Author, Book review, Fiction, Jacqueline Woodson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Red at the Bone’ by Jacqueline Woodson

Fiction – Kindle edition; W&N; 208 pages; 2020.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone came recommended to me with much fanfare. It’s been nominated for many prizes (including the Women’s Prize for Fiction), been a runaway bestseller and named as one of the books of the year in countless media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today et al).

It features everything I love in a great story: well-drawn characters, vivid prose, a strong narrative voice, thought-provoking themes (including race, class, sexuality, teen pregnancy, social mobility and ambition) and an original structure that interweaves different storylines and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

But this novella about a Black American family, told from multiple points of view, didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that the week I read it I was distracted by (1) the never-ending USA Presidential Election count and (2) a looming deadline for a massive project at work. Given different circumstances, I may well have found this story more engaging and immersive than I did upon my initial reading.

Melody’s family history

The story revolves around Melody, a 16-year-old about to make her coming of age debut, in 2001. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that was made for her mother, Iris, who never got to wear it because she fell pregnant when still a schoolgirl.

As Melody descends the staircase in her grandparent’s brownstone house in Brooklyn, the time-shifting narrative explores all the interconnections in Melody’s family, detailing the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, to create an authentic portrait of an ordinary hard-working family wanting the very best for their loved ones.

He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was. They were not poor. Well, Melody wasn’t.

Red at the Bone highlights the repercussions of a teenage pregnancy on two young parents and their respective families.

It looks at how Melody’s father, Aubry, did not realise he was poor until he met Iris and got introduced to her (slightly larger) world; it shows how Iris, having birthed her daughter at 15, refused to be defined by motherhood and escaped to college to pursue a better, more ambitious life; it examines the struggles of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy, who grew up in the shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921; and it takes all these narrative threads and cleverly shows how the history of this one family shapes Melody’s values and world view.

It’s an ambitious story wrapped up in one neat package. It’s just a shame it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. Sometimes it’s simply a case of right book, wrong time…

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline Publishing; 308 pages; 2014.

First published in 1993, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower seems remarkably prescient.

Set in the year 2027 — just 10 years from now — in a small town 20 miles from Los Angeles, it depicts a world in which the normal rules of society have broken down. People live in walled communities to protect themselves from rampaging mobs; food is so expensive people either grow their own or steal it; and water is in short supply.

Jobs are scarce and wages are so low many workers are indentured to the companies that employ them. Guns are a way of life and everyone learns from an early age how to defend themselves in case of violent attack. And most people despise politicians because they’ve failed to “return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century”.

But there is a glimmer of hope:

Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner is our new President—President-elect. So what are we in for? Donner has already said that as soon as possible after his inauguration next year, he’ll begin to dismantle the “wasteful, pointless, unnecessary” moon and Mars programs. Near space programs dealing with communications and experimentation will be privatized—sold off. Also, Donner has a plan for putting people back to work. He hopes to get laws changed, suspend “overly restrictive” minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.

How eerily familiar it all sounds, right?

A young narrator

The story is narrated by 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a black Baptist preacher. She has a rare condition called “hyperempathy syndrome”, which means she feels other people’s pain as well as her own, the result of her late mother’s addiction to a drug called Paracetco.

Having this syndrome is shameful, so Lauren keeps it a secret from everyone she knows, but it puts her in mortal danger, for if she sees someone near her dying, whether by gunshot wound, violent rape or something else, she experiences the same symptoms.

So when her community succumbs to a devastating fire attack, which kills all her immediate family and many of her friends, she finds herself in the dangerous “outside world”, confronted by all manner of threats to her hypersensitive “antenna”.

A story of two halves

The book is essentially two halves: the first sets the scene and shows us how complicated, messy and violent the world has become; the second charts Lauren’s time on the road as she heads north with a small group intent on finding refuge in the wilderness. It’s a bit like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but instead of an apocalyptic wasteland Lauren must trudge through an America consumed by paranoia, violent crime, murder, rape and drug addiction.

I admit that I had problems with this dystopian novel. Yes, the themes and issues it presents — about societal breakdown, the importance of empathy and the need to embrace diversity — are particularly relevant and timely given what’s happening across the world right now. But it’s far too long and the prose too pedestrian for my liking. (I had the same problem with Butler’s Fledgling, which I read back in 2010.)

I also didn’t much like the religious overtones, for Lauren’s aim is to set up her own religion called Earthseed. This is designed to help people adapt to a new, constantly changing world in which so many inadequately prepared people have to fend for themselves.

In some quarters Parable of the Sower is billed as a Young Adult novel, so it may just be that I’m not the target audience — yet pretty much everyone in my book group liked it.

Parable of the Sower is the first book of the Earthseed series; the second is the Nebula Award winner Parable of the Talents. As much as I’d like to know what happens to Lauren, I don’t think I will race to read the sequel.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 299 pages; 2010.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel, was first published in 1999. It tells the story of Billy, a young teacher, who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school.

Here, in a Christian mission now in decline and a government administrative outpost struggling to keep staff, Billy and his wife, Liz, find themselves thrust into an Aboriginal community that appears to be in disarray. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the astonishing landscape in which they live in ways that surprise him.

An immensely powerful read about dispossession, the clash between cultures and finding your rightful place in the world, I found True Country the perfect follow-up/companion read to Stan Grant’s memoir Talking to My Country. Both books sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were, and paint a stark, disturbing portrait of what happens when one culture tries to subjugate another.

A remote settlement

When Billy and Liz fly into Karnama this is what they see from the plane window:

We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.

This first impression of a beautiful, semi-ordered landscape is tarnished when the plane banks over the bush on the other side of the settlement and Billy sees that it was “littered with old car bodies, tins, plastic, all sorts of rubbish”. And perhaps that’s a metaphor for this whole, carefully structured, novel, which scratches the dark underbelly of what it is to be a forgotten people living in a community beset by problems, many of them caused by decades long interference from others who think they know better.

It’s only when Billy and Liz settle into their new lodgings and begin work that they pick up on the very real “them” and “us” mentality that exists between the whites and the blacks. Grog is forbidden for Aboriginals, but the priest has his own private supply, for instance, and all the white staff live in well-built air-conditioned housing and have access to vehicles, while the blacks sweat it out in hot corrugated iron shacks and travel everywhere by foot.

Tensions arise between these two cultures, caused primarily by a different set of values. Many of the Aboriginals living in Karnama have so little respect for education that the teachers must wake up their students and practically drag them into the classroom every morning. There is no understanding of the concept of personal property, so that if they “borrow” a car and crash it, it is simply abandoned by the side of the road, and children think nothing of going into a teacher’s unlocked house without their knowledge to rifle through their belongings. And there’s a strong (cynical) belief that the white people, whether teachers, government administrators or clergy, are there simply to make money or to further their careers, they have no real interest in helping the Aboriginal community.

There are deeper, more disturbing problems here, too: alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing is rife (to “kill the world”, as Billy puts it) and the men are violent with each other and their wives (usually after drinking too much grog).

Room for hope

Strangely, for all the shocking incidences in this book (including a violent murder committed by white men), it is not a depressing one. That’s largely due to Billy’s “assimilation”, for want of a better word, into this community, for part-way through the story you come to realise that Billy is not white: he has Aboriginal ancestry, and his reason for moving to this community is to discover that part of himself which, for so long, has remained dormant and unknowable.

There are wonderful descriptions of outings to go fishing and to learn about bush culture and to fall that little bit in love with the varied landscape around him and to appreciate the vagaries of the seasons.

This time of the year […] it is getting hotter. Late in every day the sky comes low, it sags down like it is swollen and bruised. The flies are sticky drinking your sweat. Over on the edge of the sky the lightning stabs the hills. But no rain comes yet. It will.

He strikes up a particularly lovely friendship with Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in  Karnama, who sits at his kitchen table and tells him stories that he records on audio tape with a view to transcribing them for his students. It’s perhaps telling that this form of oral history, so much a part of Aboriginal culture, never makes it into written form, for Billy realises that to do so would require too much time and too much editing and he doesn’t think he has the right to alter Fatima’s words: these are not his stories to tell.

An engaging portrait

The novel is largely structured around a series of vignettes and what I would call sketches of characters or scenes, some of which are only a couple of pages long. But this style builds up an engaging portrait of the community, so that you come to learn about the way it works and the people who inhabit it in ways a normal straightforward narrative might not have been able to do.

It’s largely written in the first person, past tense, but there are snatches of present tense to heighten tension and there are passages told in Aboriginal vernacular which lend a vivid, authentic flavour to the prose. It is that vernacular that I loved most, perhaps because much of it so wonderfully conveys the spiritual connection between people and the land:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ’round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We  got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle… every kind. Sweet mango and coconuts too.

In case you haven’t guessed, I really loved this novel. I loved the way Scott writes about confronting, often shocking, problems but in an intelligent, empathetic way. I loved his poetical use of language. I loved his characters, the whole complex range of them. I loved his descriptions of the landscape. I loved his sense of humour evidenced in descriptions of shambolic corroborees put on for American tourists expecting polished performances. And I loved the redemptive ending. But most of all I loved its big beating heart.

True Country has been widely published, so British and North American readers should be able to source a copy online without too much difficulty.

Kim Scott is of Aboriginal descent. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice — for his novels Benang: From the Heart (in 2000, jointly with Thea Astley’s Drylands) and That Deadman Dance (in 2011).

This is my 47th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scribe, Setting, Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 240 pages; 2016.

“What does it feel like to be an indigenous person in Australia?”

This is the question journalist Stan Grant wrestles with in a radio interview upon his return to Australia after a decade working overseas. It’s the same question he wrestles with in Talking to My Country, a heartfelt and deeply personal memoir about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

His response?

I tell Richard [Glover, the interviewer] how vulnerable we can be. I tell him of the little boy I once was who felt so ashamed of his colour that he tried to scrub it off. I tell him of the ache of poverty and how my family had roamed the back roads looking for a home in a land we had lost. I tell him of how a sideways glance or a snickering child could steal our souls. I tell him how we learned to measure our words and lower our voices for fear of being howled down. I tell him that even now despite carving out a place for myself I could so easily be crushed by rejection.

But Talking to My Country is more than just a memoir. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. If, as Grant argues, Australia is a “great country”, it should also step up to the mark and be “held to great account”. He has a point.

Sobering facts

Here are some of the sobering facts peppered throughout Stan’s frank and eye-opening narrative:

  • Aboriginal people represent fewer than three per cent of the population, yet they represent a quarter of the prison population
  • Half of those in juvenile detention centres are indigenous
  • One in five indigenous prisoners try to kill themselves
  • There were 99 deaths in custody in nine years in the decade before 1987. Despite a Royal Commission into black deaths in custody, this figure has increased by 100 per cent in the past two decades
  • Acute depression affects one-third of indigenous people over the age of 15
  • Aboriginals are three times more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts
  • 50,000 aboriginal children were stolen from their families by the federal and state governments in a misguided attempt to assimilate them
  • Since 2008, when then Prime Minster Kevin Rudd offered a formal apology about the Stolen Generation, the number of aboriginal children removed from their families has increased by 400 per cent
  • Compared with white Australians, Aboriginal Australians have a much lower life expectancy, much higher levels of unemployment and a higher infant mortality rate
  • Six out of 10 white Australians have never met an Aboriginal Australian

But while Grant paints a shameful portrait of a nation divided, he is quick to point out that he is one of the lucky ones. He left school early, but he managed to find a route out of poverty through further education and journalism.

Many of you may know him as a broadcast journalist — he was a correspondent for CNN for a decade covering all kinds of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, but I mainly remember him as the host of the current affairs program Real Life in the mid-1990s. He was the first Aboriginal journalist to be on mainstream TV.

I’m not sure his book offers any solutions to Australia’s troubled past, but what it does do is show how we got into this mess. Grant does not point the finger at white people per se, but at the “system built on white privilege”. He shows that it is only by understanding our past — the shared history, the massacres, the unjust treatment of his people — that we can reconcile what has happened and move into the future together as one united people. Grant states that Aboriginals are constantly told to let it go, but he says it’s not quite as easy as that:

… our history is a living thing. It is physical. it is nose and mouths and faces. It is written on our bodies. […] It is there in the mental scars you often cannot see.

It doesn’t help that Grant, having grown up in the margins of society, still feels a stranger in his own country. “When an anthem is played and a flag is raised we are reminded that our country is no longer ours,” he writes.

Sadness and shame

I came away from this book feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness — and shame. It’s the exact same reaction I had when I read Kim Scott’s confronting novel Benang: Straight from the Heart, about a man who realises he is “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with Aboriginal blood.

Talking to My Country is eye-opening and informative. It’s fuelled by anger and shame. I read it feeling my heart breaking with every turn of the page. It’s exactly the kind of book that every Australian should read, but it has wider appeal in showing what happens to people when they are treated differently because of the colour of their skin. In the current political climate, its message seems more important than ever.

This is my 46th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.