply unsettling read but it’s a thrilling one, too, and the ending came as quite a shock. I know that I will be thinking about it for a long time to come — and I’ll probably never look at an episode of MasterChef in quite the same way again.

For another take on this novel, please visit Jackie’s review at Farmlane Books.

Note that this book is yet to be published in the USA, although an ebook version is available.

Alix Ohlin, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting, USA

‘Inside’ by Alix Ohlin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 353 pages; 2012.

I’m going to put my hand up from the off and admit that as much as I enjoyed Alix Ohlin’s Inside I’m curious as to why it made the shortlist for this year’s Giller Prize. Yes, it’s an entertaining read. Yes, it’s peopled by well developed characters. And yes, it has an unusual narrative structure. But it’s not doing anything particularly special to warrant a literary prize and the message — that life can be lonely and difficult and perplexing — is a well worn, almost clichéd one.

I will also admit that if it were not for my participation in the Shadow Giller I may well have abandoned this book after the first chapter.

Interconnected stories

Inside is about four characters — Grace, Mitch, Tug and Annie — whose stories are told in interleaved and interconnected narrative threads. Grace, a therapist, is the lynch pin of the novel, because she is divorced from Mitch (who is also a therapist), and Tug is the man she accidentally saves from suicide (I’ll return to this in a bit), while Annie is one of her troubled teenage patients, who ends up running away to begin life as an actor, first on the stage in New York, then later in a television series filmed in Los Angeles.

Having given this briefest outline, your cliché alert — if it’s anything like mine — may well be into the amber zone. It probably won’t help if I tell you there’s a couple of deaths, a couple of abortions, at least two failed marriages, a lesbian love affair, self-harm and a threatened legal action. But one of the strengths of the novel is Ohlin’s storytelling ability. She gives all her characters strong (and convincing) back stories and then propels them into life’s ups and downs and twists and turns, so that you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen to them next.

And she’s not bogged down by flowery or showy prose. Indeed, I found this novel slipped down like hot chocolate, although I could never quite shake the feeling that I was reading nothing more than a tame soap opera.

Suicide man

When the book opens, it is 1996 and Grace is out cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, Montreal, when she falls over a man, who is “flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow”. Initially, she thinks he may have had a heart attack or a stroke, but then she sees a rope around his neck and realises he has attempted suicide — and survived.

Cue an emergency trip to hospital, where the man — John Tugwell, better known as Tug —  is treated for cuts, bruises and a sprained ankle. Medical staff assume Grace is Tug’s wife, and Tug doesn’t disabuse them of the notion. Indeed, he actually tells them the suicide attempt was just a joke to see “what she’d say”.

Tugwell jerked a thumb in Grace’s direction. His voice was painfully rasped and he swallowed visibly after he spoke, but then he modulated it to a tone of playful wryness. ‘We were skiing together and I told her I was going to kill myself and went off in a different direction. I said I had the rope with me and was going to do it immediately. It took her nine minutes to decide to come after me. Nine minutes! Can you believe that? I timed her.’

Grace goes along with this ruse, takes Tug home and over the course of the novel — and her better judgement — develops a romantic relationship with him.

Montreal, New York and the Arctic Circle

The book then shoots forward to New York, 2002, where we meet troubled, isolated and hard-as-rock Annie, who, as a teenager used to cut herself. Now, a fledgling actor, she uses her good looks and sexuality to get what she wants. But lest we think she’s entirely shallow, she takes in a homeless young woman and lets her decamp on the sofa for what turns out to be about six months.

By chapter three, we are in Iqualuit (in the Arctic circle) and it is 2006. Here we meet nice guy Mitch, on the run from a relationship — with the “sexy and brilliantly smart” lawyer Martine and her autistic son, Mathieu — that isn’t working out as he would like.

He did this once before, when he separated from Grace, whom he decided he no longer loved, even though he loved “her values, her personality, her dreams”. In the remote community of Nunavut, he hopes to do something useful with his life by counselling troubled aboriginals.

Two novels in one?

As the novel progresses Mitch’s storyline intersects with Grace’s, when they meet up 10 years after their divorce and establish a tentative friendship. This is a brilliant device at allowing us to see the strengths and weaknesses of each character, to see how their shared history has come back to haunt them and how their failed marriage shaped their outlook and personality. It is somewhat ironic that both are therapists used to counselling others but unable to properly work through their own problems.

Annie’s story, however, almost reads like a separate novel entirely — and despite her tenuous connection to Grace I often wondered what she was doing in the book. That said, she’s a brilliant character and I enjoyed following her exploits from New York to Los Angeles and back again.

Probably the most frustrating character is Tug, because he’s so unknowable. I suspect that’s deliberate on Ohlin’s part, because it is his inability to express himself or to share emotions that draws Grace in — she’s determined to “crack” him. Of course, once she does, the result isn’t pretty — he’s been to Rwanda, hasn’t he, and what he saw has so traumatised him he can no longer function in the real world without closing down his emotional, caring side.

Presumably the book is called Inside because it is about what goes on inside each of these character’s heads, but it would have been more apt to call it Loneliness, or even Good Samaritan. Either way, if you like therapist novels, you may well enjoy this. And if you don’t mind contrived stories about humans floundering about, looking for something or someone to make them happy, add this one to your list.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Womersley, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Bereft’ by Chris Womersley


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 340 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a beautifully realised tale about a Great War soldier returning to his homeland to right a terrible injustice done to him and his murdered sister some ten years earlier. It’s occasionally billed as a crime novel, but I think it’s more akin to literary fiction. Whatever you call it, it’s a terrific read — emotional, involving and thought-provoking.

A claustrophobic time

Bereft is set in 1919 in rural New South Wales. The Spanish flu epidemic is in full swing, and borders between states are closed to stop the spread of the contagion.

In this claustrophobic and occasionally terrifying world, we meet Quinn Walker. Quinn has returned from the Great War, where he served in France and Turkey. He is beset by painful coughing fits from having been gassed and has an ugly scar along his jawline. “You should do something about your face. Cover it up perhaps?” a stranger tells him. “You are frightening the children, you know?”

But there is one child that Quinn does not frighten — and her name is Sadie Fox. She is 12 and has recently been orphaned. She’s hiding out in the hills in an old shack awaiting the arrival of her older brother who went to war. She befriends Quinn and urges him to hide out with her. That’s because Quinn can’t show his face in town — and it is nothing to do with the scar on his jaw.

Laying ghosts of past to rest

In the short prologue to this book, we learn that Quinn was accused of murdering his younger sister in 1909. But before he could be arrested he fled the town — and he has been on the run ever since. He knows that many of the townsmen, including his uncle and his father, want him to hang for the crime.

To put things right, a decade on, he needs to get his mother on side and to confess to her what he knows. But his mother is now dying of influenza and has been quarantined in the family home. The only person who visits her inside the house is her doctor. Her husband, fearful of infection, is living elsewhere (he stands on the veranda and speaks to her through her open bedroom window when he visits).

Quinn, feeling he has nothing to lose, slips into his mother’s bedroom and so begins the process of reconciling the past with the present. His mother initially thinks she is hallucinating — “You resemble my son” — but soon comes to realise that Quinn, thought dead on the battlefield (there is a telegram to prove it), has returned.

Quinn’s tragic story then unfolds via a series of secret conversations with this mother and more personal conversations with bold-as-brass Sadie. And these, in turn, are interlaced with flashbacks to his terrible time at war, memories from his carefree childhood and the events that happened on the day of his sister’s murder.

Restrained and eloquent prose

There’s a quiet, understated style to Womersley’s writing. But despite the restraint of his prose, there’s something quite moving about the way in which he depicts Quinn’s predicament, caught between wanting to clear his name and not wanting to hurt his mother, and all the while coming to terms with the terrible things he witnessed at war, the grief he still feels for his sister and the pain of being ostracised by his family.

And his relationship with the mysterious, witch-like Sadie is beautifully captured. She’s a wonderful character — quirky and brave and resolutely independent — who doubles for the sister Quinn once lost.

Of course, as with most Australian novels, the narrative is strongly tied to the landscape and there are vivid descriptions of the scenery and the wildlife and of the “crackle and hum of the bush”. But, for me, the book’s focus on the war and its personal aftermath is its greatest strength, because Womersley so perfectly captures Quinn’s sense of dislocation, his physical and mental torment, and his struggle to keep going when it would be easier to put an end to it all.

Bereft was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award and the CWA Gold Dagger, and shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year, the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, the ASL Gold Medal for Literature and the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction. It won the 2011 ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the 2011 Indie Award for Best Novel.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Peter Temple, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Truth’ by Peter Temple


Fiction – paperback; Quercus Publishing; 400 pages; 2010.

When I reviewed Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore in 2007 I described it as a “refreshing take on crime fiction, both in setting and style”. So when his follow-up to that novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 I wasn’t too caught up in the hype about it being the first crime novel to win such a prestigious literary prize. I suspected that it probably had strong literary leanings. I was right.

Two killings — are they linked?

Truth is set in Melbourne, Victoria, and focuses on two separate killings — the murder of a young woman in a luxury apartment block and the discovery of three mutilated drug dealers in a warehouse on the other side of the city — which may, or may not, be linked.

But this is not so much a crime novel but an exposé on corruption — of cops, of businessmen, of politicians.

And while it certainly shares characteristics with the detective genre, the book’s central focus is less on the gruesome killings that Inspector Stephen Villani, the head of homicide investigates, but more on the ways in which Villani copes with events happening in his personal and professional life.

Temple’s prose style is also hard to characterise. There are some chapters which move ahead chiefly through dialogue, and these are blunt and snappy, with everyone talking in a staccato rhythm. But elsewhere, when he describes the city or the bushfires raging in the state’s north-west, he’s rather lyrical and poetic.

A hot north-west wind on their faces, another blocking system was idling out in the southern ocean. Two long valleys ran from the north-west towards Selbourne, the main road down one of them. The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with the terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building, throwing red-hot spears and fireballs hundreds of metres ahead, sucking air from trees, houses, people, animals, sucking air out of everything in the landscape, creating its own howling wind, getting hotter and hotter, a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to flowing silver liquids and buckled steel.

Unrelentingly grim

But it has to be said that the story is unrelentingly grim. Villani’s world view is bleak — he’s estranged from his wife but still living in the same house, he is having an affair with a political television journalist, his younger drug-addicted daughter is out on the streets, one of his brothers is about to be struck off as a doctor…

Then there’s the complicated relationship he has with his bullish father, a man who is now refusing to leave his property despite the imminent threat of bushfire.

The state of Villani’s personal life is only matched by his working life, which is also strained to breaking point. He doesn’t feel he’s earned the right to be head of homicide — and there are plenty of others in the force who feel the same way — so he’s constantly on guard, doing things under the radar or taking risks to get results.

Feels claustrophobic

All this means that the book feels claustrophobic — and depressing. I felt heavy-hearted whenever I picked it up and I was anxious to be rid of it.

Here’s but one example of the ugliness that permeates the narrative — this is a description of Melbourne:

Villani remembered when the CBD was still safe enough to walk across on a Friday night. But once the chemicals took over, spread into the suburbs, cops regularly began to see things once rare — teenagers bashing old people, women and children beaten, the punching and kicking and stabbing of neighbours, friends, cab drivers, people on trains, trams, buses, strangers at parties, in pubs and nightclubs, the hacking at people with swords, road-rage attacks, bricks hurled at trams, train drivers.

And 40 pages further, here’s what it’s like to be a police officer in that city:

In uniform, a full understanding of the job slowly dawned. A life spent dealing with the dishonest, the negligent, the deviant, the devious, the desperate, the cruel, the callous, the vicious, the drunk, the drugged, the temporarily deranged and permanently insane, the sick and sad, the sadists, sex maniacs, child molesters, flashers, exhibitionists, women-beaters, wife-beaters, child-beaters, self-mutilators, the homicidal, matricidal, patricidal, fratricidal, suicidal.

I think it’s fair to say that I appreciated Truth — particularly the banter between the cops and the examination of their human failings — but I didn’t like it. The novel was too dark, too edgy, too noirish for me. I found the crime investigation difficult to follow and the subsequent resolution slightly far-fetched. But I wouldn’t mind seeing the film when it finally gets released.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Tom Rachman

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 336 pages; 2010.

In recent years I’ve read several short story collections masquerading as novels. For example, both Alaa As Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers told the individual and interconnected stories of residents living in the same building, the former in Cairo, the latter in Manhattan.

Colum McCann did something similar in last year’s prize-winning novel Let The Great World Spin, using Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire act between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974 as a kind of bridging link to tell the stories of a diverse range of characters living in the city at that time. Even Christos Tsiolkas has got in on the act: his Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, The Slap, looks at the lives and loves of various residents in the Melbourne suburbs, using a controversial slap at a family barbecue as the particular incident that links all the short stories together.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists uses this structure too, but this time the link is a busy newspaper office in downtown Rome where each of the characters is employed. The unnamed paper is an English-language publication with a global readership and is largely staffed by expat Americans. There are 11 characters all told, so that means there are 11 short stories, each of which are roughly 25 pages in length. That’s plenty of space to flesh out their eccentricities and foibles, and to develop them into fully-rounded human beings. But not enough that you get more than a brief snap shot of their present day lives circa 2007.

In between each chapter (short story) Rachman provides a brief update on the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 at a time “when nobody’s making real money out of something like this”, through to its peak in the early 1980s when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high, and then charting its slow decline as circulations and revenues got hit, first by television then the internet, until the present day in which circulation is down, the paper lacks a website and closure looks imminent. It’s a fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, some of which cuts very close to the bone for this particular reader!

The newspaper theme is borne out by the chapter headings, which are all headlines — “Global warming good for ice creams”, “Markets crash over fears of China slowdown”, “Bush slumps to new low in polls” — under which the relevant job title of the particular character is also listed  — everyone from corrections editor, to news editor, editor-in-chief to publisher are represented.

And while much of the content is tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism (think Evelyn Waugh’s delightfully funny Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning), there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; the 30-something business editor who works long, hard hours is so lonely and starved of companionship she becomes involved with the dodgy Irish chap who burgles her flat; the obituary writer has been so sidelined in his career it takes the death of someone close to him to spur him on to achieve better things.

But, typically, the chapter I most enjoyed — “The sex lives of Islamic extremists” — was the stand-out funny one. It tells the story of Winston Cheung, a hapless graduate, who moves to Egypt in order to apply for the job of Cairo stringer despite the fact he doesn’t have a clue about journalism (“Every day in Cairo news events take place. But where? At what time?”). He is led astray by a highly experienced foreign correspondent, Rich Snyder, who is competing for the same job. Rich wears combat trousers, never stops boasting about his scoops and awards (“It’s so dumb – I hate getting awards. And journalism is not a competition. It’s not about that, you know. But, whatever.”) and is an expert freeloader. When he runs off with Winston’s house key and laptop, it looks like Winston’s chance at getting the job is over…

As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business. I have KevinfromCanada to thank for tipping me off about The Imperfectionists and would urge you to read his review for another take on the same book.

Alternatively, you can wait for the film: apparently Brad Pitt’s production company has snapped up the rights to it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, holocaust, literary fiction, Philippe Claudel, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Brodeck’s Report’ by Philippe Claudel

Brodeck's Report

Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 278 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Philippe Claudel is a French writer, film director and academic. I read his first novel, Grey Souls, in November 2006 and described it as “a deeply mysterious, brooding novel”. The same could be said of his second novel, Brodeck’s Report, which evokes the same eerie atmosphere.

The book is set in a village somewhere in northern France near the German border sometime after the Second World War. Or, that is what we are lead to believe, because Claudel might be heavy on the symbolism and the atmosphere, but he is very light on specifics. We can only assume, from the clues that are dotted throughout the narrative, that this is the case.

The story is narrated by Brodeck, a survivor of a (presumably Nazi) concentration camp, who has returned to his village to be with his adopted mother, wife and young daughter. He makes his living by venturing into the nearby mountains to collect data and compile reports on the natural environment for the Government.

But one day he is asked to compile a report of a very different kind. A stranger to the village, dubbed the Anderer (which means “the other”), has been murdered by the locals. The locals now want Brodeck, who was not present when the crime was committed, to “explain what went on from the time he arrived in the village and why they had no choice but to kill him”.

What results is a rather beautiful, occasionally murky but always symbolic, multi-layered narrative which puts the Anderer’s arrival into context and shows how Brodeck, who is kind-hearted, emotionally damaged and psychologically scarred, begins to identify with him. It meanders back and forth, “leaping over time like a hurdle, getting lost on digressions and maybe even, without wishing to, concealing what is essential”.

Fairy tale lore

The story mines a rich seam of fairy tale lore, albeit with a very dark edge, casting the Anderer as “some sort of genie” who arrives in the village wearing “fancy old-style clothes” with a pair of “beasts” as mounts:

The Anderer was a mystery. Nobody knew who he was. Nobody knew where he came from or why he was here. And nobody knew whether he understood them when they spoke in dialect.

Brodeck, also an outsider (and most likely a Jew, with “a tiny piece of flesh missing from between my thighs”), is the only one who welcomes his arrival because it was a “sign of rebirth, a return to life”.

For me, it was as though an iron door that for years had sealed the entrance to a cave had now been opened wide, and the air of the cave had suddenly taken in the wind and the beams of a bright sun. But I could not imagine that sometimes the sun grows bothersome, that its beams, which light up the world, inadvertently illuminate what people are trying to hide.

I could quote hundreds of passages from this novel which show Claudel’s uncanny ability to hint at things without nailing them down. Motifs and symbols abound. And the ambiguity in the storyline only adds to the mystery and profoundness of it.

This is not an easy book to read, because it is so jam-packed with ideas and abstractions, tangents and digressions, but it is profoundly affecting. It’s a novel about love, alienation, memory, forgiveness, betrayal, how the past informs the future, and the terrible, terrible things of which every single human being is capable.

Andrea Maria Schenkel, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘The Murder Farm’ by Andrea Maria Schenkel


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 181 pages; 2009. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

There were four things going for Andrea Maria Schenkel’s The Murder Farm even before I started reading it: it’s a crime novel; the author’s won several awards for it; it’s foreign; and it’s from Quercus, one of my favourite publishers.So, when I cracked it open earlier this afternoon, I expected to enjoy it. I just didn’t realise how much I would enjoy it.

Yes, this is one of those books that draws the reader in and takes you to an unfamiliar time and place. It’s so believable you can feel the story or its setting — in this case an isolated farm in Germany in the 1950s — on your skin.

But what’s most intriguing about this debut novel is its structure, a refreshing take on the crime genre in which the story is told via a series of “testimonies” conducted by an unnamed narrator. From these we learn that the Dankers — a husband, wife, adult daughter and two young grandchildren — have never been well liked, so when they are found slaughtered in their home, along with their new maid, there are plenty of likely motives for the crime. But even the village grapevine, which goes into overdrive, is filled with conflicting theories and stories, so it’s hard to distinguish fact from gossip.

Like the best crime fiction, Schenkel offers a steady drip feed of information, dotting little clues here and there to give the reader a reason to keep turning the pages in the hope to discover exactly what happened and who might have done it. The prose style is clinical and clipped throughout, but that only adds to the bleak atmosphere of the book, helped in part by beautiful descriptions of the weather:

There’s a milky white veil over the landscape. Mist, typical for this time of year. The first swathes of it are drifting over from the outskirts of the woods towards the meadow and the house. It’s late afternoon and the day will soon be coming to an end. Dusk is slowly gathering.

Such vivid scene-setting makes the story seem all the more chilling, as does the period in which the story is set. It might be ten years after the end of the Second World War but people are still closed off, still blind to the very things going on under their noses, because it’s easier to get on with your own life that way.

The Murder Farm is fiction but it’s highly reminscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, so if you read that book and liked it, you’re sure to enjoy this one just as much. It’s a cracking read-in-one-sitting type of book, and one that marks Schenkel as a writer to watch.