Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Donor’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2011.

The Donor is typical Helen Fitzgerald fare. It’s dark and edgy and asks the question that all her novels seem to ask: if you were thrust into this moral dilemma, what would you do?

The moral dilemma in this tightly plotted and fast-paced story set in Scotland involves a single father, Will, who has to decide which of his twin daughters, Kay and Georgie, to save when they both develop kidney disease, aged 16.

He comes up with a four-point plan and then sets about putting it into action — with mixed results.

An impossible-to-guess plot

As ever with Fitzgerald, nothing is straightforward — she’s difficult to outguess, which makes her stories unpredictable and exciting.

It’s told from two points of view — Georgie’s, which is written in the first person and gives insight into her rebellious nature, and Will’s, which is written in the third person and paints him as a rather dull and passive character. These voices alternate from chapter to chapter, showing the impact of the situation on both the patient and the parent.

Not surprisingly, there’s nothing obvious about The Donor. It would be too transparent (and the story too short) to have Will donate a kidney to his favourite daughter — the sweet natured studious Kay as opposed to the difficult, often nasty and spiteful Georgie — so instead Fitzgerald has him go in search of his ex-wife, a heroin addict in love with a prisoner, as a first step in finding a suitable donor.

This gives the narrative an intriguing twisty angle, but it also throws the believability of the story into question. Much of the plot, along with its vast array of vividly colourful characters, including Preston the 17-year-old private detective that Will hires to track down his ex-wife, are out-and-out bonkers.

Preston coped very well with stress. In the last twelve hours, he’d bought drugs, killed a man and helped save a woman’s life. In the last two weeks he’d tracked down a missing person across two continents and fallen in love.

But if you suspend your critical faculties and just go with the flow, the book is an engaging — and highly addictive — read. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it has its serious moments too, not least the way in which it looks at the moral and ethical issues surrounding kidney disease, organ donation and the clashes between the middle classes and the underclass. It’s a great book to get stuck into if you are looking for something a little bit shocking and darkly funny.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2018 — I only ever planned to read 10 this year!

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Polygon, Publisher, Ron Butlin, Scotland, Setting

‘The Sound of my Voice’ by Ron Butlin

The sound of my voice

Fiction – paperback; Polygon; 146 pages; 2018.

Oh. My. Goodness. This. Book. Is. Genius.

But don’t take my word for it. Irvine Welsh, in the introduction to this newly republished edition of The Sound of My Voice, describes it as “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s”.

And Lizzy Siddal describes it as one of her “top 5 novels of all time” (her review is here). It was thanks to Lizzy that I got to read this book at all: I won a copy in a recent competition she hosted on her blog.

A man who has it all

The Sound of My Voice, which was first published by Canongate in 1987, is reminiscent of  Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City but with one important difference: unlike McInerney’s unnamed narrator, an aspiring journalist whose marriage has fallen apart, the main character, Morris Magellan, has it all. He has an important job as an executive in a biscuit factory (hence the image on the front cover), a devoted wife, two children (whom he dubs “the accusations”) and a home of his own.

On the surface he looks like he’s leading his best life, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that he’s not. For Morris is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air:

The thing about drink is knowing when to use it and not letting it use you. One drink’ll charge the system, get it in gear; but a second could be too much. Knowing when to drink and when to stop — that’s the trick.

He’s convinced himself that he’s in control of the bottle — “Yes, maybe you do have a drink now and again, but no one could say it affected your work” — but to the reader it becomes increasingly clear that he uses it to get through the day and to keep the rising tide of mud that surrounds him at bay.

Over the years you have become very skilful at sensing what is expected of you, irrespective of your own needs or wishes. You have never been accepted, nor have you ever tried to be; you have never loved, hated or been angry. Instead you have known only the anxieties of performance: that you do not make even one mistake by forgetting a line or missing a cue.

As Morris’ story unfolds — all narrated in the second person using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception — we learn what is troubling him and how it all begins to unravel when he witnesses a horrific event on his way to work.

In that one moment, the restraining forces of over twenty years was suddenly released — tearing apart the darkness and yourself.

Dark humour

While the story is underpinned by pathos and a dark undercurrent that suggests all will not end well for Morris, there are many laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that would be absolutely hilarious if his behaviour wasn’t so appalling. The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses. He spends every day trying to avoid the voice in his head which is hell-bent on self-destruction.

It is his poor devoted wife that one feels sorry for, and yet we never hear her side of the story; she’s always filtered through Morris’ eyes. I longed to understand whether she truly understood her husband’s problems or whether she was too self-obsessed to notice; we never find out.

In the Afterword to this edition, the author says he  “poured my heart and soul into this novel”. You can tell. The Sound of My Voice is a wonderfully perceptive portrait of the lies we sometimes tell ourselves to get through modern life. It brims with compassion, humanity — and kindness. Five stars.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Honeyman, general, Harper Collins, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or to hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old single woman, who lives in Glasgow and works as a finance administrator in a design firm. She has no family and no friends. Her life is guided by routine: lunchtimes doing the crossword puzzle in The Telegraph, evenings in front of the TV, and weekends spent at home consuming two bottles of cheap vodka.

Then there’s the regular Wednesday night phone call with “mummy”, who is locked up in an unspecified facility (read jail) and badgers her daughter about her “special project”. That special project, it turns out, is Eleanor’s plan to woo a man she’s been admiring from afar: a rock singer she thinks is “the one”.

But when that project goes off the rails, Eleanor’s fragile grip on life (and reality) threatens to derail more than just her one-sided romance.

Comic novel with tragic undertones

This astutely written debut novel by Gail Honeyman is quirky and humorous and deeply affecting. It goes into some very dark places, but emerges with a strong feeling of hope and optimism for the future.

Its central character, the eponymous Eleanor Oliphant, is an oddball: she lacks self-awareness, finds it difficult to make friends, is socially awkward and yet she’s never afraid to do her own thing.

Her contrary, judgemental voice gives the novel a distinctive flavour, peppered as it is with archaic language and outrageous comments — a red-faced man, for instance, is said to have “the pasty look of someone who has never eaten an apple”;  a woman’s makeup is described as being as subtle as if it had “been intended for a stage performance in the Royal Albert Hall”; and her friend is said to be wearing “the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it.”

Black comedy is never far away:

The last party I’d been to – apart from that appalling wedding reception – was on Judy Jackson’s thirteenth birthday. It had involved ice skating and milkshakes, and hadn’t ended well. Surely no one was likely to vomit or lose a finger at an elderly invalid’s welcome home celebration?

But balancing out the snide laughs and the eyeball rolls is a sense of pathos and empathy, as the author oh-so casually and ever so slowly offers a steady drip feed of information that forces the reader to constantly reassess their opinion of this opinionated narrator.

We know that Eleanor struggles to fit in, but when we discover early on in the book that she has a badly scarred face, there’s a sudden “a-ha” moment. Other hints about a dark past and the ongoing strained relationship with her mother, makes the reader want to know more: how did Eleanor’s injuries occur? Why does she have to see a social worker? Why is her mother locked up? Why does she feel the need to dampen down her feelings with so much vodka?

All these questions combined with exemplary narrative pacing makes Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a proper page turner. Forgive the capitals – and the book reviewers’ horrible cliché — but I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

Thoughtful and kind-hearted story

As you will undoubtedly know if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, I usually run the other way when the bandwagons come along, but this book really is as good as the hype. It might be slightly too long, and Eleanor’s voice takes a while to warm to, but once you’re in the throes of the story it’s hard to resist its charms. I predicted most of the plot turns, but it’s such a genuinely thoughtful, kind-hearted and touching novel I didn’t really mind.

I loved its perceptive examination of loneliness, the human need for companionship and the ways in which the past can continue to haunt the present and the future. But overall I loved the message that you cannot live your life by a timetable: change, spontaneity and daring to try new things are much more important.

Finally, I must also mention that this book gets extra kudos for the simple fact that it name-checks (and pokes the fun out of) a magazine I once worked on. Notting Hill (the film), eat your heart out:

‘I don’t see her as a Take a Break reader, somehow. It’d be something much weirder, much more random. Angling Times? What Caravan?’ ‘Horse and Hound,’ said Billy firmly, ‘and she’s got a subscription.’ They all sniggered. I laughed myself at that one, actually.

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Janice Galloway, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, Vintage

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 236 pages; 1999.

Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a profoundly disturbing story about one woman’s mental breakdown following the death of her lover.

Written in a series of fragments, often sharp, melancholy or bleakly funny, the book reflects the slow inward collapse of Joy Stone’s world as she struggles to make sense of all around her.

This claustrophobic story, which won the American Academy of the Arts E.M. Forster Award in 1994 and the Mind/Allen Lane Book Award in 1990, is a soul-destroying portrait of what happens to someone when their grief cannot be publicly acknowledged.

As the “other woman”, Joy must mourn in private and keep her thoughts — and her tears — to herself, but such a burden eats away at both her psychological and physical health. Food becomes a punishment tool, rather than a source of sustenance or even medicine, and she develops an eating disorder that leaves her painfully thin.

She also begins to numb herself with drink:

Gin tastes sweet and bitter at the same time, stripping down in clean lines, blooming like an acid flower in the pit of my stomach. I top up the glass till it’s seeping. If I get drunk enough, I won’t go to work tomorrow either. This is cheering and helps me through another mouthful.

As Joy spirals into a deeper and deeper depression, the book’s structure becomes more fragmentary, more fractured. There are diary entries, extracts from magazines, recipes and letters all jostling for position in the narrative. It’s almost as if the reader is immersed in Joy’s brain as her thoughts whirl around in a jumble of confessional anecdotes, painful flashbacks and disjointed thoughts about her present and future. The fine line between sanity and insanity gets increasingly more blurred.

I haven’t read a book so immediately immersive nor as bleak for a long time. There are shades of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in it, particularly in its depiction of the pressures and burdens placed on young women trying to find their rightful place in the world, but it does end on a positive note: Joy forgives herself and comes to understand that survival is something you can learn. The trick is simply to keep breathing.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it Edinburgh way back in 2007 as a souvenir of my trip (I always like to buy books by local authors) but it has shamefully sat in my TBR ever since then. 

2016 YWOYA, Author, Benjamin Wood, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Scotland, Scribner, Setting, Turkey, UK

‘The Ecliptic’ by Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 465 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

I’m quite partial to books about art and the creative process, so Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic had instant appeal: a story set on a private island for beleaguered artists all struggling to recapture the muse that has deserted them. Think a motley crew of painters, writers, musicians and architects, all living together under the watchful eye of a provost and each working on an individual project that will restore them in the eyes of the artistic communities in which they once belonged.

It’s part mystery, part historical novel, the kind of story that is ambitious in scope and structure, a wonderful blend of art, madness and creativity.

A painter’s life

This four-part novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, is narrated by a Scottish painter, who introduces herself as follows:

I was born Elspeth Conroy in Clydebank, Scotland, on the 17th March 1937. I had always thought my family name quite unremarkable, and my Christian name so formal and girl-pretty. Elspeth Conroy, I felt, was the name of a debutante or a local politician’s wife, not a serious painter with vital things to say about the world, but it was my fate and I had to accept it. My parents believed a refined Scottish name like Elspeth would enable me to marry a man of higher class (that is to say, a rich man) and, eventually, I managed to prove their theory wrong in every respect.

Elspeth, you soon learn, is a talented artist, who achieved great success in the 1960s London art scene — against the odds — but then she lost her muse, and now she’s living on Portmantle, an island off the coast of Turkey, with other artistic “has-beens” trying to draw on new wells of inspiration.

Thrown into this mix is a troubled young man whose arrival on the island disturbs the equilibrium of all who live there. Who is he? Why is his behaviour so odd? And what is he hiding?

But before we get to figure that out, the novel takes a dramatic shift in direction, and we are taken right back to Elspeth’s early days as a fledgling artist, first in Scotland, then in London. We follow her as she (unexpectedly) finds fame and then witness her struggles to come to terms with it while remaining true to her artistic values. We learn of  the unrequited love she feels for her mentor and the terrible tragedy that befalls her onboard an ocean liner bound for the US.

It is this second part, entitled Rooms from Memory, that forms the remarkable backbone to an unconventionally structured novel, which, it could be argued, follows the ecliptic of the title. (The ecliptic is “a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year”, one that is entirely imaginary.)

A novel with a twist

It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers. There’s a delicious twist at the end — one I did not see coming — and it’s of the kind that seems to divide opinion: you either think it’s genius or you feel slightly cheated by it. But whatever you think, there’s no doubting that the author went out on a limb, took a risk and did something that was far from predictable.

This lack of predictability is apparent throughout the entire novel. It could have been easy to have Elspeth and her mentor develop a sexual relationship; instead Wood writes the best depiction of unrequited love I’ve ever read in modern fiction.

Similarly, he could have made Elspeth a weak-willed woman; instead he gives her true grit. She’s a tough, determined and intriguing character, one who is true to her self and prepared to furrow her own plough, without fear or favour. The female voice also feels authentic and it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with her.

But it’s the detail of the painter’s work — the technical aspects of grinding pigments, how they prepare canvases, the brush techniques they use — which makes the novel feel so vividly real. (In this respect it reminded me of Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which I read earlier this year and loved for the same reasons.)

If you like art, mysteries and historical fiction, there’s plenty to admire in The Ecliptic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, one that is intelligent, cleverly plotted and full of rich, intimate language. Its slow build up of suspense, despite its length, is also a feat that demonstrates much skill. But for me, the ending was slightly disappointing, although I loved the strange, almost hallucinogenic nature of it.

This is my 3rd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Magda Szubanski, memoir, Non-fiction, Poland, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Text

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanksi

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 400 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

So begins Magda Szubanksi’s extraordinary memoir Reckoning, which is as much a love letter to her dad as it is an autobiography of her own life.

Most British readers will know Magda from the Australian sit-com Kath & Kim, where she plays the sports-obsessed unlucky-in-love Sharon Strzelecki. But she also starred in the 1995 Hollywood film Babe, the story of a pig who wants to be a sheepdog, and appeared in a slew of comedy shows from the late 1980s onwards. She first came to my attention in 1986 when she was in The D Generation, a comedy sketch show created and written by a group of Melbourne University students, and later Fast-Forward, another comedy sketch show that went on to become Australia’s highest rating TV production of that type.

Not your usual celebrity memoir

That aside, you don’t need to know who Magda is to appreciate this book. It may be billed as a memoir, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, it tells the story of Magda’s life, but it’s got an intellectual rigour to it that you don’t often find in your usual run-of-the-mill celebrity autobiography.

It covers some very hard-hitting topics including relationships between fathers and daughters, what it is to be an immigrant (Magda was born in Liverpool, England, to a Scottish mother and Polish father, and they immigrated to Australia when she was five years old), intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and “genetic memory”, the Holocaust and the Polish resistance, politics, feminism, mental health and repressed sexuality.

The latter is a major part of Magda’s story, for she kept her own sexuality a secret for much of her adult life, frightened not only of being rejected by her loved ones but by the Australian public and the film and television industry in which she’d forged such a successful career. Her struggle with this element of herself  is threaded throughout the narrative and her inability to come to terms with it publicly manifested itself in anxiety, depression and over-eating. She eventually came out live on TV in 2012 when she realised it was time to finally stand up and “do the right thing”:

It was possibly the most nervous I have ever been. My breathing was constricted but I could still make a sentence and even a joke. When the guys [the hosts of the TV show The Project] asked me how I identified I replied, “I am absolutely not straight. I wouldn’t define myself as bisexual either. I would say I am gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-a-little-bit-not-gay-gay-gay-gay. Unfortunately, there’s not actually a word to describe me, so I have to express myself through the medium of dance.”

Bearing witness

Another thread running throughout Magda’s life is her father’s dark history. He was just 15 when the Nazi’s invaded his home town of Warsaw. Most Poles fled, but the Szubanskis stayed put. Magda’s father formed his own “private army” — “a vagrant bunch of childhood friends roaming around doing whatever damage they could, especially killing Germans” — before he was properly recruited, aged 19, to become a non-commissioned officer of the Polish execution squad known as Unit 993/W Revenge Company. This top-secret unit was tasked with assassinating agents of the Gestapo and Polish traitors. “It sounds like a movie,” writes Magda, “It wasn’t.”

In a city where everyone had something to be afraid of, those who aided the Nazis lived in fear of people like my father. His unit comprised both men and women. […] They targeted collaborators who gave the names of resistance members to the Gestapo. Unit 993/W also assassinated Poles who told the Gestapo where Jews were hiding. And so the Nazi collaborators were sentenced to death by the Polish underground courts. Despite the chaos of war, due legal process was followed. The traitor would be tried in absentia in a court of law and the sentence would be carried out by my father’s unit. Then, when the time was right, they would run in, read them the list of crimes of which they had been found guilty, and shoot them.

During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Magda’s father was captured and sent to a POW camp. He escaped while on the notorious Lamsdorf Death March, but was recaptured and sent to two more POW camps. Eventually, he was liberated by the Russians and made his way to Scotland, where he reinvented himself as an Englishman, married Magda’s mother, a Scot of Irish extraction, and tried to forget his past. He never saw his parents again.

Clearly a man of courage, who had a strong instinct for survival, Magda describes him as:

… warmhearted, friendly, engaging, intelligent, generous, humorous, honourable, affectionate, arrogant, blunt, loyal. He was a family man. He was handsome, although he did not have heroic stature. He was five foot four. He was stylish, fashion-conscious; a dandy even. […] He loved tennis, he loved ballet, he loved good conversation. Out there in the Melbourne suburbs […] you would never have guessed that he was capable of killing in cold blood. But he was. Poor bastard.

For Magda, the struggle is to reconcile in her own head (and heart) the man she loved with the man who was capable of shooting people dead, and much of this book explores that murky territory, trying to put events into some kind of context and fleshing out the ambiguities and moral complexities of what it was to live through the Second World War. Was it okay to kill people if you were on the “right” side?

An intimate read

Reckoning is a deeply personal read — sometimes uncomfortably so — but Magda is an honest, forthright guide, and her love for her parents (and her siblings, especially older sister Barbara) shine through. This is not a sentimental read, nor is it a self-pitying one, but it’s a warm, intelligent, brave and occasionally eye-opening one. I found it utterly captivating and came away from it feeling as if Magda had somehow exonerated the ghosts of her family’s past — or at least come to terms with them.

Unsurprisingly, Reckoning has won a slew of awards in Australia, including ABIA Book of the Year, ABIA Biography of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, Indie Award for Non-Fiction, and Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice Award.

It has just been published in the UK and will be released in the US and Canada next month.

As an aside, do watch this clip of one of Magda’s most ingenious creations, Lynne Postlewaite, whose catch-phrase “I said pet, I said love…” still makes me laugh:


This is my 45th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 30th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Book review, Cal Flyn, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, travel, William Collins

‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn

Thicker than water by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.

McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.

Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.

But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.

A journey into the heart of darkness

Thicker Than Water  is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.

Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:

A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.

She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.

Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.

Atoning for past sins

The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.

What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)

But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?

I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.

And finally…

Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.

Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Spain

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.

The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.

The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.

Sexual shaming

As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.

Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.

And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:

The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.

She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

Fast paced, but preposterous plot

The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous.  Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.

Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.

Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.

So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.

This is my 19th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 15th for #AWW2016.

Amanda Curtin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Scribe, Setting

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 448 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It took three years for this fine Australian novel to be published in the UK — and the wait was definitely worth it. Amanda Curtin’s Elemental is a masterpiece in storytelling, incredibly evocative of time and place, and with a lively and entertaining character at its heart.

That character is Meggie Tulloch, a woman born in the late 19th century to a traditional fishing family on the north-east coast of Scotland, who tells her life story to her granddaughter — affectionately addressed as “lambsie” throughout —  in a series of three notebooks entitled Water 1891-1905, Air 1905-1909 and Earth 1910-1932.

An intimate voice

In a voice that is confident, beguiling and intimate, Meggie reveals the hardship of living in a small (and superstitious) village at time when women were subservient to men, often cruelly treated by them, and where educational options were limited and career opportunities non-existent. Into this harsh world, Meggie finds herself ruled by a tyrannical grandfather and shunned by the village and its fisherfolk at large for having red hair, because it was believed to bring bad luck on the sea. But she keeps her own counsel, forges a close bond with a pet dog she’s allowed to keep, and looks to her older sister, Kitty, for friendship.

She also does well at school and develops a love of reading, but her education is cut short as a teenager, when she decides to become a “herring girl”. This involves long hours gutting fish on board the trawlers at sea, a job which is physically demanding and carried out in atrocious conditions, but which Meggie believes will give her the opportunity to see the wider world:

It was not as I had imagined it — the sea, when it was all around me. From the boatie shore, it had seemed for all its restlessness, something fixed — a space to cross, with the wide world beyond it. I could never have guessed that the sky grows even further away instead of closer and nothing is fixed at all. It was then I began to wake. Here I was, between one life and another. Between a girl of fourteen and in school, working at whatever the family said she must, and a girl of fourteen and about to earn money in her own right. Between a place of grim restraint and a place, I hoped, of freedom. I had been warned about the ruthless sea the whole of my life, but even at fourteen it seemed to me that nothing the sea could throw up could be as ruthless as what I left behind.

Before long, Meggie gets married then emigrates to the other side of the world — Fremantle, on the coast of Western Australia — to set up a new life, far removed from the one she left behind. But then the First World War comes along throwing up yet more, perhaps tougher, challenges.

A century of change

In telling the story of one woman’s life from cradle to grave, Curtin is able to chart historical changes as well as the ways in which a person’s own relationships — with family, with friends, with colleagues and loved ones — alter over time. It’s heartbreaking to see the relationship between Meggie and her sister fall apart, not simply through distance but also by the inability to properly communicate with one another. It’s the same with Meggie’s marriage, which is blissfully happy to begin with before it crumbles away to nothing, mainly through the advent of the war and the horrible way in which it damages her husband’s confidence.

The real strength of the novel, however, is in its depiction of the traditional fishing village of Meggie’s childhood and the brutal reality of life at sea. The descriptions are so evocative — of the weather, of the rituals and traditions of fishing folk, of the rich language, and of Meggie’s longing to escape — that it really does feel as if you are there struggling to walk through the howling winds and bitterly cold air. I’d go so far as to say the first 215 pages of this book are some of the finest historical fiction I’ve ever read; it’s so redolent of a Scottish fishing village more than 100 years ago.

Later in the novel, there’s a dramatic switch in tone and narrator, as Meggie’s granddaughter and daughter-in-law take up the story in 2011, a switch I found particularly jarring. I felt the loss of Meggie’s voice keenly, but once I’d got over the shock and reoriented myself, I could appreciate Curtin’s desire to show the long-lasting legacy of Meggie’s life on her family. She may have led a small, seemingly uneventful life, but it was well lived, and filled with pain, courage — and love.

For other takes on this novel, please see Eric’s review at Lonesome Reader and Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

This is my 14th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 10th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Jump’ by Doug Johnstone

The_Jump
Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone has become my go-to author for fast-paced psychological thrillers. I’ve read Smokeheads (2011)Hit & Run (2012) and Gone Again (2013) — all reviewed here — and he even did his Triple Choice Tuesday for me back in 2011. Somehow I missed out on last year’s The Dead Beat — probably because it came out while I was in the throes of part-time study — but this year I made sure not to miss his latest novel, The Jump, which was published in the UK by Faber & Faber last week.

A suicide bridge

The story plays out in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was from this structure that Ellie’s 15-year-old son jumped and killed himself. Now, still grieving for the loss of her only child, she spots another teenager about to take the plunge. She talks him off the ledge — literally — and takes him home to make sure he’s alright.

But what Ellie doesn’t realise is that things aren’t quite what they seem. Seventeen-year-old Sam seems reluctant to get in touch with his own family, so Ellie hides him away in her son’s old bedroom, not sure whether to tell her husband, Ben, that he’s there. Later, she moves him to their boat on the marina, where it’s unlikely he’ll be found or disturbed.

But then things begin to unravel when she spots bloodstains on Sam’s t-shirt. She begins to wonder if Sam is being straight with her. Is there more to his story than meets the eye? Her secret, often risky, investigations lead to one shocking revelation after another and before long the story is racing along at Formula One pace, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. It is, quite frankly a superb — if slightly far-fetched — ride.

An intriguing lead character

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, aside from the astute plotting and the way in which the narrative is punctuated by one surprise after another, is the character of Ellie. She’s no cardboard cut-out. This is a complex woman, beset by grief, and motivated by the knowledge that she has a second chance to save someone, even if that someone is a complete stranger. She’s strong-willed, with nerves of steel, and I loved her determination and resourcefulness.

Equally, Ben, her husband, is a fascinating character: he’s buried himself deep into suicide conspiracies to help cope with the loss of his son, so everything he says and does is tempered by a mild form of lunacy.

Together, they make a formidable pair, and even though their actions are sometimes slightly dubious — and often criminal — you can’t help but think that such questionable behaviour could be explained by such terrible grief.

A sensitive and mature novel 

While The Jump is ultimately a sensational novel that brims with suspense and danger,  it explores the issue of suicide with great sensitivity. Clearly, Johnstone has done his research — it feels authentic and believable and the mother’s emotions seem spot-on. Even the stresses and stains within the marriage, the different ways that Ben and Ellie have dealt with their grief, elevates the story above the usual run-of-the-mill thriller.

I also like the way that South Queensferry and the waters of the firth have been depicted with faithful and exacting detail, making these places characters in their own right and adding a distinctly Scottish flavour to the book.

I’d argue that this is Johnstone’s most mature work yet — he’s shied away from a big bombastic ending, and left things a little open-ended, which I liked, and he’s reined in some of the over-the-top shenanigans of past efforts. I just want to know when the film rights are going to be sold, because this would make a terrific movie — I can already see Kelly MacDonald and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles!