20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dead Europe’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 411 pages; 2005.

Dead Europe is not the kind of book you forget in a hurry.

It was the fifth novel by Christos Tsiolkas, the one immediately before he achieved international success with The Slap (in 2008).

Like that novel, it is confronting. It’s filled with complex, not always likeable characters and focused on what it is to be a first-generation Australian of Greek parentage but not fully belonging to either culture.

But unlike The Slap, which was a slice of realist drama (albeit one in which married couples had far more sex than you might expect), this one strays into Gothic territory, with elements of horror and religiosity thrown in for good measure. This makes for a rather absorbing, sometimes abhorrent, read.

It’s a proper page-turner, one that draws you into a world that feels familiar but isn’t quite real, leaving an indelible impression on the mind and the emotions. It is rather unforgettable — but it won’t be for everyone. You have been warned.

Dual narratives

Set in the early 2000s, it tells the story of Isaac, a struggling Greek Australian photographer based in Melbourne, who has been invited to stage an exhibition of his work in Athens. He jumps at the chance to visit Europe because he’ll be able to explore his roots a bit more, catch up with cousins and perhaps visit his mother’s village for the first time.

But what he finds is not the sophisticated Europe of his dreams, but a land haunted by its bloody, war-torn past, scarred by religious pogroms and massacres and ancient battles that have left behind an ugly legacy. He meets people bearing generations-long grudges against neighbours, a European culture beset by hate and hostility, and where he is immediately classified as a “naive Australian”, an innocent abroad, who isn’t experienced enough to understand history.

He’s perplexed by the myths and the superstitions that are still upheld, and unable to reconcile his new world outlook with his old world ancestry.

In alternate chapters, a second narrative unfolds: that of Isaac’s Greek ancestors, tracing them over countless generations from Greece to America and back again. Told in fairytale-like prose, this ancient storyline reveals the roots of prejudice, antisemitism and misogyny in a culture that is often upheld as civilised and sophisticated. At times this is a very ugly, murderous storyline, haunting and detestable by turn.

An innocent abroad

Isaac’s first-person narrative charts his travels across Europe (as well as Greece he goes to the Czech Republic, France and the UK) and details his encounters with cousins, friends and strangers. Every interaction forces him to reassess who he is, what he believes in. Here’s an exchange with his cousin, Maria, for instance:

—Do you believe in anything? [Maria]
I was silent. She punched me lightly on the arm.
—Well? Answer me.
—In Australia, I believe in lots of things. Here, in Europe, you all make me feel a little stupid. Do you understand? I don’t know if I believe anything in Europe.
—Australia seems a perfect place in which to finish one’s life. I imagine it’s a very quiet place, a very safe place.
I laughed […]
—Most Europeans know nothing of Australia.
—That’s true. We do not care.

This is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, of the naive traveller having his eyes opened as he comes to terms with the unsophisticated innocence of his homeland and seeing how outsiders view his Australian compatriots.

Here’s how an Algerian woman, caught up in a people-smuggling operation in France, describes it to him:

I have met very few Australians, Isaac, but I have always been struck by their innocence. They remind me of a character from Henry James, they have an innocence that the Americans have now lost. It’s very seductive but I think that if I was to live in Australia, I would learn to hate that innocence. I think it would drive me mad.

However, Isaac’s experiences on his travels aren’t entirely innocent. There’s a lot of gay sex in this novel, described in almost pornographic terms, which doesn’t always feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, and there are long conversations about religion, particularly the Jewish faith, which are deeply uncomfortable and highlight viewpoints that are abhorrent.

But these are not the only aspects that are disturbing. There is a vampiric element and a ghost element that combine to give an unexpected surrealistic slant to the story — but I’ll say no more for fear of ruining the plot.

A novel to experience

Dead Europe isn’t the kind of book you pick up for a relaxing read. This is the kind of book you experience. It gives you goosebumps and heart palpitations, it makes you angry, leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, occasionally makes you laugh out loud or nod in recognition.

As a book that essentially explores hatred — and its long-term, far-reaching legacy — it’s intelligent, wise, thrilling, shocking, chilling to the bone and completely unforgettable.

In 2006 Dead Europe won the Age Fiction Prize, and the Best Writing Award, Melbourne Prize. I can see why it made such an impression. It’s a brilliant novel about lies and myths and hate and truth, topics that are more relevant than ever before.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in Perth CBD last year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Greece, London, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant

Lie with me

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 305 pages; 2016.

Sabine Durrant’s suspense novel Lie With Me fits perfectly into the “holidays from hell” genre. It also fits rather nicely into the “amoral narrator” category. But, more importantly, it’s completely and utterly at home in the “books you don’t want to put down” bracket.

Serial liar

Narrated by 42-year-old Paul Morris, it charts the struggling author’s dastardly plan to develop a sexual relationship with a woman he doesn’t particularly like so that he can move in with her and keep a roof over his head.

Paul uses every trick in the book to inveigle his way into Alice’s life, a hugely successful human rights lawyer, who is widowed with two teenage children, and before he knows it he’s invited himself on the family’s annual holiday to Greece.

But this isn’t the romantic interlude he expects, because Alice has invited along a married couple and their children, which adds a level of complication to the trip for Paul went to university with the husband and the pair have a shared (read troubled) history.

To make matters worse, Paul has told a bundle of lies to cover up the fact he currently has no income, has been dropped by his agent and is living back home with his mother. Keeping up this pretence is a monumental exercise that requires Paul to always be on the ball, lest he say something that will reveal the truth about his situation.

Tension-filled page turner

The book ratchets up the tension by showing how Paul’s deviancy is very close to being exposed. The will-he-be-found-out, won’t-he-be-found out suspense is what makes this novel a real page turner.

And it helps that even though Paul is narcissistic and manipulative and downright dastardly (with a terrible eye for the ladies, it has to be said), you want to cheer him on, to get one over on the horrible middle-class people he’s hooked up with. His bare-faced lies are so shameless as to be admirable, and some of his activities are laugh-out-loud funny because they’re just so brazen. As a reader you simply keep waiting for him to get caught out.

Of course, Lie With Me has a twist at the end (which, frankly, I didn’t see coming), one that turns everything on its head. This is a super-enjoyable farce that gripped me from the first page to the last — it’s the perfect summer read if you’re looking for something that will keep you turning the pages without taxing your brain too much. Just put your mind in neutral and go with the flow.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer. According to my Amazon order history, I purchased it on 21 January 2017 for £1.95. I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it, but I’m really glad I did. This is the most fun I’ve had reading a suspense novel in quite some time.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Rachel Cusk, Setting, Vintage

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

Outline

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 256 pages; 2015.

“A story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all.” So says one of the characters in Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I quote it here because it’s an almost perfect description of this novel, which revolves around a passive narrator who listens to an endless string of tales told to her by various people over the course of a working trip to Greece.

There’s the man she meets on the aeroplane, who later takes her on a boat trip, and whom she refers to throughout as “my neighbour”. There is the Irishman, who is also in Greece to teach creative writing. There are her students, some more extroverted than others, who tell her stories based on her prompts. There are her friends, whom she’s met on previous trips. And finally there is the new teacher, who will take over her position when she leaves.

All these varied characters tell our narrator stories about themselves — some more memorable than others, it has to be said — which gives Outline the feel of a short story collection rather than as one, cohesive novel.

Disjointed tales about life

Admittedly, I found myself drawn into these individual tales even though I can’t recall the details of them just a week or two after having read the book. Perhaps it’s enough to recall that they were often about big life events, such as marriage, having a family and building a career.

Perhaps the most interesting element is the way in which Cusk litters these stories with references to the art of writing, so that, for instance, mixed messages between people are seen “as a cruel plot device that did sometimes have their counterpart in life” and that the love between a man and a woman “is what you perhaps would call the storyline”. The man she meets on the plane goes so far as to tell her that “a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live”.

But one also has to wonder if Cusk isn’t actually playing a joke on her reader, for in using a narrator who is deliberately passive, you realise that she’s subverted the normal mechanics of the novel and you’re left to take the writing completely on its own terms. Or, as the narrator puts it herself:

I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying – it seemed to me – was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become – to put it bluntly – anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

Cusk’s writing style is occasionally showy, but mostly it has a weightless kind of quality, so that it slips down rather effortlessly. While the dialogue  — of which there is a lot — is rather forced and unrealistic, the scene setting is excellent, so that Athens in the summer comes very much alive in her hands, as the following quote will attest:

At evening, with the sun no longer overhead, the air developed a kind of viscosity in which time seemed to stand very still and the labyrinth of the city, no longer bisected by light and shade and unstirred by the afternoon breezes, appeared suspended in a kind of dream, paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness. At some point darkness fell, but otherwise the evenings were strangely without the sense of progression: it didn’t get cooler, or quieter, or emptier of people; the roar of talk and laughter came unstaunched from the glaring terraces of restaurants, the traffic was a swarming, honking river of lights, small children rode their bicycles along the pavements under the bile-coloured streetlamps.

But despite the “experimental” nature of the book and the intelligence (and wit) that resonates off the page, overall Outline, for me, fell somewhat flat. I came away from it knowing I’d enjoyed the experience of reading it, but mostly I felt ambivalent about its strange, yet rather ordinary, contents.

Outline was shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and this year’s Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced next week.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Greece, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton

The-Riders-2

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 377 pages; 2008.

Tim Winton is easily one of Australia’s most successful writers and yet I’ve only read one of his novels: the award-winning CloudStreet, which is pretty much compulsory reading if you are Australian. But earlier this month, having just joined my local library, I stumbled upon The Riders and decided to borrow it for a read. I did not expect to like it very much.

Boy, was I wrong. I bloody well couldn’t put this one down. I ate it up in a matter of days, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. And now that I’ve long finished it — about a month ago now — I’m still thinking about it and wondering about the characters and trying to figure out why they made the decisions they made and whether any of them genuinely knew what they were doing. The lives of Fred Scully, his wife Jennifer and their daughter Billie will be forever etched in my memory.

The story is set in the late 1980s. The time period is important, because this was the era before mobile phone technology, before the internet, before cheap overseas landline calls. This was the time in which moving to the other side of the world had huge implications because communications were so difficult, complicated — and slow. Indeed, for much of this novel, the prime method of communication is the telegram: a succinct typewritten note delivered by hand.

The Scully’s are somewhat typical young Australians in that they have done the “compulsory” overseas stint, living and working in London, Paris and Greece. But a long weekend to Ireland, to fill in a few days before their final return home to Perth, changes their lives in unimaginable ways. Jennifer falls in love with a dilapidated 18th century peasant’s cottage (or “bothy”) in County Offaly and they pretty much buy it on the spot. The idea is that Fred, a kind of Jack of all trades who’s funded their travels by working on building sites and the like, will stay behind and make the cottage habitable. Meanwhile Jennifer, who is pregnant, will take Billie back home to Australia, pack up their belongings and sell the family home.

This is all back story, because when the novel opens, Fred (everyone, including his daughter, calls him Scully) is holed up in Ireland, doing the hard graft. Some 12 weeks into the project he gets word, via telegram, that Jennifer has sold the house and will be arriving in Shannon Airport on December 13. The excitement of her imminent arrival is palpable.

But on the day of their much awaited reunion only Billie steps off the plane. Jennifer is nowhere to be seen. There is no note and Billie, who is just a child, is mute, so traumatised by the situation that she refuses to speak.

Scully put the bucket of chips and the orange juice in front of his daughter and tried to think calmly. She’d said not a word since arriving and it compounded his anxiety. They sat across the white laminex table from one another, and to strangers they looked equally pasty and stunned. Billie ate her chips without expression.
“Can you tell me?”
Billie looked at the buffet bar, the procession of travellers with red plastic trays in hand.
“Billie, I’ve got a big problem. I don’t know what’s happening. I expected two people and only one came.”
Billie chewed, her eyes meeting his for a moment before she looked down at her juice.
“Did Mum get hurt or sick or something at the airport in London?”
Billie chewed. […]
“Was she on the plane with you from Perth? She must have been. She had to be. Billie, you gotta help me. Can you help me?”
Scully looked at her and knew whatever it was, it wasn’t small, not when you saw the terrible stillness of her face. She was a chatterbox, you couldn’t shut her up usually, and she could handle a small hitch, ride out a bit of complication with some showy bravery, but this.

This is the start of an amazing, sometimes terrifying and quite thrilling (for the reader) adventure, in which Scully drags Billie across Europe looking for his missing wife. And, as he does so, retracing the family’s steps though Greece, France and, later, Amsterdam, he goes through every emotion in the book — rage, heartache, misery, depression — all the while trying to keep things in check for Billie’s sake.

But the hardest part for Scully is coming to terms with the fact that Jennifer may not be the woman he thought she was. While he knows that he has married above his station — he’s a “working-class boofhead” after all, and she’s a university-educated bureaucrat — he begins to wonder if he’s been well and truly duped.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, but I particularly appreciated the strength of the father-daughter relationship and the unconditional love between Scully and Billie. And how nice to read about a father who takes his parental responsibilities seriously, when so many modern novels feature absent, abusive or incapable fathers.

Winton’s prose is also hugely evocative. He is especially good at describing places, such as the streets of Paris or the landscapes of rural Ireland — and on more than one occasion I couldn’t help but think the book would make a wonderful movie, because the narrative is so filmic.

Of course the narrative pacing, and Scully’s rising panic and poor decision-making, makes The Riders a real page turner. The whole time I had my heart in my throat, my pulse racing as I itched to discover what really happened to Jennifer and whether Scully would ever track her down. Without giving away the ending, let me say it wasn’t what I expected — and I’m still thinking about it weeks afterwards.

The Riders, which was first published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995.

1001 books, Anne Michaels, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Greece, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels

FugitivePieces

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 304 pages; 1997.

Sometimes I find myself unexpectedly reading one novel after another that share similar themes. I think this is what you call serendipity. Or maybe it’s sheer coincidence. But whatever the case, I couldn’t help but compare Anne Michaels’ 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces with the book I’d just finished, Hugo Hamilton’s more recent Disguise.

Both books tell the stories of young Polish boys, orphaned during the Second World War, who start afresh but are haunted by events of the past. But where Hamilton’s novel fails to really pack any emotional punch, perhaps because of the understated writing style and his emphasis on telling not showing, Michaels delivers a hugely poignant story that reverberates long after you reach the final page.

There’s something exceptional about Michaels use of language, which conveys the precise mood of a particular moment using prose that reads like poetry, not surprising given she’s an award-winning poet. Here’s an example:

White aspens make black shadows, a photographic negative. The sky wavers between snow and rain. The light is a dull clang, old, an echo of light.

And so it goes. Admittedly, I found this lyrical use of language a little off-putting to begin with, but once I got used to the rhythms and the pacing and let it wash over me I was held in its sway. In fact, I had to do everything in my power not to underline every second passage because I’d end up spending more time vandalising my book than reading it.

But what about the story, I hear you say. Well, it’s just as beautiful and haunting, really. It’s divided into two parts.

The first is narrated by Jakob Beer, a seven-year-old Jewish boy, who witnesses the Nazis storming his house, killing his parents and older sister. He flees and hides himself in the boggy marshes of a nearby wood, where he is later discovered by a Greek geologist, Athos, who takes him back to the sun-filled Greek island of Zakynthos and brings him up as his own son. Here, Jakob is given unconditional love and is schooled in everything from the English language to archaeology. The horrors of the war are never far away though, particular as the island is under German occupation.

Later, the pair immigrate to Canada, and set up home in Toronto. Jakob goes to university, falls in love, gets married, becomes a poet and translator. But all the while he mourns the loss of his parents and, in particular, his sister, whose ghostly presence he feels long into his old age.

The second part is narrated by Ben, a 20-something married man, who has long admired Jakob’s poetry, and goes on a mission to find Jakob’s long lost personal journals. It is this second part that allows the reader to view Jakob from a different perspective, to see how a certain kind of sadness has permeated his life, and how he has long struggled to find his rightful place in the world.

In many ways this book is about Jakob’s desire to put the past behind him in order to move into the future. It’s a heartfelt tale about one man’s search for happiness in the face of such enormous personal loss.

Fugitive Pieces won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1996, the Trillium Book Award in 1996, the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997 and the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1997.