2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, England, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephanie Bishop, Tinder Press

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 304 pages; 2015.

Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It was recently longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, but did not make the cut, yet I found it a deeply moving story and one that I’m sure I will remember for a long time.

Looking for a new life

The story begins in England. It’s 1963, and Charlotte lives with her Anglo-Indian husband Henry and their two young daughters  in a cute, but damp, cottage in rural Cambridgeshire. But all is not well. Henry is restless — he’s sick of the endlessly wet English weather and their too-small home — while Charlotte is grieving for the loss of her earlier life as a painter now that she’s a new, energy-deprived mother.

So when a brochure arrives through the letterbox offering assisted passage for those seeking a new life in Australia (what are known as “£10 poms”), it looks like an opportunity to grab with both hands. Yet Charlotte takes a lot of convincing — she’s deeply connected to the countryside around her and doesn’t mind the damp — but eventually, in a kind of relentless wearing down of wills, agrees to go.

But their new life in Perth isn’t all it is cracked up to be. It’s hot. It’s lonely. There’s latent racism as the locals struggle to place Henry because his accent doesn’t match his skin colour. But in the initial few months they both make an effort to “give it a go”:

Habit is the only thing that can travel from one side of the world to the other and remain intact. He makes her morning cup of tea. She brings him her dinner. She lets him wash her back because he’s always washed her back, because such gestures involve a complex system of kindness and gratitude, assumed even when not deserved.

But as time moves on and nothing much changes, Charlotte makes it clear that she wants to return to England. She feels absolutely no affection for Australia:

It would make life easier to feel this — to feel real affection for this new place. It would make Henry happy. But she is afraid —without clear reason — that it would necessarily lessen her feelings for home. As if there were only so much affection,so much loyalty, to be portioned out. It is the same kind of fear, she realises, that she felt when pregnant with May. Would she have enough love for a second child? Would it mean giving up some of the love for her first? How mad that seems now — the foolishness of not seeing, not knowing, that such love simply doubles, triples, quadruples as required. Unless one refuses, of course — unless one resists.

But this is 1963. International travel of any kind is expensive and the couple cannot afford the boat ticket home. And Henry doesn’t want to go anyway: he likes the heat and the light, which reminds him of his childhood in India, and he’s relishing the chance to make his mark as a professor of literature. This creates new tensions in their marriage, for what Henry wants and what Charlotte wants are two entirely different things.

Evocative descriptions

This is very much a character driven novel rather than a plot-based one, but perhaps the best bit about it is the languid, sensual prose and the evocative descriptions of the natural world — whether of the fens of East Anglia, the rural fringes of Western Australia or the jungles of India. Bishop is very good at metaphor, too, and I loved this small passage which can only be a metaphor for Charlotte losing her husband:

That evening she watches Henry tend the roses. He has cured them of rust and mite and now they flourish and grow up past his waist. There is a breeze and the flowers sway. Henry is tall, his long arms reaching over to check the buds. In his blue shirt he is the same colour as the dusk. She watches him fade.

The emotions of a young woman wrestling with motherhood are beautifully evoked — and heartbreaking to read — and one can’t help but wonder whether Charlotte’s situation could be alleviated by a visit to her GP.  She’s clearly homesick, but she’s also raising two children without a support network upon which to fall and seems unable shake off her melancholy mood. She’s a little cold and stand offish, and isn’t the kind of character to which a reader warms, but her pain and anguish seem all too real. I couldn’t help but wonder whether her emotional distress was heightened by her inability to express herself in her usual way — through painting. When she does, eventually, take up the brush again it opens up a whole new world — and one that is not necessarily compatible with the one Henry has carved out for her.

It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, but there are some aspects of the novel towards the later stage that felt slightly implausible to me. Yet The Other Side of the World is a rather brilliant book that captures that sense of nostalgia and homesickness that every emigrant feels. It’s a quietly devastating read about a young married couple trying to find their way in the world, and is as much a portrait of misguided love and thwarted dreams than anything else.

This is my 16th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 12th for #AWW2016.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Colum McCann, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The land masses of Ireland and North America might be separated by the Atlantic Ocean but their histories are strongly linked. Colum McCann explores those connections in his latest novel, TransAtlantic, which was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (to be announced on 28 May).

Multiple narratives

The book comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history.

The first tells the story of the first non-stop transatlantic aeroplane flight in 1919 by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown, which landed in a peat bog in County Galway; the second focuses on African-American Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned leader of the abolitionist movement, who visits Ireland for a speaking tour just as the Great Famine begins to take a hold; and the third examines the work of Senator George Mitchell, an American politician, who played a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, specifically the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Linking all these real life characters are three generations of fictional women from the same family: Lily Duggan, the Dublin maid who looks after Frederick Douglass; her daughter, Emily Ehrlich, a Newfoundland reporter who covers the Alcock-Brown flight; and Emily’s daughter, Lottie, who emigrates to Northern Ireland, where she lives a rather privileged life.

Combined, the narrative threads span more than 150 years — from 1845 to 2011 — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift.

This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”.

Ambitious structure

McCann has done this kind of multi-layered narrative before. His last novel, Let the Great World Spin, which I reviewed in 2009, focused on a diverse range of characters living in New York at the time Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. In many ways it read like a collection of short stories and didn’t feel cohesive enough to be a novel (but what would I know — it ended up winning the National Book Award and the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award).

Perhaps the same could be argued here, but TransAtlantic, just as ambitious in structure and style, is more polished (by which I mean the links between the narrative threads are less obvious)  and it reads like a novel — and a properly entertaining and absorbing one at that. Indeed, I’d have a hard time picking out my favourite storyline because I so enjoyed each one — and there was never a moment when I thought, I wish he’d hurry up with this thread so I can get to the next one, which is sometimes a risk when an author dabbles in multiple narratives.

It certainly helps that McCann is a virtuoso when it comes to combining real lives with imagined ones. And he’s a master at historical detail, of conjuring just the right atmosphere and mood, so that you feel as if you are right there with the people he’s writing about, whether they lived 20 years ago or 100 years ago. Even his prose — and the dialogue — reflects the time period in which each storyline is set: for instance, more formal for the 19th century narrative, a little bit more relaxed and contemporary for the early 21st century narrative.

This all adds up to an accomplished, intricately crafted novel. It’s also a hugely moving one — I laughed at certain scenes and wanted to cry at others — and the opening section, which details that record-breaking transatlantic flight, is some of the most exciting and nail-biting fiction I’ve ever read.

While the rest of this rather grand, sweeping novel might not be quite as tense, it’s brimful of passion and pain, hope and humour, love and loss. In striving for impossible goals — whether it be transatlantic flight, abolition of slavery or finding peace after 30 years of violence — McCann’s characters, firmly rooted to the past, show us how we should always look to the future.

Akhil Sharma, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Setting, USA

‘Family Life’ by Akhil Sharma


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I recently watched a documentary by British journalist Louis Theroux about patients in a Los Angeles hospital fighting for their lives.

One young man was in a coma and his prognosis was bleak: doctors said it was highly unlikely he’d ever recover and that he’d spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. But his family had other ideas: they refused to believe he would not recover. And, lo and behold, against impossible odds, he eventually came around and could walk and talk again. Hope, it seems, can sometimes have the power to work magic.

In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a similar situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives a tragic accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs.

This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. “After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,” he confesses to God at one point.

Inspired by real events

I heard the author discuss this book very briefly at a Faber fiction showcase earlier in the year. He was smartly dressed and softly spoken, but little did I realise that before he’d finished his five-minute “promo” I’d have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

He started off rather jolly, telling us about how his family moved from Delhi to the USA in the late 1970s, and how everything was new, exciting and filled with perplexing mod-cons — nothing like India.

But then the mood of the room changed as he quietly revealed how his elder brother hit his head on the bottom of a swimming pool one day and never fully recovered. Their new American life, so filled with hope and promise, had changed forever. Family Life is a fictionalised account of that experience.

Family faith

The book largely charts the lengths Birju’s family go to ensure he gets every opportunity to recover. If that means dealing with a long line of charlatans, religious “freaks” and dodgy “quacks”, then so be it.

But when exorbitant medical costs force the family to nurse him at home, it brings new tensions and stresses to bear. Burji’s mother never loses focus on her son — indeed, she becomes rather one-eyed about it, with unforeseen consequences — while his father loses himself in drink. Meanwhile, Ajay tries to get on with his life as best he can, often by burying his head in a book, so he can avoid thinking about his estranged parents and a brother who gets older but never better.

When an insurance pay out means Birju can be installed in a nursing home, it doesn’t neccessarily makes things easier. When Birju’s mother is introduced at a party as “the woman whose son is in a nursing home” you can practically feel the awkwardness of the situation resonate off the page:

“My son had an accident in a swimming pool,” my mother said. “He’s in a coma.” She said this shyly, as if she were sharing something precious. I became irritated. I thought, No. Birju is not in a coma. He is brain damaged. He is destroyed.
“Can he not talk at all?” the woman asked.
“No,” my mother said. Admitting this, she looked embarrassed.
“If you are in a room with him and sitting next to him, will he not know it?”
“There is no coma,” my father said. “He is not asleep. My son has his eyes open. He can’t walk or talk. My wife says this coma thing because she thinks this sounds better.”
Mrs Kohli smiled. She nodded her head proudly. “See? A parent’s love knows no shore.”

Despite the subject matter, the story is not maudlin. It’s completely free of sentiment and often filled with laugh-out-loud witticisms. For instance, Ajay and his mother tease Burji for not paying attention when they play cards by his bedside, at other times they accuse him of being lazy for never getting out of bed. It might be gallows humour, but it does show the lighter side of human nature and the methods people use to cope at times of great sadness.

As well as being a devastating account of a family plunged into a never-ending crisis, the novel is also a wonderful portrait of immigrant life, American culture and what it is to be an outsider — in all senses of the word.

It is hugely perceptive about so many different issues — dramatic change, unconditional love, friendship, sibling rivalry, marriage and grief, to name but a few — and does it with such a lightness of touch that it’s difficult not to emerge unaltered from such an intelligent and inspiring read. If nothing else, Family Life is a book about hope — of chasing it, holding it and never letting go — even if it might not work its magic in the same way it did for that family in the Louis Theroux documentary.

Family Life will be published in the UK on 1 May.

UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting this review, the London Review Bookshop tweeted a link to it. When I thanked them for doing so, I discovered that the shop is hosting an event with Akhil Sharmer and David Sedaris at the end of this month.  To find out more, or to book tickets, please visit the LRB website.

Author, Book review, Canada, Dennis Bock, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘Going Home Again’ by Dennis Bock


Fiction – hardcover; Knopf; 258 pages; 2013.

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it.

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

Moving back home

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

The effect of this is to build up a well-rounded, and often touching, portrait of a relatively simple man leading a somewhat complicated, messy life and wondering how he ever got himself into the messes he now finds himself in — living an ocean away from his beloved daughter and finding himself caught up, once again, in his brother’s irresponsible shenanigans.

Unresolved issues

Of course, this novel isn’t perfect and there were some issues that felt unresolved to me. As a book about a man returning to his homeland after 20 years, I felt the absence of any personal dislocation very telling. But perhaps he had bigger issues with which to contend, not least the fact that his brother is still as self-absorbed as he ever was and, as we later find out in a rather dramatic “twist” near the end, quite an appalling sort of character, indeed.

And while the narrative zips along at a rather frenetic pace and effortlessly moves backwards and forwards in time, I sometimes felt as if Bock under-delivered what some of his set pieces had promised. Perhaps it was intentional, but I’m still mulling over a scene very early in the book in which Titus is accused of an abhorrent act that is never properly resolved. What was the point? Was it to foreshadow events, to suggest Titus was his father’s son?

And the ending, which involves a murder, seemed slightly dramatic in what, up until that point, had been a nicely underplayed narrative.

Domestic tale

But what I really liked about Going Home Again was this: it is a wholly domestic tale — about men and women, about marriage, about family, about the fallout of divorce — and it is told from an entirely male perspective. I cannot recall having read a book like this before, and for that reason, it felt new and interesting to me.

I’m not sure Going Home Again is likely to win the Giller Prize, but it’s an enjoyable story that will resonate with those who know that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Maryam Sachs, Publisher, Quartet Books, Setting

‘The Passenger’ by Maryam Sachs


Fiction – paperback; Quartet; 112 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Gael Schmidt-Cleach. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There are two kinds of people who catch taxis: those that want to travel in peace and quiet, and those that like to pass time by conversing with the driver. In Maryam Sachs’ The Passenger, an unnamed woman falls into the latter camp. When she climbs into a taxi outside Charles de Gaulle airport to make the short trip home, she goes on a physical and figurative journey like no other — and all because she begins speaking to the driver.

A taxi ride

The story is narrated by an East German émigré, who is married with two adult children and lives in a Parisian apartment. She is returning from a holiday in Greece and tonight it is her son’s 21st birthday party.

The taxi ride shouldn’t take longer than an hour but it invariably gets caught up in traffic and slows to a crawl. As she watches the all-too familiar scenery passing by and smells the Parisian pollution coming in through the open window, her mind drifts to the past, from her birth in West Germany to her father’s death when she was just a child, from her upbringing in her mother’s native East Germany to a thwarted love affair at university which resulted in an abortion — and all this by page 16.

When she begins talking to the driver, she discovers he is Romanian and immediately the two begin to bond over their shared experiences as foreigners in France.

He smiles for the first time and our eyes meet in the rear-view mirror. It’s like an invisible thread has just appeared between us.

Over the course of the journey, which lasts a little shy of 90 minutes, the pair share stories and experiences from their lives. It is an intimate and important trip, one in which the road “we have travelled is more than just the distance between the airport and my house. No one’s ever taken me so far”.

Intimate portrait of a woman

This beautiful and beguiling novella unfolds ever-so gently, drawing you in to the thoughts and memories of the narrator as she unearths her life, learning about herself and her driver at the same time.

While much of what she recalls is sad — there’s an aching sense of loss throughout the narrative, of having to give up things or forget thing to move onwards — it has a strange meditative quality that left me feeling relaxed and at ease, almost as if I had plunged into a bubble-bath for a long, hot soak.

In fact, her reflection towards the end of the trip, pretty much sums up how I felt about the book:

We’re both silent, both lost in thought. We’re not paying attention to the sounds of the city any more. I feel so comfortable, at peace. It’s been a long time since I’ve been aware of the silence like this. It’s a silence full of meaning, a silence that knows it’s accomplished its mission. It fills me completely, I can almost feel it. I have no desire to break it.

Wise and wonderful

The Passenger is not only perfectly paced, it is filled with gorgeous observations and home truths written by an author with a perceptive eye.

This eloquent tale about an unlikely friendship, about opening ourselves up to new experiences and not being afraid to share our stories with strangers, is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

But its real strength lies in the way it so wisely and astutely reveals how we can never leave the places that shaped us, nor forget those who have played such important roles in our lives. Who knew a taxi journey could be so enlightening?

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michelle de Kretser, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser


Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 528 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If books won prizes for ambition alone, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel should win every gong going. This is a “widescreen” novel that explores the interconnectedness of our lives brought about by the advent of the internet, cheap travel and globalisation.

Dual narrative

The book spans 40 years and follows two characters — Australian Laura Fraser and Sri Lankan Ravi Mendis — whose tales are divided into two separate narrative threads. These two characters are poles apart, not least the ways in which they travel the globe.

Laura is a drifter, who has the freedom to travel across the world wherever her Australian passport might take her; Ravi is forced to flee Sri Lanka under difficult circumstances and seeks political asylum in Australia, never knowing whether he will be shipped back home against his will.

The pair eventually meet, but that’s not really the climax, nor purpose, of the story, which covers  many issues and topics associated with “travel”, including the way in which the development of the internet and cheap personal computers made the world smaller. Indeed, following these character’s lives is a journey in itself.

Laura, who uses an inheritance to travel around the world, leads the kind of life to which many of us might aspire. But even though she lives in London for several years, there are pitfalls to never putting roots down in one place — she doesn’t have a proper career, nor a settled relationship. But when she returns to Sydney and begins working for a travel guide company (a thinly disguised version of Lonely Planet), there is no miracle “cure” for her dislocation.

By contrast, Ravi, an academic who develops one of the first websites and understands the potential of the internet, has no choice but to leave his homeland following the brutal murder of his wife and young son. When he seeks political asylum in Australia there is the constant fear that he will be returned home, even though he would love to see other family members and continue his life before it was so viciously interrupted.

Thoughtful and intelligent

There’s no doubt that Questions of Travel is a thoughtful and intelligent novel, the type of novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring big issues — in fact, on more than one occasion it reminded me very much of last year’s Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, by Will Ferguson, which was equally ambitious in scope and outlook.

But this is also one of those rare books that is all about the detail — incredible detail. Indeed, there’s so much detail in this book, it requires a lot of concentration and attention from the reader. It is not an effortless read. It is not a book to rush through.

Because of this it took a long time for me to get “into” the story and, just occasionally, I found it dragged in places. This may be partly to do with the author’s prose style, which felt convoluted and “showy”, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed her descriptions, particularly of objects and places, which were evocative and often quite beautiful. Likewise, her characters are wonderful — quirky, original, authentic and memorable.

But it is the little revelations, scattered throughout the narrative, that makes the book such an entertaining and often surprising read. And the ending, which almost made me fall off my chair with the shock of it, is one of the most powerful and totally unexpected conclusions I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction. Weeks later I’m still thinking about it — just as I am also thinking about all the many issues thrown up by this extraordinary, eloquent and deeply moving novel.

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

‘The Cardboard Crown’ by Martin Boyd


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, Canada, Fiction, HarperCollins Canada, historical fiction, literary fiction, Nancy Richler, Publisher, Setting

‘The Imposter Bride’ by Nancy Richler


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins Canada; 352 pages; 2012.

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride is set in post-war Montreal and tells the story of a Jewish refugee and the daughter she abandoned a few months after her birth.

A Polish refugee

Lily Azerov is Polish and has no living relatives. She hopes to start a new life in Canada, where she is due to marry a man with whom she has been corresponding for some time. But when Sol Kramer sees her step off the train, he rejects her as “damaged goods”.

All, however, is not lost. Sol’s younger brother, Nathan, marries her instead, and the couple set up home with Nathan’s widowed mother, Bella.

But Lily, presumably grief-stricken by the loss of so many family members in the Second World War, cannot really function properly and holes herself up in her room, too miserable and depressed to talk to anyone. When she gives birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter called Ruth, things do not get any easier, and one day, under the pretense of going out to buy a quart of milk, she never returns.

This sets up the premise for a multi-layered, finely crafted novel about the ways in which these two women’s lives are forever bound to one another, and how one decision — to walk out on someone you love — can have a lifetime’s worth of repercussions.

A stolen identity

But there’s much more to this tale than initially meets the eye. Lily is not really Lily. She has taken the identity of a woman, whose body she found in a Polish village in 1944. Her one mistake is not simply to take the woman’s identity card, her diary, some items of clothing and a rough, uncut diamond, but to make contact with the woman’s cousin, Sonya, in Palestine (presumably to gain some information about the family in order to make her new identity fit better).

The cousin’s suspicions are raised immediately, but she agrees not to expose “Lily” and helps arrange her marriage in Canada. Sonya writes to her relatives in Montreal — Ida Pearl, a jewellery shop owner, and her teenage daughter, Elka — and tells them: “The lucky bridegroom’s name is Kramer. Go to her wedding and weep.”

They do — and promptly become entwined in the lives of the Kramers. Indeed, Elka eventually marries Sol and becomes Lily’s sister-in-law. But this sets into  play an element of danger — now that Ida and Elka know that Lily is an imposter, will they expose her secret to the world?

Dual narrative

The narrative, which spans more than 50 years, is told in alternate third-person and first-person chapters.

The third-person element tells Lily’s side of the story but covers the short period between her arrival in Canada and her disappearance.

The first-person element is from her daughter Ruth’s perspective, told as an elderly woman looking back on her life, so that we see her grow from a young girl to a married woman with three children of her own. During this time, the only connection she has with her mother is a series of rocks sent to her anonymously during her childhood, the first of which arrives on her sixth birthday and is accompanied by a note stating: “South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind.”

A story about family

There are lots of strands to this novel, which explores in great depth the outfall of Lily’s disappearance on her new family, including her husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and even Ida Pearl, all of whom gather round Ruth and bring her up surrounded by love and support.

This is a story about a family — and its secrets  — but it is also about grief and loss and the long-lasting psychological impact of the Second World War on ordinary people.

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.

But what I liked most, apart from the polished perfection of the plot and the seamlessly intertwined narrative threads, is her ability to make you empathise with everyone without turning The Imposter Bride into a sentimental, saccharine tale. Towards the end Richler deftly juggles a high-wire act that could have gone either way, but she pulls it off with aplomb and I was left with the lump the size of a golf ball in my throat.

While the world’s bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of countless books about Jewish immigrants, this one isn’t your usual run-of-the-mill story. It brims with dark secrets and hidden pasts, but above all it is about survival, hope, love and acceptance, and I would be very happy to see this one take the 2012 Giller Prize when it is announced next week — that’s if Will Ferguson’s 419 doesn’t get there first.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Clerkenwell Press, Fiction, Kim Thúy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘Ru’ by Kim Thúy


Fiction – Kindle edition; Clerkenwell Press; 160 pages; 2012. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

When Kim Thúy’s Ru was published in its original French language it won the Governor General’s Award for French language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards. Now the English edition, translated by the Canadian translator Sheila Fischman, has been shortlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize.

A refugee’s tale

Ru is an elegantly written tale about a woman who emigrates to Canada from Vietnam as a boat person. The narrator, Nguyên An Tinh, was born during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, “when the long chain of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns”.

The book reads very much like a fictionalised memoir (Thúy was also born in 1968 and came to Canada with her family as a refugee), but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions,  particularly in terms of structure and narrative. In some ways it feels like a long poem, broken into extended stanzas (short chapters), in which the narrator recalls certain incidences from her life, and the lives of her parents, cousins and other relations, in non-chronological order. This means her narrative continually switches from the present — where she is a mother of an autistic son — to the past — the privileged life she led in Vietnam, the stint in a Malaysian Red Cross camp, a treacherous journey across the ocean —  then back again.

But by recording her personal history and her journey, both physical and metaphorical, in this way, we are able to see the shape of her life and how 30 years ago it was dramatically changed by circumstances beyond her control. At times it is distressing, as this passage about the narrator’s journey across the Gulf of Siam on a tiny refugee boat reveals:

The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water’s depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fears of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby’s head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents, who were sitting in the darkness surrounded by two hundred people.

At other times, it is almost joyous —  for instance, there’s a palpable sense of relief when the family arrives in Canada, where people are kind and helpful, and where their sponsors, a family of volunteers, help them to furnish their home in Quebec — even if, with hindsight, our narrator realises that they were buying inferior goods and that their father was given a red cowl-necked sweater that he wore proudly every day not knowing it was a “woman’s sweater, nipped in at the waist”.

Lacks emotional connection

Much of the story revolves around the theme of “the other”, of trying to fit in to a new life and a new country. It doesn’t help that our narrator is painfully shy — on several occasions she describes herself as “deaf and mute” or as a “shadow” — and that she struggles at school, “where there was a glaring gap between my grades and the results of my IQ tests, which bordered on deficient”.

But it is also about keeping history alive, the kind of history “that will never be taught in any school” — this is not so much about the Vietnam War but about its disturbing and heartbreaking effects on the civilians who had to flee for their lives and start all over again (if they were lucky) on foreign soil.

That said, there’s something about Thúy’s overly descriptive prose style that makes it hard to make an emotional connection with the narrator. I finished this book feeling strangely unmoved by it and yet I’d just read about the worst kind of pain and grief that a fellow human being could experience. (I felt exactly the same way when I read Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter, another Canadian novel, this time about a Cambodian refugee, earlier this year.)

Yet that is not to dismiss Ru — it’s already a massive bestseller across the globe and was the BBC’s Book at Bedtime in June — so there’s undoubtedly a vast audience to whom it greatly appeals. Sadly, I guess I wasn’t one of them…

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Free World’ by David Bezmozgis


Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 368 pages; 2011.

Imagine being stuck in a figurative “no man’s land”. You can’t return to the country you just left and you have no idea which new country will let you in. That is the dilemma experienced by the wide cast of characters in David Bezmozgis‘ debut novel, The Free World.

Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of a family of Russian Jews fleeing the Soviet Union. Samuil, the patriarch, isn’t convinced of the need to emigrate — “In the war you ran from the enemy. Now who are you running from?” — and he is even less convinced when his war medals are seized at the border as “property of the state”.

But to his wife, Emma, and their sons, Alec and Karl and their wives Polina and Rosa, it is a chance to start afresh in a yet-to-be-chosen destination. The choices are relatively limited: they can go to Israel, direct from Vienna — where the book opens — with no need for additional paperwork, or they can go to Rome, another transit point, and sort out documentation for the USA, Canada or Australia.

Alec isn’t sure which destination is best. He just knows he doesn’t want to go to Israel — and with good reason:

They had gathered at the office that morning to present themselves before a caseworker. The Joint would not furnish them with their stipend if they didn’t file papers for a destination. Rosa continued to agitate for Israel, even though two days before, Begin had officially rejected Sadat’s latest peace proposal. While in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border. Alec, having successfully avoided the worst of Soviet military service, wasn’t aching to go from Ben Gurion Airport to boot camp. Getting killed or maimed in Lebanon, or Egypt, or wherever the bullets were flying, seemed to defeat the whole point of leaving the Soviet Union.

In the event, they go to Rome, but the decision about their onward destination is rushed. When they are forced to fill out their forms after waiting weeks for an appointment, Samuil is as grumpy as ever — “This is how you decide your family’s future, ten minutes in a stairwell?” — but even Rosa has her doubts.

—Just like that you’re prepared to go and say Canada? What do we know about it? Rosa continued. —What do we know about anyplace? Karl said. You watched the Olympics. You liked what you saw of Montreal. And in 1972 they also showed something of Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. —You’re talking about the hockey games? Rosa asked incredulously. —Da, da Canada; nyet, nyet Soviet, Alec said. —If you have nothing intelligent to add, Rosa said. —It’s more European than America, and more American than Europe. —What does that mean? Rosa asked. —It means, Alec said, that a person can eat and dress like a human being, watch hockey, and accomplish all this without victimizing Negroes and Latin American peasants. —Basically, Karl said. Their dollar is also strong. —It doesn’t concern you that we will have to stay for months in Italy? Rosa asked. —That’s a reason against Canada? —It’s something to take into account.

But this isn’t a story about what happens when they arrive at their destination. It is a story about what happens while they remain in limbo, their lives effectively on hold, as they wait for the bureaucratic red tape to untangle.

It is here, in Rome, that we are introduced to each character — Alec, the philanderer; Samuil, the grump with a painful family history; Polina, deeply troubled by having left her sister behind; Karl, the entrepreneur; Emma, keen to reconnect with her forgotten Jewish religion — and learn their complicated back stories. It’s almost as if under the strain of the immigration process, cast adrift in an alien environment, that each character must address the past before moving into the future.

I particularly enjoyed Samuil’s back story — in which we discover that his own father and grandfather were “trapped and murdered in their Ukrainian shtetl” — and Polina’s letters to the sister she left behind, which are equally moving and eloquent.

Bezmozgis’s strength is not on plot — there is little of that, perhaps mirroring the stasis of the family’s situation — but on character. Similarly, his detailed vignettes, some of which are deeply moving and others that draw on a rich seam of humour, are perfectly rendered.

He is also very astute at capturing that lovely sense of awe as his new immigrants move from the constricted lives of Soviet Russia to the wonders of the free world. This is summed up nicely when they go to the cinema to see a film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof:

—It’s a wonderful production, a middle-aged woman behind them offered. Believe me. This is my eighth time watching. I’d watch it another eight times. In Russia, God forbid they should ever have a Jewish character in a film. But in America they made a whole movie about us.

The Free World has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.