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

‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous creature 

First edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A&R Classics, Australia, Author, Book review, Colin Jackson / Mudrooroo, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Wild Cat Falling’ by Mudrooroo

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 160 pages; 2001.

Mudrooroo was the pen name of Colin Thomas Johnson (1938-2019), a novelist, poet, essayist and playwright. He was once described as “the voice of Indigenous Australia” because his writing mainly focused on Aboriginal issues and featured Australian Aboriginal characters.

Wild Cat Falling, first published in 1965, was his debut novel. According to the publisher, it was held up as “the first novel by any writer of Aboriginal blood to be published in Australia”.

He traced his ancestry to the Noongar^ nation of Western Australia, but in 1996 Noongar elders rejected his claim.

Despite this controversy over his Aboriginality (of which you can read more on his Wikipedia page), I still wanted to read this novel as part of my project to read more books by First Nations Writers. From what I can gather, he was brought up as Aboriginal, thought of himself as Black and writes from personal experience.

What made this book unique at the time was the fact that it highlights how the Australian judicial system, and the wider community, was prejudiced against Aboriginal Australians, a systematic problem that still exists more than half a century later.

But all that aside, Wild Cat Falling plays an important role in the Australian literary canon because it’s a brilliant book in its own right. It’s stylish, compelling and memorable. And I ate it up in about two sittings.

Release from jail

First edition

A gripping first-person account of a young Aboriginal man’s life, Wild Cat Falling is narrated by a nameless youth who describes himself as a “bodgie” ^^. He is about to be released from Fremantle Prison where he’s been incarcerated for the past 18 months for petty criminality.

Today the end and the gates will swing to eject me, alone and so-called free. Another debt paid to society and I never owed it a thing.

His voice, intimate and forthright, is tinged with anger, the arrogance of youth and a melancholy sense of futility, that this is his lot in life and there’s no use hoping for anything better. Jail has been a refuge for him, a place where he’s been safe and accepted by others, had a decent roof over his head and three meals a day.

The story, which is split into three parts, charts what happens to him after he walks free, as he tries to adjust to life back in society as a “half-breed delinquent”.

It’s a tale of an emotionally detached man — “I trained myself this way so no phoney emotion can touch me” — who is desperate, perhaps unconsciously, to connect with others and to defy expectation.

But on his first day of freedom , there’s really only one thing on his mind, and that is sex.

An encounter on the beach

When he meets an attractive young woman, a psychology student, on the beach, he strikes up a conversation with her, explaining how his education, first at an ordinary school, then a boy’s home, followed by the Noongar camps and latterly jail, has been unconventional. And he makes no bones about the fact he has no real plans now he’s free beyond getting drunk and sleeping with women until his prison pay runs out because he’ll be put in jail soon enough even if he doesn’t do anything wrong.

The woman, June, is perplexed.

“You haven’t got a clue,” I tell her. “They make the law so chaps like me can’t help breaking it whatever we do, and the likes of you can hardly break it if you try.”
“How do you mean?” she asks.
“For one thing. We make the only friends we have in jail, but if we’re seen talking outside we’re arrested for consorting with crims.”

When she later accuses him of being lazy, of bludging on the taxpayer, he feels the “old bitter taste of resentment in my mouth”.

Nothing ever up to them. Only up to us, the outcast relics in the outskirt camps. The lazy, ungrateful rubbish people, who refuse to cooperate or integrate or even play it up for the tourist trade. Flyblown descendants of the dispossessed erupting their hopelessness in petty crime. I glare at her with concentrated hate. I want to wither her glib white arrogance with biting scorn, but I can’t find the words.

A friendly invite

Perhaps because she’s interested enough to get to know him a bit better, June throws down the gauntlet and suggests he meet her and her friends at the coffee lounge at her university the next evening, which he does. The encounter is enlightening — for it’s clear he’s there as a kind of social experiment, giving a group of white students a chance to speak to an Aboriginal for the first time. He plays up to it a bit, but his inner resentment is writ large on the page.

Maybe she thinks if she keeps it up [her racism masquerading as white empathy] I will leap out and do a corroboree in the middle of the floor.

Sick of the group’s condescension, he has a bit of fun with them by offering his bulldust opinion about a painting hanging on the wall — “a revolting mess of hectic semi-circles and triangles” — that seems to impress them. He holds his own talking about art and jazz, winning further admiration and a rare invite to an evening house party.

The narrative continues to unfurl in this kind of spontaneous manner as he goes about his business, sleeps with a couple of women, is reacquainted with his mother, hangs out with the university mob and reconnects with his former bodgie mob. But there’s trouble brewing because he’s finding it hard to suppress the memories from his troubled past that keep coming back to haunt him.

When he decides to steal a car and go on a road trip, a new, dangerous edginess creeps into the storyline — and any chance of redemption seems remote.

Dramatic ending

Wild Cat Falling is a powerful tale, of a Black man on the margins, someone who is indifferent to the two worlds in which he must navigate, a lost soul who doesn’t understand himself much less the culture and country that’s been denied him.

It has a dramatic climax, one that involves a policeman and a pair of handcuffs, which suggests the story is going to end exactly where it began — in prison.

Bill at The Australian Legend has also reviewed this book.

^ Also spelt Noongah, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah and Yunga.

^^ An informal Australian term for a teenage subculture from the 1950s, depicted as loutish and rebellious. See this Wikipedia entry for more detail.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

Please note, Wild Cat Falling is only available in Australia. International readers can order it from independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

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

‘The Bodysurfers’ by Robert Drewe

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lang family chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Night Parrot Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Ros Thomas, Setting

‘How to Shame the Devil’ by Ros Thomas

Fiction – paperback; Night Parrot Press; 183 pages; 2021.

Book groups are going to have a field day with this novel published by Night Parrot Press, a relatively new indie based here in Perth that focuses on “experimental forms and genres outside the mainstream”. (More about them here.)

Ros Thomas’ How to Shame the Devil caught me in its grip from the start. I laughed and tittered my way through the first 100 or so pages. Indeed, it gave me a warm glow. It felt upbeat, almost joyous, the kind of story you want to press into people’s hands with a “here, read this” message. (I actually did this, prematurely it turns out, on my Instagram account.)

But then something happens and the book takes on a distinctively different feel. Darker. More confronting. And I wasn’t sure I liked it very much anymore. It made me feel icky. And I didn’t believe the central character’s reaction was authentic.

So how do I write this review without giving away key plot spoilers? I also realise that if I mention the issue at the heart of this novel not only will it spoil the plot, it may also be triggering for some readers.

So forgive me if this all sounds a bit vague. I’m just going to try to give a general flavour of the story, which is largely set in a nursing home in the Perth suburb of Shenton Park.

Nursing home resident

The protagonist, Arthur Lambkin, is 78 and has Parkinson’s, though he seems quite capable and manages his condition with medication. He claims he didn’t want to burden his two daughters with his care, hence he moved into Ashton Grange, a salmon-pink care home located just a stone’s throw from the local hospital.

Art’s main interest is penning witty letters to the daily newspaper, his “connection to the world”. It’s like a competitive hobby for him, complete with rivals — Roy Windleburn of City Beach, Bob Herriot from Palymra and John Ferranti from Scarborough — who also write letters. He keeps an unofficial scorecard and gets upset when they get more letters published than he does. The letters, it has to be said, are hilarious:

To the editor

Sir,

As a lifelong vegetarian, I am heartily sick of vegans and the amount of attention being paid to them. Veganism has become a cult populated by food obsessives who spend their non-grazing hours denigrating omnivores for their choices. Possibly because their food tastes like dirt. I suggest they take a long hard look at the water they drink. That’s a fish’s home, you savages.

Yours,

Martin Drinkwater,
Shenton Park.

A ladies’ man

He also has an eye for the ladies, which sounds charming, to begin with, but there are little asides and comments which make you wonder if he is as innocent as he makes out.

This dichotomy is fleshed out via flashbacks that take us to Art’s childhood, early adulthood and his courtship of Hazel Hopkins, a nurse, who later becomes his wife and the mother of their two daughters.

From the outset, the marriage seems incompatible because they have different ideas about sex. Art wants it; Hazel doesn’t. Art also rails against Hazel’s desire to seek conformity, stability and routine.

Art thought conformity was deadening. He’d wanted a frenzy of living: to throw each day to the wind and see what landed. He wanted his wife to be recklessly in love with him. He wanted to be admired, to feel invincible, to share the tonic of wildness. He wanted danger and excitement and the chance to sacrifice himself for love.

He makes up for a dull home life by focusing on his career. He leaves his job as a hospital orderly, where he met Hazel, and becomes a hugely successful used car salesman at Motorama, which he transforms into “Perth’s number one Holden dealership”. Later, in the heyday of commercial radio, he takes a role as an advertising salesman for Sky FM, earning big bucks and making a name for himself.

A man’s world

Reading between the lines of How to Shame the Devil, the author cleverly highlights the misogyny at work and play during Art’s lifetime.

My major issue with this novel — again, without going into specifics — is that it’s written by a woman from a man’s (imagined) perspective and it doesn’t ring true (to me). I had a hard time swallowing Art’s ability to recall events from decades earlier and the ways in which he redeems himself. Other readers, I’m sure, will disagree. And this is why I reckon it would make a great title for book groups to discuss — and argue over.

I’m itching for other people to read it, so I can talk about it with them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. The author grew up in Perth and has worked in national and international current affairs for more than 20 years. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Reading First Nations Writers

Introducing my ‘Reading First Nations Writers’ project

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I need a new reading project that will help shape my reading year.

For the past six years, I’ve used the Australian Women Writers Challenge to help do this, but the challenge, as we know it, has now ceased. It’s going off in a new direction, celebrating older, less well-known women writers in an attempt to rescue them from history’s big black hole, a noble idea and one that I will be following closely. But sadly, the participatory element — of adding your reviews to an online database — has gone.

I figured that I might just spend all of 2022 reading on a whim. I participated in so many reading challenges and reading weeks hosted on other blogs during the course of last year that following my own agenda this year seemed quite tempting. But my reading in January was a bit directionless and I realised I don’t want to continue along those lines.

I want a new project, one that I can spread out over the course of a year, that will challenge me to read outside of my comfort zone, introduce me to new voices and perspectives, as well as provide some entertainment and escapism as well as education and enlightenment. (I don’t want much, do I? 😂)

The recent ABC TV series Books That Made Us highlighted how indigenous Australian writers are going through a boom right now. And while I was chuffed to discover that I had read most of the novels name-checked, the show also introduced me to some new names and book titles I was keen to explore. Given I have several books by Aboriginal Australians in my TBR already, it seemed logical to create a project that would encourage me to tackle them.

And so, I give you my Reading First Nations Writers project.

Between now and the end of December, I’d like to read and review at least 12 books by First Nations writers. I’m going to rely heavily on my local library, which has a dedicated indigenous section, but I’m also keen to read books I already have on my shelves, including Benevolence by Julie Janson, Carpentaria and The Swan Book, both by Alexis Wright, Billa Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss and The Old Lie by Claire G. Coleman.

I might also take some inspiration from this list, compiled by Readings book store, and, of course, there’s always Lisa’s amazing indigenous literature reading list to use for inspiration.

I’d be delighted if you wanted to join along. You don’t have to read books by indigenous Australians — First Nations is a broad term to include indigenous peoples from around the world (although it mainly applies to Australia and Canada as per this Wkipedia entry). Feel free to use my logo above and link back here or send a trackback so I know you’ve participated.

I will build a page, similar to my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters, so I can track my progress because even though I will be #ReadingFirstNationsWriters in 2022, I expect this will be a long-term project stretching into the years ahead. I’m really looking forward to it.

UPDATE (13 FEB): You will now find a dedicated page under ‘projects’ on the main menu bar of this blog. Or simply click here.

Anna MacDonald, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Splice, TBR 21

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald

Fiction – hardcover; Splice; 201 pages; 2020.

I don’t think there was any ever doubt that a novel about writers, London, the river Thames and walking — as seen through the eyes of an Australian woman from Melbourne — would appeal to me, but I was rather more enamoured by Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide than I expected.

I first saw this debut novel reviewed on Lisa’s blog ANZLitLovers and immediately ordered it direct from Splice, the UK-based publisher. (Unfortunately, I had a long wait owing to Covid-19, but when it finally arrived, there was a lovely printed note inside offering discounts on future Splice purchases as a thank you for “your support and patience”.)

In the comment I left under Lisa’s review, I said:

This has my name written all over it! I am an obsessive walker! I have lived in Melbourne! I have lived in London, a short stroll from Hammersmith Bridge, and wandered by the Thames every single day for almost 21 years!

Cue extra excitement when I began reading the book to find that the unnamed narrator, who flies into Heathrow from Tullamarine, stays in a bedsit on Rowan Road in Hammersmith. My first job in London (in 1998) was at Haymarket Publishing, based on the corner of Rowan Road and Hammersmith Road, and later when I left that job but still lived in the area, I walked past Rowan Road almost every day en route to the tube station or the High Street. You couldn’t really get a book more local.

It also contains lots of vivid descriptions of the Thames towpath, taking in Putney, Hammersmith and Barnes, that I have walked on (and cycled along) hundreds and hundreds of times. I repatriated in June 2019, but reading this book transported me back to the place I’d called home for 20 years. It was a bit of a discombobulating experience, I must say.

Mesmirising tale

The story itself is mesmirising, written in simple but eloquent prose, and the further you get into it the more hypnotic it becomes. It’s almost like being immersed in someone’s lucid dream.

It details the interior life of a woman from Melbourne who eases her restlessness by walking.

Since my mid-teens, walking had become one way of scratching the itch, and offered a partial remedy to restlessness. I tramped the streets of the neighbourhood where I grew up, learning to read the terrain as I made repeated journeys over the same ground.

An academic, she’s working on a “project revolving around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf”. She’s already spent some time in London, but now she’s planning a second trip to finish her research at the British Library.

But when she returns to London, basing herself in Hammersmith near the river, her research expands to cover accounts of the drowned, whether by accident or intent, and includes everything from anecdotes to eyewitness accounts. This becomes an obsession, to the point where her grip on reality begins to waver.

Tale of survival

Her story is interleaved with that of a widow who throws herself into the Thames and is rescued by a returned soldier from the Great War. This is an imagined account, told in the third person, of a real life incident that is memorialised on a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge (and which, shamefully, I have never noticed despite walking across the bridge hundreds of times):

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

These two narrative threads, of a woman studying watery ends and of another who survives a near-drowning almost a century earlier, build a deeply contemplative tale rich in metaphor and symbolism, one that examines how water can be both a refuge and a danger.

The narrator becomes so consumed by her work she lets the story of the woman and the lieutenant, along with the many other stories she discovers, infiltrate her own narrative. Space and time begin to lose their meaning. The stories merge and become entwined. It almost feels as if the woman needs to come up for air, to free herself from a metaphysical drowning. It becomes frighteningly claustrophobic before ending on a comforting note.

Note that there’s no dialogue in the book, next to no plot and structurally it meanders like the river Thames. It shouldn’t actually work as a novel. But there’s something about the short chapters, the literary prose and the ideas contained within that makes A Jealous Tide a compelling and beguiling read.

This is my 22nd book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I planned to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. Yes, this review is very late, because I read this book way back in April, jotted down some notes and then struggled to put my thoughts into any kind of order — and even now I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve written.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Ondaatje, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 285 pages; 2018.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is one of those novels that is almost impossible to review because trying to describe what it is about is as difficult as catching cumulous clouds in a butterfly net.

Boiled down to its most basic premise, it’s a story about a son trying to figure out the secrets of his late mother’s life. But it’s also about the shadowy world of espionage and London’s criminal underworld during the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s divided into two parts. The first, set in London immediately after the Second World War, looks at what happens to 14-year-old Nathaniel, the narrator, and his older sister, Rachel, when they are left in the care of a guardian while their parents head to Singapore for a year. The second, set a dozen years later, details Nathaniel’s investigation into his mother’s hidden past following her untimely death: who exactly was she, and what kind of work did she do during the war?

Mystery and intrigue

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

So begins the story, which is a mix of boys’ own adventure, mystery, intrigue and coming of age, for in the first part of Warlight Nathaniel is given pretty much free rein to do as he likes. When he’s not at school, he’s doing part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels (largely as a kitchen hand), mixing with people much older than himself, and exploring sex with a working-class girl who’s a little older than himself. He also accompanies an older man (a longtime friend of his mother’s) on furtive sailings up and down the Thames on a mussel barge, smuggling greyhounds into the country.

But this exciting new world, dangerous and life-affirming by turn, comes to a head in a dramatic way, and so when the second part opens we meet an older, more reflective Nathaniel, eager to piece together his mother’s story. Now working in London for the security agencies, he has access to high-level secret information. And what he discovers, ephemeral and mysterious as it appears to the reader, allows him to make sense of his upbringing and the people with whom his mother associated.

Not about plot

This is not a plot-driven novel. I’m not even sure it’s a character-driven one — although it does have a vast cast of characters involved in the field of espionage who are all wonderfully drawn. It could be defined as a mystery novel, even though it’s not about a murder and it’s not the least bit suspenseful. (See how I am struggling to describe what this book is about!)

It’s the prose, elegant and restrained, and the voice of the first-person narrator, coolly detached but not without feeling, that gives Warlight its flavour and makes it so highly readable.

The story is moody and elegiac and highly evocative of another time and place, making this possibly the most London-centric novel I’ve ever read, with its vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings and canals and waterways.

That first magical summer of my life we smuggled more than forty-five dogs a week at the height of the racing season, collecting the gun-shy creatures from a dock near Limehouse onto the mussel boat, and riding the river in darkness into the heart of London towards Lower Thames Street.

There’s a vein of melancholy that runs throughout, which is hard to shake off whenever you lift your eyes from the page, and days after having finished this one I can feel the mood of it lingering in my mind.

The story is a powerful one. It’s reflective of the role some ordinary Londoners played in the Second World War and how their actions haunted them and their families long after it was over.

Warlight was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

This is my 11th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Atlantic Books, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Bryan Washington, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, USA

‘Memorial’ by Bryan Washington

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 284 pages; 2021.

After reading what feels like a trillion novels about young 20-something women trying to sort out their lives in the 21st century, how refreshing to read a novel from the male perspective!

Bryan Washington’s Memorial is about two gay men from diverse backgrounds trying to decide whether to commit to each other or not. Both have complicated relationships with their parents (particularly their fathers), which adds to their emotional impotence, and neither seems able to express the three simple words we all long to hear: “I love you”.

It’s written in a restrained style, albeit with plenty of sex scenes and lavish descriptions of food (if you are not hungry before reading this book, you will be during it). And it’s free of speech marks, which seems to be a “thing” in all the new novels I have been reading lately.

Relationship rut

The story is focused on two men who are in a relationship rut. Benson is a middle-class Black man working in childcare, while Mike is from a lower-class Japanese background (but raised in the US) and is now employed as a chef.

Their relationship is told in three parts. The first, from Benson’s perspective, details what happens when Mike’s mother arrives for a holiday on the same day her son flies to Japan to visit his dying father. This leaves Benson alone with his almost-mother-in-law, a woman he’s never met before let alone shared a house with and had to entertain. Their odd-couple interactions are awkward — “So, how long have you been sleeping with my son?” — but eventually morph into something resembling friendship.

The second part is told from Mike’s point of view and charts his time in Osaka with his ill father, Eiju, who runs a small bar that his son will inherit, while the third part shifts back to Benson’s perspective before ending on a hopeful note.

Well-rounded look at a relationship

Nothing earth-shattering happens in this book. The plot is thin and occasionally moves ahead through text messages or via photographs snapped on Smartphones (some of which are reproduced in the novel).

Sometimes a little nugget of information is dropped into the narrative or someone says something particularly scathing — “You’re trash, he said. Great, I said. That’s big of you. You came from trash, and you’ll always be trash” — which alters our perspectives on the characters. This is a great device for allowing us to understand both Benson and Mike’s motives and thoughts, to see how their actions and behaviours impact the other person, giving us a more rounded version of them as a couple.

Like the much-lauded work of Sally Rooney, Memorial is a story that simply explores human relationships and the ways in which entanglements with lovers, friends, family and colleagues shape our lives. And it looks at decision making: how our actions have consequences and being an adult is about accepting responsibility for the things we do and say. (Even the dads in this story have to grow into this idea.)

Washington also turns his eye to commitment. What is it, and is it worth pursuing? How do we plan for a future together if we don’t know what that future holds?

One night, I asked Ben what he wanted. We steeped on the top of our mattress like tea bags. The A/C wheezed overhead. Ben sat up. He smiled. Honestly, he said, I hadn’t expected this to be anything. Oh, I said. Yeah. Whatever happens, happens. Isn’t that what you wanted? I want whatever’s best for both of us, I said. There’s no best. Things just happen.

This is my 10th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, BIPOC 2021, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Larissa Behrendt, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.

The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).

A painful past

In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.

The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.

Twin narratives

The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.

Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time,  but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.

By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.

But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.

Grand tour

The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.

Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.

Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.

This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.

Gentle humour

But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)

Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!

The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.

For other thoughts on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Brona’s at This Reading Life.

This is my 21st book for #AWW2021 and my 9th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Candice Carty-Williams, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Trapeze

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams

Fiction – paperback; Trapeze; 392 pages; 2019.

In the past couple of years, I have read dozens of novels about young Millennial women trying to find their place in the world, but none of them was quite like Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie. This brilliantly entertaining read has an upbeat narrator and wears its heart — and its politics — on its sleeve.

Set in modern-day south London, it follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom. The pair have been together for three years but are now on a three-month “break” to refresh their relationship. Or, at least, that’s the way Queenie, a glass half full type of person, presents it; Tom has other ideas.

When the book opens, Queenie is at a sexual health clinic getting a contraceptive coil fitted. The medical staff tell her that she has uterine scarring, which indicates she previously had a miscarriage, something she had been unaware of, and now she’s caught up by the idea that she could have had a baby with Tom. It’s a devastating realisation, but it’s too late to tell him because he’s already told her to move out of their shared flat.

As she enters the dubious, grubby world of share house living, things go from bad to worse (the scenes in which Queenie inspects properties with lecherous landlords and is interviewed by overly fussy tenants with rooms to let would be outrageously funny if they weren’t so close to the bone), but she remains cheerful and upbeat through it all, telling her tight group of friends that it’s only a temporary arrangement — she’ll be back living with Tom soon enough.

Meanwhile, determined to find herself a new man to occupy her time, she makes a string of bad choices, sleeps with men who don’t quite have her best interests at heart and succumbs to the advances of a stalker-like guy at work who turns out to be not all that he seems. (Be warned, there’s a lot of casual sex in this novel — and quite a few visits to a sexual health clinic as a result.)

And all the while she tries to make a name for herself at work as a writer on a newspaper that keeps turning down her ideas for politically outspoken features because they aren’t “palatable” enough for a supposedly white-liberal audience.

Yet the more Queenie forges ahead with her new life without Tom, the more she mourns his loss and the more she tries to compensate for this by looking for love in all the wrong places. This begins to take a toll on her working life and her mental health to the point at which something has to give…

A Millennial Bridget Jones

Queenie is essentially Bridget Jones for the 21st Century — with one important difference. Bridget Jones didn’t have to spend her whole life dealing with casual racism.

It’s Queenie’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways in which she is constantly made aware that she comes from a non-white background that gives this story its edge. There are many toe-curling scenes involving white people behaving badly, saying clearly offensive things and failing to understand what they’ve done wrong. Even Tom doesn’t get it: on more than one occasion he doesn’t even bother standing up to relatives who make slurs against his girlfriend, excusing them because “they’re old and don’t know any better”.

It’s relentlessly dispiriting and yet Queenie keeps forging on, helped in part by an amazing group of girlfriends (Kyazike, her Ugandan friend, is a stand-out character, outspoken and resilient, the kind of person who says all the things you think but are too afraid to say) and a loving set of maternal grandparents whose Caribbean ways don’t always chime with what’s best for their granddaughter.

It also helps that Queenie’s got a wicked sense of humour — her constant wisecracks really do give the novel its wry comic flavour even if the story does stray into some very dark territory.

I admit that I raced through this novel in the space of a weekend, unable to forget about Queenie’s many problems whenever I put the book down.

It’s a thoroughly modern tale, complete with WhatsApp chats and work emails integrated into the narrative, and tackles all kinds of issues, including racism, sexual harassment, domestic violence, mental health and identity, without banging the reader over the head. I loved spending time with Queenie, her crazy cohort of friends and her proud grandparents.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from my local independent bookstore last year. It is also my 8th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.