Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Robin Dalton, Setting, Text Classics

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

Non-fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 160 pages; 2015.

My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.

So begins Robin Dalton’s Aunts Up the Cross, setting the scene for an often outrageously funny — and always delightful — memoir about her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. The Cross of the title is Sydney’s Kings Cross, a rather dubious area known as the city’s red-light district, but with a distinct bohemian flavour.

Dalton, who became a leading literary agent in the UK in the 1960s (her clients have included, among others, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Drabble and Tennessee Williams), grew up in an unconventional household: her grandparents on the ground floor, her parents on the top floor, and a succession of eccentric aunts, uncles and house guests filling up the spare rooms.

A pair of characters

Her father, a Northern Irish Presbyterian, was a doctor who ran his surgery from the house and seems like quite the character: he did not speak to his mother-in-law for the 35 years that they shared a house. When Dalton asked him about this much later on, this was his response:

“I found early in my married life,” he said, “that I could not take my trousers off without turning around and finding your grandmother watching me.”

Her mother, a Polish-Australian Jewess, caught between the warring factions of her handsome husband and her meddling mother, seems to have been quite a character too: she smoked 100 cigarettes a day, cooked lavish and extravagant meals, thought nothing of inviting strangers in to stay if they had nowhere else to go (“there was always a current ‘lame dog’ of my mother’s in the house”) and sometimes did not sleep in a bed “for weeks at a stretch” the house was so full. And then there was the time she killed the plumber:

One summer morning the servants were busy elsewhere, the house was for once empty, and my mother emerged naked from her dressing-room en route to take a bath. At that moment the plumber (he was a new one) came up the back stairs and met her on the landing. He promptly had a heart attack from which he never recovered. My mother always felt that the fact that death was not instantaneous detracted from the impact of her nudity and the dramatic possibilities of the story.

Warmth and wit

As you can probably tell from that quote, there are a lot of funny laugh-out-loud scenes in this book. In fact, I tittered my way through it, and when I wasn’t tittering I was reading out large extracts to my Other Half because he wanted to know what was making me laugh so much!

It is, indeed, a really lovely, happy, feel-good read, helped in part by the cast of peculiar characters in it (including Dalton herself, who is precocious and self-deprecating throughout), but largely by the gorgeously vivid prose style, which is littered with stop-you-in-your-tracks sentences about outrageous things Dalton’s relatives have done. It’s the marriage between farce and tragedy, nostalgia and social commentary that make it such a delightful — and insightful — read.

First published in 1965, this edition was republished by Text Classics in 2015 and includes a wonderful introduction by Clive James, which is worth the cover price alone (he thought Aunts Up the Cross sounded like “a feminist tract about capital punishment in ancient Rome”), and the author herself, who claims most of her aunts would hate this book and that she wrote it as a diary for her small children, following the untimely death of her 33-year-old husband, in case she should die young, too. (In fact, the story of how this memoir came to be published is almost as interesting — and as gently humorous — as the actual book.)

All in all, this is a highly recommended read — and will certainly feature in my top 10 of the year! Chances are you’ll feel the same way if you read it too.

This is my 39th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 25th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working-class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as a foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word ‘sole’ aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘Me and You’ by Niccolò Ammaniti


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 155 pages; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes it is the shortest books which pack the biggest punch — and this is especially true for Italian author Niccolò Ammanitis latest novel Me and You. In just 155 pages, Ammaniti takes us into the world of a teenage boy, who deceives his parents into thinking he is going on a skiing trip with friends, only to have his world turned upside down by the discovery of a family secret.

A tale of deception

When the book opens Lorenzo Cuni is 24 years old and staying at a hotel in Cividale del Friuli, in northern Italy. He has a piece of paper with him that was written by his sister Olivia ten years earlier, when she was 23.

The story then backtracks to February 2000, when Lorenzo was 14 and a bit of a loner. His wealthy parents, deeply troubled by his behaviour, have sent him to a psychologist, who has diagnosed him with “an inflated sense of self-importance”. But it’s clear that Lorenzo doesn’t have any social skills and finds it difficult to make friends — not without want of trying.

One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects. […]
I had been going about it the wrong way.
Here’s what I had to do.
Imitate the dangerous ones.
I wore the same things they wore. Adidas trainers, jeans with holes in them, a black hoodie. I messed up the parting in my hair and let it grow long. I even wanted to get my ear pierced but my mother forbade me. […]
I walked like them, with my legs wide apart. I threw my backpack on the ground and kicked it around.
I mimicked them discreetly. There’s a fine line between imitation and caricature.

When he hears a group of teenagers he longs to be friends with talk about a ski trip they are going on, he goes home and tells his mother he has been invited to go with them. He then sets up an elaborate scam in which he spends the week hidden in the never-used basement of the family home with his computer games, a copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and plenty of food and drink.

But when his much older half-sister, whom he barely knows, unexpectedly unlocks the door to the basement, Lorenzo’s secret looks set to be exposed. What he doesn’t realise is that Olivia, whom is estranged from the family, has secrets of her own to keep…

The book’s biggest punch, however, comes at the very end, when we discover exactly why Lorenzo is in northern Italy ten years after his week in the basement.

A simple prose style

I’ll admit that the faux naive writing style initially grated, but once I realised that it is deliberately written as if by an immature 14-year-old, I got swept away by the story. By maintaining a certain level of tension throughout, Ammaniti has crafted quite a page turner — for instance, I kept waiting for Lorenzo’s mother, who checked up on him via mobile phone almost every day, to find out his secret.

But the story’s real strength lies more in what is not said: why is Olivia estranged from the family? Why is Lorenzo so (sickeningly) sentimental about his mother? Why does he have so much trouble fitting in at school? These allow room for the reader to figure things out — to read between the lines, so to speak — and to join the dots without Ammaniti having to spell every single little thing out.

This might be a highly condensed story, but it deals with big themes — family, shame, deception, and our need to be accepted by our peers and loved by those closest to us. And it beautifully captures that time on the cusp of adulthood when our childish view of the world is changed forever.

Me and You — which reminded me somewhat of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, one of my favourite reads from last year — is Ammaniti’s fourth novel. His first, I’m Not Scared, has also been reviewed on this site.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Matthew Hooton, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Deloume Road’ by Matthew Hooton


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 320 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Deloume Road promptly went on my wishlist when I read KevinfromCanada’s review last year. In mid-October it was named the joint winner of the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize (the other winner was Lee Rourke’s wonderfully thought-provoking The Canal), but I had to wait more than six months for the paperback release. The wait was worth it.

The book, which also won Bath Spa University’s inaugural Greene & Heaton Prize for the Best Novel (in draft form), is set on Vancouver Island, Canada, in a rural location somewhat reminscent of my Australian childhood. Indeed, the road of the title could almost be substituted for the dusty gravel road, lined with native bushland, farm properties and houses, where I grew up.

Deloume Road is covered with loose gravel and the sunken patch at the bottom of that first steep hill is impossible to drive over without scratching a car’s exhaust pipe. The children of Deloume ride bikes down this hill, dust and gravel flying up behind. At the bottom they pull back on handlebars and jump off the divot, then hit back-pedal brakes and skid sideways. […] Blades of grass grow waist-high along both sides of Deloume and tangles of blackberry bushes and crabapple trees border the dairy farm in patches, filling in the space between the road and fence, cutting the cows off from view in places. Children stop here in August, laying their bikes in the grass on the roadside and wandering deep into the mess of thorns and branches, eating blackberries as they go, until it appears from the road that they are impossibly far in and must have sprung up from the fertile ground.

The childhood references are important, because this novel captures that sense of carefree abandonment one takes for granted when growing up in a small community. And the community of Deloume Road is small — although the cast of characters in the book is not. (There were so many, a list of characters at the front might have been useful.)

Hooton structures the book in an unconventional way. The story has multiple narrative threads and these are told in short chapters, many of them only two or three pages long.

One of these threads is set in the past, 1899 to be precise, and tells the story of Deloume’s founding father, Gerard Deloume.

Another thread, told in the second person, is set in the present in which an unnamed narrator returns to the area and recalls, in hazy, elusive detail, a tragic incident from earlier times.

But the bulk of the threads are told in the third person and are set around the time of the local tragedy I’ve just mentioned. (There’s no definite date mentioned in the book, but I suspect that it’s set in the late 1980s because one of the characters, “The Butcher”, is a Ukrainian immigrant who refers to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.) All of them are about various residents on the road — young, old, newly arrived and everything in between. This builds a picture of a small, close-knit community, not without its tensions and rivalries, that is surprisingly multi-cultural for a place so small.

Confused yet?

Well, don’t worry. The story is not as difficult to read as it might sound, mainly because the characters are so well drawn that it’s easy to slip into their lives and feel involved. Even though you only spend the briefest of time with each character before the focus shifts to someone else, it somehow hangs together. (It’s helpful to think of each chapter as a scene in a much larger drama, a kind of Robert Altman-like view of the people of Deloume.)

There’s some terrific characters in the book, and Hooton knows how to get inside the heads of “outsiders”, those people who have moved to the community and are struggling to fit in. Two that stood out for me include the aforementioned Ukrainian immigrant, who is running a pig farm and successful butchery in order to raise the money to bring his wife and child into Canada; and Irene, a heavily pregnant widow from South Korea, who has no support network but does not want to return to her homeland despite her mother’s pleas.

And then there are the children. There are four key ones and, as you might have gathered from the cover image, it is their story which comprises the dominant thread in Deloume Road. There is Matthew and his “retarded” (Hooton’s description, not mine) younger brother, Andy, and their best friend, Josh. All three come from secure homes and are loved and cared for. They go to art classes conducted by a local artist, they ride their bikes up and down the road, they swim in the local waterhole.

And then there’s Miles Ford, a lonely boy who is mistreated by his farmer father and is effectively homeless — and friendless. He lurks around Deloume, keeping himself to himself, but develops a touching friendship with The Butcher, who misses his own boy back in the Ukraine.

Of course, a novel of this complexity must somehow draw all these divergent storylines together, and Hooton does this superbly by having them collide in a tragedy that occurs at the very end of the novel. I won’t give anything away, but it’s a profoundly shocking conclusion, one that makes Deloume Road a truly haunting and powerful read.

Although it’s probably far too ambitious as a first novel, it’s easy to see why the book has garnered so much praise from readers who voted for it in the Guardian’s poll. And I haven’t even mentioned the elegant prose or the beautiful imagery yet…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Ron Elliott, Setting

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott


Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 472 pages; 2010.

If I said this was a book about cricket, I suspect many of you would have absolutely no interest in reading it. But even if you hate the sport, there’s plenty to love about this story. Even Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers, who is not a cricket fan, found herself enthralled by this one. (I’m grateful to Lisa for sharing the love and buying me a copy of my own…)

This novel is the first by Ron Elliott, who is also a television director and screen writer based in Western Australia. It’s apparent that he has probably written it with an eye towards the big screen, because Spinner would make a terrific kid’s movie. It’s got brilliant dialogue, for a start, but it’s also packed with plenty of drama and is peopled with richly drawn characters. And there’s enough plot surprises to keep people on the edge of their seat throughout.

The story is set between the wars. Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression and there’s not much to smile about. Even the national cricket team is experiencing a slump and losing out to its great cricketing rival, England, which has brought out a killer team for the latest test series.

That’s where our hero enters the story. David Donald is a 12-year-old orphan whose father died in the battle fields of France during the Great War. His mother drowned in a dam on the family farm, where David is now being raised by his maternal grandfather, George Baker.  George, a “Scottish calvinist”, was once a spin bowler for the state side, and is now training his grandson in the fine art of spin bowling.

David, who has especially long fingers, has a real talent for it, particularly as he seems able to use finger spin and wrist spin techniques when delivering the ball. (Here’s your first cricket lesson: spin bowlers usually use one of these techniques, not both.) In fact, David is so impressive as a spin bowler that he catches the eye of the Australian Cricket Board, and — you guessed it — he becomes the youngest ever member of the national team.

Initially, I thought the story was preposterous (a kid who plays Test cricket at international level!!), but it somehow works because of Elliott’s understated writing style. On the surface this is a simple tale about one boy’s rise to national hero. But underneath there’s a whole lot more going on about the Australian psyche, the way men relate to one another and the redemptive power of sport to cheer up a nation.

Because Spinner is told in the third person, we get an overview of events to which David is not privy. He’s a child after all and much of what happens goes over his head.

And while he’s being ferried around the country in the care of his Uncle Michael, we see that Michael is a spinner of a different variety. He’s what Australians would call a bullshit artist, a man who likes to spin the truth in order to earn a bob or two. When David begins to understand that his uncle is not all that he seems, you really feel his pain — and bewilderment.

While Spinner is fiction, Elliott has clearly based some of the characters on real cricketing heroes from the past and simply changed their names. The fun, if you are a cricket aficionado, is trying to work out who’s a thinly veiled version of who. (I spotted English cricketer Douglas Jardine from the 1932-33 Bodyline series for a start.) It’s also worth reading to try and spot which ball delivered by David Donald is based on Shane Warne’s “ball of the century”.

If you don’t know anything about cricket there is a useful glossary of terms at the back, along with a diagram explaining field positions.

As a love letter to the game of cricket Elliott has certainly hit a six!

Spinner is aimed at a younger audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The book is not available outside of Australia, but you can order the paperback direct from Fremantle Press website or purchase an digital version from

UPDATE: According to the publisher, who kindly left a comment below, the book is now available to British readers via and American readers via the Independent Publishers Group website.

Australia, Author, Book review, Deborah Forster, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Book of Emmett’ by Deborah Forster


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 304 pages; 2010.

Deborah Forster is a long-time journalist and first-time novelist based in Melbourne, Australia. The Book of Emmett first came to my attention via its long-listing (and subsequent short-listing) for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. When I saw a very positive review of it on Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog I was convinced I needed to read it.

The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family.

Written in the present tense and using a third person narrative, it opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. It’s one of those scorching summer days (40.4 degrees) and everyone’s fanning the “slow thick air around their hot faces with funeral programs”. Emmett’s widow, Ann, is there along with her four adult children: Rob, Louisa, Peter and Jessie. From the outset we learn that the loss of their father isn’t the devastating blow one might expect:

In the moment of being held by Peter there in the yard at Gilberts [the funeral home], Louisa understands this as the purest relationship she will ever have. Brothers and sisters want nothing from you. They know who you are and they love you anyway. These are the ones who know and in the war against Emmett, they’d been in the trenches with her.

But we also learn that Emmett, while loathed and feared by those closest to him, is a rather complicated character. He never knew his own father, was dumped by his mother and was raised in an orphanage. Despite a lack of education, he nursed a love of the arts, particularly literature and even ballet, and “kept diaries on and off for most of his life”, stating at the age of 42 that if he were to die he didn’t want “any mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing hypocrite talking bullshit about me”.

“I just want my mob and I want them to cry for me. Cry for me, but not too much and, please, I ask you all now to forgive me for doing some of the wrong things I did. Remember me and laugh about the funny times. Laugh about me. Laugh at me. Doesn’t matter. Remember, I was nothing but a drunken old bum.”

The rest of the book charts the Brown’s lives from the late 1960s to the present day. Through a succession of vignettes, it details the brutal and miserable childhoods of Rob, Louisa, Jessie and Peter, including the death of Peter’s twin, Daniel. The narrative is quite fast-paced so it doesn’t take long before they’ve grown up and are forging their own Emmett-free lives. And yet despite their luck at emerging physically unscathed from their father’s unpredictable heavy-handed temper, their difficult upbringing hangs around their neck like a weight they can never quite escape. It seems particularly telling that Rob proclaims he will never have children because he does not want to turn into his father.

It’s also interesting to see how their relationship with Emmett develops and changes over time, how they begin to see him in a different light when he gets old and sick. Forster charts the inner turmoil of each of Emmett’s children superbly, showing how their feelings of pity for their father cannot be reconciled with the abuse they suffered at his hands when they were too young to defend themselves.

And while all this might sound like quite an unrelenting misery memoir, for want of a better description, it is never dreary, helped in part by a dry sense of humour. In fact, Forster has such an acute sense of people’s inner dialogue that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their lives, to feel their pains and fears and little triumphs as if you were experiencing them yourself. What I most admired was the complete lack of sentimentality in the story, and yet I found it a profoundly affecting read. You feel for these characters, every last one of them, including Emmett, which is surprising given how easily he could have been reduced to a mere caricature.

I suspect that I particularly liked this book because of its Australian flavour. Lisa has already pointed out in her review that Forster hasn’t shied away from using Australian idioms and peopling it with footy players and politicians no self-respecting Melburnian could fail to identify. But this is not your typical Australian bush setting: this is a rough-and-ready Western suburb of Melbourne, the same one where my father was educated, and there are various references to Footscray High (where he went to school), the Western Oval and Australian Rules football legend Ted Whitten (with whom I share a birthday — my dad was pretty pleased about that) that made me nod in recognition.

If nothing else The Book of Emmett is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be (an outdated version) of a “fair dinkum Aussie patriarch”, wanting to do the best by his family but falling short because of his weakness for booze, gambling and the use of his fists. I’ll be intrigued to see how it fares when the Miles Franklin Award is announced next month.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 204 pages; 2009.

It didn’t take long for me to discover my first five-star novel for 2010, but with Sonya Hartnett‘s beautiful melancholy Of A Boy I struck unexpected gold. I cannot begin to describe how incredibly affecting I found this short novel to be. There’s something about the slow pacing of this story that gets under the skin and leaves you thinking about it days afterwards. Indeed, it’s been two weeks since I finished Of A Boy and I’m still wondering about nine-year-old Adrian and all that happened to him.

The book is set in 1977 and tells the story of Adrian McPhee, who’s been abandoned by his parents and is now living with his grandmother and his drop-out uncle, Rory, in an undefined suburb in Australia. He is a shy, timid boy, frightened of almost everything, including “quicksand, tidal waves, fire, monsters, cupboards, being forgotten and going astray”. The all-pervasive fear is not helped by the recent disappearance of three young children from a nearby neighbourhood (highly reminiscent of the real-life Beaumont case), which fills the news pages and has teachers and parents on edge.

When a strange new family moves in across the road, Adrian can’t help wondering if the three children — Nicole, Joely and Giles — are the three children who went out for ice-cream and never came home. When he befriends them his small, closeted and lonely world begins to open up…

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence. I found the following passage, towards the end of the book, particularly heart-breaking:

He wasn’t a gregarious boy, he couldn’t push his way into any existing group of friends; he felt that, having nothing to offer, they would recognise him as a parasite and treat him with contempt. The reason he felt he had nothing to offer was that, in his heart, he knew he was dull. Nothing about him gave him value: he was ordinary and dull. But at least he was smart enough to know it: he wouldn’t become one of those wretches who lurk the perimeters, who live the hideous role of whipping-boy, lackey, buffoon. He exiled himself ruthlessly, which at least was dignified. He could not be injured if he shielded himself from harm.
But school is a terrible place for a rejected child. The ringing of the lunchtime bell was enough to cool his blood; the lunch hour seemed an endless desert of time. He didn’t complain or resist going to school but every day he haunted the gates, hoping against hope that his mother would walk by, discover him, and carry him home.

He is a beautifully drawn character, as is his grandmother, the headstrong Beattie, who doesn’t really want him but feels obliged to take over where her own daughter left off. She moans that he rules her days, that she hasn’t the energy to look after him. “My mothering days are done,” she claims.

“I can’t go anywhere. I can’t forget myself – I’ve got to be here every three-thirty, collecting him from school. I get a holiday only when he does. I’ve got to cook a decent meal for him every night, so he doesn’t waste away. He needs cleaning, clothing, carting here and there. It’s hard work, rearing a child. It’s not work for the old.”

Similarly, Uncle Rory is a brilliantly realistic character: a 25-year-old man living with the guilt of a horrendous car accident that left his best mate a vegetable. When most everyone else has written off Rory, it’s clear that he has a lot to offer his young nephew. The scenes between the two of them are very touching.

I hesitate to draw comparisons with other novels, because this one is unique, but it did remind me very much of Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, particularly in its depiction of childhood, albeit it in different parts of the country in different eras. But there’s something about the melancholy of the stories that are achingly familiar.

Not surprisingly, Of A Boy has garnered awards and nominations aplenty. It won the 2003 The Age Book of the Year and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, the 2003 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It was longlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction.

For British and American readers looking to secure a copy of Hartnett’s novel, please be advised that it has been published under a completely different name: What the Birds See.

Author, Book review, England, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Giving up the Ghost’ by Hilary Mantel


Nonfiction – paperback; HarperPerennial; 252 pages; 2004.

Hilary Mantel is an award-winning British author with whom I only have a passing acquaintance. I read her last novel, Beyond Black, in early 2006 and very much enjoyed its dark inventiveness, especially her quirky characters and the descriptions of a rather dull and dreary suburban England populated by ghosts.

Giving up the Ghost is her much-lauded memoir, released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and how, having read it, I can see many aspects of her character in Beyond Black‘s narrator, Alison Hart, an overweight psychic. Mantel never goes into specifics, but it’s clear that she has some psychic tendencies, too. On the first page of her memoir, she claims to have seen her stepfather’s ghost. “I am not perturbed,” she writes. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there.”

The book is peppered with other unusual claims, including her sighting of an undefined “creature” in the back garden when she was seven that “has wrapped a strangling hand around my life, and I don’t know how, or what it was”.

There are large gaps in her life’s account, and the narrative, while largely chronological, does jump around a bit. “But in this book I didn’t aim to tell the story of my life,” she writes in the afterword, “just the story of two aspects of it, my childhood and my own childlessness. It was never meant to be the whole story. Stories are never whole.”

A tale of two halves

This is a good summation of Giving up the Ghost, which can, effectively, be broken into two halves: the first tells of her childhood growing up in a working-class Catholic family in the grim suburb of Hadfield in Manchester in the 1950s; the second of her rather traumatic adulthood filled with a string of misdiagnosed illnesses which render her unable to have children.

By turns the book is funny and sad; it’s often witty but never mawkish, and I came away from it feeling that Mantel had led a very tough but somehow inspirational life.

From the outset Mantel’s childhood was riddled with family secrets — her father disappeared; her mother moved her lover into the house and then moved suburbs to avoid a community scandal — that caused her to live in an “emotional labyrinth”. Even when she escaped the family home and moved to London to begin her university law course, the dark ghosts of the past would not let her go…

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander around my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

Candid writing

Written in a clear-eyed prose style, it is, at times, so honest as to be painful. Mantel admits that she struggles to write much of it. “Once you have learned the habits of secrecy, they aren’t so easy to give up,” she confesses mid-way through the book.

She is particularly frank about her various illnesses, which lead to her stacking on weight and “accumulating an anger that would rip a roof off”. And the ways in which she comes to terms with her infertility are also painfully candid, the hurt seemingly oozing off the page.

This is not a particularly cheerful read, but it is an inspirational one about chasing dreams, seeking answers and forging your own path in life. I loved it and now that I know more about Hilary Mantel’s life I hope to read more of her fiction very soon.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Vivisector’ by Patrick White


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 617 pages; 1989.

First published in 1970, The Vivisector by Patrick White details the life of Hurtle Duffield, an Australian artist, from a four-year-old up until his death as an elderly man living as a recluse in Sydney with Rhoda, his hunch-backed step-sister.

A clever, all-knowing kind of boy, Hurtle shows early signs of creativity, drawing on walls and being attracted to old paintings and leather-bound books. His poverty-stricken parents — a laundry woman and a bottle collector — are convinced his intelligence mark him out as a genius and sell him to a wealthy family in the hope he will get the education he deserves.

Thanks to the nouveau-rich Courtneys he enjoys an oh-so comfortable lifestyle and gets to travel abroad.

But there is a part of Hurtle that cannot engage with people on any emotional level — perhaps because he sees himself as a loner that doesn’t fit in  — and as a young adult cuts himself off from his step-family, finding comfort in the life of a struggling artist.

Later, with the help of a mysterious benefactor, he becomes a comfortably rich artist, but he never seems to take any consolation in his success. In fact, he seems almost embarrassed by his accomplishments, as if it’s something shameful to hide away.

All the while he carries on a series of failed love affairs, using women as muses to inspire his painting.  He never invests much of himself into these relationships until, at the ripe old age of 55, he falls in love with a teenage girl — it is this Lolita-like relationship that serves to shape the rest of his creative life.

I read The Vivisector as part of the Patrick White Readers’ Group and enjoyed the stimulus of a reading schedule and regular discussions. The book deals with some big themes, including sex, art, identity, love and how difficult it can be to seek balance in our creative and personal lives.

Overall I found it surprisingly readable — perhaps because of its rather old-fashioned straightforward narrative — despite the fact the main character is highly sexed, not particularly likable and emotionally distant.

The early chapters feature some of the most moving and articulate descriptions of childhood that I have ever read, and for that reason alone The Vivisector is worth exploring.

But the momentum in these early chapters is not sustained throughout the rest of the book. Some of the chapters border on being too languid for their own good. This is not so much a reflection of the writing style, which is rich and evocative, but of the characters, which are tedious and boring, and the lack of any sustained plot.

Fortunately, the final chapters, which pick up the thread of Hurtle’s previous life, inject a bit more vigour into the storyline. I was truly sorry when I came to the last page as I had grown to love this old curmudgeonly character and his funny, crude ways.

Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2006.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s Tatty has to be one of the most entertaining, if somewhat harrowing, books I have read about childhood in a long time and I quickly devoured it in the space of 24 hours.

Reminiscent of Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it tells the story of a young girl growing up in Dublin, spanning the years 1964 to 1974.

Tatty, who acquired her name as an abbreviation of “tell-tale-tattler”, is a lonely little girl who makes up stories to gain attention. But because she is the apple of her father’s eye, this “alliance” incurs the wrath of her quick-tempered and cruel mother.

Narrated by Tatty, we get shocking but brutally honest glimpses of the unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father, who lives to bet on the horses, and her unhappy mother, who is suffering (undiagnosed) depression and drowning her sorrows in booze.

Caught in the middle of this maelstrom are Tatty and her five siblings, the oldest of which is mentally handicapped. When Tatty escapes to boarding school, it seems like she may be protected from the fallout of her family’s disintegration, but if anything, it just makes the differences between her safe, secure life at school and the confused, disturbed one at home all that more apparent — and difficult to deal with.

The beauty of this story is Dwyer Hickey’s ability to get inside the head of a little girl. Tatty’s voice is so real, so authentic you feel as if she is a living, breathing being that you long to protect.

The writing deftly treads a fine line between tragedy and comedy. It’s by no means sappy or sentimental, but it is incredibly moving and, at times, tear-inducing.

I loved this book so much that when I came to the last page I felt totally bereft, not because the ending was unexpected (it wasn’t), but because I had grown to know Tatty so well I feared for her future and didn’t want to leave her behind.