Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Men in My Situation’ by Per Petterson (translated by Ingvild Burkey)

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 291 pages; 2021. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.

The light from inside sifted gently down over the snow on the pavement, and the street lamps turned everything yellow and each street lamp had its own circle and no circle touched another and between them there was silence.

The King of Melancholia returns with what may possibly be his best novel yet.

Men in My Situation features many of Per Petterson’s trademarks:

✔️ A solo man, with working-class roots, a bit down on his luck and prone to introspection

✔️ A focus on past relationships (both sexual and familial) and how they have panned out

✔️ An emphasis on place

✔️ An exploration of grief, occasionally manifesting in violence

✔️ Loneliness, regret, melancholia and depression

And it’s written in prose, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, that is assured, eloquent and evocative, ripe with detailed and often beautiful descriptions of snow-filled landscapes and city streets.

Arvid is adrift

In this tale, we meet a recurring character, Arvid, who is 38 and newly divorced. (He was a teenager in Echoland; 37 and heading for divorce in I Curse the River of Time; and 43 in In the Wake.)

He’s a mildly successful writer (enough to be recognised by people in the street, anyway), but things aren’t going particularly well for him. He’s alone and adrift, desperately missing his three daughters, and clinging to the routines that mean something to him: driving his old Mazda around the quiet streets of Oslo (and sometimes sleeping in the car), going to bars and drowning his sorrows in booze, and occasionally going home with women for meaningless sex.

The breakdown of his marriage haunts him. He knew things were getting bad when he and his wife, Turid, stopped going to bed at the same time — “We’d become like magnets with identical poles turned towards each other, plus to plus, minus to minus” —  and started quarrelling more about silly things that “suddenly blew out of control”:

I didn’t understand why and wanted it to stop, I wanted to get away from it, but I didn’t know how, we were like two bicycle wheels stuck in a tram rail, and it felt ominous because she was unafraid whereas I wasn’t, and a trapdoor beneath my feet might open any second.

But overshadowing this is a fog of grief: a year earlier his parents and two brothers died in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster and he’s wrestling with how to process this loss. (Petterson himself lost his mother, father, young brother and a niece in the disaster, and it’s a recurring episode in the Arvid novels.)

Arvid measures time in the distance between his wife leaving him and the ship burning.

I thought, how does one measure grief, is there a yardstick for grieving, is there any difference, say, between grieving for one person as opposed to two or three persons, or even four, as in my case, did all this fit on a yardstick, or could the level of grief register as on an instrument, such as a Geiger counter, and the closer the instrument got to the full power, the full height, the full number, the faster and louder the instrument would emit its familiar beep. And how was I to know when there was grief enough, and if grief was liquid like melting silver, could one then pour the grief into a litre measure and conclude, under these circumstances, eight decilitres ought to be sufficient, and let the silver congeal hard and shiny not far below the rim. How was I to know.

Deeply introspective narrative

There’s not much of a plot, but this is not unusual in Per Petterson’s work. Instead, we get a deeply introspective narrative about a divorcé grappling with fatherhood and newfound circumstances, of a man who is acutely aware of his weaknesses but not confident enough to overcome them, someone who wants to be a better person but isn’t sure it’s worth the effort.

He fills in his time trying to repair the relationship with his young daughters — his eldest no longer wants to spend time with him, and she’s convinced her young siblings likewise — and getting back in touch with his old childhood friend, Audun. (Petterson fans will recognize Audun from an earlier novel, It’s Fine by Me.)

There’s a terrifying sequence in which he takes his daughters on a road trip, only to run off the road doing a dangerous, unthinking manoeuvre in a pique of anger, and while no one is injured, Arvid is aware that if his wife finds out his access to the girls may be taken away. The slide into desperation, of keeping secrets from his ex-wife and of behaving recklessly, becomes more acute as the story progresses.

But it’s not all predictable. Arvid’s melancholia and his tendency toward self-pity come into sharp relief when he discovers that his eldest daughter has health issues. This forces him to play the role of a caring, dedicated father, someone reliable and trusting, someone who can rise above “men in my situation” to do something positive and helpful.

The book ends on an optimistic note.

For another take on this novel, please see Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

6 Degrees of Separation, Book review

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ to ‘English Passengers’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first quarter of 2022 is over and a fresh one starts!

And because it’s the first Saturday of the month, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This time around I’m theming mine around stories set onboard ocean-going vessels. I think living close to a port — I can see the vehicles carriers and container ships in dock through my living room window as I write this — has somehow infected my subconscious!

Without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ by Julia Armfield (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which has only just been published in Australia. From what I can gather, it explores the aftermath of a deep-sea mission that goes wrong. This made me think of other books I have read that have involved the sea in some way, so my first link is:

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)

This engaging novel explores both the healing and dangerous aspects of life sailing the ocean. The 20-year-old protagonist has a controlling boyfriend, whose behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men. When the grandfather who raised her dies, she heads out on a sailing trip with an elderly couple as a way of dealing with her grief. She ends up falling in love with the ocean and reinvents herself as a sailor, ditching her boyfriend along the way. But several years later, when onboard a trawler with an all-male crew, she discovers there are dangers other than drowning with which she must contend.

Another novel about a young woman confronting danger on board a ship is…

Atlantic Black

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić (2017)

In this lyrical novel, a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood has her sense of freedom and bravura tested in the brief space of a day and a night. The entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938. Katerina, the daughter of an ambassador, is left to entertain herself when he mother falls ill. Oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Another story in which a cruise ship features is…

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt (2018)

In this comedy of manners, a rich, morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times, flees Manhattan for Paris, taking her adult son and her cat (which she believes houses the spirit of her dead husband) with her. But from the moment the trio set foot on the cruise ship that takes them to Europe, a series of minor disasters befall them. And things don’t really improve when they get to France, either. It’s a funny book, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but when I recently tried to watch the film adaptation, I’m afraid I actually fell asleep!

Another book about travelling across the ocean to start a new life is…

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

The first half of this deeply reflective novel is set on an ocean liner bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is about the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years. Much of the early section is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allow you to build up a picture of what it was like onboard and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

Adventure of a different type features in the next novel, which is also partly set on a cruise ship…

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This suspense novel, set in the mid-1960s, is essentially the story of a holiday gone wrong — in the worst and most possibly terrifying way. It’s about a married couple onboard a cruise ship bound for Central America who are taken advantage of during the trip. The pair regard themselves as travellers, not tourists, but for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming. This is a book to really quicken the pulse!

Another novel about a seafaring adventure coping with threats of a different kind is…

English passengers

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale (2000)

This brilliant seafaring romp is told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters. It’s a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing halfway around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew brings a small expedition team with them that comprises a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a sea mission gone wrong via stories all set on ocean-going vessels to the final novel about a Manx smuggling vessel fleeing the authorities by travelling to the other end of the world!

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

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

‘In the Winter Dark’ by Tim Winton

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous creature 

First edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wild Cat Falling’ by Mudrooroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release from jail

First edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

An encounter on the beach

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

The woman, June, is perplexed.

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

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

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

A friendly invite

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatic ending

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

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

Bill at The Australian Legend has also reviewed this book.

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

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

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

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

Author, Billy O'Callaghan, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Life Sentences’ by Billy O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 220 pages; 2021.

Irish writer Billy O’Callaghan’s Life Sentences is a wholly absorbing family saga that spans three generations over the course of a century. It’s loosely based on the author’s own family tree and gives voice to the branch that was “illegitimate” because two children were born out of wedlock at a time when this was frowned upon.

At its essence, it is a love story between a teenage girl and the married man with whom she falls in love, but it’s also a damning portrait of one man’s eagerness to have his cake and eat it too, arrogantly ignoring his responsibilities to the children he fathered and blaming the woman for falling pregnant in the first place.

It’s split into three parts, with each part told by a different family member: Jer, 1920; Nancy, 1911; and Nellie, 1982.

Nancy’s romance

Nancy is the central character in this tale. As a 16-year-old, she flees Clear Island, off the south-west coast of County Cork, after the famine kills all her family, and starts afresh on the mainland where she finds work in a big house on the northside of Cork city. It is here she falls for the tall, good-looking, charismatic gardener, Michael Egan, with whom she starts a secret relationship, unaware that he is already married.

I  was nineteen when I met Michael Egan for the first time. That’s not where my story begins, but it’s where I begin, that day the beginning of my happiness and the start of my fall.

When she falls pregnant, Michael Egan (he is always referred to by his first and last names throughout this story) wants nothing to do with her. She’s fired from her job and moves into a workhouse.

Later, she moves into a crowded tenement and supports herself through “shameful things I could not regret, as much as I hated myself for them because I knew they were necessary”. It is while walking the streets down near the pubs “where I knew men with money in their pockets would be” that she bumps into Michael Egan once again.

Despite her better judgement, and perhaps because Michael is a familiar face and unlikely to be physically rough with her, she rekindles her affair with him. But history repeats. Another child is born out of wedlock, Michael Egan rejects her and it’s back to the workhouse with a baby and toddler in tow.

Jer’s complex history

It is that baby, a boy named Jeremiah, or Jer for short, whom we meet when the novel opens. He is in a pub, “drinking fast and heavy”, waiting for the guards to come looking for him. We slowly learn that he is angry, deeply angry, because his beloved sister Mamie has died (Nancy’s firstborn) and that he blames her husband, a violent alcoholic, for her death.

He killed her. He might not have kicked the chair away, but with his drinking he put the rope around her neck. He’s been killing her for years. And now she’s gone.

Despite this imminent arrest, we discover that Jer is a good man, happily married with six children, but he is emotionally scarred, not just by his impoverished childhood and the father he met on just a few occasions, but by his time in the Great War. He seeks solace in his family, but his thoughts often turn to Michael Egan:

Dead now, dead a long time, but one half of me then and still. I exist because of this man, but because of him I am rootless. I made myself strong, in spite of him.

Nellie’s sense of peace

Jer’s youngest daughter, Nellie, takes up the final part of the novel. She’s in her 60s and lives with her daughter Gina and son-in-law Liam just “a stone’s throw from the house in which I was born”.

She’s dying but isn’t afraid to do so, and has shunned any kind of medical intervention:

I’ve watched so many go [die], and find comfort in knowing that I’m to take the same road. If it leads nowhere then that’s all right. But if there’s a chance of maybe seeing them again, my loved ones, my husband Dinsy and my father and mother and all the rest, then who wouldn’t want that?

As Nellie looks back on her life, we see how things have panned out for Nancy’s children and grandchildren. There is tragedy and heartbreak in this life, but there is also love and happiness and a sense of belonging, of putting down roots that her own father never could because of his illegitimacy.

Sad and melancholy

I adored this book. Yes, it’s sad and melancholy and treads some dark territory (there’s a lot of death in this novel, it has to be said), but it’s written in such an engaging manner, brimming with humanity and compassion, celebrating the tenacity and resilience of a family just doing their best to get by against the odds.

It’s intimate, rewarding and poignant, the kind of novel to make the heart lurch. And I’m delighted to see the author has two other novels and a bunch of short story collections for me to explore. I will look forward to reading them when I can.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Lukins, Setting, USA

‘Loveland’ by Robert Lukins

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 344 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The ways in which a woman reclaims her past — and her power — are at the heart of this very fine novel by Robert Lukins.

Loveland tells the story of May, an Australian woman, who goes to the US to claim an inheritance: a decrepit house on the edge of a poisoned lake in Nebraska.

Going to visit the house, left to her in her grandmother’s will, for the first time offers May a chance to momentarily escape her controlling husband and the teenage son she feels increasingly alienated from.

And it’s also an opportunity to find out more about her grandmother, Casey, who never spoke about her past. What secrets did she hold? And what happened to make her emigrate to Australia all those years ago?

Dual storylines

These dual storylines, one set in the 1950s, the other in the present day, gently unfold to reveal a tapestry of love and deception and thwarted opportunities and controlling, misogynistic behaviour by the men in both women’s lives.

Over the course of the story, we get to know both women intimately. We see how May ignored the red flags and is now only coming to terms with the fact that her marriage has not been a healthy one.

On the day of their wedding, Patrick had twice gone to the toilet to cry. That’s what he said. What he told May as they stood together and waited for the celebrant to finish her speech on the sharing of joy, new discoveries, and of the couple being not perfect but perfect for each other. Patrick had whispered in May’s ear that he’d been in tears after breakfast and again just minutes before the ceremony. He’d asked if his face was puffy and if she could tell. The crying had been over his worry that May wouldn’t pay him enough attention and that he’d be ignored amid the commotion and stress of the day.

And we learn that Casey’s young life in Nebraska was also marred by an aggressive man who manipulated her to his own ends.

Not a misery novel

But this is not a stereotypical novel about domestic abuse or intergenerational violence. It’s completely free of cliché, free of pity, free of sentiment.

Lukins does not portray the women as helpless victims. Nor does he frame the story about the men or even May’s troubled relationship with them. Instead, the narrative follows May as she finds her voice, realises the truth and summons the inner strength to break the abuse cycle and begin anew.

It’s hard not to see May’s work fixing up her grandmother’s house as a metaphor for fixing herself and the fortitude and resilience required to build a new life.

Loveland is an exceptional novel. It’s eloquent, nuanced and compassionate.

And Lukins, who holds the secrets of the story close, revealing nuggets of information only when necessary, has crafted a compelling second novel, a worthy contender to his atmospheric debut, The Everlasting Sunday, which I much enjoyed when I read it in 2019.

Please note, this book has only been published in Australia. International readers can order direct from the publisher Allen & Unwin. (Shipping info here.)

News

Perth bookstore launches First Nations book subscription

How’s this for good timing?

No sooner do I decide to begin a Reading First Nations Writers project, than I discover an independent bookstore here in Perth is set to launch a First Nations book subscription!

Rabble Books & Games, in Maylands, will offer a book every month that will be “by an Indigenous author and from a range of genres for adults”.

Needless to say, I have signed up! I have opted for the postal subscription, which is $45 per month (via Direct Debit), but if you live locally you can choose the in-store collection subscription, which is $35.

If you sign up by 24th of March, you will receive the first book by the end of the month. The first book is one of the five on the Stella Prize longlist by First Nation writers, so you get to choose which one you’d like.

On social media, the store said:

We hope that book subscriptions will give us a bit of a soft landing in what we expect to be a difficult year for Rabble, whilst spreading the joy of our book curation every month, and continuing to build a little community of book lovers. Hopefully, we can keep holding each other close in a socially distanced way!

To find out more, check out the store’s subscription page.

Author, Book review, Colombia, Fiction, literary fiction, Patricia Engel, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, USA

‘Infinite Country’ by Patricia Engel

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 191 pages; 2021. 

If anything positive is to come out of the Covid-19 global pandemic it is that Australian citizens, locked out of their own country (or even their home state) thanks to border closures, might gain a better appreciation of what it is to have freedom of movement.

Perhaps they might even develop greater empathy and compassion for migrants and refugees struggling to find a new homeland in which to make a better life for themselves.

This was front and centre of my mind when reading Infinite Country, a timely novel about immigration, by Patricia Engel, because so much of it charts the despair, frustration and anxiety of families separated by borders.

In this case, the family is from Colombia. Young married couple Mauro and Elena and their infant daughter Karina flee the violence in Bogotá to make a fresh start in the United States.

But over the course of the next 15 or so years, things don’t always go according to plan, and their hopes and dreams are stifled by racism, exploitation and, when their temporary visas run out, fear of arrest and deportation. This fear later spreads to their US-born children who are “undocumented illegals”.

On the run

The story opens with a killer first line:

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

This is where we meet Talia, a 15-year-old Colombian, making her escape from a correctional facility for adolescent girls high up in the mountains. Talia has been sent to the facility for committing a horrendously violent, but spontaneous, act that may or may not have been warranted.

But now she’s on a mission to get back to her father’s apartment in Bogotá so that she can pick up the plane ticket that is waiting for her — that ticket will get her to the US, where her mother and two older siblings live.

Talia’s frantic road adventure, hitchhiking across the country while avoiding the authorities, is interleaved with her parent’s love story, including their journey to the US to begin afresh long before Talia was born.

These two narrative threads come together when we discover that US-born Talia was sent back to Colombia as baby to be raised by her grandmother. This decision, based on economics, means the family now straddles two countries — and two different worlds — and because of legal issues there is no freedom to move between them.

Exposing the myths

Infinite Country is excellent at exposing the myth of the US as a golden land of opportunity and as a place of safety.

What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy? The previous month, on its own soil, an American man went to his job at a plant and gunned down fourteen coworkers, and last spring alone there were four different school shootings. A nation at war with itself, yet people still spoke of it as some kind of paradise.

As the family struggles to find work and accommodation, moving from one unsecure job to another, from one lot of overcrowded accommodation to another (at one stage they live in their car, in another they share a single room above a pizza shop with a Pakistani couple), their situation never seems to improve.

Both Elena and Mauro are exploited as cheap labour, unable to afford a decent place to live and constantly on guard for potential deportation. Social and economic mobility is non-existent. Even educational opportunities are limited.

And the option to go back is not an option at all.

Going home was never an option for these women. When Elena brought up the possibility of packing up, taking the children to Colombia […], Norma [a fellow immigrant] warned: ‘This is a chance you won’t get again. Every woman who has ever gone back for the sake of keeping her family together regrets it. You are already here. So are your children. It is better to invest in this new life, because if you return to the old one, in the future your children may never forgive you.’

Despite this, Elena is torn. She would love to go back to see her hardworking mother, to raise her daughter, and is “never sure if she’d made the right decision in staying”. She is plagued by guilt.

Eventually, she’d understand that in matters of migration, even accidental, no option is more moral than another. There is only the path you make. Any other would be just as wrong or right.

The price of migration

And, as much as immigrating is seen as a chance at a better life, it comes at a cost. This is how Mauro wants to convey it to his daughter Talia just as she’s about to board the plane to be reunited with her mother after 15 years:

What he wanted to say was that something is always lost; even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied. […] What she didn’t know, Mauro thought, was that after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits. Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned and unwanted creature.

Infinite Country is eloquently written and brims with humanity, compassion and cold, hard truths — it’s completely free of sentiment and yet it is powerful and moving.

I ate it up in a single day. And I love that it ends on a hopeful note.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez: A story about two immigrant families from Latin America facing racism, victimisation and poverty as they try to forge new lives in the US.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera:  This occasionally violent novella focuses on a young Mexican woman who illegally enters the US to search for the brother who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle: A compelling story that showcases the stark difference between the haves, in this case a rich American family living on a gated estate in California, and the have nots, a young Mexican couple hiding out in a nearby canyon having crossed the border illegally.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Blogging milestones

Reading Matters turns 18

DRUM ROLL, PLEASE.

Reading Matters is now 18. 

Yea, I can’t believe it either. If this blog was a person, she’d be old enough to vote, drive a car, buy alcohol and get into nightclubs. Where did the time go?

I’ve been doing this malarkey for so long, usually on top of a busy day job (of which I have had many over the years), that I can’t really remember what I used to do in my spare time before it.

Blogging about books has been a much-cherished creative outlet. It’s taught me discipline, helped hone my online skills, improved my writing and editing, and made me a more critical reader. And it’s also introduced me to a supportive community of fellow bloggers, readers, writers and publishers I might not otherwise have met.

I recently had to explain a point of difference about my blog from the millions that now exist, and I summed it up as being “one of the world’s first blogs about books”.

When I started Reading Matters back in early 2004, blogging was a new form of media, the first step in the democratisation of publishing.

Everything about it was amateur. There was no such thing as an “influencer”. Social media didn’t exist. The release of the first iPhone was still three years away. The book industry didn’t know about blogging or hadn’t yet cottoned on to how they could use bloggers to help them spread the word about their wares.

It was a brilliant time of discovery and fun and it was relatively free from commercial agendas, external forces and self-promotion. We were all just figuring it out as we went along.

As a print journalist, I found it a practical way to teach myself new skills that might help me break into the digital world. But back then the print media hated new media, which it viewed as a threat — rightly as it turns out — but I was excited to have a foot in both camps.

Over the years people have occasionally asked me to share tips or expertise on book blogging and I’ve always shied away from it. I don’t see myself as an expert. I’m just a passionate reader who found an outlet for sharing that passion online. I don’t, for instance, have an Arts degree, have never studied English literature and am not well-read in the Classics. And everything I know about blogging (and reviewing books), I just learned along the way, mainly through trial and error.

But the beauty of blogging is that there are no “rules” — except the ones you set yourself.

I’ve always tried to espouse the same kinds of values here in the online world that I do in my real offline life: I do my own thing; I don’t follow fashions or fads; I try to be respectful of other people’s points of view even if I don’t agree with them; I am always aware that any work I review here has taken hours of hard graft by a real person so any criticism should be constructive and non-personal; I am transparent and don’t push agendas because integrity is important; I try to be kind and courteous but I call out bullshit when I see it; I like to encourage and help others and spread the love wherever possible; and I always aim to be fair and balanced.

A few key things I have learned, but which are probably obvious to others, include:

  • it’s not quantity (of content) but the quality that counts;
  • stats don’t make the world go round;
  • having a set schedule isn’t important — you can take a year off if you like, in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to matter — and there’s no need to apologise for an online absence, you don’t owe anyone anything;
  • there’s no need to post every day because some “expert” claims you will lose “traffic” if you don’t, just do it when you feel like it, it’s a hobby NOT a job;
  • if you’re struggling to write a review take a rest, come back later or just quit, you don’t get points for being a masochist;
  • you don’t need to review everything that is sent to you (provided you haven’t made any promises) — feeling guilty about this just eats up energy better devoted elsewhere and genuine publishers understand that real life gets in the way and they’ll just be happy if a certain percentage of books that they send out get reviewed, they’re not expecting a 100 per cent strike-rate;

and *finally*

  • don’t get hung up about how many books are in the TBR or how much money you have spent on books — you could have a far worse habit, like scoring crack cocaine!

I’m sure there are loads more “lessons”, but this post has gone on way too long already. And if you are still reading, thanks for hanging in there.

Thanks, too, to everyone who has followed this blog (and the associated Facebook page), left a comment, sent me an email or a book, invited me to bookish things on the basis of what I do here, or told others about my reviews. It’s all appreciated — and makes the solitary process of tapping out words on a laptop, on the evening or weekend, that little bit more communal.

Finally, I love this quote by American academic Charles W. Eliot, which sums up why I do what I do:

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.

You could say the same about book blogging, right?