20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Mark Brandi, Publisher, Setting

‘Wimmera’ by Mark Brandi

Wimmera

Fiction – paperback; Hatchette Australia; 260 pages; 2017.

Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera had the unusual honour of winning the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger in 2016 before the author even had a publishing deal.

Not long later Hatchette Australia picked it up and it was released in Australia last year. It has since been acquired by Legend Press, here in the UK, where it will be published next March.

Billed as a crime novel, I think it’s more accurate to describe Wimmera as literary fiction that just so happens to have a crime in it. The focus is really on two boys coming of age in rural Australia in the 1990s and what happens to them in one seminal year that changes their lives forever.

Body in the river

The book’s prologue sets the scene: two youngsters out looking for yabbies find a green wheelie bin stuck near a tree in the river of a small country town. The lid has been bolted down securely, suggesting that whomever closed it up “didn’t want what was in there to ever come out”.

The opening chapter spools back 20 years, to the same country town, where we meet Ben and Fab, two young boys, on the cusp of adolescence, who are best friends. Their lives are dominated by school and football and playing by the river.

Their carefree existence is hampered only by the violence of Fab’s Italian father, who lashes out with his fists, and troubled memories of Daisy, a local 14-year-old who hanged herself on the family’s clothesline. Later when Daisy’s family move away and a new neighbour, the mysterious Ronnie, moves in, Ben takes a summer job mowing Ronnie’s lawn hoping this will help him figure out who this strange man is: Fab has a theory he’s a secret agent.

In part two, the narrative returns to where it started and we find out that Fab is still living in the same town, working a dead-end job in the local supermarket, desperately unhappy and wanting to do something new with his life.

A knock on his door adds a frisson of excitement he doesn’t need. It’s a police detective:

“Mr Morressi, we think you might be able to help us with something. Something we found in the river.”

Southern Cross crime

Written in the third person, but largely told through the eyes of Ben, Wimmera is part of a new wave of internationally successful Australian crime novels dubbed “Southern Cross Crime”. (Think Jane Harper’s novels, The Dry and Force of Nature, Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, and Emily McGuire’s An Isolated Incident — and they are just the ones I have been lucky enough to read.)

But it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. It’s not a police procedural, though there are snippets of police interviews in the final part of the novel, and it’s not so much a who did it (though you do have to read the entire book to discover the culprit), but a why did it.

As a crime novel, I don’t think it is particularly strong. There are too many holes in the plot and it doesn’t feel truly believable to me. And the impetus for the crime is too vague. Perhaps the author didn’t want to go into detail and didn’t want to sensationalise it, but sometimes subtlety doesn’t always work.

I think the narrative is better when the author focuses on small town life, particularly what it is like growing up in a rural town in Australia in the 1990s, which he conveys with affection and through clever cultural references tied to that period in history, including schoolboy obsessions with Nike Air Maxes, Australian cricket heroes — Dean Jones, Merv Hughes et al — and TV shows such as Knight Rider, Wide World of Sports and Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday.

The first part of the novel reminded me a little of Jasper Jones (a book I actually hated), but with a more robust prose style.

On the whole, Wimmera is an interesting tale about boyhood friendship that reverberates through the decades. It’s a strong debut novel, flawed in places, but one that marks Brandi as a talent to watch.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer. (Yes, it’s taking me forever to write these all up!) I purchased it when I was in Australia on holiday earlier in the year. I’d not heard anything about it at the time; I was just attracted by the cover image and liked the sound of the blurb on the back.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 352 pages; 2014.

First published in 1960, The Catherine Wheel features all of Elizabeth Harrower’s literary trademarks: a young woman, a claustrophobic relationship, a brooding atmosphere and brilliant psychological insights.

Set in London during the 1950s, it’s a grim portrait of both the city and the troubled life of a 25-year-old Australian woman who arrives from Sydney to begin a law course by correspondence.

Clemency James moves into a boarding house and has a small circle of friends who keep her entertained. But when she meets Christian, a good-looking man with a much older wife, her quiet, stable and studious existence gets thrown into disarray.

Kind-hearted and somewhat passive, Clem cannot resist Christian’s charms even though she knows he’s trouble, for Christian, an out-of-work actor, has a gambling and alcohol problem. He’s vain, petty and narcissistic.

When Clem agrees to give him French lessons of an evening to sustain her meagre allowance she feeds into Christian’s fantasy of moving abroad and becoming successful. He wants Clem to come with him, and while she realises it’s an unlikely prospect — he’s married after all — she somehow succumbs to his ways and finds herself caught up in a claustrophobic relationship from which she cannot extricate herself.

Her friends, fearful for her welfare, find that whatever they say, Clem takes against them: she truly believes that for all her lover’s faults she’s the one who will be able to change him.

Restrained psychological drama

I’ve read several of Harrower’s books now and like her two earlier novels — Down in the City and The Long Prospect — this one is a slow burner. The author takes her time to not only build up a deft portrait of her characters, she painstakingly sets the scene so that her restrained psychological drama, which plays out in a domestic setting, feels authentic and immersive.

By the time the reader realises that Clem has got in over her head, it’s too late: she’s become blinded by Christian’s woeful behaviour and now there doesn’t seem to be any turning back because even if she does realise what’s really going on, she will have to deal with the slow-burning shame of it.

I admit that this book did try my patience at times, perhaps because it’s slightly too long for a character-driven story, but on the whole I found it a fascinating look at the intricate emotional webs that flawed humans are capable of weaving. It also proves an insightful look at unstable personalities, alcoholism and the far-reaching effects of psychological abuse.

For another take on this novel, please see Guy’s review.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2018 and 17th book for #20booksofsummer (apologies, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews; I’ve got two more to go after this one). I bought it a couple of years ago as part of a set of Harrower novels published by Text Classics. She’s promptly become one of my favourite authors and I look forward to reading the remaining two novels I have in my TBR some time soon.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, William Trevor

‘Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor

Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 103 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra is a bittersweet novella about love, longing and devotion.

Brimming with nostalgia, it is told through the eyes of Harry, a 58-year-old bachelor looking back on his teenage years in provincial Ireland during the “Emergency” (Second World War).

Through Harry’s reminiscences, we learn he comes from a “Protestant family of the servant class which had come up in the world” and he had been expected to work in his father’s timber yard as soon as he finished his schooling.

But when, as a 15-year-old, he met Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a German man twice her age, Harry’s eyes were opened to an alternative future.

Love at first sight

This is how Harry describes his first meeting with the woman who was to have such a long-lasting impact on his life:

She was an extremely thin, tall woman, her jet-black hair piled high, her eyes blue, her full lips meticulously painted: I had never seen anyone as beautiful, nor heard a voice that made me so deliciously shiver. ‘You looked for a blemish on her hands, on the skin of her neck or her face,’ I wrote in a notebook I kept later in my life. ‘There wasn’t one. I could have closed my eyes and listened to that husky voice for ever.’

Their platonic friendship is formed when she stops Harry in the street one day and asks him to deliver a flat car battery to the garage for her. She then asks him to bring a new one to Cloverhill, the big stone house on the edge of the village, where she lives.

This one request turns into a regular “gig” running errands and delivering packages for Frau Messinger, who often invites Harry into the house for tea, cake and conversation.

The relationship is an intimate but chaste one. She tells him stories about her life and writes him long letters when he’s away at boarding school in England. When his school friends tease him about it, he’s embarrased by their taunts. (“Houriskey wanted to know if I ever got a look about her skirts. At Liscoe grammar school there was a lot of talk like that; all humour was soiled, double meanings were teased out of innocence.”)

It’s only when Harry’s mother discovers that “the woman at Cloverhill” has given him a tie pin that he is forbidden from seeing her, a decision that he later defies.

Taking a stand

Nights at the Alexandra is a book that is as much about being an outsider as it is about growing up and taking a stand against your parents, for the Messingers are refugees, friendless in small town Ireland because everyone assumes they are Jews, and Harry is a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, sent away to England to go to school and expected to work in the family business when he graduates.

When Herr Messinger decides to build his wife a cinema — The Alexandra of the title — he asks Harry to run it. As much as he does not want to work for his father, Harry is torn, because he’s not sure he wants to run a movie theatre either, but later, partly in defiance of his parents but mainly through his love for Frau Messinger, he jumps at the chance to do so.

The story drips with Trevor’s trademark flair for melancholy and missed opportunities, and his prose is typically elegant and elegiac. The book is just 60 pages long but it’s written so tautly, with nary a word wasted, that it feels so much more powerful and authentic than a book, say three or four times longer, might.

It’s the mood of the novella that makes it such a memorable, haunting read, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been finished. Poor heartbroken Harry and the kindly Messingers will stay with me for a long time.

Added extras

This edition of Nights at the Alexandra (first published in 1987) comes with two additional short stories — The Ballroom of Romance (first published in 1972) and The Hill Bachelors (first published in 2000) — which carry on the melancholy theme. Both are set on Irish farms in the hills. In the first, Bridie realises her hopes of finding a husband have been dashed now that she’s trapped on the farm looking after her father who has had a leg amputated; and in the second, Paulie returns home to help his widowed mother and reluctantly settles into a new life as a “hill bachelor” when all the women of marriageable age that he courts don’t want to take up with him.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer (yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews). I bought this one earlier in the year, attracted by the new livery that Penguin has used to republish all of Trevor’s wonderful stories. I’m mighty tempted to buy the whole set: I’m yet to read anything by this author that I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. You can read all my other reviews on my William Trevor page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018)

20 books of summer 2018 recap

20 books logoHow can it be September already? It only seemed like the other day I was trying to work out which 20 books I was going to attempt to read this summer and now the time to complete that challenge is over.

It’s been a truly extraordinary summer here in London — the hottest I’ve experienced in my 20 years living in the UK — and I’ve (mostly) loved it, though the lack of air-conditioning, both at home and in the office, has been trying.

You would expect that kind of weather would be conducive to lolling about with book in hand, but I found it did the opposite: it just made me too tired to concentrate. Or maybe that’s because work has been pretty full on ALL SUMMER and since May I’ve been doing an additional gig co-ordinating six pages of copy for a weekly magazine.  And, to top it all off, I spent three weeks of June studying in the evenings and weekends for my WSET Level 2 Award in wine and spirits, a professional qualification that was a fun commitment but hard work!

Still, I can’t complain too much: I also got to go on an amazing week-long trip to San Sebastian in Northern Spain and ATE ALL THE PINXOS AND DRANK ALL THE SPARKLING WINE! And now I’m looking forward to going back to Basque country in early October on a work trip to Rioja — I know, I have a truly awful job 🙂

But what about the books, I hear you say. Well, all up I managed to read 19 books from my TBR pile over the summer — just one shy of my goal to read 20! Of course, I haven’t had time to review them all (there’s four to  come, which I’ll try to publish over the next week), but here’s what I did read (in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

  1. ‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga
  2. ‘Wimmera’ by Mark Brandi 
  3. ‘A Long Way from Home’ by Peter Carey
  4. ‘No More Boats’ by Felicity Castagna
  5. ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
  6. ‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  7. ‘The Last Garden’ by Eva Hornung
  8. ‘This is Not a Novel’ by Jennifer Johnston
  9. ‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley
  10. ‘Mr Phillips’ by John Lanchester
  11. ‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)
  12. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott
  13. ‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane
  14. ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ by Nuala O’Connor (review to come)
  15. ‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson
  16. ‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott
  17. Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor
  18. ‘The Secrets in Silence’ by Nicole Trope
  19. ‘Resurrection Bay’ by Emma Viskic

If I could hand out prizes, I’d give one to  John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips for being the WORST book, while I’d give Sumner Locke Elliott’s Fairyland a prize for the BEST book (closely followed by Jennifer Johnston’s This is Not a Novel).

The prize for “romp of the summer” would have to go to Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, which was such a fun  (if crazy) read, while the prize for the most thought-provoking read would have to be shared between Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts and Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well.

I hope you’ve had a fun summer (or winter, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) of reading. Did you do the 20 books of summer challenge? Did you read anything good? Who would you give your prizes to?

PS> Thanks, once again, to Cathy, who blogs at 746 Books for running and championing this challenge.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘This is Not a Novel’ by Jennifer Johnston

This is not a novel by Jennifer Johnston

Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 224 pages; 2003.

Thirty years ago, Imogen’s older brother went swimming in the sea off the Cork coast and was never seen again. Now, convinced that he may be still alive, she pieces together their family history and puts it down in a book, hoping Johnny, “somewhere in the world, may read it and may pick up the nearest telephone”.

This is the premise behind Jennifer Johnston’s This is Not a Novel, which was first published in 2002, making it her 13th work of fiction.

When the story opens Imogen has just sold her late father’s house on the Lansdowne Road, in Dublin, for a “whacking amount of money” and has inherited a trunk full of family correspondence and mementos, many of them from her grandparents and great grandparents, which shed light on their involvement in the First World War and the pains and small tragedies of another time and place.

The narrative is framed around the letters, press cuttings and diary entries Imogen finds in this trunk. Combined with Imogen’s memories surrounding the period immediately before Johnny’s disappearance and her memories from the current day, 30 years later, the book is a rich, elegiac tapestry of family history and deeply held secrets.

Refusal to believe

Three decades on, Imogen refuses to believe that Johnny ever drowned because her brother was a brilliant swimmer, and until he took against his father, was on track to become an Olympic champion. His body was never found.

At the time of his “death”, Imogen was in a psychiatric unit having lost the ability to speak and was thought to have had a nervous breakdown. She came of age during her confinement and was able to leave the institution without her parents’ approval.

The reason for Imogen’s loss of voice is key to the story. While we learn very early on that her mother, Sylvia, does not truly love her and acts rather coolly and indifferently to her, it’s not until the latter third of the novel that we understand what triggers Imogen’s fragile mental health. It’s shocking, but the clues are there for the reader who looks carefully enough to find them.

There’s a lot going on in this novel — about echoes of the past coming back to haunt the family, about unrequited love, familial love and acceptance of differences.

Two key characters — Bruno, the young German teacher who befriends Imogen’s family and becomes her first love, and Mathilde, the home help who escapes the Nazis and reinvents herself as a devout Catholic — are reminders that Ireland’s neutrality in both the First and Second World Wars is not without consequence.

I really loved This is Not a Novel. It’s very much typical Jennifer Johnston fare (I’ve read and reviewed much of her exhaustive back catalogue now) and features her trademark focus on nuance, the small hurts that render people emotionally fragile and awkward mother/daughter relationships. It’s a good a place as any to start if you have never read any of this author’s work before.

This is my 15th book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying it — I suspect it might have been on one of my short trips to Dublin at some point — but I do know that it’s been in my TBR for at least five years. I had been saving it up, because I only have a few Johnston novels left to read and I don’t want to get to a position where I’ve finished all her work because that means I’ll have no new JJ novels to discover.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Eva Hornung, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Last Garden’ by Eva Hornung

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 237 pages; 2017.

Eva Hornung’s novel The Last Garden begins in dramatic fashion.

On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.

Matthias has already shot dead his wife, Ada, and destroyed many of the animals on the Orion’s farm. He commits these violent acts before his 15-year-old son, Benedict, arrives home from boarding school.

The novel charts what happens to Benedict in the year after the murder-suicide of his parents.

Living in isolation

The first thing Benedict does is move into the barn because he can no longer face living in the house where he found the bodies. He withdraws into a world of silence, communicating only with the animals he loves — an assorted collection of chooks, a cat and two horses.

But things go awry pretty early on. The farm falls into neglect, he runs out of food, the chickens get eaten by a fox.

The only kindly face is Pastor Helfgott, the local preacher, who visits often to keep an eye on the boy. The pair develop an odd relationship, dancing around one another and never quite becoming friends.

Over the course of the year Benedict grows up, takes on new responsibilities and faces his demons. The mental trauma of his parents’ deaths begins to play havoc with his mind. The fox that hunts his chickens becomes a metaphor for the ghost of his father: always there and with a whiff of menace about him.

Otherworldly feel

The setting and sombre atmosphere of The Last Garden give it an otherworldly feel. Wahrheit is an isolated settlement of German immigrants who live by a strict moral code which casts out sinners. The community is hard-working and self-sustaining, but their faith is waning because the promised arrival of the Messiah has not yet occurred. Pastor Helfgott is losing control of his flock.

The time period is not specified — it could be the 19th century, it could be sometime in the distant future when fossil fuels have run out and everyone gets around by horse and cart — which adds to the almost dystopian feel of the story.

The structure — 12 chapters, one for each month and with a religious tenet as a preface to each — lends itself well to the novel’s focus on the rhythm of the working day and the passing seasons, drawing on the connections between people, animals (both wild and domesticated) and the power and beauty of nature.

It’s a slow, evocative read, rich in symbolism and brim full of melancholy and restlessness, but ends on a hopeful note. It’s certainly one of the more unusual — and original — novels I’ve read this year.

This is my 6th (and final) book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018, my 16th book for #AWW2018 and my 14th for #20booksofsummer. Technically, I’m not sure this one counts as 20 books of summer because it hasn’t been lingering in my TBR: I ordered it specially when the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced (it had to be shipped from Australia) and began reading it the day it arrived. But… if you don’t tell anyone, then I won’t tell anyone…

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Fiction, Gerald Murnane, literary fiction, Literary prizes, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane

Border Districts
US Edition (available in UK)

Fiction – hardcover; Farrar Straus and Giroux; 134 pages; 2018.

For a slight book, Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts: A Fiction packs a very large punch. Well, not so much a punch, but a tickling of the grey matter, for this is a novel — supposedly Murnane’s last (he’s 79) — that makes you see the world in new ways and makes you reflect on concepts you may never have thought of before.

Billed as fiction, the story mirrors Murnane’s real life move from Melbourne to a provincial town on the border between Victoria and South Australia and the impact of that shift on his interior life.

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

Written stream-of-consciousness style and employing some of the devices of meta-fiction, Border Districts is the type of novel that could be labelled “experimental” — it certainly doesn’t comply with the normal conventions of the literary novel, blurring the lines between fiction, non-fiction and reportage. Indeed, the story is written as if it is a report and the (nameless) author of the report keeps reminding us of this fact.

Border districts Australian edition
Australian edition (published by Giramondo)

The story is essentially about memory or, more accurately, the landscape of the mind. It explores how recall and imagery works, how sights and smells and music and words and even the way the light falls can trigger the mind to remember things from the past, taking the narrator on tangential journeys through back history, and how our experience shapes what we reminisce about.

It begins with the narrator noticing how the colour of the translucent glass in a local church window changes from day-to-day depending on the light (hence the pieces of coloured glass that adorn the American edition of the book), which reminds him of the glass in the chapel at the Catholic school he attended. From there his mind spirals into all kinds of memories — from his childhood education to his thoughts on Catholicism to his life in the capital city and his love of horse racing — before returning to where it started, trying to “recall the details of the windows of the chapel in the grounds of my secondary school”.

It is, to be perfectly frank (and please excuse the language), a bit of a mind fuck.

The writing is eloquent and full of astonishing detail and insight. Stylistically, each paragraph begins with short, taut sentences that later become elongated, stretched to breaking point and turning back on themselves. We are constantly reminded this is a book being written, with phrases such as “while I was writing the previous paragraph” dotted throughout the text and which, for this reader at least, soon began to wear very thin.

This is definitely not a book to race through despite its novella-like length. It took me more than a week because it was mentally exhausting to digest and I needed time to savour it in small chunks. Admittedly, I was relieved when I got to the end, but I did appreciate the way it made me reflect on things. This is the kind of writing that is focused on ideas and concepts rather than on plots and action and character, so you really need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.

I have read Gerald Murnane before — I described The Plains, arguably his most famous novel, as “surreal” and thought his style was very Kafka-like — so it wasn’t a complete surprise to find this book cut from similar cloth. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the first time Murnane has been nominated in a career spanning almost 50 years. We will find out tomorrow (August 26) whether he has won it.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer and my 5th for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018. I bought it in April (before the longlist announcement) because it had attracted a bit of publicity  — probably because Murnane said it was the last book he would ever write and there was a rumour going round that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature — and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it very favourably, which piqued my interest even further.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Felicity Castagna, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘No More Boats’ by Felicity Castagna

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

Fiction – Kindle edition; Giramondo; 264 pages; 2017.

Immigration, including how we deal with refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants, is arguably the issue of our times. Felicity Castagna explores this often controversial subject in her novel No More Boats, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

In Australia, the slogan “no more boats” is shorthand for anti-refugee sentiment, which has latterly become (shameful) Government policy designed to stop asylum seekers arriving illegally by sea. Most of these refugees come via Indonesia on flimsy, overcrowded boats, risking everything for a chance at a new life. (This article on the BBC News website explains why this policy is so controversial; and this memoir, by Dr Munjed Al Muderis, provides a shocking first-hand account of what it is like to be one of those refugees.)

Castagna’s novel looks at the thorny issue of what happens when a postwar Italian migrant rails against 21st century newcomers arriving in the country.

Making a statement

Antonio Martone has made a successful career in the construction industry but a workplace accident, which killed his friend, has left him badly injured and now, with too much time on his hands, his life — and his mental state — is slowly beginning to unravel.

The story, which is set in Sydney’s ethnically diverse Parramatta, takes a while to get going. Castagna takes her time introducing us to a wide cast of characters, including Antonio’s downtrodden wife, Rose, and the couple’s two adult children, Clare and Francis, and weaves their individual stories into a wider narrative that also takes in the 2001 Tampa crisis, in which a Norwegian ship carrying 433 rescued refugees was forbidden from entering Australian waters. (You can read about this incident on the National Museum of Australia website.)

The pivotal moment occurs when Antonio, inspired by the ghost of his dead friend, paints a political slogan in his front garden of the family’s suburban home. Here’s how Francis, coming upon it for the first time, describes it:

Now he was turning the corner. Now he was looking towards his home from across the street. Now he was noticing that a large piece of the white picket fence had fallen down and was lying on the pavement. Now he was slapped in the face by that giant image in blue paint that took up every inch of the concrete lawn in front of his house. No More Boats. It was written in shaky letters in the middle of a circle with a slash through it. On further inspection Francis saw that a little sail boat was drawn in there too underneath the lettering, in case someone didn’t get the message.

Of course, this attracts all kinds of unwanted attention — from the neighbours, stickybeaks, the media and political campaigners on both sides of the argument — and puts Antonio’s family in a difficult, and precarious, situation.

Contemporary Australian life

No More Boats is an illuminating, fast-paced read, very much focused on contemporary life in Australia and its uneasy relationship with its migrant past.

It feels like a “light” read but it has a surprising resonance and plangency.

The urban setting, together with its exploration of the complicated relationships between generations and the cultural baggage carried by the children of immigrants, brings to mind the best of Christos Tsiolkas’ work.

I found it a compelling yet thoughtful look at our sense of home, belonging, what it means to assimilate and how the deeds and words of politicians can have a dramatic, long-lasting impact on the views of the populace. But having raced through it back in early July, I found writing this review — some six weeks later — a bit of a struggle because not very much of the storyline stuck.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2018, my 12th  for #20booksofsummer and my 4th for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018. I bought it after it made the Miles Franklin longlist in late May because it sounded like something I’d be interested in and I was delighted when it made the shortlist, if only because I planned to read everything on it this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Emma Viskic, Fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘Resurrection Bay’ by Emma Viskic

Resurrection Bay

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin (Vertigo); 304 pages; 2018.

Emma Viskic’s debut novel, Resurrection Bay, is an unconventional slice of noir set in Melbourne, Australia.

It’s unconventional because the main character, Caleb Zelic, is profoundly deaf but is such a skilled lip reader that few people realise his inability to hear.

It’s also unconventional because it’s not a police procedural as such: when Caleb’s childhood friend, a senior constable, is brutally murdered, he’s determined to track down the killer.

He carries out an investigation via the private security firm he runs with his business partner Frankie, a former police detective, who is battling a secret dependence on alcohol.

Their work is fast-paced — and dangerous. It swings between the city and Resurrection Bay, Caleb’s home town on the coast, and involves a shady cast of characters, including corrupt cops, thugs and innocent people caught up in a web of lies and secrets.

A deftly plotted page turner

Resurrection Bay is a truly original story. It’s incredibly well plotted and full of twists and turns, but it’s so fast-paced it left me feeling breathless in places.

But it’s also very violent. There’s a lot of death and a lot of brutality, perhaps a little too much for my liking.

Yet it’s not without gentleness, for Caleb is nursing a broken heart and is still getting over his marriage break up with Kat, an aboriginal artist, who is unwittingly caught up in Caleb and Frankie’s investigation.

If I was to fault the story it would be that sometimes it feels unrealistic, but this is a minor quibble, because the tale is so gripping it hardly matters.

Caleb, of course, is the star of the show, a convincing protagonist, appealing and likeable. And the twist at the end caught me off guard, which is always the sign of a great crime thriller.

Resurrection Bay has been shortlisted for two prestigious CWA awards — the Gold Dagger and the New Blood Dagger — but it’s also won a slew of awards in Australia, including the Ned Kelly Best Debut and iBooks Australia Best Crime Novel.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2018 and my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it when it came out in paperback earlier this year because I’d heard good things about it.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, China, Hyeonseo Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, William Collins

‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; William Collins; 320 pages; 2016.

Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee is an inspiring and harrowing true life story about escaping a brutal regime and then having the courage to get your family out too.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea. She came from a relatively comfortable family. Her father was in the military and her mother smuggled goods from across the Chinese border and made a living selling them, so there was always food on the table — even during the Great Famine, where one million North Koreans died of starvation — and new clothes to wear.

But not long after Hyeonseo’s father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

A perilous search for freedom

The book charts Hyeonseo’s journey to freedom. It follows her life as an illegal immigrant in China, where she spent 10 years working low-level jobs, until she was able to get herself to South Korea, where she claimed asylum.

But throughout this time, always looking over her shoulder, changing her name (yes, seven times), learning Mandarin to fit in, buying a fake ID and keeping one step ahead of the authorities, she was constantly aware that she had left her mother and younger brother behind, whom she missed terribly. She vowed to get her mother out (her brother was engaged to be married, so it was more complicated to help him), but through a bizarre set of circumstances managed to smuggle both of them out.

Their perilous 2,000 mile journey from North Korea to Vietnam, where they planned to claim asylum in the South Korean embassy, was supposed to take around a week: it took more than six months and involved all kinds of dangers, including immersion in the shady world of people smugglers, brokers and corrupt officials.

It didn’t help that Vietnam had supposedly turned hostile to helping North Koreans and a last-minute diversion to Laos put the whole escape plan at risk. There was the ever-present threat of deportation back to North Korea, where imprisonment or public execution awaited.

A fabulous adventure story

The Girl with Seven Names is a truly gripping read. It has the air of a fabulous adventure story; sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s true because so many horrendous things happen along the way. But Hyeonseo’s unwavering faith in herself, in helping her mother and of forging a new life in a new culture is inspiring.

And while her story highlights the worst of humanity — the repressive and truly cruel nature of the North Korean state, the immorality of the people smugglers and the gangs determined to make a buck out of other people’s misery — it also presents a refreshing look at the kindness of others, for it is only through the random act of one man — a Westerner in Laos — that Hyeonseo was able to get her family to South Korea because he gave her the money she needed exactly when she needed it.

My most basic assumptions about human nature were being overturned. In North Korea I’d learned from my mother that to trust anyone outside the family was risky and dangerous. In China I’d lived by cunning since I was a teenager, lying to hide the truth of my identity in order to survive. On the only occasion I’d trusted people I’d got into a world of trouble with the Shenyang police. Not only did I believe that humans were selfish and base, I also knew that plenty of them were actually bad – content to destroy lives for their own gain. I’d seen Korean-Chinese expose North Korean escapees to the police in return for money. I’d known people who’d been trafficked by other humans as if they were livestock. That world was familiar to me. All my life, random acts of kindness had been so rare that they’d stick in my memory, and I’d think: how strange. What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not the norm. Dick had treated me as if I were his family, or an old friend. Even now, I do not fully grasp his motivation. But from the day I met him the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people. This seemed so natural, and yet I’d never felt it before.

Hyesonseo now campaigns for North Korean human rights and refugee issues. You can see a TED talk she gave in 2013 about her story:

If you liked this, you might also like:

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick:  an award-winning book, probably the best about what it is like to live in North Korea, that tells the individual stories of six people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year after reading this piece by Hyeonseo Lee on the Five Books website.