Australia, Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Rick Morton, Setting, University of Melbourne Press

‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

Non-fiction – paperback; University of Melbourne Press; 191 pages; 2018.

Journalist Rick Morton exposes the myth that Australia is an egalitarian society in his brutally honest memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt.

Morton, a social affairs writer for The Australian, writes about his upbringing on a remote cattle station in the Queensland outback, his coming out as a gay man and his subsequent struggle to make a name for himself in a profession dominated by the middle-classes. Dotted along the way we learn about his older brother’s drug problems, his sister’s love of guns and hunting and traditional outback life, and his mother’s ongoing efforts to try to raise herself above the poverty line.

He structures his book thematically, rather than chronologically, and in doing so highlights a host of important issues including poverty and privilege, the class system, mental health, drug addiction, domestic violence, homophobia and intergenerational trauma.

But this is also a story about family and how the forces within and outwith can shape and test and impact familial units. And very often it is the personalities within those families that have the most influence — and not always in a good way.

Toxic relationships

Morton explains how his family’s world was dominated by his paternal grandfather’s toxic masculinity, from which there was no escape — even with all that space in the outback. A physically abusive man — “My father was five when his own dad threw him into a wall and ruptured his spleen” — his reign of terror had long-lasting repercussions on the family. It was a cycle Morton did not want to repeat.

Morton’s own father — who clearly lacked emotional resilience, no doubt through his own troubled upbringing — deserted the family when Morton’s older brother suffered terrible burns in a fire as a young boy. Morton and his siblings (he has a younger sister, too) were raised by his now single mother, a woman with next to no education and little experience of the world beyond the farm. The book reads very much as a tribute to her resilience and compassion and love.

Crucially, however, our story is also that of a mother who tried to love enough for the failures of everyone around her. This is a foray into an Australia on the outside of public consciousness, one whose egalitarian core is ruptured by ordeals of illness and poverty, and people who have never been taught how to be vulnerable and, in doing so, make misery wherever they go.

There’s no doubt that One Hundred Years of Dirt deals with some heavy topics, but it’s written in an engaging and entertaining manner.

Initially, I found the structure a bit odd, because the narrative is not straightforward, but once I realised the book was shaped around thematic chapters, many of which could be read as standalone essays, it began to resonate — and hit home.

Clearly written from a place of anger, the book posits some vital questions about wealth distribution, social justice, poverty and privilege. Read between the lines and it’s a call to level the playing field, to change the way we think about welfare, to give people opportunities based on merit not money, to diversify our board rooms and newsrooms and political chambers so that we can break down the often invisible institutional barriers currently in place.

One Hundred Years of Dirt is a truly compelling read and a brilliant example of showing how personal experience is shaped by the larger social and political structures that make up modern-day Australia. It should be required reading for politicians, policymakers and educators everywhere.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Zadie Smith

‘NW’ by Zadie Smith

Nw

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 295 pages; 2012.

Sometimes when I’ve finished reading a book and I express an opinion about it, I find myself completely at odds with everyone else. Zadie Smith’s NW is a case in point.

This book — Smith’s fourth novel — is widely lauded and regarded as her finest work. Everyone I follow on Twitter seems to love it. But I struggled with it and found it a chore to read — in fact, I only forced myself to finish it because it had been chosen for my book group and I wanted to be able to take part in the discussion. If I had chosen the novel of my own accord I doubt I would have continued beyond the first chapter.

Fortunately, it’s the kind of novel that actually benefits from discussion, because after my book group meeting I found myself warming to it a bit more than I had first thought, but that doesn’t mean to say I liked NW; I didn’t.

North-west London setting

The story is set in the London postcode of NW, an impoverished part north of the river, and focuses on four characters — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — who grew up on the same council estate and are now trying to make their way as 30-something adults.

It mainly revolves around Leah and Keisha, who were once best friends but now live lives that couldn’t be more different. Leah, a white Irish girl, has married an exotic-looking black French/Algerian — the kind of man all her black colleagues lust after — and is feeling the pressure of beginning a family she doesn’t yet want, probably because she  rails against the idea of bringing up a child in the same circumstances in which she was raised; while Keisha, who has reinvented herself as Natalie, is a successful black barrister with two children but finds married life so dull she has kinky sex with other couples she tracks down on the internet.

Meanwhile, Nathan, the good-looking boy Leah had a crush on at school, is living on the streets and illegally reselling tube tickets to scrape together a bit of money to feed his crack habit. Felix, the fourth character, is a bit of a red herring — he’s not known to Leah or Keisha — but his world closely orbits their’s and, eventually, collides with Nathan’s.

An experimental novel

In most of the reviews I’ve looked at online, NW has been billed as “experimental”. I guess that’s a fair way of describing the structure, which is divided into four parts. The prose style is stylistically different in each of those four parts. I found the first section “Visitation”, which is Leah’s story, so choppy and disjointed — deliberately mirroring the character’s own thought patterns — that it felt impossible to get a handle on.

Felix’s story, told in the second part, “guest”, was much easier to read, but I wasn’t sure how it was linked to the rest of the narrative, because it’s mainly set in W1. (Though Smith does tie it back right at the end, by which time it’s easy to have forgotten who Felix was.)

The most successful part, entitled “Host”, tells Keisha’s story and her changing friendship with Leah: it was easy-to-read, engaging, witty in places, sad in others, but filled with an energy and restlessness that seemed to match the personality of the character, keen to escape her black Pentecostal roots and climb the social and career ladder.

Disjointed and meandering

So why didn’t I like this book? It’s hard to pinpoint. It has some obvious strengths: the characterisation is superb and Smith expertly captures the sounds and smells and sights of this part of London (although there’s a tendency to overdo it in places). But I thought the narrative was disjointed and meandering, and each new section felt like it had been written as part of a creative writing exercise. It doesn’t seem to gel together as one cohesive whole — though perhaps that’s the point? — and it often got too bogged down in unnecessary detail.

The view of the world — or, at least, of Willesden — it presents is also unrelentingly bleak. This is a London filled with people who are cruel, mean-spirited, manipulative, violent, suspicious and unkind, where your birthplace dictates the life you must lead, with little chance to better yourself or your circumstances. As Philip Hensher points out in this review in The Telegraph, “it is angry about injustice, and overwhelmingly interested in the lost talent, the resources lost in an abandoned generation”. This adds up to a pretty damning portrait of London (and British) life, but if that was Smith’s message, then she’s undoubtedly succeeded…

So while there’s a lot to unpick in this novel — politically, socially, morally and “novelistically” —  it wasn’t really for me. You may beg to differ.

To see what other bloggers thought of it, please see the (mixed) reviews at ANZLitLovers, KevinfromCanada,  Asylum and Annabel’s House of Books.

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

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton

Eyrie_UKedition

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

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

A tale about a burnt out man

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

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

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

Returning to life

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

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

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

Richly layered read

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

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

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

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

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

A comic touch

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

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

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

An interview with the author

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

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

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

Animal People

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

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

A day in the life

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

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

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

Trying to fit in

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big themes, but lots of humour

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda-UKcover

Fiction – paperback; Tuskar Rock Press; 513 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas hit the big time with his best-selling novel The Slap in 2008. It won the ALS Gold Medal (2008), the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book (2009) and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (2009). It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009) and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2010). It was also adapted for television as an eight-part series (which, by the way, I highly recommend — by far the best thing on TV in 2011).

But while it won plenty of praise and sold by the truckload, it also attracted much controversy — critics complained about the language (too raw), the sex (too filthy) and the characters (unlikeable). Some — mainly British reviewers — claimed it was misogynistic. Me? I loved it. Which is why I was so looking forward to his new novel, Barracuda, which has just been published in the UK.

I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. This is another highly readable, totally addictive, octane-fuelled story that addresses big themes — what it is to be good, what it is to be successful, love, redemption and social mobility  — and isn’t afraid to be in your face about it.

Swimming talent

The story follows Danny Kelly, who acquires the nickname “Barracuda” because of his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool. This talent offers Danny the chance to escape his working class roots. Not only does it earn him a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the sport, he could end up on the Australian swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But at his first big championship swim meet he blows it — and comes fifth. Where others might have learnt a valuable lesson and become even more determined to achieve their Olympic dream, Danny never quite recovers from the shock of losing. Even though he has the physical ability to be an elite swimmer, he lacks the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with this setback. And sadly, this sets in motion a whole chain of events which will haunt Danny for the rest of his life.

And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.
So I run, my strides enormous, not caring who I crash into, who I hurt. I run so fast that I am hurting the ground as I pound it. I run so fast that I am fire. But no matter how fast I run, the Devil is there beside me. The Devil is in me. I am a larva and that which is emerging is something vile, something uglier that what existed before.

Two narrative threads

When the story opens we meet Danny long after that swimming “failure”. In fact, he’s so loathe to remember his swimming past that he refuses to go near water. He’s reinvented himself as a carer helping injured people during their rehabilitiation, and he’s living on the other side of the world, in Glasgow, Scotland, with his male lover, Clyde. But Danny has a secret — and he knows that at some point he’s going to have to come clean and tell his boyfriend because it could scupper his plan to stay in the UK permanently.

From there the book splits into two distinct narratives: one that moves backwards in time, tracing Danny’s new life in Scotland to his time as a teenage swim sensation; and the other that moves forwards in time, following his story from teenage swim sensation to potential Scottish immigrant. It’s a device that works well, because it provides light and shade to Danny’s story — his successes and failures, his struggle to be good against his “natural” inclination to be bad — and lets you see what impact certain events have on his later life. And it also provides just the right amount of narrative tension to keep you moving the pages — what, for instance, is that secret he’s so carefully guarding in Scotland? The shock of it, I must say, left me slightly stunned.

Indeed, there’s many revelations in this book that left me stunned. It’s a thought-provoking read — as ever, the language is raw and often crude (the nickname that Danny gives his college is but one example) and the sex is filthy (you have been warned) — but it explores so many interesting themes and issues that it’s impossible not to like. It feels utterly contemporary, but by the same token, the story, of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over into a more affluent social class, could have been lifted from a 19th century novel.

Life in Australia

As an expat-Australian reading this book, I identified with so much of the social commentary, especially the no-holds barred criticisms of Australia, that I had to stop myself from underlining whole pages for fear I’d end up scribbling over the entire book. I particularly loved this passage, which comes out of the mouth of Clyde, a Scotsman who sums up life in Australia perfectly (forgive the cursive language, which is Tsiolkas’ not mine):

“You all think you are so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met. You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you’re anti-authoritarian but all there is here is rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there, don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human. You’re all so scared of dying you can’t let yourselves live — fuck that: we’re human, we die, that’s part of life. That’s just life.”

I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m not sure everyone would agree with me, but sometimes you have to leave your country to understand it, and reading Barracuda made me feel so much better about many of the things that have bugged me for a decade or more.

All in all, this is a hugely powerful read, not just about sporting achievement and striving to be the best at what you choose to do, but of coming to terms with your own frailties and flaws, of learning to appreciate your family, friends and loved ones, and being prepared to let go of the past in order to move into the future. There’s a lot of love, forgiveness, redemption and atonement in this novel. It’s ambitious — in structure and in subject — but it succeeds, because Tsiolkas forgoes the literary flourishes and makes it a truly entertaining and accessible read — and that, to me, is what the very best fiction should be all about.

And finally…

As an aside, I do recommend that you listen to this You Wrote the Book podcast — a 31-minute interview with Christos Tsiolkas — by my mate, Simon Savidge, which covers Barracuda indepth.

And in the interests of transparency, I should point out I met the author on Monday night at his UK book launch — a kinder, more lovelier person you could not meet. I had a wonderful chat to him (about Australian society — what else?) on the walk to a Bloomsbury restaurant, where a celebratory dinner was held with his publishing posse and a whole bunch of people from the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Festival of the Arts to which I’d kindly been invited. That meeting and meal has not influenced this review; I loved the book even before I had the good fortune to meet the man who penned it.

Australia, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Martin Boyd, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Cardboard Crown’ by Martin Boyd

Cardboard-crown

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown is the first part of a quartet exploring the secret history of an  upper-class Anglo-Australian family.

It’s an amazingly vivid and absorbing saga supposedly based on Boyd’s own family —  in his author’s note he claims the plot is factual, but “the characters and certain episodes are fictitious”.

Unsurprisingly, for a book that is so gripping and entertaining, it became a bestseller in the UK when it was first published in 1952. But Australian audiences didn’t agree. It wasn’t until it was reprinted almost 20 years later, in 1971, that it garnered critical acclaim in Boyd’s homeland. Now it has been reissued again, this time by Text Classics, for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.

A story set in England and Australia

The story revolves around the independently wealthy Alice Verso, whose marriage to Austin Langton forges a dynasty that spans two continents. But at the heart of this alliance lies a shocking secret kept hidden from the world for three generations.

The secret is discovered by Alice’s grandson, Guy Langton, some 50 years after her death. Guy, who narrates the novel, finds her diaries in the Melbourne home he has inherited. By going through the diaries and talking to his uncle and a cousin about the family’s history and mythology, he is able to piece together his grandmother’s amazingly privileged if somewhat tragic life.

The tale he tells swings between England and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the Langton family leads two very different lives depending on which country they happen to be living in.

A rootless existence

In Australia, the Langtons are well regarded and socially pre-eminent with connections in all the right places, and their newly built home, in native bushland 30 miles outside of Melbourne, becomes a home away from home for a vast array of family and friends.  In England, they have less social standing, but life is gentler and more cultured, and their surroundings at Waterpark, the traditional family home, are far more pleasant with grand gardens and plenty of land upon which to go hunting. England also has the benefit of being much closer to continental Europe, specifically France and Italy, where the family can experience high culture, art and travel. (I should point out that quite a bit of this novel is set in Rome.)

But despite having the good fortune to be able to reside on either side of the world as and when they feel like it, there is a downside to this inability to put down permanent roots. Alice, for instance, never feels truly at home in either country and a restlessness develops that can not be cast aside. This is how Guy describes the dilemma:

A Cornishman once told me that when he was a boy he caught a seagull, and clipped its wing so that it could not fly away. After a while the feathers grew and he forgot to clip them again. It flew back to its companions who killed it. In its captivity it had acquired some human taint which they sensed was hostile. My family were captive seagulls, both at Waterpark, and even more, as time went on, in Australia.

A story about love, money and class

I will admit that it took me a little time to get into this story. I think that’s largely because it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done and what appears to be a complicated cast list to get your head around. But once I got into the nub of the story — Alice’s marriage to Austen — things really took off and I found myself completely hooked on this story about love and money and class on two sides of the world.

It’s quite witty in places and terribly sad in others. Indeed, the narrative is full of light and shade, a reflection, perhaps, of the two very different countries in which the book is set.

But what I liked and appreciated most was the way in which Boyd portrays Alice as a woman before her time — a matriarch with plenty of money who did not flaunt her riches but used her wealth to keep family and friends in comfortable circumstances. And while she seemed to always put others before herself, she was not afraid to do her own thing and to forge her own path even if that meant upsetting social conventions of the time.

As an exploration of Melbourne’s colonial past and Australia’s early history, The Cardboard Crown is a fascinating read. But what this book really excels at is capturing that terrible sense of dislocation when you’re never quite sure which country to call home.

Note that the three other books in the Langton Quartet are A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing. All but the latter have been republished by Text Classics. Do visit the publisher’s website for ordering information.

To read about the author’s extraordinary life (and family) check out the entry on Wikipedia.

Author, Book review, Brazil, Fiction, James Scudamore, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Heliopolis’ by James Scudamore

Heliopolis

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 288 pages; 2010.

Is there a word for the male equivalent of sassy? If so, it should definitely apply to James Scudamore’s Heliopolis, an easy-to-read black comedy with a hard-hitting edge, that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Adopted by a very rich man

The story is set in São Paulo, Brazil, a violent city split into two very distinct classes: the rich, who live in high-rise apartments and commute by helicopter, and the poor, who live in favelas and shanty towns, and provide manual labour and unskilled services for the wealthy.

Into this sharply divided society we meet our narrator, 27-year-old Ludo, who has a rather cosseted, if somewhat vacuous, job at a PR/advertising agency in the heart of the city. But Ludo, who wants for nothing, is lucky to be in his current position.

As a child, he was plucked from a favela with his mother and given a new life by a rich man, Zé Fischer Carnicelli (“a supermarketeer with political aspirations”), and his English wife, Rebecca. Ludo was raised with Zé and Rebecca’s only child, Melissa, while his mother became their cook at the farm — “palm hearts, bananas and a small Brahma beef herd” — a luxury retreat used by Zé on the weekends.

Look what can happen in a generation: my mother lived in a flimsy shack, and I have my own place and car, and I can speak and read and write better than most of the playboys you’ll meet, because I paid attention in school. But this is no normal case study. What happened to me does not happen. And unless you’re extremely good with a football, it definitely does not happen if you are male.

When the book opens we discover that Ludo is having an incestuous affair with his “adopted” sister Melissa, who is a lifestyle journalist (“she only seems to write about the kind of lifestyle that very few — herself among them — can afford”). Melissa lives in an extravagant penthouse suite with her husband, Ernesto, an anthropologist, who is absent for long periods doing research for his doctorate. When Ludo begins receiving anonymous and abusive voice messages on his phone at work, he suspects Ernesto is the culprit.

But then life takes on an even more dangerous twist when Ludo is given a dubious work assignment that takes him back to the favela from which he has turned his back.

Fast-paced narrative

The central core of the novel — and what makes it work as a page turner — is the very real danger that Ludo feels as the story progresses. He may have been rescued by Zé, who “hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years”, but he is still very much aware of what life is like in the favelas — desperate, difficult and violent.

Indeed, the book paints a far from flattering portrait of São Paulo, a city of 20 million people, where life is cheap and “nothing gets in the way of commerce”.

The metropolis as a place of menace, where people are seemingly indifferent to danger and death, is evident from the start of the novel, when Ludo has a run in with a boy who is later shot by a security guard.

The women scream. The victim screams. The cars on the flyover continue
to lurch and blare. Just one more frenzied city drama in a thousand, to
be forgotten and absorbed into the oozing traffic, and perhaps mentioned
in passing over lunch. […] When the guard gets out his phone to call
the police, I look at the pink car-park ticket in my hand and realise
there’s nothing more I can do but get to work. I’m late enough as it is.

On the whole, Heliopolis is a fast-paced, often comedic read that delves into thriller territory. It also explores several intriguing themes that provide the book with some intellectual weight — the importance of food within cultures and classes, for instance, and the glaring gap between the rich and the poor.

I found it entertaining and illuminating, and I loved Ludo’s engaging, often smug, occasionally contrite voice. My thanks to KevinfromCanada for the recommendation.

Australia, Author, Book review, David Malouf, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Fly Away Peter’ by David Malouf

Fly-away-peter

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 142 pages; 1999.

David Malouf is a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist and poet from Australia. Fly Away Peter, his third novel, netted him The Age Book of the Year in 1982 and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1983.

A Great War novel

It is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.

When Fly Away Peter opens it is 1914. Jim Saddler, a 20-year-old man from southern Queensland, devotes his time to watching birds in the estuary and swampland near the home he shares with the father he does not like very much.

One day he meets the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther, a rich farmer not much older than himself, who employees Jim to record the coming and going of the birds — both native and migratory species — as part of his plan to create a sanctuary.

A little later Jim befriends an older English woman called Imogen Harcourt, whom he sees in the “sanctuary” taking bird photographs which she sends to a London magazine. These photographs also accompany the long list of birds that Jim transcribes into a special book using his “best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down”.

Trio of characters

This trio of characters come from vastly different backgrounds — Miss Harcourt is an English immigrant who lives alone, Australian-born Ashley was educated in England’s finest schools, Jim has never left Queensland — and yet they are united by their mutual love of birds and the natural world.

When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.

But their idyllic existence comes to an end when war erupts in Europe and both men decide to sign up — Jim goes to Salisbury, England, to be trained; Ashley is an officer in a different division. It is here, on the battlefields of the Western Front, that Malouf’s extraordinary novel really comes into its own.

The mud and the trenches

His gut-wrenching descriptions of the mud and the trenches and the fear of going over the top are eloquent and moving, as is his depiction of the friendships, and occasional personal hostilities, formed on the front line.

There is one particularly god-awful scene in which Jim loses his best friend in the platoon, a larrikin called Clancy, that is more horrifying and bone-chilling than anything I’ve ever read about the Great War.

But the great strength of Fly Away Peter is the way in which Malouf not only describes how war is a machine, spitting out more and more young men who will die horrible deaths far from home, but also the way in which he contrasts the fighting in the trenches while the residents of Armentières are getting on with their day-to-day lives:

Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that lead to the war.

Explores Australian myths

It’s easy to see why the novel is a set text in many Australian schools. It explores the myth of the Australian soldier and the ANZAC spirit, and contrasts the horror of war with the beauty — and peace — of the natural world. It shows how an appreciation and respect for nature is a great leveller, crossing the boundaries of race, class and experience. And the text is rich with symbols, not least the migratory birds which represent Jim’s “flight” to the other side of the world.

But it is the poignancy of the ending, in which Miss Harcourt stands on the beach and reflects that life continues to move on — “Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held” — that elevates this novel from excellent to exceptional.

I haven’t felt so devastated by a First World War novel since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And going by how much I loved and adored those novels, I don’t make this statement lightly…

Author, Book review, England, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Stuart Maconie, travel

‘Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North’ by Stuart Maconie

Pies_prejudice

Non-fiction – paperback; Ebury Press; 368 pages; 2008. 

The North-South divide in Great Britain is the subject of this rather tongue-in-cheek travelogue by Northern journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie.

For non-Brits, the divide is not an exact line, but one which refers to the economic and cultural differences between southern England and the rest of the country, including Scotland. It involves many stereotypes, including the belief that Northerners are thick and Southerners are posh. Or, as Maconie, a Northerner transplanted to the South, puts it:

Good or bad, ‘the north’ means something to all English people wherever they hail from. To people from London — cheery costermonger, cravated fop or Shoreditch-based web designer on stupid scooter alike — it means desolation, arctic temperatures, mushy peas, a cultural wasteland with limited shopping opportunities and populated by aggressive trolls. To northerners it means home, truth, beauty, valour, romance, warm and characterful people, real beer and decent chip shops. And in this we are undoubtedly biased, of course.

The enchantingly entitled Pies and Prejudice takes us on a wonderful tour of the North, with the erudite and charming Maconie as our host. Having watched Maconie on a many a TV show, I couldn’t help but hear his Wigan accent as I read this book, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. (Indeed, I hope that at some point he turns it into a documentary series, as it would make fascinating viewing.)

As one would expect from a journalist who champions pop music, the book is littered with musical references, such as this:

The Smiths’ songs drip, like an evening drizzle off the Moors, with references to Manchester and its environs. Rusholme, Strangeways, Southern Cemetery, Whalley Range, the Holy Name Church. Morrissey has a video called Hulmerist, a wry reference to his childhood home. In an early interview, he said of his artistic self, ‘I am forever chained to a disused railway line in Wigan’. While Thatcher, witchlike, cast the north into outer darkness, The Smiths’ songs illuminated it anew with northern light and fireworks. We loved them for it.

But it’s also clear that Maconie enjoys history and architecture and food, because these subjects are constantly referenced throughout as he makes his way across the country. Each chapter is littered with fascinating facts and figures and snippets of trivia, all delivered in the writer’s trademark witty prose style, which is rather reminiscent of Bill Bryson.

His greatest skill, however, is bringing rather drab places to life. He has a certain knack of saying so much in just a few sentences, lovely thumbnail portraits, if you will.

Where Bury Market excels, though, is food. In the new Fish Market you can gaze, slightly unnerved, at the dead, sightless eyes of row upon row of sea bass and snapper, mackerel and trout lying in state on funeral dais of crushed ice and parsley. The stalls are staffed by either blonde girls in full make-up who you just know are dying to get out that white coat and into their skimpy glad rags this weekend or cheery rubicund men holding up what look like conger eels and joshing in ribald style with housewives. All of them adhere to Maconie’s first law of market trade: cheeriness is proportional to the gruesome nature of the wares being handled. The grislier the fare, the gayer the banter.

By the time I got to the last page I felt bereft: it was that same kind of sad feeling one experiences when a much-enjoyed holiday draws to a close. Having learnt so much about the northern regions of England in Maconie’s company, I was itching to go out there and visit these places myself. Highly recommended, whether you are from North, South or somewhere else entirely!

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, TC Boyle, USA

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle

TortillaCurtain

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 355 pages; 1997.

So this particular Tom Coraghessan Boyle novel is my friend JB’s favourite novel of all time. I read it on the strength of his recommendation and knew, pretty much from the first line, that I was going to enjoy this critically acclaimed book. The writing is accomplished, the characterisation is superb, the plot is rivetting and the detail is like nothing I’ve ever read before, but it’s the moral message — without ever resorting to preaching or moralising — that elevates this book from the excellent to the extraordinary.

Set in America — California to be precise — the story is essentially about the haves and the have nots. There are two view points throughout, told in alternate chapters, which reveal the contrasts between the protectionist middle classes who live with a fortress mentality and the poverty-stricken illegal immigrants (from Mexico) who struggle to put food on their plate on a day-to-day basis despite the obvious and abundant wealth around them.

It all begins when Delaney Mossbacher, a stay-at-home house-husband who writes a naturalist column, knocks down a Mexican pedestrian, Candido, on a busy road near his home. Candido, shocked and unable to understand English, “refuses” any assistance offered by Delaney. Instead he accepts the $20 guilt money handed to him and limps off into the canyon he now calls “home” where his pregnant 17-year-old wife, America, awaits him.

The rest of the book follows the plight of Candido and America’s battle against deprivation, racism and the “law of the jungle”. Meanwhile, Delaney’s comfortable existence on a private estate is shaken by wild intruders – of both the human and animal kind – and his liberal left-wing ideas become slowly eroded because, when push comes to shove, all he wants to do is protect his family and his property.

The book, which moves along at an ultra-quick pace, is littered with ironies: Delaney’s upmarket estate comprising Spanish Mission-style houses has a Spanish name, Arroyo Blanco, but is out of bounds to anyone with a Spanish-sounding name; and Delaney loves the great outdoors and spends a lot of time hiking and camping, while Candido and America are forced to “camp” because they have nowhere else to go and can’t afford food let alone proper accommodation.

The contrasts between rich and poor are also stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be gobbled up by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the relative shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical assistance she so desparately needs during her pregnancy; and, as Kyra sips her coffee and washes “down her 12 separate vitamin and mineral supplements with half a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice” each morning, Candido and America are reduced to eating wild birds, and later someone’s pet cat, just to stay alive.

While all this might sound a bit heavy, Boyle has such a great writing style that you never feel as though you are being hit over the head with any IMPORTANT message. In fact I chuckled quite a lot when reading this book, mainly at the ridiculousness of Delaney’s actions and his wife’s (I couldn’t help associating Kyra with Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty) and the sheer pomposity, holier-than-thou attitude of Arroyo Blanco’s residents.

But be warned: admid the laughter there will also be tears. There are two particular incidents in The Tortilla Curtain which broke my heart, they are so gut-wrenchingly, painfully sad.

I *ADORED* this book, and while it hasn’t usurped my own favourite novel of all time it has come pretty damn close! If you are looking for an intelligent read then this is one you shouldn’t miss.