6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ to ‘Rememberings’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeTime to get my linking hat on!

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

I’m feeling a bit brain dead at the moment (I started a new job three weeks ago and my bandwidth is operating at full capacity), so I am going to try to keep this short and sweet: 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…

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey (2000)

I have a love-hate relationship with Peter Carey and this is one of those novels that falls into the latter camp. In my pre-blogging days, I had a hardback copy of True History and tried to read it several times but always became unstuck by about page 50, so abandoned it and never went back. I was a much younger, less experienced reader then, so I reckon I would probably get on with it quite well now. I do, at some stage, plan to give it another go, especially as it was recently featured in the Australian TV series The Books that Made Us.

All that aside, given True History is about a bushranger — the notorious Ned Kelly — my first link is…

The Burial by Courtney Collins

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins (2013)

The Burial tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War.

Another featuring castle rustling is…

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller (2014)

In this novel, a simple, uneducated man joins the police in outback Queensland in the 1950s. His job makes use of his exemplary horsemanship to help track thieves and stolen stock. But his easygoing nature is tested to the limits when a new boss from the city changes the whole way the local community is policed.

Another story about rural policing is…

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher (2013)

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

Another book featuring a single-officer police station is…

A Border Station

‘A Border Station’ by Shane Connaugton (1989)

This is a beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the 1950s that follows the day-to-day dramas of a young boy growing up in rural Ireland in a remote house attached to a police barracks, where his father — a fierce, bad-tempered police sergeant — is the only employee.

Another book about the son of a policeman is…

‘Memoir’ by John McGahern (2005)

The late John McGahern is arguably one of Ireland’s greatest writers. He was the eldest son of a policeman, with whom he had a troubled relationship. This memoir concentrates mainly on his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s and reads very much like a love letter to his adored mother, a school teacher, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old.

Another memoir by an Irish writer, albeit of songs, is…

‘Rememberings’ by Sinead O’Connor (2021)

Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor has had a troubled history, both with the public and her own family, and this memoir is a beautifully written account of her side of the story. It’s funny, irreverent, unflinchingly honest and powerful — a bit like the woman herself.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a notorious Irishman to a memoir about a notorious Irishwoman, via books about a female bushranger, rural policing and being the son of a garda sergeant.

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2018

books-of-the-yearSo, another year draws to a close, which means it’s time to sum up my reading over the past 12 months.

I read 68 books, quite a bit down on previous years, but I read a higher percentage of women (62 per cent) than ever before.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects, with mixed results.

On first impressions, I’d say it was a relatively mediocre reading year for me, and going back through my reviews I can see that it was a definite year of two halves, with the first being particularly strong and the second being much weaker.

So here’s my list — a mix of old and new, heavily weighted towards Australian novels with a handful by authors from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and South Africa  The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

The sound of my voice

The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (1987)
The day-to-day struggles of a biscuit factory executive who is also a high-functioning alcoholic.

The Sinners' Bell by Kevin Casey

The Sinners’ Bell by Kevin Casey (1968)
A heart-rending portrait of a doomed marriage set in small town Ireland.

The Quarry by Damon Galgut

The Quarry by Damon Galgut (1995)
Suspenseful South African novella in which a man on the run from the law switches identity with the priest he murders.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

Fairyland by Sumner Lock Elliott (1990)
Thinly veiled memoir about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in 1930s/40s Sydney.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Passage of Love

The Passage of Love by Alex Miller (2018)
Fictionalised account of the author’s own life trying to pursue a writing career at the expense of his marriage and financial security.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (2018)
Beautifully evoked portrayal of a father’s grief masquerading as a treacherous road journey across a snowy British landscape.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (2018)
Fast-paced tale about a teenage boy on the run through some of the outback’s most inhospitable territory.

Hope you’ve had an exciting reading year. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2018?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2018 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

20 books of summer (2017)

20 Books of Summer

20 books logoIn a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.

I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

  • ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
  • ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
  • ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
  • ‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
  • ‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
  • ‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  • ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
  • ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
  • ‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
  • ‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
  • ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
  • ‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney
  • ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller
  • ‘Ancient Tillage’ by Raduan Nassar
  • ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
  • ‘The Hungry Grass’ by Richard Power
  • ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
  • ‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

20 books of summer pile

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this linky page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first?

* Note, I reserve the right to swap out any of these books with my existing TBR pile if I find any of these ones don’t work for me or don’t suit my mood at the time.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Coal-Creek

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Coal Creek, published in the UK earlier this year, is typical of what I have come to expect from Alex Miller’s writing: quietly understated prose, slowly paced narratives, characters who are deep thinkers and themes which are universal.

Outback life

This story, set in the Queensland outback in the 1950s, unfolds gently but culminates in violence.

The narrator, Bobby Blue (short for Robert Blewitt), is a simple man with a strong moral compass, who finds it difficult to express himself so usually says nothing — occasionally to his disadvantage. He left school as a 10-year-old (“my mother never did get the chance to teach me nothing”) and became a stockman with his father and two others. Later, after the death of his father, he decides to work for the police, putting his horsemanship and knowledge of the bush to good use, tracking thieves and stolen stock and helping to settle the odd property dispute.

His boss, Constable Collins, is an ex-soldier who survived World War Two’s New Guinea campaign. He grew up on the coast but has accepted a bush posting, dragging his wife and daughters with him. He’s a bit out of his depth and is struggling to adjust to the scrub — he’s no natural bushman, which means he is increasingly reliant on Bobby’s skill and knowledge, although he is too arrogant to admit it.

There’s not much crime to investigate apart from the odd family feud and a bit of cattle rustling. Indeed, the previous constable used to turn a blind eye to much of this because he preferred to let people sort things out for themselves, but Collins is different: he only ever sees things in black and white, and believes his job is to police the community in the strictest possible sense. So, when an old aboriginal woman claims that Ben Tobin, an old school friend of Bobby’s, has hit Deeds, his aboriginal girlfriend, Collins is ready to throw the book at him — despite a lack of evidence.

And so Miller sets up his key theme — that of the stranger in a strange land (Collins) doing a job for which he’s ill-equipped — and pits him against the seemingly naïve and silent local (Bobby), who knows the landscape intimately and feels, if not at one with it, certainly a part of it.

First person narrative

The narrative, told entirely from Bobby’s point of view, is written in the voice of a simple, uneducated man — complete with grammatical errors —  who desperately misses his late mother and is starved of female company until Collins’ wife, Esme, encourages him to share meals with her family. Through this, Bobby develops a close friendship with the Collins’ 12-year-old daughter, Irie, who teaches him to read. But while these were simpler times and Bobby seems strangely asexual, this relationship between a man and a prepubescent girl threatens to destroy everything that Bobby holds dear.

And while I would describe Coal Creek as a proper slow burner — it took me a long time to get into — the story has a funny way of sneaking up on you and then holding on. This is largely due to the strong voice (and the wonderful storytelling), which puts you in the head of a narrator who is relating the story as it happened to him in the past (remember, things happen slowly in the bush). And because he often indicates that he wished he’d done or said something differently, a sense of doom, melancholia and regret begins to build. There’s lot of foreshadowing so that you know the narrative is going to culminate in an unhappy ending or dramatic event.

But what I liked most about this novel is the ways in which the landscape dominates the entire story; it’s beauty and strangeness, the way in which it makes man very small and insignificant, is a metaphor for the conflict between Bobby and Collins — that to survive in this land you need to understand it, or at least respect it.

We are only men. When you live as we had lived our lives in the scrubs you know you are not the boss of nothing and there is the sky and the eagles and the scrubs going on forever into them great stone escarpments. No man knows himself to be the boss of that.

Essentially Coal Creek is a love story — not only Bobby’s love for Irie, but of his mother and of the landscape and way of life. It’s also a very good examination of loyalty, trust, male friendship and the ties which bind mothers and sons. And it’s an eye-opening look at black and white relations, and the way in which remote rural areas are policed.

It is very much typical Alex Miller fare: richly evocative, intelligent and unsentimental, tethered to a strong sense of place and peopled by well-drawn characters. Don’t let the slow pace turn you off: this is one of the most absorbing stories I’ve read all year.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Setting

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

Landscape-of-farewell

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2008.

Landscape of Farewell is Alex Miller‘s eighth novel. It was first published in 2007 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008.

End of a life?

The story is told from the perspective of an elderly German academic, who is grieving over the death of his beloved wife, but finds new hope for his future in a rather unexpected way.

When the book opens, we meet Professor Max Otto as he prepares to die: he has the pills and the bottle of alcohol ready, but first he has to deliver his last public lecture entitled The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present — the title and subject matter is important — in front of his peers in the grand library at Warburg Haus.

After the applause has died down, he is challenged by a member of the audience — an Aboriginal Australian academic visiting Hamburg — who says: “How can this man presume to speak of massacre and not speak of my people?”

She was like a bright, exotic raptor spreading her gorgeous plumage in the midst of the ranks of these drab fowls. Her wild cry evidently called me to account. Once she had established an expectant silence, her voice rode upon it, her words filled with scorn and contempt. She was a woman in command of her audience and was clearly intent upon defending territory. In other words, she was young, intelligent and ambitious. With a touch of annoyance, I realised that I was not going to be permitted to slip away without being required to answer for my shoddy paper.

While Max is slightly stunned by the encounter, he’s not too worried by it — his suicide awaits. But on the walk home, his accuser, Vita McLelland (whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Dr Anita Heiss) confronts him again and the pair end up going for a drink, which distracts Max from his planned death.

The pair strike up a surprising friendship, and Max is invited to Australia to talk at a conference Vita is organising. During his visit he spends several weeks staying with Vita’s uncle, a cultural adviser and Aboriginal elder, in the Queensland bush, where he finally comes to terms with a past he has long sought to forget.

Sins of the fathers

The most surprising element of this book is the way in which it focuses on the “sins of the fathers” without ever once mentioning the word “Nazi” or term “Jewish holocaust” — and yet, clearly, this is what Max has been struggling with his whole life:

The subject of massacre, however, had obsessed me for a time in my youth, but I had found myself unable to make any headway in it owing to my emotional inhibitions, not least of which was a paralysing sense of guilt-by-association with the crimes of my father’s generation, and after several false starts I had abandoned the subject and fallen silent. It had remained an unexamined silence throughout my life and was my principal regret.

This keeping quiet about troubling events — or, as Vita puts it, “our inability to memorialise the deeds of our fathers” — is something shared by Vita’s uncle, the quiet and hard-working Dougald, whose great-grandfather, the warrior Gnapun, was responsible for the massacre of a white community in which 19 people died*.

When Dougald shares this story with Max, he asks Max to write it down for him so that it can be passed on to others and not die with him. This allows Max to see that there are ways to tell the truth about subjects that are hard to talk about and that shameful pasts are not unique to Germans unable to deal with what happened in the Second World War.

Common links

What I loved most about Landscape of Farewell is the way Miller takes two seemingly disparate cultures — Germans and Indigenous Australians — and shows their surprising similarities. Indeed, the message seems to be that we are all human, are all troubled by past wrongs but that it is up to successive generations to deal with that and to find their own truth in order to move forward.

But this is also very much a book about silence and the ways in which men find it difficult to open up to one another. It’s a significant turning point in the novel when Max and Dougald finally talk about important matters, because it is only then that the pair — and Max in particular — can reconcile their own individual pasts with the history of their respective countries.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that the landscape of the Australian bush plays a strong role in the novel too, for it is the silence of these wide open spaces that gives Max room to think, which, in turn, aids his “recovery”.

Landscape of Farewell is a wise, knowing and intelligent novel, not only about grappling with history, but of growing old, forging friendships and being kind to one another. It makes me even more keen to read the rest of Miller’s prize-winning back catalogue.

* In his Acknowledgements, Miller says this is based on the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, supposedly the largest-ever massacre of white settlers by Indigenous Australians in Australia’s history. You can read more about this event at Wikipedia.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2013

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when I sit down, look back over everything I’ve read in the past 12 months and draw up a list of my Top 10 reads.

After much umming and aching, these are the books I’ve selected.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to see my review in full.

 

 

The-Orenda
The Orenda
by Joseph Boyden (2013)
Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

Apple-Tree-Yard

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (2013)
Set in modern day London, this is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Under-the-skin
Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
Under the Skin swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments along the way. It is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

Eventide
Eventide by Kent Haruf (2005)
Eventide is the second book in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. There is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters’ raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone’s lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.

of-human-bondage
Of Human Bondage
by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
I loved this book so much, that I struggled to write a review that would do it justice, so this is the only novel on the list that isn’t reviewed on the blogIt follows the life and times of Philip Carey, an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It is at times a horrifying and heartbreaking  read, because Philip is a true loner and constantly struggles to find his place in the world. He is not entirely a likable character — indeed his relationship with Mildred, a waitress, borders on masochistic obsession — but I found his story a completely compelling one.

A-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about a young woman’s relationship with her older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Spanning roughly 20 years and set largely in an isolated farming community in the west of Ireland, it is highly original, bold, confronting — and Joycean.

Tivington-nott

The Tivington Nott by Alex Miller (1989)
The Tivington Nott is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders in 1952 and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Tampa tells the story of a female teacher who preys on teenage boys. It one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit, is utterly compelling.

Wonder

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep. It is a book with universal appeal, one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes.

The-mussel-feast

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (2013)
The Mussel Feast is a tale about a woman and her two teenage children sitting around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the story is also a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

5 books, Book lists

Five books by Australian writers I’m looking forward to reading

5-books-200pixLast month I went to Australia to visit family for four weeks. But that trip  seems a very long time ago now — especially as I am now immersed in loads of Canadian fiction.

As luck would have it, my return to London has coincided with a flurry of big-name Australian authors releasing long-awaited novels — why couldn’t they have released them all in the first week of September? Oh well, I would have never fitted them in my suitcase anyway.

Here’s five I’m looking forward to buying at some point — if they’re ever released in the UK or if I can scrape together enough cash to pay for international shipping charges!

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to author’s surname.

Narrow-road-to-deep-northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

“August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. “

Published by Vintage Australia last month. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.


Coal-Creek
Coal Creek by Alex Miller

“Bobby Blue is caught between loyalty to his only friend, Ben Tobin, and his boss, Daniel Collins, the new Constable at Mount Hay. He understands the people and the ways of Mount Hay; Collins studies the country as an archaeologist might, bringing his coastal values to the hinterland. Bobby says, ‘I do not think Daniel would have understood Ben in a million years.’
Increasingly bewildered and goaded to action by his wife, Constable Collins takes up his shotgun and his Webley pistol to deal with Ben. Bobby’s love for Collins’ wilful young daughter Irie is exposed, leading to tragic consequences for them all. Miller’s exquisite depictions of the country of the Queensland highlands form the background of this simply told but deeply significant novel of friendship, love, loyalty and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and mistrust. Coal Creek is a wonderfully satisfying novel with a gratifying resolution.”

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia earlier this month. Not published in the UK until next March, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.


Barracuda-2Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas


“Daniel Kelly, a talented young swimmer, has one chance to escape his working-class upbringing. His astonishing ability in the pool should drive him to fame and fortune, as well as his revenge on the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship. But when he melts down at his first big international championship and comes only fifth, he begins to destroy everything he has fought for and turn on everyone around him. Barracuda is a powerful and moving novel of sport and violence, class and education, dreams and disillusionment; it is the story of a young man who eventually comes to realise that it is in family and friendship that his strongest identity lies.”

Published in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 1 November, but not published in the UK until 2 January 2014. But international buyers can purchase the ePub edition from the Booktopia website.


EyrieEyrie
by Tim Winton


“Tom Keely’s reputation is in ruins. And that’s the upside. Divorced and unemployed, he’s lost faith in everything precious to him. Holed up in a grim highrise, cultivating his newfound isolation, Keely looks down at a society from which he’s retired hurt and angry. He’s done fighting the good fight, and well past caring. But even in his seedy flat, ducking the neighbours, he’s not safe from entanglement. All it takes is an awkward encounter in the lobby. A woman from his past, a boy the likes of which he’s never met before. Two strangers leading a life beyond his experience and into whose orbit he falls despite himself. What follows is a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times – funny, confronting, exhilarating and haunting. Inhabited by unforgettable characters, Eyrie asks how, in an impossibly compromised world, we can ever hope to do the right thing.”

Published in Australia by Penguin Australia earlier this month, but not published in the UK until June 2014.


Swan-bookThe Swan Book
by Alexis Wright

“The new novel by Alexis Wright, whose previous novel Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award and four other major prizes including the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award. The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the wild energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale.”

Published in Australia by Giramondo Publishing Co last month. Not published in the UK, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.

Please note that the release dates quoted for the UK are subject to change.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Tivington Nott’ by Alex Miller

Tivington-Nott

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 180 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It somehow seems appropriate to post this review on the day of the Grand National, a horse race over jumps that has its roots in both hunting and steeplechasing (in which farmers would race their horses from one church steeple to another, jumping over ditches, hedges and whatever else happened to get in the way as they did so). Whatever you think of the National, there’s no doubt that it demonstrates the superb athleticism of the horse. It also demonstrates the special relationship between horse and rider — how the two can work as one to achieve great feats of courage and stamina.

That’s one of the central themes of Alex Miller‘s debut novel, The Tivington Nott, which was first published in 1989, but has just been made available to British readers for the first time thanks to a reprint by the publisher Allen & Unwin UK. It is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

An outsider’s view

The story is set in 1952 on a farm in Somerset, where the unnamed narrator is a teenage labourer from London struggling to fit in. The first part of the novel sets out to describe how he is at odds with everyone around him — he refuses to call his boss master as tradition dictates, gets bullied by local labourers and is viewed with disdain by the farmer’s wife (“Mrs Roly-Poly”) who believes “boys from London cannot be trusted”.

The only person with whom he should feel some affinity is another outsider, Major Fred Alsop, a retired Australian army officer trying too hard to be accepted by the locals who secretly despise him. The Major wears the attire of the landed gentry, talks too loudly and goes about as if he owns the place (“An Australian horseman in fancy dress prancing around on Exmoor. Out of a book, this bloke. A tourist!”). But even our narrator cannot fail to notice that the Major will never fit in —  he is tolerated because he has a rather impressive, and much sought-after, black stallion imported from Australia called Kabara.

It is Kabara that forms the bridging link between the first part of the story and the (far larger) second part, because our narrator ends up riding the stallion in the stag hunt, which is so evocatively described that you feel as if you are right there in the saddle with him.

Based on real people and events

Alex Miller makes no secret that this book is largely autobiographical — he, too, was a farm labourer in West Somerset when he was 15, before he emigrated to Australia alone when he was 17 . His “author’s note” at the front of my edition claims that all the characters are based on real people and that he even used some of their real names.

This probably explains why the novel feels so authentic and “animated”. You get such a sense of the claustrophobic closed social system in which he finds himself that it’s hard not to share his loneliness and alienation. And it’s easy to understand why he so identifies with Kabara, a gutsy stallion who defies the odds to compete with other horses more used to challenging West Country terrain than him, and the “Tivington nott”, a local stag that has no antlers rumoured to live in the area.

What I loved most about the book was the sense of adventure and excitement it conveys as the narrator rides second horse to the stag hunt. Every little moment of the chase is recorded — the uphill battles, the treacherous descents, the death-defying jumps — so that most of the time your heart is in your throat willing him to stay on the horse and keep in sight of the hounds. And all the time Miller is conscious of conveying the mysterious beauty of the natural world.

In front of me the wide silent ride winds deep into the dark green and dun shadows of the ancient woods. I peer down this track, shaded and thick on either side with bracken and underbrush. A bird is calling repeatedly in there; a sharp short urgent sound, again and again. Then it stops and everything is silent and still around me. Those great dogs are in there too, somewhere. They are intently unravelling the labyrinth of animal scents, some of them perhaps staying true to the peculiar signature of the Haddon stag, approaching his secret lair, working the complex line closer to him by the minute.

Threaded into this thrilling narrative are little insights into various characters — the houndsman Grabbe, the whipper-in Matthew Tolland, the red-coated huntsman Perry, the chairman of the Hunt Damages Committee Harry Cheyne and the master of the hunt, Mrs Grant, among others — so that a well rounded picture of this close-knit community, where class and social standing is everything, is evoked.

But this is not just a fast-paced spinetingling read: the conclusion is a deeply moving one as our narrator realises Kabara has found his place, but he still hasn’t quite found his…

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Alex Miller

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Australia’s best kept secret — prize-winning author Alex Miller — whom I’m incredibly honoured to feature here.

Alex was born in England in 1936 and emigrated to Australia as a 16-year-old to pursue his dream of being a stockman in the outback.

He didn’t start writing until he was in his 50s — and since then he’s won almost every literary prize going down under, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award (twice, in 1993 and 2003), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2003) and the Manning Clark Medal for an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life (2008).

He has penned 10 novels — Watching the Climbers on the Mountain (1988), The Tivington Nott (1989), The Ancestor Game (1992), The Sitters (1995), Conditions of Faith (2000), Journey to the Stone Country (2002), Prochownik’s Dream (2005), Landscape of Farewell (2007), Lovesong (2009) and Autumn Laing (2011).

Without further ado, here are Alex’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:


Enigma_of_arrivalA favourite book: V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

This is one of my favourite books. It illuminated two of my own private enigmas in a clear and intimate prose that spoke directly to me and to my own experience at a moment in my life when I was travelling in China and struggling to explore in a novel — The Ancestor Game (1992) — my sense of being Australian and being a writer.

The Enigma of Arrival is about two things. First, England, which remains for me to this day the deeply puzzling landscape of my own birth and childhood; and, second, the long and sometimes tortured process of the coming into being of the writer.  Naipaul’s sense of England, his interpretation of its foreign landscape, and his sense of his own literary becoming are not treated as two separate subjects but are entwined, one with the other, in a figure that might be likened, so dependent are they on each other, to the spiraling strands of a double helix.  The fit is not perfect, but it is richly compelling.

The limpid simplicity of Naipaul’s prose, the underlying modesty and high ambition of his aim, enthralled me when I first read Enigma. It continues to arouse my admiration freshly after several readings. That Naipaul never does resolve the irreducible complexity of his subject lives on in my memory of the book after each reading with the presence of an illuminated dream. I can ask no more from any book.


VossA book that changed my world: Voss by Patrick White

Four years after I arrived in Australia from England, at the age of 21 and at a time when I had ceased to see my future as a stockman on remote cattle stations and was at a loss to know what I might do with my life, I was given this great novel to read. The story is of a stranger to Australia, Voss, the German would-be explorer and mystic, who becomes enthralled in a dream of penetrating to the heart of his adoptive country and by this means of finding his way to his own meaning, or perhaps to the consolation of his troubled soul.

The impression left on me by Voss was profound and lasting. The novel revealed the almost infinite potential of complexity that might be involved in getting to know both the great mysterious country Australia and oneself. The book tells of a journey, an adventure, an exploration, in every rich sense of these notions, both physical and spiritual.

After reading Voss I began to dream that one day I, too, might become a writer and might in time accomplish that most difficult and most noble of things, to write a book as beautiful and as enchanting as Voss.


LoversA book that deserves a wider audience: Lovers by Daniel Arsand

The distinction between poetry and prose dissolves when reading this extraordinary book.  The story is set in France in the middle of the 18th century and concerns an untutored peasant boy who meets and falls in love with a member of the nobility. The sexual awakening of the boy Sébastien is a marvel of concision in which the deep erotic luxury of the body’s astonishing song of youth gives potent expression to his dreams and contemplations, and he knows both terror and joy. I have encountered nowhere in literature a more sensually disarming expression of the awakening of the lust of one man for another than Arsand’s account of the peasant boy Sébastien Faure’s sudden disconcerting perception of himself when he sees two men making love in the woods.

Deftly, intricately, and with the kind of accuracy of observation of human intimacy that leaves the reader almost stricken with suspense, Arsand unfolds the story of Sébastien and his lover, the noble Balthazar, to its inevitable and tragic conclusion; a conclusion that, as with all great literature, is no conclusion at all but is a shrug of the shoulders, a comment in-passing, an all-too accurate observation on our moral and mortal condition.

Although it is small in size and modest in its compass, Arsand’s Lovers is a truly great book, unforgettable and insistent in its presence to the reader’s most intimate emotions.  When I put it down after finishing it for the first time I thought, “André Gide would love to have written that”.

Thanks, Alex, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ve not read any of these books, but am pleased to see Patrick White named here. I’ve read a handful of White’s novels and Voss has been sitting in my reading queue for several years. I also very much like the sound of Daniel Arsand’s novel — I am always intrigued by anything that Europa Editions publishes, not least because they produce such lovely cover art.

What do you think of Alex’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Autumn Laing’ by Alex Miller

Autumn_laing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 446 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most non-Australian readers of this blog will not have heard of Alex Miller, much less read anything by him. Some may even have mixed him up with British writer Andrew Miller or A.D. Miller. This is a great shame, because Alex Miller, who is a London-born Australian (he emigrated when he was 16), writes extraordinarily lush literary novels which deserve a wide audience. It’s no exaggeration to say he has won practically every writing prize going in Australia — and was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 — so it’s about time the rest of the world caught up.

His latest novel, Autumn Laing, is his tenth book and has just been published in the UK (the Kindle edition is available in the USA). It’s a wonderfully confident, wise and funny novel, filled with beautiful language and unforgettable characters.

The price of illicit love

Just as Irish writer Sebastian Barry rescued his aunt’s untold history and fictionalised it so vividly in On Canaan’s Side, Miller does something similar with the story of Sunday Reed, an art patron who became the jilted lover of Australian artist Sidney Nolan. In this fictionalised account, Sunday is “played by” Autumn Laing, and Sidney Nolan’s role goes to the talented but struggling artist Pat Donlan.

The narrative is shaped as a personal confession — “my last chance to tell the truth” — written by Autumn over the course of a year. She is 85 years old and her conscience is eating away at her. Recently, she thought she saw Pat Donlan’s wife — the woman she wronged 53 years earlier — coming out of the local chemist shop, and now her mind is thinking back to that time in her life when she met Pat and started a rather erotic affair with him.

But this is more than a story about their affair and the price of illicit love; it also charts the changing face of Australian art — and the desperate need for it to be recognised in Europe — in the late 1930s, and how so much of an artist’s success was truly dependent on patrons to fund and champion it.

A brilliantly witty narrator

The best bit about Autumn Laing, aside from its intelligence, poignancy and wit, is the main character who is one of the funniest and most intriguing fictional creations I have come across in a long while. She’s feisty, cantankerous — and farts a lot, mainly because she consumes copious amount of cabbage on a daily basis.

Sadly, Autumn’s hugely engaging first-person narrative does not run for the entire length of the novel. Instead, the view point changes regularly and some of it is written in the third person as Autumn imagines scenes and events that happened when she was not present — for instance, the meeting between Pat and her husband, when Pat visited him in Melbourne to beg for money to support his art work. Initially, this is disorientating for the reader, but once you get over the initial shock that Autumn’s voice is having a momentary rest, you get used to it — and then you look forward to her interjections, which occur in alternate chapters.

I spent a good two weeks with Autumn (I was reading other things in between) and hugely enjoyed her company, and I was really sad to see her go when I came to the end.

Autumn Laing was shortlisted for the 2011 Manning Clark House National Cultural Awards (Individual category) and the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Fiction Award, and longlisted for the 2012 ALS Gold Medal and 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award.