20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Consolation’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 394 pages; 2020.

Consolation is the third book in Garry Disher’s “Constable Paul Hirschhausen” series of crime novels. Last week it won Best Crime Fiction at the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards.

I have previously read and reviewed the two earlier novels in the series — Bitter Wash Road and Peace — and thought both immensely rewarding crime reads. Consolation is more of the same.

Crimes in winter

In this novel, which is set in the middle of winter (about six months on from the previous book in the series), things are relatively quiet for Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, who runs a one-man police station in Tiverton, a small town about three hours north of Adelaide. Much of his work is proactive and community-based. Twice a week he carries out long-range patrols, driving through cold and muddy conditions, to visit remote properties to check on residents.

The only thing that is causing concern is the presence of a “snowdropper” — Australian slang for someone who steals clothing from a clothesline — in town. He (or she) has a penchant for old ladies’ underwear and is causing a bit of a stir.

But that ongoing crime soon gets superseded by a string of other potentially more serious crimes, including a stock agent said to be ripping off local investors in a failed “get rich quick” property scam. The agent has pissed off two investors, a father and son team, who have decided to take the law into their own hands, with potentially devastating (and violent) consequences.

Meanwhile, a school teacher tells Hirsch that she is worried about one of her remote students whom she teaches via the internet. When Hirsch drives out to the property to carry out a welfare check, he finds the girl living in appalling conditions, tied up in a caravan, and has to take drastic action to save her.

And no sooner is Hirsch investigating that situation than he is alerted to another problem: an elderly lady in town has discovered that she’s been defrauded of thousands of dollars. But who is the culprit? Her hippy niece? Or the well-meaning neighbours who have eyes on her property?

All these myriad crimes, which have to be investigated concurrently, occur just as Hirsch’s boss, the sergeant based in the next biggest town, is forced to take sick leave. This means Hirsch is now acting sergeant, leading these investigations while looking after two younger officers only a year out of police school. Is he up to the job?

UK edition

For those that have followed this series from the start, Consolation offers some rewarding character development.

Hirsch, a whistleblower banished to Tiverton from the city in the first novel, has finally found his feet after a rocky start. He is familiar with the area now, knows all the people who live in it, and even has a steady girlfriend: Wendy Street, whom he first met in Bitter Wash Road. (The charming relationship he has with his girlfriend’s daughter is particularly edifying and is one of the nicest things about this book.)

He’s more “rural wise”, too, and knows how to handle the roads, the conditions and the remoteness of the area, constantly looking for those “two bars” on his mobile phone whenever he thinks he might be entering dangerous territory and in need of quick communication.

Realistic police procedural

I think what’s interesting about this series is that Disher isn’t solely focused on throwing in one big crime and having his protagonist solve it. In this novel, Hirsch is dealing with multiple crimes, from fraud to child neglect, and running the investigations on a shoestring, sometimes with the help of more senior police from the city, but always having to do it against the clock while managing local sensitivities.

Perhaps the only element of Consolation I wasn’t too sure about was a storyline involving Hirsch being stalked by a lonely woman who takes a shine to him, only because it didn’t always ring true.

That aside, this is another fine example of “rural noir” by Garry Disher and I hope he’s penning a new one in this series. If he is, I will be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 20th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store when it was published late last year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Peace’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 432 pages; 2020.

Peace is the second in Garry Disher’s trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”.  I read the first, Bitter Wash Road, late last year and considered it one of the best Australian crime novels I had ever read.

This one is just as good, but it’s (pleasingly) not more of the same. There’s a shift in focus to rural policing and the insidious ways in which city crime can seep into isolated locations, helped partly by the rise in social media. There’s also a minor narrative thread about an unrecognised massacre of the local indigenous population by a pioneer of the district, suggesting that crime has always permeated the ground upon which Hirsch now treads.

In fact, it’s the isolated rural setting (the northern part of South Australia, about three hours from Adelaide), which gives this police procedural a distinctive Australian flavour.

In this dry farmland country, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen runs a one-cop station and spends a lot of his time on the road carrying out welfare checks and following up on petty crimes such as vandalism and the theft of household items. But in this novel, set during the supposedly festive season, the crimes Hirsch has to investigate escalate from the predictable Christmas time pub brawls, drunk driving offences and traffic accidents to more serious incidents, including murder.

First, a middle-aged woman from the local “crime family”, crashes her car into the local pub. Later, a young child is locked in a hot car and almost dies.

But when the local pony breeder has several of her show ponies slaughtered in a vicious attack, attracting the attention of the national media, the entire community feels put on alert and Hirsch knows he’s not going to have a particularly peaceful Christmas. Who would brutally stab animals and leave them to die slow, painful deaths? What sort of criminal is living in the town’s midst? And will he (or she) turn their attention to humans next?

The UK edition of Peace

A slow burner, but worth the effort

Peace is a bit of a slow burner and not quite as complex as its predecessor. This novel is more about small-town life, the characters that live in it, the (small) power plays that go on between citizens and the grudges and resentments that people harbour against neighbours and acquaintances.

To get to the bottom of what’s going on, Hirsch must use his social and networking skills as much as his police skills.

It’s only when the “heavy-duty” crime occurs — a murder of a woman in an isolated farmhouse — that the book becomes a proper page-turner involving car chases, line searches and a dogged hunt for the perpetrator. The investigation, which isn’t straightforward, draws in other police, including those from Sydney, some of whom have questionable agendas of their own.

It all makes for a cracking read, one that addresses bullying, animal cruelty, domestic violence and police corruption.

As ever the characterisation is spot on whether Disher is writing about the small town crims, the local male meddler, the dedicated GP, the troubled community “outcast”, the shop girl or the neighbouring police sergeant.

I raced through it in no time, and look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy soon.

Peace was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was a Sunday Times “crime pick of the month” in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store in November 2020.

Amanda Lohrey, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Text

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

Fiction – paperback; Text publishing; 256 pages; 2020.

I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this intriguing novel, which I won in a prize draw that Lisa ran on her blog last year. (You can read Lisa’s review here.)

Amanda Lohrey is a new-to-me Australian author, but she’s written many books and essays, been nominated for numerous awards and won a handful of prestigious ones, including the Patrick White Award in 2012.

The Labyrinth is her eighth novel, which has just been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award (which I’ve neglected to even mention on this blog because I’ve been otherwise occupied).

Deeply contemplative story

Set on the coast, it’s a deeply contemplative tale starring all the topics I love reading about in novels — guilt, redemption, moral culpability, insanity, art and the complex, sometimes fraught relationships between parents and children — so any wonder I loved it.

The focus of the story is Erica Marsden, an older woman, who grew up in an asylum (her father was a psychiatrist). This is an important detail because it shows how she is attuned to madness in the world. Now, having quit her job, she has moved into an isolated, rather rundown shack by the beach. She’s cut herself off from family and friends so that she can spend time alone to mend a broken heart, to grieve for something she has lost.

But her grief is not the result of a romance gone wrong. Her son, Daniel, has been imprisoned for a brutal homicide he committed, and Erica, shocked to the core, refuses to give up on him even though his crime weighs heavy on her. Indeed, her new home is only a relatively short drive from the prison in which he’s incarcerated, which means she can visit him — whether he likes it or not. (Her visits, it has to be said, are painfully evoked, brimming with hurt and anger and incomprehension. I felt myself squirming in my seat as I read these scenes.)

Twin projects

In the long gaps between visiting hours, Erica focuses on two separate projects.

The first is to destroy Dan’s extensive book collection —  at his request — by burning individual tomes in a painstaking daily ritual that she ekes out for as long as possible. She even hires a local schoolgirl to help arrange the books in alphabetical order, a completely unnecessary task, but one that helps delay the books’ inevitable destruction.

The second is to build a labyrinth out of local stone, a work of art that she spends many hours planning, in the knowledge the act of building it will help her out of her current muddled frame of mind, not quite believing her son has carried out such a horrific crime. And when the labyrinth is complete she will be able to walk its one single path to the centre as a way to calm her mind.

First the making—I recalled my father’s words: the cure for many ills is to build something—and then the repetition, the going over and over so that time would rupture and be stopped in its flow. And I could live in an infinitely expanding present in which there was no nostalgia, no consequence, no outcome or false promise. The future meant nothing. Since my past and my future were hitched to my son’s life sentence, I felt that if I stepped outside the present I risked being turned to stone.

She can’t make the labyrinth alone, however, and after ruling out a local architect who lives nearby, she hires a homeless man, living in the sand dunes to help her.

Jurko, it turns out, is an illegal immigrant, who has abandoned his family on the other side of the world and has secrets of his own to keep. Erica’s relationship with him, which develops gently over time from client to friend to lodger, is one of the strengths of the novel, for it shows how her cool exterior begins to thaw as trust is gained and confidences exchanged.

The importance of friendship, it would appear, is one of the novel’s central themes, for Erica wants to be alone, but in a small tight-knit community on the coast, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, it’s difficult to remain reclusive without being seen as aloof or someone of whom to be suspicious. She slowly builds up relationships with neighbours and acquaintances, learning to let herself live again, learning to open her heart to the world.

The Labyrinth is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s a rare example of a story that is both disquieting and yet deeply satisfying. It’s intimate and honest and brims with all kinds of important questions about what it is to reckon with the past and navigate the future.

This is my 12th book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I won it in a prize draw last summer.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Loraine Peck, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Text

‘The Second Son’ by Loraine Peck

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 447 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Loraine Peck’s debut, The Second Son, is a gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs.

The story is framed around a married couple, Johnny and Amy Novak, who are members of an organised crime family headed by Milan Novak, a Croatian immigrant. Amy is particularly keen to shield their young son, Sasha, from the family “business”, which involves running a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.

The novel begins with the execution-style murder of Johnny’s beloved older brother, Ivan, who is fatally shot one dark evening while doing that most mundane (and unglamorous) of domestic duties: putting out the bins. The hitman is thought to be one of the gang’s Serbian rivals. Revenge is on everyone’s mind and police fear this will be the start of an ongoing tit-for-tat gangland war.

Johnny, who is the second son of the title, needs to prove himself worthy of filling the power vacuum created by Ivan’s death. To avenge his brother and win the trust and respect of his father, he comes up with a plan to carry out a daring heist to steal the Serb’s planned shipment of ecstasy said to be worth $3 million.

But there are complications. Amy, who was warned by her comfortably middle-class parents not to marry Johnny, wants a different life. She sees the violence and the bloodshed, and fears for her son’s future. When their own family home is shot at, she moves out and then issues an ultimatum to her husband: leave this life of crime behind and start afresh on the NSW north coast.

Johnny’s loyalties are torn: he loves his wife and son, but he also knows that he can’t risk the wrath of his father, nor the gangland criminals in his orbit. Whatever decision he makes will have far-reaching, perhaps even deadly, consequences…

Action-packed drama

The Second Son is an action-packed drama that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women they have married. For instance, how can you live your life like a normal couple when you know your husband is a criminal even if you don’t know the depth or the details of the crime? Can you simply turn a blind eye, lie to your friends and then hope that none of the fallout will ever effect you?

Told in the first person from both Johnny and Amy’s points of view, Peck explores how these dilemmas affect both parties. Their narratives are told in separate chapters (which are headed “Johnny” or “Amy” accordingly), which helps provide a glimpse of their thought processes and their values, but unfortunately, their voices are so similar (and the present tense so wearing) that the structure didn’t really work for me. I also struggled to believe the male voice, which was too nuanced and too “nice”, and found Amy’s voice repetitive.

The book held the promise of being an intriguing character-led story, but it dissolved into a plot-driven one that didn’t really sustain my interest. I suspect that’s because I simply didn’t care about the characters, but also because the momentum sags in the middle, but picks up again towards the end.

Perhaps I have watched one too many Underbelly episodes or true crime documentaries, or read too many Mafiosa crime novels, but this story lacked the hard-hitting noirish edge I would expect from a novel about organised crime. It didn’t feel claustrophobic or dark enough; there always felt like there was the possibility of escape for the characters — indeed, this is what Amy dreams of all the time — and yet anyone who knows anything about this world knows that that is not possible. There is no escape — except death.

That said, The Second Son would make an excellent film or TV series. It asks important questions about love, loss and loyalty within an organised crime family. And it explores a topic rarely, if ever discussed, in Australian fiction: the ways in which grudges and resentments from the 1990s Balkan civil war continue on the streets of Sydney.

Judging by all the glowing five-star reviews online, I’m a little out of step with this one. For a more positive take, please see Shellyrae’s review at Book’d Out.

About the author¹: Loraine Peck started her career as a portrait painter and magician’s assistant in Sydney. After being sawn in half one too many times, she switched to dealing blackjack on the Gold Coast. Bartending and slinging lobsters in the US lead to a sales job in the movie industry before she was propelled into a career in marketing in Australia, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Consumed by a desire to write crime thrillers, she decided to stop everything and do a writing course—to learn how to write the kind of book she loves to read. (1. Source: Text Publishing website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 6th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 4th book for #AWW2021.  

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

Love and loss, the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, growing up in outback Australia, and strained relationships between sisters all feature heavily in Gail Jones’ latest novel Our Shadows.

Outback setting

This gently nuanced novel is largely set in the outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth, in Western Australia.

Against this dramatic landscape, we follow the lives of two sisters, Nell and Frances, who are raised by their grandparents following the death of their mother sometime in the 1980s. (Their father flees — whether from shock or grief or a refusal to be responsible for his two daughters, we don’t know — and is never seen again.)

It charts the closeness of their childhood, united in orphanhood and by a love of art, reading and a desire to visit the sea. (The print of Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave, part of which is reproduced on the book’s cover, plays a key role in their childhood fantasy to one day paddle in the ocean.)

But when the book opens, the sisters, vastly different in temperament and personality, are now 30-something adults living in Sydney and they are estranged. Frances, the introverted one, is a widow, her husband having died from mesothelioma, an excruciating lung disease, and her days are now spent visiting her grandmother, Else, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.

The plot, which is is split into two parts, largely focuses on the sisters’ relationship, how it splintered and whether it can be repaired. It looks at the history of their parents (how they met, fell in love and got married) and their maternal grandparents (who, bowed by grief, had to raise their daughter’s children) to create a beguiling portrait of three generations of the one family.

The second part of the novel looks at Frances’ return to Kalgoorlie to rediscover her roots and find out more about the father she never knew.

Interleaved through this story of an outback family is another story — that of the real-life Irishman, Paddy Hannan, who was the first to discover gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893 and is largely known as the founder of the town.

An unexpected treat

Admittedly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this author. I have read four of Gail Jones’ books now and fallen in love with some titles (Five Bells and Sixty Lights), felt lukewarm about others (A Guide to Berlin) and not liked very much at all (Sorry), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. I didn’t have to worry. This was an unexpected treat.

I read Our Shadows on the seven-hour train ride back from Kalgoorlie, having visited for a few days earlier this month, and it certainly captured the feeling of this outback gold mining town with its super-wide streets (so that camel trains could turn around), rich colonial architecture and mining infrastructure, including the super pit gold mine, which is referenced a lot in the story (see my pictures below).

The Super Pit was visible from space. Everyone said so. She remembered the day of the inauguration, the mayor, the mining officials, the politicians in their grey suits, the way her class had to stand in the sun, squinting in lines on a dais, and sing the national anthem. As a child she imagined herself in space with a small rocket strapped to her back; she would look down and see the Super Pit reduced to a dark blot. It reassured her to imagine in this way, lofty and unconcerned.

There’s always something about reading a book set in a place you have visited (or are visiting) that makes the story resonate more, and that was certainly the case with this one.

As ever, Jones’ work is subtle, her writing polished and poetic, and she is an expert at nuance, expertly capturing moods, expressions and the interconnectedness between people that makes life so rich and varied. Her descriptions of people, places and time periods are evocative and her characters all-too-human, flawed but believable.

Our Shadows is not a fast-paced novel and, as such, it is not one to race through. Instead, it’s one to linger over, to savour the language and the feelings the story evokes.

This is my 22nd — and final — book for #AWW2020.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 336 pages; 2013.

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) by Garry Disher is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. It has been described as the “gold standard for Australian noir” — and I’d have to agree. I haven’t enjoyed a distinctively Australian crime novel as good as this for a while.

Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

It shares certain traits with Jane Harper’s best-selling The Dry — which arguably put Australian crime novels on the international map in recent times — but predates it by three years and is far more accomplished, evocative and complex.

Whistleblower exiled to a small town

The story goes something like this. As a whistleblower, reporting on corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen has had his promising city career cut short. Now, exiled in Tiverton, a tiny speck of a town in the wheatbelt, he deals with low-level crime.

As if adjusting to life alone in a strange town isn’t enough, his new colleagues in the nearest big town, where his boss is based, hate and despise him, and he is constantly on alert because he knows there are certain people who would rather he just disappeared.

In the opening chapter, when he’s called out to investigate gunshots on the isolated Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch realises he’s completely exposed. If anyone is going to kill him, this is the perfect place to set up an ambush. But who could it be? The very police officers who should be providing him with back up? Or the pair of fugitive killers who had last been seen in town, heading for Longreach, more than 2,000km away, in a distinctive black Chrysler?

He’s wrong on both counts, but it sets up the mood for the rest of the novel, for Hirsch is a policeman whose integrity and honesty is challenged at almost every turn, a man who fears for his life, who worries about his city-based parents who have been threatened in the past, and struggles to fit in to a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but tend to keep themselves to themselves.

UK edition

Complex murder mystery

Once the character of Hirsch has been established, the book gets into the nitty-gritty of a complex murder investigation in which a teenage girl is found dead, lying facedown in a ditch by the side of the road, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run.

The investigation is far from straight forward and before long Hirsch realises that there are vested interests and hidden agendas at work. As an outsider in an isolated country town, getting answers out of anyone proves increasingly difficult. What are people hiding? And does it have anything to do with his role as a police whistleblower?

Bitter Wash Road, with its multiple plot lines, focuses on a disturbing murder that highlights how no police force (or station) is immune from corruption and vested interests. It also shows how the closing of ranks against an outsider can obscure the pursuit of justice — with devastating consequences.

Intelligent crime novels don’t come much better than this — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series, which comprises Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards and won the German Crime Prize in 2016. It is widely available in all territories.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Joey Bui, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, UAE, Vietnam

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2019.

Joey Bui’s Lucky Ticket is a collection of short stories recently shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020, which is why I read it.

A Vietnamese-Australia writer, Bui comes to these stories with an eye for the outsider. Her fiction tends to champion the underdog or the unseen.

In the title story, for instance, we meet a disabled old man —  a former foot soldier in the Cambodian War — who sells lottery tickets on a street corner in Sàigòn. He walks around on his knuckles (because he doesn’t have legs), smiling and laughing all day — “That’s a big part of my job” — hoping that people will buy a ticket from him with little to no persuasion.

When a lady buys a ticket from him and hands it over, wishing him good luck, he’s convinced the ticket is a lucky one. He does everything he can to hold onto that ticket, but as he traverses the city, doing business, meeting friends, enjoying drinks, he accidentally resells it — but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he recalls all his “good fortune” in a life that to anyone else would look anything but.

In another story, “Abu Dhabi Gently”, we meet a migrant worker who leaves Zanzibar in a bid to make enough money to provide his wife with a better standard of living. But life in the UAE is a struggle. He gets caught in an infinite loop of red tape that prevents the reimbursement of his recruitment fee — a staggering $US980 — so that he has to work long hours in a university cafeteria to repay back what he has already paid. His passport is held as a form of security, preventing him from returning home.

Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends — “There weren’t many Africans working at the university. Most of the other workers were Filipinos and Indians” — and becomes very lonely. Contact with his wife and his sisters in Zanzibar becomes repetitive and lacks meaning because they don’t understand what he is going through and he isn’t confident enough to tell them the truth. It’s a melancholy story, but one that ends on a hopeful note.

In fact, most of the stories in this collection trade on the idea that life is messy and complicated, that relationships can become strained, that racial identity, gender and socio-economic background can amplify pain, and yet this diverse range of tales and voices is not depressing. Every story ends on a relatively positive note — even if it is just a character coming to terms with their circumstances.

Earlier this year Lucky Ticket was longlisted for the Stella Prize, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. It’s an enlightening collection full of memorable characters and written in a straightforward, forthright prose style. I am hoping this talented writer tackles a novel next; I’d love to read it.

This is my 4th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 19th book for #AWW2020.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Text

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 202 pages; 2018.

I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this quite remarkable novel because it was her review that first drew my attention to it.

Taken on face value, Glenda Guest’s A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline could be mistaken for a maudlin story about Alzheimer’s — but it is much more than that.

It’s the kind of richly layered novel I really like, one that mixes a journey (in this case by train across the width of the Australian continent) with an immersive back story about one woman’s markedly independent life. And at the heart of it, there’s a long-buried family betrayal that has thrown a shadow over everything that has happened since.

But it’s also filled with quiet moments of joy, little accomplishments and achievements, and everyday triumphs that make up a life.

A journey to remember

The Cassandra Aberline of the title is a woman in her sixties, a former stage actress turned university lecturer, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — “I found myself on the wrong bus. Then, in a tutorial, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be talking about” —  and wants to put a few things in order before the illness renders her an invalid.

Route of the Indian Pacific trainShe books an expensive premium class train ticket on the transcontinental Indian Pacific to travel from Sydney to Perth, where she hopes to visit the family she ran away from some 45 years ago to make amends.

Her story is broken up into stages along the 4,352km journey — “Sydney to Broken Hill, 2.55pm to 6.30am”; “Broken Hill to Adelaide, 8.20am to 3.05pm” etc — and covers what happens to her along the way, including the people she meets and the places she sees. This is interleaved with recollections of her life as a young woman, having stolen money from her father in the Western Australian wheat belt to reinvent herself on the other side of the country in Sydney, where she initially lived in rough-and-ready King’s Cross and worked in a tattoo parlour.

As the train makes its way across Australia, the view out the window of the “deserted, eternal landscape that is full of the unknowable” is a metaphor for what awaits her at the other end — of her journey and her life.

Compelling story about memory

A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline is a compelling novel about memory, including what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, and how a disease like Alzheimer’s can take away those choices.

The Cassandra Aberline you are today is not the one you were at eighteen or twenty. It’s only our memory that ties us to those young selves.

It’s also a story about the decisions we make and how it is possible to strike out on your own if you have the resilience and desire to do so, and the ways in which it is possible to reinvent yourself.

While it’s very much a character-driven tale, it’s also a page-turner thanks to its mysterious plot, which is topped off by a neatly drawn, yet believable, conclusion. Five stars.

Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it too.

Unfortunately, this book is only available in ebook form outside of Australia. Check bookfinder.com for paperback editions, or you can order direct from Text Publishing.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local secondhand bookshop last year. This is also my 13th book for #AWW2020.

And because the author grew up in Western Australia, I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mary Costello, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text

‘The River Capture’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Text; 257 pages; 2019.

Mary Costello’s The River Capture is a gently moving novel about a lonely young man who falls in love before it morphs into something else entirely: a stream of consciousness-like tale that mirrors the man’s descent into a short-lived madness.

A book of two halves

When the book opens we meet Luke O’Brien, an English teacher with specialist knowledge of James Joyce and his masterpiece Ulysses.

He has taken a leave of absence to work on a book about his favourite topic but this has been extended beyond the planned year following the death of his beloved mother. Now, living alone on the family farm, which is situated on a bend in the River Sullane in Co. Cork, he spends much of his time reading, walking the farm, ruminating about his family’s past (a string of tragic deaths in the 1940s that had long-lasting repercussions) and running errands for his elderly Aunt Ellen who lives nearby.

One day his quiet existence is disrupted with the arrival of a woman called Ruth, who has her uncle’s dog in her car. “He’s gone into a nursing home,” she explains. “I have to go back to Dublin and I can’t take him [the dog] with me.”

“I’m sorry for barging in on you like this,” she says. “They told me in SuperValu that you might want a dog. I was going to put up a notice and the woman at the till said you might be interested.”

Luke, who has a “bleeding heart for animals”, takes in the dog, partly because he is instantly attracted to Ruth. Their relationship plays out over the course of a few weeks, tentative at first because Ruth is wary of Luke’s almost immediate confession that he has had relationships with both men and women in the past (“I like to think of myself as just… sexual, not bisexual or straight or gay or any other label”), but before long the relationship becomes serious.

A demand to end the romance

Luke introduces Ruth to his Aunt Ellen, who is initially delighted that her nephew has found a companion because she truly wants him to be happy. But the day after the meeting Ellen orders an end to the relationship — “She’s bad news, Luke. Give her up.”

This demand throws Luke into a desperate tailspin. His devotion and loyalty to his aunt, and, in turn, the family name, supersedes his own happiness. (Note that I haven’t revealed Ellen’s reasoning because I don’t wish to spoil the plot.)

He breaks it off with Ruth via email and then spends an evening getting exceedingly drunk on Tempranillo and whiskey, descending into a single night of madness in which he cross-examines himself in a kind of parody of “Ithaca”, the penultimate chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

To what does he now turn his attention?
To the copy of Ulysses propped open (at pages 776 and 777) on the bookstand.

 

What does the sight of Ulysses, or the mere thought of it, always provoke in him?
Evocations of home. Metaphorical home, repose of the soul. A longing for Bloom, for filial love, fellow feeling.

 

Has he read the novel, in consecutive pages, up to this point?
He has circled back and forth in a haphazard but sometimes chronological pattern. Since his first reading (haphazardly) in the second term of First Year English at UCD in 1997, during which he failed to complete the Cyclops, Oxers of the Sun and Circe episodes, he has, on many occasions, read random episodes in their entirety and certain (favoured) episodes repeatedly, chronologically, obsessively (Emmau, Ithaca and Penelope).

Not a book to rush through

The River Capture is the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for; it requires patience and a slow reading to get the most out of it. It is not a book to rush through. It is filled with metaphors and recurring themes — when the soul begins, how water moves, the restrictive nature of labels, and the influence of sexually transmitted diseases on the creative process  — and is particularly focused on love and loyalty.

There are, as you might expect, many references to Joyce and Ulysses, but I don’t think you necessarily have to know much about either to enjoy the book. I have read Ulysses so some of the references — lines and scenes and characters from the book — resonated, particularly the following line:

Why does Bloom, at thirty-eight, seem so old — old enough for Stephen to pronounce him ‘a profound ancient male’?

That’s because when I began reading The River Capture I was under the illusion that Luke was in his 50s only to discover he was 34 and just living the life of an older man.

But equally, much of the book has no direct link to Ulysses, not least the idea of the “river capture”, a geological process by which one river captures the flow of another river or drainage system. This thwarting of one stream of water could be seen to be a metaphor for Luke’s life when Ellen demands that he give up a fledgling romance, forcing him to follow a different path, as it were.

Ultimately, as much as I admired The River Capture it didn’t quite live up to my love of  Costello’s debut novel Academy Street, published in 2014, which one of the best novels I have EVER read. I hold her short story collection, The China Factory, in similar high regard. I would recommend either of those as good introductions to her work.

This is my 4th book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published in Australia last October (the receipt tucked inside reveals that the actual date of purchase was 22 October) but kept putting off reading it because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my high expectation…

Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.