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.

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

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

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

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

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

A secret alliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullying behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Adam Thompson, Australia, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, University of Queensland Press

‘Born Into This’ by Adam Thompson

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 210 pages; 2021.

Born Into This is a collection of short stories by Adam Thompson, an emerging Aboriginal (Pakana) writer from Tasmania.

Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it.

The loss and destruction of the natural world is another topic that features throughout.

But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos. There is tenderness and gentleness, too, and above all, there’s big-heartedness. Reading it is a bit like going on an emotional roller coaster in which you experience everything from anger to sadness,  guilt and shame, often within the space of a single story.

Stories of our time

Of the 16 stories in the collection, Invasion Day not only packs a hard-hitting political punch, it could be seen as a microcosm of Australia’s current situation: two opposing sides (black and white) not able to reconcile their differences in order to move forward together. This evocative story focuses on a protest held in Hobart on Australia Day. There is much jeering and name-calling from the sidelines.

The crowd booed. Someone yelled out ‘Shame’. The footpath became a bottleneck as the police blocked us from walking on the highway. Up ahead, the dancers and the kids holding the large ‘Invasion Day’ banner started crossing, moving down towards Parliament House Lawns. The march had stretched out to almost a kilometre, and I was somewhere in the middle. The chanting had ceased as we walked across the highway, but as the lawns and the gathering crowd came into view, the loudspeakers sparked up again, and the progressing throng found their second wind.

It ends with a rousing, hopeful speech from ‘stiff-legged Jack’ — who tells the crowd “There is, indeed, hope for the future” — and then the unnamed narrator takes to the microphone, pulls out an Australian flag and does something drastic.

Another story, Kite, also set on Australia Day, takes on a more humorous note.

In this black comedy, a man flies a kite made for him by his young nephew. The centre pole of the kite sticks out further than other kites and is sharpened to a fine point to prevent the kite snapping when it hits the ground. The man goes to the beach to fly it, but other beach goers are angry at him, thinking he’s making a political point, for the kite is in the colours of the Aboriginal flag and this is Australia Day. He ignores them. He’s there to have fun, not protest.

But when the kite comes down at an incredible speed and the protruding tip kills a dog, it’s going to be hard not to associate his actions as an Aboriginal man deliberately spearing someone’s pet.

An affinity with nature

Several of the stories are set on the islands off the coast of Tasmania, where Thompson’s eye for detail brings the natural world to life. In these tales he skewers the idea that all Aboriginal people, particularly those who have grown up in cities and who have lost touch with cultural traditions, have a deep affinity with being on country.

In the opening story, The Old Tin Mine, for instance, the Aboriginal narrator is leading a survival camp for six teenage Aboriginal boys from the city, helping to get them back in touch with their heritage and the old “blackfella ways”. But he’s constantly being undermined by the white guide accompanying him who seems to know more about survival techniques and nature. To save his pride, the narrator is having to live up to a certain expectation, deemed by the colour of his skin, that he can’t quite fulfill — with disasterous consequences.

Many of Thompson’s tales also highlight the ignorance of white people who have no idea of the cultural significance of many aspects of Aboriginal life. In Honey, Nathan helps a white friend with his bee-keeping exploits, but is horrified to discover that he wants to market the honey under “the Aboriginal word for honey” because it will be a “good gimmick […], I reckon, ‘specially with the tourists”.

He’s later even more horrified, pained and appalled to discover that his friend, as a child, destroyed Aboriginal middens along the river by skimming the stones, including ancient stone tools, on the water. His uncle had told him that it was important to get rid of these — “bury ’em or throw ’em in the river” — in the mistaken belief that it would prevent Aboriginals from claiming land rights.

An extraordinarily good collection

I could go on and dissect every short story in Born Into This, but I won’t. This is an extraordinarily good collection, one that benefits from a close second reading (I have re-read the short stories named in this review, and they actually benefit from another reading).

There’s so much to discuss in them and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see things from the other side, as it were. It’s clear that the author isn’t doing this to be mean spirited or spiteful, but in a genuine attempt to show how things look through First Nation eyes, to open a discussion that will benefit us all, black and white.

This is my 1st book for Lisa’s #IndigLitWeek2021, which runs from July 4 to 11. It is also my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in February shortly after publication because I had heard good things about it and I am keen to read (and support) work by First Nations writers. This is also my 6th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Baume, Setting, TBR 21, Windmill Books

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 302 pages; 2018.

Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking takes its name from an artwork created by Richard Long in 1967 which now hangs in the Tate Britain. That artwork is a black and white photograph of a field in Wiltshire with a thin line through the middle created when the artist walked backwards and forwards enough times to flatten the crop. (The image can be viewed here.)

This is just one of dozens of art works — mainly installations — referenced in Baume’s hypnotic novel about Frankie, a young Irish woman grappling with a sense of purpose. She is a fine arts graduate but hasn’t managed to make a name for herself as an artist. She’s worked in a gallery but found it unfulfilling, and living in Dublin has been a lonely experience.

Now, aged 25, Frankie has decamped to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside, where she’s convinced her parents she will be caretaker until the property has sold. But her grandmother died three years ago, the house is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be much interest from buyers.

Most of her grandmother’s unwanted belongings are still in the house and Frankie, chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, doesn’t have the wherewithal to do any housework, much less transform the place into a saleable state. In fact, she does so little housework that she moves from one bedroom to another so that she doesn’t need to wash the sheets!

Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.

In this rural idyll, she immerses herself in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasonal variations, as she learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She begins a special project to photograph any dead birds and animals she finds (these photographs are published in the book) and continually challenges herself to recall the thematic art she knows and loves:

Works about Blinking Lights, another, I test myself: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, again, “Untitled”, 1992. A chain of lightbulbs, bound to one another by an extension cord. The artist gave permission for curators to display the piece however they wished. He wanted it to bend and change according to circumstance; the only thing he did not allow was for his bulbs to be renewed during the run of each exhibition. He wanted them to live out their natural lifespan and die, the way a person does.

Death is a constant preoccupation, but the story never feels morbid. But as Frankie spends more and more time alone, turning herself into a proper recluse, shunning her neighbours and not taking calls, there are worrying signs that she may be having a breakdown of some kind.

As her thoughts spill out all a-jumble on the page — an interior monologue recalling childhood incidents, memories of her adored grandmother and more recent troubles involving doctors and worried parents — it’s clear she’s set a bar for herself that is too high and that’s she’s going to have to find a way to adjust to a new way of living and of seeing the world.

For all its mish-mash of anecdotes which tumble unbidden from her head, the narrative spins and shines in Baume’s capable hands. There’s a lot of witty humour that helps lighten the mood.

Everything is tied together beautifully with Frankie’s interpretations of various visual art forms across many different eras (there’s a helpful list of all the works referenced at the rear of the book), which serve to show that art and life are invariably intertwined in ways we may not even realise.

A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful, hypnotic story about the fragility of life — and creativity. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Susan’s at A Life in Books and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a troubled man and his relationship with his dog.

This is my 20th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand from Elizabeth’s Bookshop, here in Fremantle, on 8 May this year.

Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Henning Mankell, Maclehose Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Sweden, TBR 21

‘The Rock Blaster’ by Henning Mankell

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 2020. Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding.

Before Swedish author Henning Mankell became a crime fiction superstar he penned this quietly devastating novel first published in 1973 but only recently translated into English.

The Rock Blaster tells the story of a young man, Oskar Johansson, who is seriously injured in an industrial accident blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a road. He’s not expected to survive — indeed, the local newspaper reports him dead — but he defies the odds, albeit losing an eye and a hand, and manages to return to work as an invalid after he has recuperated.

A working-class hero

The novel charts Oskar’s life from the time of the accident, in 1911, to his death as an old man in 1969. A second thread, which is interleaved throughout, charts the sociological and political changes that occur during Oskar’s lifetime to build up a mesmerising portrait of one man and his place in history.

The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part. Most of it is hidden under the surface. That is where the bulk of the ice is, keeping its balance in the water and making its speed and course steady.

Oskar’s life story details his romance with a local girl before the accident to his marriage to that girl’s sister after the accident. Children are born. Jobs are held. Political parties are joined. Activism ensues. There are ups and downs, deprivations and small joys. Grief. Loss. Retirement. Solitude.

His experiences are presented as a series of flashbacks, interviews with an unnamed narrator and other fragments, and it is written in gentle, hypnotic prose, with nary a word wasted.

In early April in 1949, Oskar buys a propaganda poster¹. It is one of the most famous ones, the most widely disseminated and translated, but above all perhaps the most effective graphic analysis of the capitalist system ever published. It is the well-known pyramid, which was first printed in the USA in about 1910.

Fuelled by a sense of social justice and moral outrage, The Rock Blaster rails against capitalism and the ways in which the system uses the working classes to prop up the entire economic edifice of mid-20th century society.

Fight for a cause

I adored this novel. There’s something sublimely honourable about it. I loved the way it puts the working class centre stage and highlights how it is up to every single one of us to fight for what we believe in, to speak up against wrongs and to forge our own path in life. It tapped into my own sense of social justice and made me angry on Oskar’s behalf.

I’m so glad it finally got translated into English — even after all this time (47 years!) so much of this novel is relevant today.

1. You can view that poster on Wikipedia

This is my 18th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store in August 2020.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anakana Schofield, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fleet, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fleet; 336 pages; 2019.

I am always looking for novels that are written in a strong, distinctive voice. Anakana Schofield’s latest novel, Bina, has that in spades.

It’s a bitterly funny and completely bonkers tale about an elderly Irish woman called Bina — “That’s Bye-na not Beena” — who gave shelter to a man who later refused to leave.

If a man comes to your door, do not open it.

He’s now in Canada, but she’s worried he might return. It’s not clear what the man has done to upset her so much, nor why he’s now abroad. It’s also not clear why she has protestors in her front garden and medical waste in her back garden.

It’s written in such a way that nothing is really clear at all.

A novel in warnings

The first-person narrative is a series of warnings — “I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you” — and it’s up to you, the reader, to make sense of Bina’s tale, which is sometimes structured in stanzas (see below) like angry poetry:

Stop roundabouting it, Bina. That’s me

To myself. I’m roundabouting again, amn’t I. Need to keep straight. Not be dizzy in circles. Need to tell it straight

Have to find a way to tell it all, with or without me in it. Keep it
straight, Bina

Or you’ll confuse them.

It sounds like hard work, but I really admire this kind of writing. Nothing is spelt out yet Bina’s thoughts, which come out all a-jumble and not necessarily in chronological order, can be pieced together to form a cohesive whole.

What this woman has to share with the world is alarming and disturbing, but it’s also blackly comic.

I must have said no to her 32 times. It wasn’t 32 times nearly enough because she threatened she’d go on her own, if I wasn’t going to help. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This is what no 32 times looks like.

It’s also littered with footnotes, which can wear thin if you hate skipping ahead to read them. Interestingly, it’s through these footnotes that I realised the character Bina had first appeared in Schofield’s debut novel Malarky, which I read back in 2011 but did not review. In that novel, Bina was threatening to attack a plane with a hammer.

Schofield has taken that strident character and given her a novel of her own. It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

It was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize.

I have previously reviewed Schofield’s novel Martin John.

This is my 3rd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle last year when it was on special for 99p!

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 195 pages; 2020.

How can this be my first Graham Swift? He seems to be one of those authors I always mean to read but never get around to — until now.

Here We Are is his latest novel (he has 11 to his name) and what a gorgeous, immersive quintessentially English story it turned out to be!

Theatreland by the sea

Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, it tells the tale of three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.

Jack Robinson is the handsome 28-year-old compere and a song-and-dance man. Ronnie Deane, who has “dark Spanish eyes”, is a talented magician and Evie White is his assistant — together they perform under their stage name “Pablo & Eve”.

The tale is less about the trio’s onstage antics, but what happens behind the scenes.

It tells the back story of Ronnie, a sensitive boy from the East End of London, who was a child evacuee during the Second World War. He went to live with Eric and Penelope Lawrence, a comfortably well off middle-aged couple, in a beautiful house in rural Oxfordshire, and it is here he learns to perform magic tricks — or illusions, as he likes to call them.

Despite missing his mother, a char woman from Bethnal Green, and the seaman father who was barely ever at home, he realises he has been given a chance to escape the poverty of his London life. When he is told his father has gone missing in action — he is “lost at sea” — he feels little to no emotion. And later, after the war is over and he returns to London aged 14, he realises he no longer knows his mother and feels guilty about missing his life with the Lawrences who, to all intents and purposes, have become his “real” family, having raised him for the past five or so years.

Evie and Jack have less complicated childhoods, brought up by mothers we might now describe as “pushy” but who encouraged their children to perform and entertain others, a skill that serves them well as adults.

A breakdown in relations

The narrative is cleverly structured so that the reader discovers relatively early on that the relationship between all three performers has broken down, but we do not know under what circumstances nor when it happened.

Some of the story is told from Evie’s point of view as a 72-year-old widow looking back on her life with Ronnie and Jack, and this provides a counterbalance to the thread about Ronnie’s childhood.

It’s a wonderfully evocative novel, told in a sensitive, gently nuanced style. I loved the way it contrasts the lives of these characters pre- and post-war and how the events of that successful summer season had long-lasting impacts on them all.

It’s a totally absorbing read, what I would call proper old-fashioned storytelling, and there’s a gentleness at work even though it addresses some pretty heavy subjects, including loss, love and betrayal.

Here We Are might have been my first Graham Swift novel, but it certainly won’t be my last.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘The Illustionist’ by Jennifer Johnston: A twist on the Bluebeard fairytale, this is a dark brooding novel about a woman who marries a magician and then regrets it.

This is my 16th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie store earlier in the year.

Author, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.