Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tania Chandler

‘Please Don’t Leave Me Here’ by Tania Chandler

Please-dont-leave-me-here

Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

For someone who supposedly likes to champion Australian literature, I’ve not done a very good job of it this year — indeed, I’ve only read two Australian books (a novel and a short story collection) — so when Tania Chandler’s debut novel, Don’t Leave Me Here, arrived unsolicited from her UK-based published, I bumped it to the top of my pile. It proved to be an excellent move, for this psychological thriller is a proper page-turner, one that not only had me guessing right to the end, but gave me goosebumps all along the way…

A puzzle to put together

The story reads very much like a puzzle that Brigitte, the protagonist, is trying to put together in her head, and you, the reader, follow her every step of the way. There’s a murder victim, a hit-and-run accident, a sordid extra-marital affair, a shady past as a stripper, domestic violence, childhood neglect, a police investigation and dreams of Kurt Cobain wearing a brown sweater — and somehow all these “clues” come together in a rather dramatic, and satisfying, ending.

The beauty of the present tense narrative, which is told in the third person but largely from Brigitte’s point of view, is that you’re never quite sure how much you can trust her version of events. Is she the loving wife and devoted mother of twins she purports to be, or is there something more calculating and conniving about her?

The author offers a steady, well-paced drip feed of information that constantly has the reader reassessing their opinion of Brigitte, who goes from being a busy and stressed out young mum one moment, to a woman capable of having sex with a man who is not her husband in her own home, the next. But as her back story is fleshed out, as we come to learn of Brigitte’s troubled past and her uncertain future, there are times when you begin to wonder if Brigitte might simply be paranoid or mentally unbalanced. Is she, perhaps, suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder? Does she actually need medical help? Is she popping one-too-many painkillers?

An exciting read

I realise I’m not really summarising the plot of this remarkably plotted book. To do so would be counterproductive to those who want to read the story for themselves, because it is the narrative journey — sometimes confusing, often unsettling and always tinged with sadness and regret — that makes Please Don’t Leave Me Here such an exciting read.

I especially like the way the author plays with memory and links it to music — there are lots of music references from the early 1990s in this novel, including a heavy dose of Nirvana and Nick Cave — because we all know that hearing snatches of songs from our past can pull us back to different times and places. The author also explores the notion of whether people alter over time — can a leopard, for instance, really change its spots? And she’s very good at showing how a person, who so desperately seeks normality in her domestic life, can easily slide into an unhealthy mindset following a personal tragedy. This passage, midway through the book, is a good example of a woman going off the rails:

Brigitte pushes a supermarket trolley aimlessly around the plaza. The twisting involved in controlling a trolley hurts her back more than anything, but not today — this morning she took enough medication to stop the pain. She can’t understand why she didn’t think of this before.
Giant gold-and-silver decorations hang from the glass ceiling and she sings along with ‘Winter Wonderland’. She’s done the grocery shopping — extra flour, eggs, and butter for more cakes — and bought wine and the last of the twins’ presents from Father Christmas. Still, she feels she’s forgotten something. If she keeps wandering around, maybe she’ll remember what it was. Something from the chemist? The newsagent? The butcher? The crowd of shoppers is reflected on the ceiling — people walking on the roof. It’s too bright, and she can see auras. A headache claws at the right side of her head; it’s going to turn into a migraine.[…] She gives up trying to remember what she’s forgotten. If it was important, it’ll come back to her. […] Maybe Aiden will join them? No, he’ll spend Christmas with his wife. She thinks about his lips, his deltoid muscles, the tattoo on his arm — whatever it says, his… Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. She shakes her head.
Kurt Cobain walks with her. Sometimes she sees him, but usually he’s just a voice in her head.

All in all, Please Don’t Leave Me Here  is a sexy and stylish debut. It’s dark and intriguing, the kind of story that gets under the skin and leaves you feeling a little dirty and sordid. Interestingly, Tania Chandler is currently working on a sequel. I’m already itching to read it…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, Wayne Macauley

‘Demons’ by Wayne Macauley

Demons

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Australian writer Wayne Macauley’s The Cook, a deliciously dark satire about modern gastronomy, which amused and disturbed me in equal measure. Indeed, it was one of the most memorable — and original — books I’ve read in, say, the past four or five years.

His new book, Demons, has just been published in the UK and, for obvious reasons, I was keen to read it.

The narrative, as such, is structured around a group of (annoyingly) middle-class (snobby and pretentious) friends, who spend a  weekend together in a holiday home by the coast on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. There’s no TV or internet at the property and they’ve all agreed to leave their phones and tablets behind so that they can truly unwind from their busy lives. It’s winter and the weather is rather wild, which makes the getaway rather conducive to sitting around the fire, imbibing wine (there’s a lot of wine in this book) and telling tales.

All right, said Lauren, once everyone was seated in the living room. The sky had darkened and a full moon was rising over the water. The sea was loud, but faraway loud. All right, she said, I’m going to start. My story is called Woman Killed By Falling Man.
Are we going to give them titles? said Evan.
Adam, said Hannah, do you think we should give them titles?
Titles are good, said Adam.
Wait, said Megan. She handed Lauren the piece of driftwood she’d brought back from the beach. The story stick, she said.

Dark tales

The book is structured around these individual tales, each one more ludicrous and outlandish than the last. They span all kinds of dark and edgy themes, including adultery, suicide and murder, with a good smattering of politics, crime and corruption thrown in for good measure.

Most of them are embellished and dramatised to a ridiculous degree, yet no one ever seems to challenge or question the authenticity of what they’re being told. And all the stories, most told second- or third-hand, expose the failings and foibles and prejudices of the people telling them.

There’s some terrific and truly memorable short stories here. In particular, almost two months after having read this book, I’m still thinking about the city couple who have their heart set on buying a farm only to find the farmer doesn’t want to sell it to them. They way in which they resolve this situation is truly shocking — to say the least — and left me feeling slightly ill at ease.

Microcosm of Australian society

The book’s strength lies in the way in which it shines a light on modern Australia, where everybody should be happy, but no one seems content. Or, as one character puts it, “everyone’s so bloody negative; they can’t see what they’ve got ’cause they think they’re entitled to more”.

Look at us, Ad, said Leon, without looking at him: a bunch of well-off, well-educated fucks, the generation in charge, and yet we don’t know shit. We went to uni, and it didn’t cost us a cent. We found jobs, made careers. We’ve lived off the fat. We saw the world, conquered every corner of it, but what did we ever do but stare at ourselves?  […] We could have done something, left a legacy. But what did we do? Talked crap, argued, bickered, ate, drank — we’re always eating and drinking, stuffing our faces, telling everyone what we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s obscene. We’ve let the world go to the dogs, Adam.

And so the weekend getaway that is depicted here — with its focus on food and wine and fanciful fireside tales — is a (cleverly written) microcosm of Australian society.

But (the appropriately named) Demons is not so much a novel but a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and you either like that kind of format or you don’t. Admittedly, I’m not a fan, and while I admire Macauley’s silky and immediate prose style, his masterful way with dialogue and his clever expose on pertinent Australian issues — land rights, refugees, the dream of owning the quarter-acre block, 21 years of economic growth et al — I felt the book was weakened by the format. In other words, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. You may beg to differ.

Australia, Author, Book review, Brooke Davis, Fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis

Lost-and-found

Fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Advance warning: Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found is going to be everywhere and you are going to have trouble avoiding it. And with good reason: this is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending.

The book has already garnered lots of attention in the author’s native Australia, where it has been a best-seller since its release last year. And it sparked a bidder’s war at the London Book Fair, suggesting that the publishers knew a good thing when they saw it. It has since been sold into 25 countries and translated into 20 languages.

I cracked it open last weekend not quite knowing what to expect and then I went on a wonderful little journey with a trio of remarkable characters that were a pleasure to spend time with. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.

Obsessed by death

When the book opens we meet Millie, who is obsessed with death and dead things. She’s recently lost her pet dog Rambo and then, more tragically, her father. By page six she’s “lost” her mother — in the literal sense, not the euphemistic sense — when she’s told to wait in a department store’s “Ginormous Womens Underwear” section, while her mum disappears into the distance — never to be seen again.

Millie will carry this around with her from now on, this picture of her mum getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It will reappear behind her eyes at different times throughout the course of her life.

An overnight stay ensues, hidden under the giant undies, and then she meets Karl the Touch Typist, an 87-year-old man who has escaped his nursing home and is living in the department store without anyone’s knowledge. The pair form an unlikely friendship.

Later, when Millie makes her way home alone, thwarting the best efforts of the police and social services, she meets her neighbour, 82-year-old Agatha Pantha, who hasn’t left her house since her husband died. Instead, she spends her time shouting insults through the window at passing strangers, earning a reputation as the neighbourhood’s “crazy lady”.

Together the trio set off to find Millie’s mum. What follows is an exciting — and somewhat manic — cross-country road trip involving buses, trains, a stolen car — and a department store mannequin.

A kooky cast of characters

What I loved most about this book is the characters. They really get under the skin and feel real: Agatha with her tendency to shout inappropriate Tourettes-like “sound bites” at all and sundry, Karl who constantly taps, taps, taps his fingers in memory of his life as a typist, and Millie with her dogged determination to avoid the police and find her mum.

While 80 years separates the oldest from the youngest, the three have one thing in common: they are all grieving: Millie for her dad (and her mum), Karl for his beloved wife Evie, and Agatha for her husband Ron. Interestingly, Brooke Davis wrote Lost & Found as a way to deal with her own grief after the sudden death of her mother seven years ago, and with this knowledge in mind, the reader can’t help but see Millie’s sense of abandonment as a reflection of the author’s.

It’s important to have your mum. Mums bring you jackets and turn on your electric blanket before you get into bed and always know what you want better than you do. And they sometimes let you sit on their lap and play with the rings on their fingers while Deal or No Deal is on.

But while the novel is about grief and death, it’s also about the joy of living and posits the idea that you’re never too old to do new things or start again. Yes, it is moving in places, but there’s an undercurrent of mischievous delight and black humour that stops it from being sentimental or emotionally manipulative. And Davis reigns in the “cutesy” factor so that it never succumbs to schmaltz, either.

Lost & Found  might be whimsical and comic, but to dismiss it as a “frothy” read would miss the point: this is a novel that has deeper philosophical meaning, one that will make you feel good about the possibilities that life offers when you grab it with both hands — no matter how young or old you might be.

Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner

This-House-of-Grief

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2014.

One spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in rural Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. The male driver escaped; all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned.

Was it an accident, or did Robert Farquharson deliberately drive the vehicle into the dam in order to kill his three young sons, whom he was returning to their mother after an access visit on Father’s Day?

The police thought the latter. They charged him with three counts of murder, and he was tried at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. This House of Grief examines the court case in exacting detail.

In-court guide

I’m not going to chart all the dizzying twists and turns of the case — that’s what the book is for — but Helen Garner proves a kind and competent guide throughout. Her observations are often incisive and cutting, and I like the way she explores the accused’s back story and adds in extra detail gleaned from conversations she has with members of his family and other witnesses.

Much of the detail that happens inside the courtroom is soporific owing to the technical nature of the case — the speed of the car when it left the road, what sort of pattern the tyre treads left, what the skid marks proved and so on — which makes for an occasionally frustrating read, but Garner is at her best when she focuses on the people. Here’s how she describes the jury, all bored out of their brains by that aforementioned technical detail:

Their eyelids drooped. Their necks grew loose with boredom; they were limp with it, barely able to hold themselves erect. Once I glanced over and saw four of them in a row, their heads dropped on the same protesting angle towards their left shoulders, like tulips dying in a vase.

I read this book in one blistering fever of furious page-turning — or should I say Kindle button-clicking? — on a wet Saturday eager to discover answers to my questions: Did Farquharson deliberately kill his children? Was it a failed suicide bid? Or was it a freak accident, caused by him having a coughing fit at the wheel? By the end, I felt completely wrung out. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake off for days; the story had really wormed its way into my psyche and deeply affected me.

To leave such a mark on the reader in the wake of completing the book is testament to Garner’s skill as a writer and journalist. And yet her reportage style, in which she inserts herself into the story, often comes in for criticism. But it’s a style I quite like. Her all-too human reactions and her inner-most thoughts are there on the paper for all to see — removing the illusion that the journalism is utterly objective — and it feels very much as if she’s going on a journey of discovery and you’re coming along for the ride.

Here’s an example of how her thoughts and reactions become part of the narrative:

This testimony filled me with scepticism, yet I longed to be persuaded by it—to be relieved of the sick horror that overcame me whenever I thought of Farquharson at the dam, the weirdness of his demeanour, the way it violated what I believed or hoped was the vital link of loving duty between men and their children. And, as I listened, the phantom of failed suicide shimmered once more into view. Nobody in this whole five-week ordeal had yet said anything that could lay it to rest.

While I knew of the Farquharson case — I remember being shocked when I read the initial news story on The Age online all those years ago — I hadn’t followed it closely, so reading this book was very much a journey of discovery for me. I’m not sure how it works if you already know the outcome of the case (perhaps Australian readers can enlighten me?), but for me it was a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, always intriguing and passionately written read. I like that Garner is open and honest about her fury, disbelief and sheer inability to comprehend certain aspects of the accused’s behaviour, because they were the reactions I had to… and I wasn’t even sitting in the court room.

Unless you live in Australia, This House of Grief is currently available to purchase in ebook form only. It will be published in paperback in the UK next month and in the USA in April.

UPDATE: This edited extract published on The Australian website will give you a taster of the book.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth

The-colour-of-night

Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focusing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton

Eyrie_UKedition

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you’ve ever spoken your mind, or stood up for something you believe in when it might have been easier — and safer — to keep quiet, you will find plenty to identify with in Tim Winton‘s Eyrie, which has just been published in the UK.

A tale about a burnt out man

In this extraordinary novel — Winton’s 11th — we meet Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. He’s also lost his comfortable lifestyle, his lovely house and his marriage.

Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower overlooking Fremantle, he’s living like a recluse: not even his mother, a social justice lawyer, is allowed to visit.

Burnt out, broke and clearly ill, he spends his days drinking and his evening popping prescription medication. There is little joy or meaning in his life, but then he meets his neighbours — Gemma, a woman from his past, and her six-year-old grandson, Kai — and things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous.

Returning to life

Told in the third person but entirely from Keely’s point of view, the novel charts Keely’s slow return to the world he’s given up on. But as he endeavours to do the right thing by Gemma and Kai, he finds himself becoming immersed in a seedy world far removed from his middle-class upbringing.

Lurching from one uncomfortable incident to the next, his behaviour gets increasingly erratic — he makes offensive phone calls to his sister that he can’t remember making, he passes out, he gets dizzy, he vomits — so that by the novel’s end you’re wishing he’d do what his mother keeps telling him and seek some medical advice.

But Keely is a man who lives by his own set of rules and follows his own moral compass — and you can’t help but love him for it.

Richly layered read

Winton does lots of rather clever things with this novel to make it an exceedingly strong, muscular and richly layered read.

He never provides straightforward answers about Keely’s situation — how he lost his job, what happened with his wife, is he sick or simply a drug addict —  but provides a steady drip feed of clues, so that you can figure it out for yourself.

He makes Keely come from a family of “good Samaritans” and intertwines that past history with the present to highlight the legacy of what it is to help others less fortunate than yourself.

He then sets the story at the tail end of 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis — which left Australia unscathed — so that he can explore the underbelly of Australian society at a time of great economic prosperity.

And then he has Keely, a well-educated man who’s pretty much lost everything, living in a building that houses all kinds of people, including those who had nothing to lose in the first place, so that he can see what happens when a downwardly mobile man falls into that class — will he sink, swim or help the people around him?

A comic touch

Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects — not least Australia’s class system, a subject that seems to preoccupy many of the country’s contemporary writers — it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. (There’s some terrific pun-laden conversations between Keely and his mother throughout the story, for instance, as well as a rather outrageous hangover scene in the opening chapter which sets the mood for the rest of the book.)

In exploring what it is to be a good person and what it is to do the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment — Winton shines a light on the way in which contemporary Australians live their lives.

Eyrie, which has recently been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, is a sometimes exhilarating, often confronting and always thought-provoking read. I loved its intelligence and its clever set pieces tied together by a fast-paced narrative, but most of all I just loved being held in its sway. I’ve read it twice now — and when I finished it I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again. If that’s not the sign of a brilliant book, I don’t know what is.

An interview with the author

I was fortunate enough to interview Tim Winton in person on his recent promotional tour in the UK for Shiny New Books. You can read it here.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

Animal People

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2011.

Charlotte Wood is an accomplished and award-winning writer who is largely unknown outside of her native Australia. I’ve read two of her novels — The Submerged Cathedral and The Children — having purchased them on trips back home and loved them both. Animal People, picked up on my last trip, only confirms my high opinion of her work.

A day in the life

The book spans just one day in the life of Stephen Connolly, a middle-aged man who’s feeling slightly lost and depressed with the way his life has panned out.  We have met Stephen before — he’s the “drifter” in Wood’s previous novel The Children (but note, you don’t need to have read that book to appreciate this one — they’re completely stand-alone novels), the one who’s never followed a “proper” career path, the one who his parents and his siblings are always worried about and fretting over.

Now, several years later, he’s living in Sydney, working a dead-end job in a food kiosk at the zoo and is constantly mistaken as a chef because of his (quite hilarious) penchant for wearing black-and-white chequered trousers, a bargain purchase from Aldi.

On the day in question, he’s decided that it’s finally time to dump his long-term girlfriend, Fiona, who has been putting pressure on him to move in with her and her two (bratty) children from her failed marriage.  But as the day enfolds, Stephen’s plans get thwarted, then sabotaged, and before he knows it, he’s beginning to doubt whether dumping Fiona is the right thing to do at all.

Trying to fit in

Animal People deals with one man’s struggle to find his place in a world that feels completely foreign to him — in all kinds of ways. The book’s title comes from the notion that you either love animals or you don’t, and Stephen, who has an allergy to cats and dogs, falls into the latter camp while everyone around him — his own family, his neighbours —  are slavishly looking after and spoiling pets of all sizes, shapes and descriptions, while sneering at homeless people or those unable to fend for themselves.

When Stephen told people he worked at the zoo their faces would light up. ‘Oh, I love animals! How wonderful!’ they gushed. How lucky he was, how privileged. They held him in high regard, and waited for tales of giraffe-teeth cleaning or lion-cub nursing. When he told them he worked only in the fast-food kiosk, their faces fell. But then they recovered. Still, to be surrounded by all those beautiful creatures. He usually agreed at this point, to finish the conversation. He did not say he found the zoo depressing. It was not the cages so much as the people — their need to possess, their disappointment, the way they wanted the animals to notice them.

Struggling to cope with commitment, city life and modern living, Stephen’s constantly pulled in different directions and fails to live up to anyone’s expectations — even expectations that are morally dubious.

For instance, when he accidentally hits a woman — a junkie — in his car on his morning commute, he takes her to the hospital, but when he relates the story to his colleagues afterwards — scared and a little bit embarrassed by the incident — he’s shocked when they tell him he should have just left her on the road. “My sister had a junkie boyfriend once,” one of them says. “They’re all scum, and they all lie. If she dies she deserves it. Probably would have O’D anyway.”

Unsurprisingly, given the book is set at a time of unprecedented prosperity in Australia’s history, one of the themes of Animal People is class. Stephen might have a job, but he’s down near the bottom of the social rung, scraping by as best he can, not that far removed from the junkie he tries to help.

And perhaps that partly explains his reluctance to make a serious commitment to Fiona, who was previously married to a rich lawyer and has an amazing house filled with everything anyone could possibly want: how can he ever compete with that?

Big themes, but lots of humour

Wood has a remarkable eye for detail, of getting dialogue pitch-perfect and sketching characters that are three-dimensional and believable, but she never wastes a word: the prose is reined-in, almost clipped, and yet it reads as elegantly and smoothly as a ride in a sleek sports car.

She knows what makes people tick, what scares them, what delights them, what makes them jealous or angry. And she completely understands the tensions, rivalries and complicated relationships between siblings (and their parents) in a way that sets her apart from your average run-of-the-mill novelist.

While the story deals with big themes — our obsession with material goods, social prestige and climbing the career ladder; the ways in which we relate to animals and anthromorphisise them; and how we find our place in an ever-changing world  — it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I laughed a lot while reading this book — and not just at Stephen’s fashion sense. There’s a terribly funny team-building exercise that had me cringing inside, and an hysterical children’s birthday party that turns into my idea of a nightmare.

But what makes Animal People such a terrific read is Wood’s ability to tell a relatively modest story about an ordinary man in a truly entertaining (and effortless) way. I was gripped from start to finish, and then I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again.

Unfortunately, this book is not available outside of Australia (it doesn’t even have a listing on Amazon.co.uk), but you can buy a signed copy direct from the author’s official website or try Fishpond.co.uk to import it postage free.

5 books, Book lists

5 classic ANZ authors to discover — a guest post by Sue from Whispering Gums

5-books-200pixThis isn’t a strictly “5 books” post but a “5 authors” post, but that’s all semantics. I thought it might be nice to look at writers from Australia and New Zealand who have been around for a long time. Who are the classic authors from these countries that we should know about?

Sue, who lives in Australia and blogs at Whispering Gums, seemed the perfect person to ask:

 

Quote-marks

‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.’ (Italo Calvino)

Most readers I’ve noticed – and I include myself in this – mostly read recent books. That’s not surprising, I suppose. We all like to be in touch with what’s going on around us, and be able to join in the conversation about current books. But, what about older books – those that have stood the test of time, and that have laid the foundation for contemporary literature? They are worth including in our reading diet.

So, when Kim asked me to write a post on classics (or, older books, as how do we define “a classic”), I jumped at the chance. We agreed that I’d do it by naming some authors rather than by simply listing a few books. Even so, it is a very select list. There are many, many great “older” Aussie books. This list just gets your toes in the water!

So, here goes, in order of the author’s birth!

Miles-Franklin

Miles Franklin (1879-1954)

Any list like this has to start with Franklin — she  endowed our most important literary award, the Miles Franklin. Moreover, one of her middle names, Stella, has been adopted for our new women-only literary prize. Miles Franklin wrote many books of fiction and non-fiction, but by far her most famous is My Brilliant Career (1901). It’s heavily autobiographical and tells the story of a young woman from a grazing family who is desperate to become a writer. It is still relevant as an account of a feisty, independent young woman who is prepared to buck her family’s expectations to follow her dream.

Christina-stead

Christina Stead (1902-1983)

Stead is, possibly, one of Australia’s most under-appreciated writers. She is best known for her novels The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone. Instead of arguing for her myself, I’ll let American author Jonathan Franzen speak:

Although “The Man Who Loved Children” is probably too difficult (difficult to stomach, difficult to allow into your heart) to gain a mass following, it’s certainly less difficult than other novels common to college syllabuses, and it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you. I’m convinced that there are tens of thousands of people in this country who would bless the day the book was published, if only they could be exposed to it.

I rest my case – read her if you dare!

Patrick_White

Patrick White (1912-1990)

This list of course has to include Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. He was a rather irascible soul, and absolutely refused for his first novel, Happy Valley, to be published again in his lifetime. Fortunately, Text Publishing released it as part of its Australian Classics series, letting us all see where this writer started. It’s a good read, and is a readable introduction to some of White’s main preoccupations – lives frustrated by the inability (or refusal) to rise above the restrictions of their circumstances. My absolute favourite White, though, is Voss, his re-imagination of the tragic Australian explorer (we have many of those!), Leichhardt.

George-Johnston

George Johnston (1912-1970)

In discussions about that problematical question, “the great Australian novel”, one of the books regularly put forward is George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, the first in his trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels. In the novel, the narrator, a successful journalist, contrasts his life with his brother, Jack, a “typical” Aussie bloke, uneducated, hardworking, a good mate, and more interested in things physical than intellectual. Johnston was married to author Charmian Clift and they remain one of Australia’s best-known literary couples.

Ruth-Park

Ruth Park (1917-2010)

New Zealand born Ruth Park made her literary career in Australia, after marrying Australian writer D’Arcy Niland. She won the 1977 Miles Franklin Award with her moving and very readable saga, Swords and Crowns and Rings, but she is best known for her Harp in the South trilogy about the Darcy family. The first two published novels (Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange) chronicle the family’s struggles to survive in the slums of Sydney, while Missus, which was published much later, tells the story of the parents before they came to Sydney. I love Park for the warmth of her writing about real characters, who struggle to cope with hard times in hard places. She’s still relevant for this very reason – and is, besides, a darned good read.

Thanks, Whispering Gums, for composing this wonderful list. I’m especially pleased to see George Johnston on it because I’ve read all his work and My Brother Jack is my favourite book of all time! Also delighted to see Ruth Park here. Her trilogy is highly recommended. I would also add her husband, D’Arcy Niland, to the list, as his novel The Shiralee, which I reviewed a few years back, is an absolute classic. I loved it so much I sourced all his other books online (they were all out of print) and I have a tidy little pile here ready to explore when the mood strikes!

Has anyone read any of these authors? Or can you suggest other classic writers from Australia and New Zealand worth looking out for?

NB: All pictures are taken from Wikipedia/GoodReads and reproduced under the relevent Creative Commons licence.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Manybooks.net, Miles Franklin, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin

My-Brilliant-Career

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 252 pages; 2004.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was an Australian feminist and writer. If her name sounds familiar it’s because she bequeathed her estate to set up the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is given to a novel of  “the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” every year.

Her novel, My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901, is widely regarded as a fully fledged Australian classic.

Headstrong teenager

The book tells the story of a headstrong teenage girl, Sybylla Melvyn, growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. She shuns the conventions of her time and strives to become a woman of independent means. Her greatest dream is to become a writer, but not everything goes her way.

The eldest child of a large family struggling to make ends meet, she is sent away to live with her aunt and maternal grandmother. It is here that she first meets Harold Beecham, a wealthy young pastoralist, who proposes to her. But Sybilla, who believes she is ugly and undeserving of a man’s attentions, is reluctant to accept his hand in marriage.

Then life takes a turn for the worst, when she is sent away to work as a governess in order to pay off one of her father’s gambling debts. She finds this life exceedingly dull and monotonous, and falls into a serious depression. When Harold reappears on the scene, Sybilla is confronted with a dilemma: marry him and live a life of comfort, or fulfil her “fixed determination to write a book — nothing less than a book”.

Hiding her brains

Reading My Brilliant Career, I was struck by how angry I became on Sybilla’s behalf, forced to live her life as second fiddle to a man simply because of her gender. She is clearly intelligent and full of potential, but feels she has to hide her brains for fear of being misunderstood and shunned by society. Even her mother denies her the chance to pursue a career of her own, telling her she’s “a very useless girl for your age”.

And her grandmother, who is more kindly and more forgiving of Sybilla’s tom-boyish ways, believes her only goal is to get married:

My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife–not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

While Sybilla clearly understand’s society’s double standards (she makes reference to men being allowed to sow their wild oats while women must remain chaste and “proper”), there’s not much she can do about it except be true to her own self: determined to find happiness in work and a career rather than in someone of the opposite sex.

A romantic tale

Despite this emphasis on feminist values, the book does read very much like a classic romance — will she or won’t she agree to marry Beecham, will he or won’t he find her too difficult and pursue someone else? (Think an Australian version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)

And it’s written in an over-wrought style, mirroring the scattered, often unformed, thoughts of a rebellious teenager, who is quick to anger and make judgements on her seniors. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and “flabby”, and Sybilla isn’t always easy to like, but it provides an important insight into the boom-and-bust lifestyle of life on the land and the ways in which women were expected to fall into line.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will find a lot to like here. Like that classic English novel, My Brilliant Career celebrates the idea that everyone should be valued for simply who they are, not what they are or how much money they have in the bank. It’s highly emotive, frank and forthright. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, but as a glimpse of life in the bush — where danger and beauty often go hand-in-hand — it’s a hugely evocative read.