Alice Pung, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Black Inc, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung

Fiction – paperback; Black Inc; 244 pages; 2021.

A mother’s obsessive love for her daughter is at the heart of Alice Pung’s profoundly moving novel One Hundred Days.

I have previously read Pung’s extraordinary memoir Her Father’s Daughter, a moving account of what it was like growing up in Australia with Cambodian parents who had fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, so I was keen to read this one. I was not disappointed!

In this gripping story, certainly one of the best I have read in 2021 (I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year), teenage Karuna is smothered by her mother’s desire to protect her.

Because she didn’t have many small things when she was growing up, she made me her Big Thing. It was both deliberate and accidental, the way most important decisions are. […] Until the summer I turned thirteen, I hadn’t realised that she had been narrating the story of my life, including the dialogue. Until then, I believed her fairytales, because I was at the centre of them.

The pair live together in a one-bedroom housing commission flat in Melbourne, where they share a bed, making privacy between mother and daughter near on impossible.

Karuna’s mother (referred to as “Grand Mar” throughout) is a Chinese Filipino, whose life is dictated by tradition and superstition. She once ran her own make-up business for wedding parties but had to give that up when Karuna’s Greek father moved out of the family home to live with a much younger girlfriend. By day she works as a hairdresser in a busy salon run by the indomitable but kind-hearted Mrs Osman, and by night she works in a Thai restaurant.

Teenage pregnancy

When 16-year-old Karuna, who is smart and bright, falls pregnant to “a boy I liked” she refuses to tell her mother who the father is.

I can feel her head turning on the pillow, and then she asks, “Who is it?”
When I don’t answer, she says, “Do you even know who it is? Because if you don’t know who it is, we can get the police to look for them and catch them and lock them away.” She says this to me like I am five years old and don’t know about the law. “In jail,” she adds.

What ensues is a battle of wills. Karuna wants to carry on her life as normal, going to school, hanging out with her friends, but her headstrong mother has other ideas. She gets her a job in the salon, where’s she’s paid $5 a day as an apprentice (“We’ll need every cent we can get,” her mother explains because “soon there will be three mouths to feed”) but in reality, does nothing more than sweep the floors and make tea for clients.

Later, when Karuna is a month away from giving birth, her mother begins locking her indoors as part of a 100-day confinement (hence the title of the book). She controls everything she eats and everything she does, all under the guise of protecting the baby, ensuring it is born happy and healthy. But for Karuna, it is all too much and she dreams of running away, starting afresh and maybe spending more time with her dad — if only she could find the key to the lock.

Letter to an unborn child

Told entirely from Karuna’s point of view, and written as a letter to her unborn child, the narrative is fast-paced (I ate it up in a day) and not without humour. We often get glimpses of Karuna’s rage and frustration, but we can also imagine her rolling her eyes when her mother subjects her to another bit of Chinese quackery.

It’s set in the 1980s and the ongoing references to Labyrinth, a film about a Goblin King who persuades a teenage girl to swap her baby half-brother for her dreams, has parallels with Karuna’s own situation: her mother wants to raise Karuna’s child as her own so that she can go on and do other things with her life beyond motherhood.

It’s those kinds of layers of meaning, and the ways in which Pung teases out the delicate line between parental love and psychological control, that elevate One Hundred Days to a very fine novel indeed. I loved its examination of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, the wonderful voices of both characters, and the understanding that soon grows between them when the baby finally arrives.

This is my 20th book for #AWW2021 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Heidi Everett, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ultimo, Wales

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett

Non-fiction – memoir; Ultimo Press; 182 pages; 2021.

Depression is commonly referred to as the ‘black dog’. In Heidi Everett’s memoir, My Friend Fox, her mental illness is essentially a ‘fox’, a wild, misunderstood animal often viewed as an outsider, a creature of terror and beauty.

In this evocative book, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the author, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules.

Everett, who was born in Wales but emigrated to Australia with her working class parents as a child, has a complicated diagnosis:

I am psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age: 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, ? juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.

She spends her time in and out of psychiatric institutions. On one occasion, safe at home where she lives with her beloved dog Tigger, she goes on the run, believing she’s being spied on by cameras in the wall. It’s the middle of winter, cold and dark, and she’s dressed in nothing more than jeans and a light shirt.

I’m not dressed to go out tonight but I can’t go back. This is an emergency; I’ve got to get away. I quickly walk up to the end of the road, turn left and keep walking. Tigger and I won’t stop walking for the next two weeks.

Interspersed with Everett’s terrifying account of running from her own paranoia and her adventures in and out of psychiatric care, are her memories of a happy childhood in rural Wales contrasted with her troubled adolescence in suburban Australia (when her illness began to manifest itself).

She often speaks of her love of the countryside and her admiration for foxes, in particular, the urban foxes she comes across in Melbourne. She wends the tale of a suburban fox on the run throughout her narrative, a metaphor for her own life, misunderstood and never quite able to mix with other people.

She also writes movingly of the love she has for her dog and of her obsessive hobbies — music and drawing — and the ways in which they give her life meaning and take her outside of her illness.

Her lyrical prose is filled with original, occasionally breathtaking, descriptions — a fox she meets has “gemstone eyes”, for example, while the wind blows “a vomit of sea in its mouth” and “the trees begin a free jazz session of syncopated dripping” after a rainstorm.

My Friend Fox is quite an astonishing read — short, powerful and fable-like. The depiction of mental illness and the impact it has on one person’s life is arresting and illuminating. And despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with optimism — and hope.

This is my 19th book for #AWW2021 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 306 pages; 2004.

Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book is a novel inspired by the work of Australian ex-pat writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who moved to the Greek islands in the 1950s (and which is depicted so beautifully in Clift’s twin memoirs Mermaid  Singing and Peel Me a Lotus) to concentrate on their creative lives while bringing up a young family.

I read it hot on the heels of Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, another novel that uses the Clift-Johnston story as inspiration, but found Johnson’s novel more eloquent, more literary — and more heartbreaking.

Multi-layered story

The Broken Book is complex and multi-layered. It reimagines Charmain Clift as a would-be writer called Katherine Elgin who is working on a manuscript called ‘The Broken Book’.

‘The Broken Book’ is about a character called Cressida Morley who falls pregnant at a time when unmarried mothers were frowned upon, bringing great shame upon her family, which is headed by a local newspaper editor.

Cressida Morley, as it turns out, is the name of a character that pops up in George Johnston’s novels and is said to be based on Clift. (And for those who don’t know, Clift had a secret child who was adopted out before she married Johnston, so everything in this extraordinary novel mirrors real life albeit with a creative spin.)

Twin narratives

These two narrative threads — Katherine’s story, which spans three decades and includes her time living in Sydney, London and Greece, and the half-written manuscript she’s working on about Cressida — are interleaved to create a complex tale that explores what it is like to pursue a creative life, how difficult it can be to balance marriage and motherhood, and how a woman’s beauty (and sexual agency) can stifle all else.

It is written in elegant prose dripping with metaphor and meaning, the kind of writing that isn’t afraid to explore emotional truths.

I used to believe there was a pattern to life, or at least you could see in retrospect where a particular life had twisted itself into the wrong shape, buckled by rogue bad luck. I used to think my moment came when a handsome young man who smelled like Sunlight Soap burst like a firework inside me, turning me incandescent. Now I don’t think there is any pattern, any shape whatsoever. All is randomness, chance.

2006 edition

I ate this book up in a matter of days. There’s something about the mood of it  — romantic, melancholy, nostalgic — that is hard to pin down but which envelopes the reader even after this extraordinarily wise and passionate novel has been finished.

I realise I haven’t really explained much about it, but it’s a difficult story to describe. The joy of the book is just letting the dual narratives, which inform one another as they jump back and forth across decades, wash over you.

The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. It can be ordered “print on demand” via the publisher’s website.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2021 and my 19th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it secondhand earlier this year having read, and loved, many of Susan Johnson’s previous novels.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, London, Publisher, Setting, Zoe Deleuil

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 244 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Zoe Deleuil’s debut novel, The Night Village, is billed as a thriller, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood and how we should always trust our inner-most instincts.

In this tale, Simone, an Australian living and working in London, has her plans for fun and adventure thrown into disarray when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. She moves in with her boyfriend, Paul, a relatively well-off guy who works in the City, even though she doesn’t think she loves him. But he’s the father of her unborn child and he wants to look after her and she knows her lowly wage working on a magazine won’t be enough to support a baby.

This is just back story, for when the book opens, Simone is in the hospital giving birth to her son, Thomas. The event is traumatic for her and she’d like to stay in hospital to rest and recuperate, but Paul seems oblivious to her distress and urges her to come home pretty much straight away. From thereon in Simone’s life is a fug of breastfeeding, sleeping and nappy changing.

When Paul’s cousin Rachel arrives, moving into the spare bedroom and announcing she’s here to help with the baby, Simone isn’t quite sure this is the godsend everyone is claiming it to be. There’s something about Rachel she doesn’t trust, but she can’t quite pinpoint what it is that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that Simone is sleep deprived, hormonal and finding it difficult to reconcile her old life with her new one.

The baby lay with his arms flung above his head in an attitude of complete abandon, his chest moving very slightly as she leaned closer and started stroking his head, right at the fontanelle where I knew there was no bone protecting the brain, only a layer of skin. I had only touched it once myself, by accident, and recoiled from the feeling of the ridged bone giving way to soft skin and nothing else between it and the baby’s brain, but she stroked it, again and again, her hands trembling slightly, and I had to bunch my hands into fists to stop myself from clobbering her.

The mood of the book is suspenseful, with a slight tinge of paranoia, and for the reader, you’re never quite sure if you can trust Simone as a narrator. Is she hiding something from us? Is she imagining things?

The evocative London setting, specifically the residential (and arts) complex known as the Barbican Estate (a place I know relatively well), adds to the mood. This housing estate on a former World War two bombsite is an example of British brutalist architecture which was dominant in the 1950s and is characterised by function over design, with rough edges, geometric shapes and lots of concrete. Visit the Barbican on a miserable London day, with its grey concrete turned black by rain, and it gives off a creepy Gothic vibe. It’s the perfect setting for a story like this one.

The Night Village is an intimate account of new motherhood thrust upon a young woman who doesn’t feel quite ready to embrace this life-changing event. And yet, when a stranger enters her domain and begins making claims on her baby, her protective instincts kick in. The tension lies in whether there really is something to worry about or whether it’s all in the mother’s head. This is a delicate balance to pull off but the author has done it exceptionally well.

I’m not really into books about motherhood, but I found this one riveting.

The Night Village will be released in Australia on 3 August. UK and US readers will be able to get the Kindle edition in August; a paperback will follow in November.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2021 and my 10th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a very early review copy of this from Fremantle Press having flagged it in this piece about upcoming Southern Cross Crime novels and have been patiently waiting to read the book closer to the August publication date.

And because the author is from Perth (but now lives in Germany), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Madeleine Watts, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Pushkin; 256 pages; 2021.

Madeleine Watts’ debut novel, The Inland Sea, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s yet another (fashionable) coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman grappling with the complexities of the modern world — think Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Niamh Campbell, Sophie Hardcastle et al —albeit with a distinctive Australian twist.

This one marries personal accountability with ecological disaster, misogyny and sexual agency.

There are recurrent themes about the foolishness of colonial exploration (in search of the rumoured inland sea, hence the book’s title) and uses the mining and exploitation of the Australian landscape as a metaphor for the ways in which women continue to be dominated and used. Which is a roundabout way of saying this is not a novel about navel-gazing: it looks at the bigger picture and puts the central character’s life into a societal and historical context — and is all the more rewarding for it.

Life in a call centre

Set in Sydney, The Inland Sea charts a year in the life of an unnamed narrator with red hair who is striking out on her own after graduating from university. She takes a job as an emergency call dispatcher — “Emergency, police, fire or ambulance?” — and discovers that the outside world is a very dangerous place. She puts emergency calls through to the relevant first responders for everything from domestic violence incidents to car accidents, bush fires to heart attacks.

I had always been told that cars were more dangerous than planes, and had never really taken the idea seriously, but the first weeks at Triple Zero taught me to reconsider their dangers. Cars flipped over. They started smoking. They ran down children. They veered off the road, they smashed through houses in the middle of the night. They poisoned their passengers. I did not know how to drive, but if I had, I would have stopped. The calls made me walk along footpaths as far away from the road as I possibly could.

Her own life is full of emergencies, too, including, but not limited to, an unplanned pregnancy, chlamydia, anemia, low liver function and a tendency to blackout from drinking too much alcohol. Against her better judgement, she is also sleeping around and having a rather lust-filled affair with the boyfriend of a friend, and part of her hopes they are discovered, if only so things are out in the open.

A climate emergency

This tendency towards self-destructive behaviour is told in parallel with an ecological emergency that is unfolding in Australia — extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, there are bushfires raging and even an earthquake.

The news said that January was of hottest-ever days and broken records, 123 by the end of the season. Some days, the heat was so powerful that people died simply sitting in their own homes. The newspapers had started calling it the “Angry Summer”.

And further to this, terrible things are happening to women. There are references to notorious murders, including Gillian Meagher, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a pub in Melbourne in 2012, and the narrator is becoming increasingly aware of the sheer number of domestic violence incidents she must respond to in her call centre job.

This dovetails seamlessly with her own experience of domestic violence as a child. While the reader is spared any specific detail, we get an overall picture of her mother living in fear of her husband and then taking drastic steps to whisk away her daughter to a place of safety, of her father being unhappy about it and then moving south to Melbourne, rarely to be seen again.

Life on the edge

While the book doesn’t have a strong plot, it sustains interest through the narrator’s experiences, her tendency to live life on the edge, her seeming inability to take care of herself and flashbacks to her childhood. Interleaved with this very personal storyline, are anecdotes about John Oxley, a 19th-century colonial explorer, who went in search of an interior body of water but never found it, which adds interest. Occasionally, some aspects — about history, ecology and news events — do feel a bit shoehorned in, but this is a minor criticism.

On the whole, The Inland Sea is an eloquently written story about finding refuge in a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe, one that highlights the chaos and fear around us, but demonstrates that we all need to take personal responsibility for our own actions and our own safety. It’s a powerful read.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2021 and my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it shortly after it was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award because it sounded like something I would enjoy.

Amanda Lohrey, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Text

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

Fiction – paperback; Text publishing; 256 pages; 2020.

I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this intriguing novel, which I won in a prize draw that Lisa ran on her blog last year. (You can read Lisa’s review here.)

Amanda Lohrey is a new-to-me Australian author, but she’s written many books and essays, been nominated for numerous awards and won a handful of prestigious ones, including the Patrick White Award in 2012.

The Labyrinth is her eighth novel, which has just been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award (which I’ve neglected to even mention on this blog because I’ve been otherwise occupied).

Deeply contemplative story

Set on the coast, it’s a deeply contemplative tale starring all the topics I love reading about in novels — guilt, redemption, moral culpability, insanity, art and the complex, sometimes fraught relationships between parents and children — so any wonder I loved it.

The focus of the story is Erica Marsden, an older woman, who grew up in an asylum (her father was a psychiatrist). This is an important detail because it shows how she is attuned to madness in the world. Now, having quit her job, she has moved into an isolated, rather rundown shack by the beach. She’s cut herself off from family and friends so that she can spend time alone to mend a broken heart, to grieve for something she has lost.

But her grief is not the result of a romance gone wrong. Her son, Daniel, has been imprisoned for a brutal homicide he committed, and Erica, shocked to the core, refuses to give up on him even though his crime weighs heavy on her. Indeed, her new home is only a relatively short drive from the prison in which he’s incarcerated, which means she can visit him — whether he likes it or not. (Her visits, it has to be said, are painfully evoked, brimming with hurt and anger and incomprehension. I felt myself squirming in my seat as I read these scenes.)

Twin projects

In the long gaps between visiting hours, Erica focuses on two separate projects.

The first is to destroy Dan’s extensive book collection —  at his request — by burning individual tomes in a painstaking daily ritual that she ekes out for as long as possible. She even hires a local schoolgirl to help arrange the books in alphabetical order, a completely unnecessary task, but one that helps delay the books’ inevitable destruction.

The second is to build a labyrinth out of local stone, a work of art that she spends many hours planning, in the knowledge the act of building it will help her out of her current muddled frame of mind, not quite believing her son has carried out such a horrific crime. And when the labyrinth is complete she will be able to walk its one single path to the centre as a way to calm her mind.

First the making—I recalled my father’s words: the cure for many ills is to build something—and then the repetition, the going over and over so that time would rupture and be stopped in its flow. And I could live in an infinitely expanding present in which there was no nostalgia, no consequence, no outcome or false promise. The future meant nothing. Since my past and my future were hitched to my son’s life sentence, I felt that if I stepped outside the present I risked being turned to stone.

She can’t make the labyrinth alone, however, and after ruling out a local architect who lives nearby, she hires a homeless man, living in the sand dunes to help her.

Jurko, it turns out, is an illegal immigrant, who has abandoned his family on the other side of the world and has secrets of his own to keep. Erica’s relationship with him, which develops gently over time from client to friend to lodger, is one of the strengths of the novel, for it shows how her cool exterior begins to thaw as trust is gained and confidences exchanged.

The importance of friendship, it would appear, is one of the novel’s central themes, for Erica wants to be alone, but in a small tight-knit community on the coast, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, it’s difficult to remain reclusive without being seen as aloof or someone of whom to be suspicious. She slowly builds up relationships with neighbours and acquaintances, learning to let herself live again, learning to open her heart to the world.

The Labyrinth is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s a rare example of a story that is both disquieting and yet deeply satisfying. It’s intimate and honest and brims with all kinds of important questions about what it is to reckon with the past and navigate the future.

This is my 12th book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I won it in a prize draw last summer.

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.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Kate Jennings, literary fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 192 pages; 2002.

What a beautiful little gem of a book this one turned out to be!

Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard is set in Wall Street during the 1990s and tells the story of an outsider — Cath, an Australian “bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger” — who works at an investment bank by day and looks after her ill husband by night.

Previously a freelance writer, she’s sold her soul to make big bucks as a speechwriter for the mid-level bank known as Niedecker Benecke. She needs the money to look after her husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

She knows nothing about finance but she can craft a sentence, although she finds the sexist world — and the politics — of the investment bankers and the communications department a challenge. Her only “friend” in the firm is Mike, a fellow cigarette smoker, with whom she spends her breaks, sitting outside in the plaza sharing confidences.

The book was reissued by Text Classics in 2015

Stark but beautiful prose

The story, which spans roughly six years, from Bailey’s diagnosis to his death, is told in forthright prose undercut with dark humour.

It reads like an insider’s guide to investment banking — its risk-taking, its greed, its unwritten rules, protocols and unfettered belief in the market — based on the author’s own experience working for Merrill Lynch. But it’s also an honest look at the challenges facing those who must look after loved ones* with chronic illnesses while juggling their own lives and careers.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between both worlds.

I was commuting between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder value.

The morality of greed

In fact, Bailey’s slide towards the loss of self could also mirror Cath’s own changes in values, her need to “play the game” to get ahead, to understand the tickings of the financial world and the increasingly risky behaviour of those around her.

While Moral Hazard is set more than a decade before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the cracks are already there and the shadow of the Barings Bank collapse, caused by employee Nick Leeson’s unauthorised trading, looms large, so when Mike tells Cath about a hedge fund that is likely to collapse, she has a moral dilemma: follow protocol and keep quiet, or speak out and tell her superiors?

She is similarly conflicted when Bailey insists she euthanise him should he become too ill even though they both know this is against the law.

Interestingly, in economics, moral hazard occurs when a business increases its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk. The concept could also apply to Cath’s care of her husband whose behaviour becomes wildly unpredictable and unmanageable as the story progresses, so much so that she has to put him into full-time care and hand over responsibility to others.

There are other metaphors in this short, sharply observed novel — the way the financial authorities bail out failing hedge funds, for example, and make no changes to the rules could be seen as if they, too, have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Portrait of office life

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Moral Hazard is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year. As well as its twin themes of illness and finance, I loved its portrait of office life, a subject that is rarely addressed in fiction despite the fact so many of us spend our working lives sitting at desks surrounded by others sitting at desks.

And it’s a lovely counterpoint to Jennings’ debut novel, Snake, which was set in the Australian outback as far removed from New York’s financial district as it is possible to get!

For another take on Moral Hazard, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

*  Jennings’ husband, the graphic designer Bob Cato, died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1999, so those aspects of the novel must surely be based on experience, too.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th 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 last year. 

2021 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

2021 Stella Prize winner announced

Congratulations to Evie Wyld on winning this year’s Stella Prize for her novel The Bass Rock.

According to the chair of the judging panel, Zoya Patel, the book is “consuming and perplexing”, adding that it…

“forces the reader to think and engage with the unique narrative structure, but in a way that feels effortless, so engaged are you by the story. This is a novel that demonstrates the author’s versatility of style, with the separate narrative parts each having an individual voice. And yet, at no point does the book feel disjointed. Instead, it is as though Evie Wyld has chosen each and every word with precision, building a novel that is a true work of art.”

You can read the full announcement, made tonight, on the Stella Prize website.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read this novel, although it’s been in my digital TBR for quite some time.

In fact, eagle-eyed followers of this blog might have noticed I abandoned my project to read all the books on the Stella Prize shortlist. There’s just been too much going on in my life to commit to reading so many books in such a short space of time. Maybe next year!

Anyone read The Bass Rock? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?