20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Huo Yan, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Dry Milk’ by Huo Yan

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 92 pages; 2019. Translated by Duncan M. Campbell.

A book set in New Zealand, written by a Chinese woman, translated by a scholar from New Zealand, and published by a small independent press in Australia, Huo Yan’s Dry Milk has all the trademarks of an unusual book.

Thwarted ambition

Easily read in one sitting, it’s a tautly written tale of a Chinese immigrant whose three decades in Auckland has not lived up to the ambitions that drove him to begin a new life in a foreign country.

John Lee, once a librarian in Beijing, has spent the past decade running an antiques shop in his adopted city of Auckland. It’s the kind of rundown, overstocked business that people only visit to escape the rain.

He is married to a woman who is seriously disabled and remains nameless throughout the story. He only married her as a means to escape China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when it was discovered she had distant relatives in New Zealand. He treats her with cruelty and disdain, using her as a prop in his shop to prey on the kindness of customers.

He placed a glass jar on the counter beside her and made up a sign that read: ‘HELP THE MENTALLY DISABLED: PLEASE GIVE GENEROUSLY’. Taking out two crumpled ten-dollar notes from his pocket, he placed these in the jar, along with some coins. At the end of every day he would count the money in the jar, sometimes finding that as much as twenty dollars had been donated. At such times he would give the woman a peck on the cheek, as if to reward her, his dry lips brushing her withered skin.

Life holds little excitement for him beyond the occasional gossip session with others in the ex-pat Chinese community and his penchant for cooking elaborate Western meals, albeit on a tightly controlled budget.

When an opportunity arises to make a little money renting out the spare room in his house to an attractive young Chinese student, Jiang Xiaoyu, he takes it. But from the outset it’s clear his motives are nefarious, for he tells Jiang that his wife is his sister, then spends an inordinate amount of time spying on her, listening to her through the walls and cooking her meals in a bid to win her trust.

When yet another opportunity presents itself to make even more money, this time through an export business selling powdered milk to the Chinese (hence the title of the book), John Lee grabs this too — though it does take him some time to decide whether he can afford to do so. But the scheme, along with the student who lives in his house, is not everything that it appears to be…

The human cost of greed

Dry Milk is a dark tale about identity, community and greed. As a portrait of Auckland, it fails to portray the city in a friendly, accepting light. John Lee regards it as a “slow city” offering little opportunity, and even though he has connections with the proactive Chinese Community Hope Association (and is later nominated for an executive officer role), he struggles to fit in.

The narrative is underpinned by a creepy air of dislocation, alienation, voyeurism and misogyny. There are no likeable characters here, but their flaws, foibles and weaknesses are all-too-human. When John Lee finally gets his (violent and disturbing) comeuppance, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or feel pity for him.

There’s no doubt that Dry Milk is an exceptionally well-crafted story by a skilful writer. Powerful and thought-provoking, it looks at the human cost of treating others as commercial opportunities and leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. I won’t forget it in a hurry

Lisa Hill has also reviewed this novella at ANZLitLovers and so has Tony at Tony’s Reading List.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter and my 19th for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy from my local independent book store last August for $22.95.

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

‘The River Capture’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Text; 257 pages; 2019.

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

A book of two halves

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

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

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

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

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

A demand to end the romance

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Not a book to rush through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Author, Book review, Dan Box, Non-fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, true crime

‘Bowraville’ by Dan Box

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 336 pages; 2019.

Bowraville is a small country town inland from the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Around 15 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. In a five-month period, from late 1990 to early 1991, three children were murdered. All were indigenous Australians. All had disappeared after parties in the town. All were linked to a white man suspected of the crime, but no one was ever convicted.

This book, Bowraville by Dan Box, charts what happened when a homicide detective who had been working on the case contacted Dan to suggest he pursue the murders. It was more than two decades after the fact and the victims had seemingly been forgotten by law enforcement and the justice system. Their families still mourned for them and were desperate for the perpetrator, whom they believed to live among them, to be held to account.

In May 2016, Box, a crime reporter with The Australian newspaper, hosted a five-part podcast about the Bowraville murders. I have not listened to that podcast (you can find it on Apple podcasts here) but my understanding is that the book builds on his examination of the crimes and brings the case up to date. The serial killing remains unsolved after 25 years.

Three missing children

The victims, all living in houses about 100m apart, were:

  • Colleen Walker-Craig, 16, who disappeared on 13 September 1990. Her body has never been found, but articles of her clothing were discovered weighed down by rocks in the Nambucca River.
  • Evelyn Greenup, four, who went missing three weeks later, on 4 October. Her skeletal remains were found in bushland in April 1991.
  • Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, who was last seen on the morning of 1 February 1991. His remains were found in bushland on 18 February.

Dan spends times with the victims’ families to determine the circumstances of their disappearances. He speaks to police and lawyers and finds many glaring omissions in the criminal investigation. Police initially claimed that the missing children had just “gone walkabout” and didn’t follow up leads until bodies were found.

As part of his investigation, Dan also secures an interview with the main suspect, a labourer living in Bowraville, who was arrested for the murder of Speedy-Duroux but later acquitted by a Supreme Court jury in 1994. The same suspect was also charged with the murder of Greenup at a later date but, again, he was acquitted in a separate court case in 2006. No one has ever been charged or convicted of all three crimes together.

Dan’s tenacious reporting and investigation did result in changes being made to double jeopardy legislation — the principle that no one should face trial for the same crime twice — in NSW. This opened the way for the man acquitted of Speedy-Duroux and Greenup’s murder to go on retrial if “fresh and compelling evidence” was uncovered.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say a retrial was not granted, even though Dan’s interview with the suspect unveiled evidence that had never been admitted in court before.

Fight for justice

Reading Bowraville was an eye-opening experience. It covers a lot of ground and occasionally gets bogged down in soporific detail, but it is a confronting portrait of a deeply divided society, a town where black people are pitted against white, where racial prejudice has infused generations and left a legacy of hate and violence.

The book’s major achievement is the way in which it clearly demonstrates that black justice and white justice in modern Australia are two different things. Three children living in the same street were murdered in a short space of time, but no one in authority seemed to take the crimes seriously and few Australians have even heard about the murders. The suggestion is that if the children were white, it would be all over the media. Having read this compelling book, it is hard to argue otherwise.

As well as an illuminating examination of the tenacity required to seek and fight for justice, Bowraville is also an interesting look at what happens when a journalist becomes part of the story. “I have changed from being a reporter about this case to being a campaigner, joining with the police and childrens’ families in calling for the murders to go back to court,” Dan writes. Later he adds: “That’s what I am now. Not a reporter, not a campaigner. A witness.”

Bowraville is a gripping true-crime tale, but it’s also a disturbing look at the failings of the Australian justice system and Australian society as a whole.

This is my 16th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published last July and began reading it in December but put it aside, with only half of it read, when things at work got a bit hectic. I picked it up again earlier this month to finish the last 150+ pages.

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Barry, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR2020

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

What a darkly fun and intriguing book this turned out to be!

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry defies description. It’s not strictly a black comedy, though it’s packed with small, comic moments. And it’s not strictly a crime novel, because it doesn’t revolve around a particular crime that needs to be solved, but it does star two bad men out to get what they can through nefarious means. I guess it’s a blend of both, with a ribbon of pathos and melancholy running through it.

It brought to mind all the surrealness of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and the mournful Spanish ex-pat bits of Colm Toibin’s novel The South.

Two 50-something Irish gangsters

So what’s it about, I hear you ask? Essentially it’s about two Irish gangsters, Charlie Redmond and Maurice (Moss) Hearne, and the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers with operations in Cork and Spain.

When the book opens the pair — “in their low fifties, the years are rolling out like a tide now” — are at the Spanish port of Algeciras waiting for the night boat from Tangier (hence the book’s title). They don’t plan to get on the boat, they are waiting for someone to get off it. That someone happens to be Maurice’s 23-year-old daughter, Dilly, who has been missing for three years.

Oh, and this is as awful a place as you could muster — you’d want the eyes sideways in your head.
The ferry terminal has a haunted air, a sinister feeling. It reeks of tired bodies, and dread.
There are scraps of frayed posters — the missing.
There are customs announcements  — the narcotraficante.

As the pair wait, they interrogate other people coming off the boat, wanting to know if they might have seen Dilly. One of the unsuspecting people they confront is Benny, a young British man with dreadlocks and a dog on a rope, the kind of person they believe Dilly, who also has dreadlocks, would hang out with.

She’s a small girl, Benny. She’s a pretty girl. And you see what it is? Is we’ve been told she’s headed for Tangier.
Or possibly she’s coming back from Tangier.
On the 23rd of the month. Whichever fucken direction? It’s all going off on the 23rd.
Is what we’ve been informed by a young man in Málaga.
On account of the young man found himself in an informational kind of mood.

The pair don’t have much luck finding anyone who knows Dilly, but that doesn’t stop them waiting — and intimidating anyone they think might have some information that could help them locate her.

History in flashback

But that’s not all there is to the story.

Barry does something rather clever with Night Boat to Tangier because he fleshes out the backstories of both men in alternate chapters. This allows us to find out how the pair developed their “business” and all the shenanigans they have carried out since the late 1990s, the women they have had relationships with and the deals they have done both home and abroad.

It also allows us to come to know these men, so they become less caricature — the hard men with attitude and dry wit — and more “real”. Barry does this so well that even against our better judgment we empathise with them instead of condemning them because they appear to be all-too-human, with flaws and foibles we can understand.

Interesting structure

What I liked about this novel was its structure switching between the current day at the port of Algeciras and the flashbacks that fill in the gaps between now and the 1990s.

I also liked the linguistic changes between these chapters, so that the sections at the port are written staccato style, mainly in dialogue, with many funny one-liners and a hint of menace, while the flashback chapters are written in a more “traditional” third-person style to give a more rounded overview of the men and their lives.

It’s a well-crafted audacious novel, written in cracking prose, one that marries black comedy with an almost mournful undertone. Night Boat to Tangier was longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2019. And it may just well make my Top 10 at the end of this year.

This is my 14th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. This is another book I requested from NetGalley when it first came out. I read about 3% and then abandoned it because I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. Fast forward more than a year later and I was more than ready for some Irish gangster capers. LOL.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR2020, You-Jeong Jeong

‘The Good Son’ by You-Jeong Jeong

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 309 pages; 2018. Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

The smell of blood woke me up.

So begin’s You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son, a locked room mystery that morphs into something much more dark and sinister.

It tells the story of a 25-year-old man who wakes up to discover his mother dead on the kitchen floor, a deep wound in her neck and blood everywhere, including on his own hands and clothes. But did he kill her? He has no memory of the night before because he has stopped taking his epilepsy medication and that often results in massive headaches and blackouts. There is no sign of forced entry, so if he didn’t kill her, who did?

Structured in four parts, all narrated by the son, the story charts Yu-Jin’s life living under a semi-lockdown with an over-protective mother. As the narrative progresses it gets increasingly more unhinged and abhorrent. I do, in fact, wonder why I bothered to read it. But it did have some good points:

I liked the ever-changing nature of the story. As soon as I thought I knew what was going on and why Yu-Jin behaved in a certain way, the author would throw in a new bit of information that made me reassess all that had gone before. I can’t explain it very well here because that would spoil the plot, but you cannot second-guess anything in this novel. And it’s that kind of unpredictability that is probably why I kept turning the pages.

It’s a good depiction of an unhinged mind. Think Francie in The Butcher Boy or Joy Stone in The Trick is to Keep Breathing. This is reflected in a narrative voice that gets increasingly more disturbing as the story moves forward.

The use of flashbacks is done well to show how Yu-Jin’s relationships — with his mother, his late brother, his adopted brother and his aunt — shaped him. I liked the way these also fleshed out the kind of child he was, introverted and insecure, but how his great talent for swimming took him out of himself and gave him confidence.

It has a satisfying ending, albeit one that makes you grateful the story is not real life.

Yet, for all that, there’s no denying The Good Son is gruesome and bloody and repugnant in places. It is definitely not one for the squeamish. It takes a lot to shock me, but I found this book a little too much to handle. Read it with caution.

This is my 12th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it last year from the Dymocks $10 table, attracted by the marketing blurb on the front cover declaring it as a “Number One International Bestseller”. 

Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Garry Disher, Hodder, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘The Divine Wind’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 151 pages; 2002.

I will admit that when I purchased Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind last year from a secondhand bookstore for the princely sum of $1, I did not realise it was a young adult novel. I associate Disher with adult fiction, usually crime, and because I’d never read him before I jumped on the name and thought it might be a good introduction to his work. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised my mistake…

Except it wasn’t really a mistake, because The Divine Wind turned out to be quite an entertaining read, perfect fodder for an over-tired brain that just wanted some escapism while the outside world went a bit mad.

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, it’s essentially a coming of age story about four teenagers living in the pearling town of Broome, on the far north Western Australia coast, and what happens to them over the course of a few event-filled years.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Hartley Penrose, the son of a pearling master, looking back on his teenage years. He has a younger sister Alice, with whom he is particularly close following their mother’s return to England (she could never quite get used to her isolated, lonely life in Broome), and together they are friends with Mitsy Sennosuke, the daughter of a Japanese diver employed by their father, and Jamie Killan, who has just moved to town with his family. The four of them hang out regularly; they go swimming and sailing, or see films at the cinema.

But the carefree nature of their existence changes when a disastrous cyclone hits the coast which results in Mitsy’s father dying at sea and Hartley suffering a serious leg injury from which he never fully recovers. Not long later, the Japanese bomb Broome and soon Mitsy and her mother are viewed with suspicion because of their ethnicity; they are later interned.

Against all this drama, Hartley falls in love with Mitsy, who later becomes a nurse, but his feelings are never fully reciprocated because it seems that she may have given her heart to Jamie…

Love and adventure

As much a love story as it is an adventure story, The Divine Wind is a richly written novel that deals with some very adult themes including love, death, racism and war.

It’s a highly evocative account of a particular time and place, where non-whites, whether Asian or Aboriginal, are treated with prejudice. It’s also an unsettling portrait of a harsh and demanding climate; of a lifestyle that is remote and lonely; and a community that isn’t always forgiving.

It’s wonderfully moving and powerfully told.

This is my 10th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Philip Roth, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA, Vintage

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 2011; 280 pages.

Reading a novel about a polio epidemic while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic might seem like an odd thing to do. Aren’t we all scared enough? But I thought that Philip Roth’s Nemesis might offer some insights into how people behave during health scares and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Newark polio epidemic

The story is set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944. It’s a scary time — there’s a war raging in Europe and the Pacific — but closer to home there’s another threat, a contagious disease that largely targets children. It’s called polio and is known as the “summer disease” because it only appears during the warmer months.

It starts with a headache and a fever and then leads to paralysis of body and limbs. In severe cases, patients are put in “iron lungs” — a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe on their own — for months at a time. Survivors can end up in wheelchairs or have to wear calipers to support withered limbs. Many die. There is no known cure.

The story is framed around 23-year-old Bucky Cantor whose poor eyesight means he hasn’t been able to enlist in the Army. His thoughts are never far away from the battlefield: two of his best friends signed up and are fighting somewhere in France. Bucky finds a good job as the director of a playground, in a Jewish part of town, where he teaches his young charges physical education and supervises their games.

He is well-liked and popular; never more so than when he stands up to a group of Italian teenagers who arrive in two cars to “spread polio” one sunny afternoon. “We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around,” says one of the guys, who then proceeds to spit all over the sidewalk.

Several days later two of Bucky’s students come down with polio; both eventually die. There is no proof the Italians spread the disease (after they spat on the sidewalk, Bucky washed it all down) but no one really knows how the contagion is passed on. Is it via human contact? Maybe it’s from food? Or is it the water? Why are some neighbourhoods more badly affected than others? So little is known that rumours and conspiracies abound. People want the playground shut down, the Italian gang to be lynched, the local hotdog vendor to close, entire apartment blocks to be quarantined.

Bewilderment and fear

Bucky begins to feel the weight of people’s grief and fears, their panic and bewilderment, their pain and outrage. People on the street mistake him for a Health Department official and yell their fury at him. He is devoted to the playground, at keeping it open and providing a safe place for boys to play, but he’s fearful of who might fall sick next. He begins to feel guilty that maybe he didn’t do enough to stop two of his charges from dying.

His girlfriend, a first grade teacher working at a summer camp in the hills, offers him a reprieve. There’s an opening at the camp for a waterfront director and Bucky, an accomplished diver and swimmer, would be ideal for the job. He prevaricates for a week or two — he needs to stay in the city to keep an eye on the grandmother who raised him — but eventually succumbs to the idea of fresh air and a fresh start.

The second half of the book charts Bucky’s time at the India Hill camp and his romance with Marcia. But when a fellow camp instructor falls ill, Bucky can’t help but think he brought the poliovirus with him. How many children has he now put at risk? How many parents will suffer the loss of a loved one?

Surviving a contagion 

Nemesis is a gripping account of an epidemic from another time and place seen through the eyes of one man.

It’s eloquently written in Roth’s typical forthright style and is told in the third-person. But midway through we discover it is being told through the eyes of one of Bucky’s former students looking back on the summer of 1944. The narrator, it turns out, caught polio but survived. It’s an unusual device, and perhaps not entirely necessary, but it does show that the disease was not always a death sentence.

This novel also shows how rumour and fear can spread almost as fast, if not faster, than the contagion itself, and looks at the responsibility that we all hold to behave with the good of others in mind. Washing your hands and the need for quarantine are frequently mentioned. Yes, I think there might be lessons in this book for us all.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book, but it first attracted my attention when the late KevinfromCanada reviewed it on his blog back in 2010.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London: This story is set in a children’s convalescent home in Perth, Western Australia during a polio outbreak in 1954.

This is my 9th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. The press release tucked into the cover of this book indicates that it was sent to me unsolicited in October 2011. I was obviously interested in reading it because it survived dozens of book culls over the years and was packed in my suitcase when I moved back to Australia in June last year. It may possibly be the oldest book I own here.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Rob Doyle, Setting, TBR2020

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 304 pages; 2015.

Rob Doyle’s Here are the Young Men should come with a warning: this is a very VERY dark novel. But it’s compelling and page-turning, and one of the most visceral books I have read in a long time.

A Dublin summer

Set in the Dublin summer of 2003, it focuses on a group of teenage boys — Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney — who have just finished school and are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results, which will determine their future lives.

But these boys are Trouble. Matthew, for instance, has been barred from attending his graduation ceremony for “unacceptable behaviour” throughout the course of the school year, while Kearney, who has an obsession with death, has disturbing fantasies about killing people as if he is living in a violent video game.

Now thrust into a post-school void, the gang of four hang out together, filling their time with drugs and booze and parties. They drift from day to day, dislocated and alienated from their communities and their parents, struggling to see any future for themselves despite the abundance of jobs and opportunities open to them. (The book is set at the height of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland was awash with cash and affluence.)

The only thing that holds the group together is their shared need to escape reality:

The buzz from the hash made everything warm, like the world was coated in a soft, amber light. Everything felt more vivid and more interesting than usual – the hash was like a tool to drain the banality out of life. (p30)

Interesting structure

Told in alternate chapters from Matthew, Kearney and Rez’s points of view, the structure of the book gives us insights into each character’s take on life. Matthew is academically bright and wants more out of life but he’s bored, lonely and doesn’t know how to change things; Kearney is violent and volatile, lacks a moral compass and is oblivious to the fact that he is not well-liked; while Rez is bookish and clever but thinks too much and is sliding into a dark depression.

Over the course of the summer, things change: Cocker drifts away to another set of friends (we never actually hear his side of the story); Kearney goes to America to hang out with his older brother; Matthew takes a part-time job in a petrol station and becomes romantically involved with a girl from school; and Rez begins working as a nightwatchman, which turns his world a little upside down.

Rez worried. He worried that he was losing it, smoking too much dope and falling out of orbit with the world. For as long as he could remember, he’d had the sense that he wasn’t as fully connected to reality as you were supposed to be. But he had always struggled to express the specifics of this condition, even to himself. Recently, so much had fallen away, no longer trusted as being real: emotions, pleasure, music, art, even gestures and expressions. Nothing was simply itself; everything was a reflection of something else. Nothing was to be trusted. (p51)

Veering towards violence

It’s only when Kearney returns from his time in the States that life takes on a harder, more dangerous edge for them all: Matthew has fallen in with a drug pusher; Rez has become suicidal; and Kearney has become mentally unhinged thanks to a heavy diet of hash, hard drugs, booze and aggressive video games.

While the trio have never been violent —  “Fighting had never been our thing, despite the punk-rock attitude and the cynical agenda. In fact, we were against it.” — Kearney’s grip on reality means the game has now changed.

This is how Matthew describes it:

Lately I’d grown depressed at the thought – which not long ago would have felt exciting – that most of my friends were twisted, volatile outsiders. You started out playing with this stuff – the extremism, the chaos – and it felt vital and exhilarating; but then suddenly you couldn’t control it, you’d gone too far and it wasn’t exciting any more, only frightening. (p210)

Confronting story

It’s at this point that Here are the Young Men slides into confronting territory. There are scenes and actions here that are disturbing and abhorrent, providing the reader with glimpses into Kearney’s deranged mind. But it’s not done for shock value — it’s to make us realise that when people fall through the cracks, when society turns its back, the repercussions can be devastating.

Reading this book is a bit like taking a dangerous rollercoaster ride: you hang on for dear life and hope that you can get off with all your limbs intact. But for all its nihilistic tendencies, its pessimism and its harsh depiction of teenage life, it’s not without hope. I will leave the last word to Rez:

The challenge was to live in this weird, catastrophic, haywire world and ride it out, create your own pride and meaning within it, to face up to the nihilism and not be crushed by it. You had to keep yourself alive: through hate, through loving whatever there was left to love, through music and art and inspiration, through passion and intensity and feeling. (p284)

I read this book as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books

This is my 8th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle on 21 February 2015, proving that sometimes it takes me many, many YEARS to read things on my TBR!