Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Baume, Setting, TBR 21, Windmill Books

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 302 pages; 2018.

Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking takes its name from an artwork created by Richard Long in 1967 which now hangs in the Tate Britain. That artwork is a black and white photograph of a field in Wiltshire with a thin line through the middle created when the artist walked backwards and forwards enough times to flatten the crop. (The image can be viewed here.)

This is just one of dozens of art works — mainly installations — referenced in Baume’s hypnotic novel about Frankie, a young Irish woman grappling with a sense of purpose. She is a fine arts graduate but hasn’t managed to make a name for herself as an artist. She’s worked in a gallery but found it unfulfilling, and living in Dublin has been a lonely experience.

Now, aged 25, Frankie has decamped to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside, where she’s convinced her parents she will be caretaker until the property has sold. But her grandmother died three years ago, the house is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be much interest from buyers.

Most of her grandmother’s unwanted belongings are still in the house and Frankie, chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, doesn’t have the wherewithal to do any housework, much less transform the place into a saleable state. In fact, she does so little housework that she moves from one bedroom to another so that she doesn’t need to wash the sheets!

Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.

In this rural idyll, she immerses herself in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasonal variations, as she learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She begins a special project to photograph any dead birds and animals she finds (these photographs are published in the book) and continually challenges herself to recall the thematic art she knows and loves:

Works about Blinking Lights, another, I test myself: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, again, “Untitled”, 1992. A chain of lightbulbs, bound to one another by an extension cord. The artist gave permission for curators to display the piece however they wished. He wanted it to bend and change according to circumstance; the only thing he did not allow was for his bulbs to be renewed during the run of each exhibition. He wanted them to live out their natural lifespan and die, the way a person does.

Death is a constant preoccupation, but the story never feels morbid. But as Frankie spends more and more time alone, turning herself into a proper recluse, shunning her neighbours and not taking calls, there are worrying signs that she may be having a breakdown of some kind.

As her thoughts spill out all a-jumble on the page — an interior monologue recalling childhood incidents, memories of her adored grandmother and more recent troubles involving doctors and worried parents — it’s clear she’s set a bar for herself that is too high and that’s she’s going to have to find a way to adjust to a new way of living and of seeing the world.

For all its mish-mash of anecdotes which tumble unbidden from her head, the narrative spins and shines in Baume’s capable hands. There’s a lot of witty humour that helps lighten the mood.

Everything is tied together beautifully with Frankie’s interpretations of various visual art forms across many different eras (there’s a helpful list of all the works referenced at the rear of the book), which serve to show that art and life are invariably intertwined in ways we may not even realise.

A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful, hypnotic story about the fragility of life — and creativity. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Susan’s at A Life in Books and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a troubled man and his relationship with his dog.

This is my 20th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand from Elizabeth’s Bookshop, here in Fremantle, on 8 May this year.

Angela O'Keeffe, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 144 pages; 2021.

If there was a prize for the most original conceit for a novel, then Angela O’Keeffe’s debut, Night Blue, would surely win it. That’s because the narrator is an inanimate object: the painting Blue Poles, by American artist Jackson Pollock.

That abstract expressionist painting currently hangs in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It was purchased by the Australian Government in 1973 and caused a bit of a scandal at the time, not least because, at $AU1.3million, it was the most expensive American painting ever bought by anyone anywhere in the world.

O’Keeffe works that controversy into her novella as well as telling the story of the equally controversial artist who created it.

Story of a painting

This is what the painting, which measures 212.1cm × 488.9cm, looks like:

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35971938

And this is how the story starts:

I began one night in 1952 in a barn on Long Island, New York. Jackson unrolled a piece of Belgian linen, five metres by three, onto the floor. He liked to work on the floor, to be able to walk around and around a painting: to feel like he was part of it, in it, he said.

From there we follow the painting — originally called Number 11, 1952 — for the duration of its life, from its time hanging in a private Manhattan home, to going into storage, being sold and transported to the other side of the world, and being put on display amid a sea of controversy. (Many Australians, for instance, bemoaned their tax dollars being spent on foreign art and not local art.)

We get glimpses of the painting’s inner-most world, what it feels, thinks, sees and hears,  and its growing awareness that it has always been mired in some kind of debate. The rumour that Jackson did not create it alone, that he had outside help, is a constant theme. (Apparently, if you look closely enough, you can see multiple footprints in several places around the edge of the canvas. You can read more about this on the NGA website.)

In part two, the point of view switches to a human one, that of Alyssa, an art restorer and PhD candidate studying the works of two 20th century abstract artists, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who were overshadowed — unfairly, it would seem — by Jackson Pollock. Alyssa knows the rumours that Blue Poles was not solely created by Jackson, and she wants to find something that will prove her theory because in doing so she will show that Krasner and Frankenthaler deserved to be recognised in their own right.

The final part of the story then switches back to the painting’s interior monologue, rounding out a narrative that covers all kinds of unexpected topics — including feminism, politics and scandal — as well as ruminating about art, its purpose and its value, and the ways in which those who create it can be revered or condemned.

Bold and original

But for all its freshness and originality, there was something about Blue Poles that didn’t really hold my attention, perhaps because I was constantly aware that I was reading a fictional construct. Knowing that the story was being narrated by a painting meant I couldn’t really lose myself in the book.

And some of the facts surrounding the painting, especially the bits about Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam giving the go-ahead for its purchase, felt rammed in.

But these are minor quibbles because Night Blue is an extraordinary feat of imagination and a great read if you love stories about art and artists or are looking for something written from a wholly original point of view.

Lisa at ANZLitlovers has also reviewed this one.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2021.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

2017 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Fiction, Heather Rose, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 296 pages; 2016.

What is art, and what is its purpose? These are the questions posed in The Museum of Modern Love, a fascinating book that blends fact with fiction, by Heather Rose.

In this highly original novel, Rose takes a real life event and peoples it with interesting fictional characters who interact with a particular work of art, are changed by it and come away from it having learned something of themselves and of others.

New York art world

The story is largely set in Manhattan in 2010. Arky is a composer who is lost, lonely and struggling to write his next film score. He has a strained relationship with his 22-year-old daughter, Alice, while his wife, with whom he is separated, is languishing in a health facility thanks to a devastating condition known as Thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura.

My wife is in a nursing home, he imagined saying. She’s been in a coma but now she’s not. She’ll never walk again. Or talk again. She was the most energetic person when she was well. We knew it was coming. It’s genetic. No, I don’t see her regularly. I don’t see her at all. She wants it that way. She took out a court order. We were happily married. I think so.

But when he visits the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to see Marina Abramović in The Artist is Present, his life takes a more interesting turn. In the queue to see the performance he meets a varied cast of characters who take him out of himself, teach him the importance of “connection” and the beauty of art to sustain us through good times and bad.

Art as therapy

The Artist is Present was a real-life performance art exhibition staged at MOMA in 2010. It involved the artist Marina Abramović, who sat immobile in MOMA’s atrium while spectators queued up to take turns sitting opposite her. They could sit opposite her for as little or as long as they liked, but they had to make eye contact. The performance lasted 75 days, between March and May, and more than 1,500 people took part. (You can read about it on Wikipedia.)

This performance art is not merely a backdrop to The Museum of Modern Love; it forms a central element of the story.

The author was granted permission by the artist to include her in the book. “I have drawn extensively from interviews and performances given in the years leading up to her 2010 performance at MoMA,” Rose writes in her Author’s Note. “This does not mean that the thoughts I have attributed to the character of Marina Abramović at any time in this book are a true reflection of any event in history, nor how the real Marina Abramović thinks or feels. That is the risk the novelist takes, bringing to life what we can only imagine.”

The purpose of art

When I first heard about this novel I must admit it sounded pretentious. But somehow, in Rose’s very capable hands, it works. It’s a brilliant examination of how we interact with art and what we get from it.

As well as telling the story from Arky’s point of view, we also hear about Abramović and her varied and intriguing past.

And there are subsidiary characters — an art teacher from the mid-West, an art critic for NPR, a PhD candidate from Amsterdam — that help bring the performance alive from different perspectives — educational, spiritual, academic — as they all try to interpret Abramović’s work.

It’s a hugely engaging novel, written in an effortless, free-flowing style. It’s filled with a seemingly never-ending amount of highly quotable sentences, such as those I’ve highlighted below:

‘Still, what is she trying to say?’ Jane asked again. ‘What she’s been saying since the start, I think. That everything is about connection. Until you understand what connects you, you have no freedom.’

***

‘She simply invites us to participate,’ Healayas said. ‘It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It reminds us why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.’

***

All the great art makes us feel something quite indescribable. Perhaps it’s not the best word—but there doesn’t seem to be a better one to capture how art can be . . . transformative. A kind of access to a universal wisdom.’ ‘I’m going to use that,’ said Brittika, tapping away. ‘I mean, she’s using the audience to create this effect, but the audience has also created this experience by how seriously everyone has taken it.’

Longlisted  for the 2017 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize, The Museum of Modern Love is currently only available in eBook format in the UK and North America.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This is my fifth book for #AWW2017.

UPDATE 18 April
Congratulations to Heather Rose — The Museum of Modern Love has won the 2017 Stella Prize!

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Dominic Smith, Fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, USA

‘The Last Painting of Sara de Vos’ by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I quite like stories about art, and for whatever reason Australian authors seem to like writing them: think Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love StoryAlex Miller’s Autumn Laing and Patrick White’s The Vivisector.

Into this canon of art-themed novels comes Australian expat Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a rather exquisite tale revolving around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland, joining the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. It spans three centuries, is set in three cities — New York, Amsterdam and Sydney — and begins as a crime story before morphing into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale.

It’s a page turner of the finest order and has already attracted favourable publicity in the US, where Smith resides, including this excellent review in the New York Times. Meanwhile, in Australia, it has topped the independent bookseller’s list (in June) and garnered great reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. Blogger Lisa Hill has sung its praises too.

An unnoticed crime

The book opens in rather dramatic style. It’s 1957, the setting is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Wealthy patent attorney Marty de Groot and his wife are throwing an extravagant party in their three-storey penthouse to raise money for the city’s orphans, something they do every year.

During the party a crime is committed — although it takes them several months to realise. A painting from the Dutch Golden Age that has been in Marty’s family for more than three centuries — and which hangs over the marital bed like a bad omen — is stolen. A fake is put in its place.

The fake was unwittingly produced by a PhD art student, Ellie Shipley, an Australian now living in Brooklyn, who has reached an impasse in her dissertation on women painters of the Dutch Golden Age and spends most of her time doing art restoration work instead. (She had initially trained for a career in conservation at the Courtauld Institute in London but moved into art history when she realised the plum jobs would always “go to older, male graduates, to the men who sported cable-knit cardigans and Oxbridge accents”.)

As part of this line of work, she is often asked to authenticate and touch up old masterworks, so when she is commissioned by her usual contact to replicate At the Edge of the World, a rather sombre painting by a little known female artist, she is immediately taken by the project even if she is skeptical of the agenda behind it:

When he produced three high-resolution colour photographs of the painting in its frame she felt her breath catch — it was unlike anything else painted by a baroque woman. Here was a winter landscape with the glaucous atmosphere of an Avercamp, the delicate grays and blues and russets, the peasants skating through the ether of twilight above the ice, but with this stark and forlorn figure standing at the tree. She was the onlooker but also the focal point, the centre of gravity. This was no village frolic before the onrush of night — a common Avercamp motif — this was a moment of suspension, a girl trapped by the eternity of dusk. The girl had been lavished with very fine brushwork, the hem of her dress frayed by a hundred filaments of paint, each one half the width of a human hair. The painting’s atmosphere, even in the photographs, was incandescent, hushed. It somehow combined the devotional, religious light of a monastery portrait and the moodiness of an Italian allegory.

Ellie accepts the challenge of reproducing this painting with a kind of relish, but it’s a decision that haunts her for the rest of her life. It not only brings her into close contact with Marty, who woos her in an underhand way, hoping she’ll confess to the crime, but threatens to unravel her relatively controlled but lonely life — and, then, decades later puts her much-lauded career at risk.

A trio of storylines

This crime-based 1950s Manhattan storyline — in which Marty and Ellie eventually meet  — is intertwined with two others: that of Sara de Vos herself and the tragic circumstances leading up to her creating the painting in question; and a more contemporary narrative in which Ellie, now an internationally renowned art historian living in Sydney, fears she’s going to be exposed as a forger when both the original and the replica paintings arrive simultaneously at the Gallery of New South Wales for an exhibition she is staging — and Marty, now in his 80s, isn’t far behind.

These different narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, creating a complex, non-linear novel, but one which is highly entertaining.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos works as a cohesive whole because there’s an underlying fear holding the story together: will Ellie’s crime be discovered? As she and Marty conduct a cat-and-mouse game spanning almost 50 years, the reader is constantly wondering whether Ellie’s past will finally catch up with her.  This build up of suspense is aided by the intermittent switches in pace when the author takes us back to 17th century Holland to tell us the tragic story of Sara de Vos who never achieved proper recognition for her talents during her lifetime because women painters were never taken seriously.

Aside from the expert storytelling at its heart, the novel is incredibly well researched: the forger’s techniques and how to authenticate centuries-old artwork is expertly told, giving the reader a fascinating glimpse into an otherwise foreign world: that of the art historian and conservator. Even Sara de Vos is based upon an amalgamation of various real-life Dutch Golden Age painters, including Sarah van Baalbergen, who gained entry to the Haarlem Guild of St Luke in 1631, the first woman to do so. Sadly, none of her work survives.

And the characters are great — all slightly damaged but good-hearted, the kind of people you care about or empathise with for various different reasons. There are parallels between Sara and Ellie, two women struggling to be taken seriously in the art world more than three centuries apart, which infuse their stories with the spirit of the underdog. And while Marty comes from a different world entirely — privileged, white and male — he’s sympathetically drawn, because he knows he’s never quite lived up to his potential.

All up, this is a wonderfully realised tale that marries a contemporary storyline with two historical ones. It shines a light both on the hidden world of art forgery and women’s unrecognised contributions to the Dutch Golden Age. And its mix of crime, suspense, romance and tragedy makes it a clever and compelling read. You may never look at an old master the same way again.

This is my 32nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

The-closet-of-savage-mementos

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2014.

In late 2013 I read Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s astonishing debut novel You, which was about a young girl growing up in 1980s Dublin. Told in the present tense and in the second person (from the viewpoint of the girl), it was a truly memorable read, and when I heard the author had a new novel coming out I promptly bought myself a copy.

The Closet of Savage Mementos is perhaps the grown-up version of You, seeing as it tells the story of a young woman grappling with love, loss and difficult family relationships, who, some 20 years later, must confront the confusion, grief and anger associated with her past.

It’s a quietly understated read but hugely evocative of time and place, written in a straightforward prose style that brims with humanity and real emotion. It was only after I finished the novel that I discovered it was largely based on Ní Chonchúir’s own life, which only serves to make it a more poignant and profound read.

A novel in two parts

The book is divided into two parts. The first is set in 1991, when Lillis Yourell, a budding photographer who works part-time in a camera shop, takes a summer job as a waitress in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s something she’d been planning for a while, but when her best friend and sometime lover, Donal, dies in a motorbike accident it’s a way of clearing her head and coming to terms with her grief. It’s also a chance to escape her visual artist mother, Verity, an alcoholic with a tongue that cuts like a knife — “I hate people who remind me of myself. And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her” — and to ensure her gay brother, Robin, shoulders some of the responsibility of “parenting” her.

While in Scotland, Lillis falls for a much older man, and their romance, played out under the eyes of the small tourist community of Kinlochbrack, offers much-needed solace during a time of loneliness, but it also has unforeseen consequences that change Lillis’s life forever…

The second part of the book is set 20 years later. Lillis is 41 and back living in contemporary Dublin, where she continues to deal with her difficult mother, “a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian”. She’s recently married for the first time and just had a new baby. Life is interesting but what happened in Scotland all those years ago still niggles.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so you’ll have to read the book, but let’s just say Lillis has the courage to confront — and reconcile — her past, and it’s rather lovely and sweet and tear-inducing.

New and fresh writing

As ever, the writing in this novel is gorgeous, probably not surprising given the author is also a poet. But open any page and there are sentences that sing, little descriptions that really capture a scene or a moment in new and fresh ways: the “navy lumps of the hills opposite are like whales, huge and motionless”, a baby’s “skin is butter soft” and he has “lamb-chubby thighs”; a blue paperweight with bubbles of glass around a piece of seaweed “looks like fireworks have gone off underwater”.

And the characters are wonderfully drawn, though some, such as Robin, are frustratingly unknowable, probably because we only ever really see things from Lillis’s point of view.

The Closet of Savage Mementos could be called a coming-of-age story, but I think it’s more firmly rooted in a sharply observed “life story” and how the arrival of motherhood changes the perception of ourselves and our own mothers. Indeed, if there is an overriding theme it is that the thing Lillis fears most is turning into her mother, based, I suspect, on the belief that bad parenting causes bad parenting.

Robin bent towards me. “Hey, do you remember the time you broke her china jug and the two of us buried it in the bottom of the garden? I was thinking about that yesterday.”
[…]
“God, I’d kind of forgotten about that day. She kept at us and at us until we showed her where we’d hidden the bits.”
“Then she locked us under the stairs. Good old Verity and her brilliant parenting.”

The book deals with some heavy subjects related to parenthood, marriage, siblings, betrayal, grief, death and alcoholism, but the author keeps a tight rein on the narrative and never lets it turn into a misery memoir. It’s lightened by moments of gentle humour — even the idea of Verity collecting roadkill to turn into “taxidart” is quite funny:

“She skins and mounts them and dresses them in costumes […] she was presented with a monkey recently; she gave it a pipe, a pinny and high heels.”

But in essence The Closet of Savage Mementos is just a great read. It’s a raw, honest and uncompromising novel about one woman reconciling her past with her present. I loved it.

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, 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.

Austria, Author, Book review, Edmund De Waal, France, History, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund De Waal

Hare-with-amber-eyes

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.

Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.

The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?

While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.

De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.

Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.

It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.

I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.

Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.

But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.