20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 288 pages; 2020.

Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It defies convention because it’s a seamless blend of literary fiction, myth, fairytale and dystopia. Perhaps it could best be described as an “eco fable”? Regardless, it’s a wonderfully evocative and compelling tale about humankind’s obsession with exploiting nature to make money — seemingly at any cost.

Fairytale about a mythical bird

In this masterfully created tale, which is split into four parts, we are introduced to the rain heron, a mythical bird that brings rain wherever it goes. It has blue-grey feathers that are so pale you can see straight through them, and whenever it flaps its wings a thick spray of water falls from them, almost as if it generates its own rain.

In a world beset by drought, it’s a much sought-after creature, offering abundance and helping boost harvests, but it also comes with risks: the bird is also associated with frosts, floods, destruction — and sometimes death.

In Part 1 we meet Ren, an older woman who is living in a cave on a mountainside in the forest. She’s self-sufficient, eating berries and other plants, hunting deer for meat and occasionally trapping a fish for her supper. She barters with a man and his young son living nearby, with whom she exchanges items — fleece gloves, vitamins, boots, vegetable seeds — that she cannot get elsewhere.

The trio is careful to avoid contact with other humans, especially the soldiers that have recently infiltrated the area and who are on a mission to find and capture the sole rain heron that they believe lives in the vicinity.

Ren knows where the rain heron lives. She was introduced to it by her mother as a young girl. But when the soldiers find her and become threatening, she’s left with no option other than to show them where it roosts. This sets into motion a drastic — and deadly — chain of events.

Back in time

The story, which reads like a fairytale, doesn’t have a single narrator, nor follow a linear route. We go back in time to meet the female soldier — Harker, as she is known —  who puts so much pressure on Ren to offer up her secrets. In Part 2 we discover her way of life before the military coup that transformed the world into such a strange and menacing place.

This change in direction is a little disorientating to begin with, but it sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Here, we discover that Harker had a happy childhood living with her aunt, who made her living from the “inking grounds” — a secret location out at sea where squid are caught, drained of their ink and then released back into the water without harm. (This, by the way, is not how ink is actually removed from squid — in the real world the squid are caught and killed first.)

This sustainable practice comes under threat when a northerner arrives in the port town seeking a way to make a lot of money quickly. He knows that the locals farm ink, which is worth a lot of money, but he doesn’t know how to do it and no one wants to share the secret with him.

Capitalistic tensions

This tension between a capitalist wanting to turn a secret into a business idea really does set the theme and tone of The Rain Heron, which is very much a book about humankind’s incapacity to just leave nature alone, to appreciate it intrinsically rather than trying to make money out of it.

In the final parts of the novel, which are essentially a road trip beset with danger and violence, this theme is developed further: how far would you go to capture a creature that may make you rich or give you an advantage over others?

It’s a beautifully realised tale told in graceful, elegant prose, which includes lush descriptions of landscapes and minimal dialogue. There’s a fable-like feel to the story, one that conjures up memories of other books I have read — think The Road meets Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and all those Narnia books) meets The Girl with Glass Feet meets The Silver Crown.

I love that we don’t know anything about this world — the politics or the events which have lead to soldiers taking over — nor the specific location (although I imagine it’s Tasmania, seeing that is where the author is from). Arnott simply plops you into this universe he has created and it all feels so real and vivid that you don’t need any explanations: you just accept it for what it is.

The ways in which he explores our fragile relationship with the environment is wonderfully evoked. It’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. This is the kind of novel you can really get lost in. I loved it.

The Rain Heron has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced next week (15 July). And yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’d be very happy to see this one take the prize.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it in July last year.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Denis Thériault, Fiction, Hesperus Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman’ by Denis Thériault

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hesperus Press; 128 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke.

Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is one of the most unusual love stories I’ve ever read. Part fable, part treatise on Japanese poetry, it also “flirts with the fantastic” (as the author states in a Q&A published at the rear of the book) and delivers a quietly understated story about the power of the written word and the Buddhist concept of Ensō.

A man on a mission

Set in Montreal, Canada (where the author hails from), we are introduced to the postman of the title: 27-year-old Bilodo, who lives on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment block with his sole companion: a goldfish called Bill. He rarely goes out, preferring to stay home to watch TV or play video games, but he loves his job and is super-efficient at it.

It wasn’t all roses, of course. There were those blasted advertising flyers to be delivered; the backaches, the sprains and other run-of-the-mill injuries; there were the crushing summer heatwaves, the autumn rains that left you soaked to the skin, the black ice in winter, which turned the city into a perilous ice palace, and the cold that could be biting, just like the dogs for that matter – a postman’s natural enemies. But the moral satisfaction of knowing oneself to be indispensable to the community made up for these drawbacks. Bilodo felt he took part in the life of the neighbourhood, that he had a discreet but essential role in it.

But Bilodo has a bit of a moral blind spot. If he comes across a handwritten letter — an increasing rarity in today’s modern world — he takes it home, steams it open, reads it, makes a copy of it for his records, seals the letter back up again and then delivers it the next day as if nothing has happened.

Through this illegal practise Bilodo stumbles upon a correspondence between Ségolène, a woman who lives in Guadeloupe (a French overseas territory, part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean), and Grandpré, an academic from Quebec.

The pair send haiku poetry to each other and Bilodo, transported by the beauty of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables apiece, soon finds himself falling in love with Ségolène, a woman he knows he will never meet. And so he undergoes a psychological transformation that has him leading the peculiar life of the title.

A moral ambiguity

This short but powerful novella is deceptive in both its tone of voice (slightly mundane) and its subject matter (a dull man leading a dull life), but then about half way through it turns into something else entirely (although I will put up my hand and say that I predicted the major plot development that occurs). This is not one of those “happy” books where the lonely protagonist learns to live a more fulfilling life; there’s a really dark edge to it and a moral ambiguity at its core.

There’s something about the whole “atmosphere” of the story that is hugely reminiscent of Japanese fiction: the functional prose style, the themes of alienation, chaste love and loneliness, and the lovely poetry in it, both haiku and tanka (the oldest and most elevated classical Japanese verse form).

Even the ending, which is unexpectedly strange and unsettling but ultimately satisfying, brought to mind Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, one of the most compelling and intriguing Japanese novellas I’ve ever read. I could almost say the same about this one, although I realise it’s Canadian…

This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in December 2014, partly because of Susan’s review at A Life in Books, for the princely sum of 99p.

André Alexis, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis

Fifteen-dogs

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 159 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s by far the oddest, and possibly most absurd, book I’ve read in a long while. Indeed, to say I didn’t much like it might be an understatement.

Under normal circumstances, I’m sure I would have abandoned this strange and unusual novella. But as some of you will no doubt know, every year since 2011 I have taken part in the Shadow Giller — chaired by KevinfromCanada — in which a group of us read and review all the books on the Giller Prize longlist for that year. Between the four of us, we then choose a winner in advance of the real Giller.  (You can read more about how the Shadow Giller came about on Kevin’s blog here.) And because I’m taking part in the process once again for 2015, I felt that I had to finish the book — even when every bone (pun not intended) in my body told me to put it aside and read something else instead!

So, what’s so weird about it, I hear you ask? Well, it takes the form of a fable in which the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo give a group of dogs the gift of consciousness. The idea is that intelligence does not make humans any more superior or happier than other animals.

— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals — any animal you choose — would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
— An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

And then 15 dogs, all staying overnight in a veterinary clinic in Toronto, discover that they can suddenly think for themselves, talk in a new language (English) and reason with one another. Yes, I told you it was a weird book.

Go to the dogs

Fifteen Dogs follows the antics of the dogs, some of whom reject their new ability with language and revert back to the “old dog ways”, and through a series of set pieces, rather than a typical story arc, shows how their relationships with one another and humans changes as a result of their newfound intelligence. Sometimes this is quite horrifying — one set of dogs, for instance, leads another set to their deaths — but only goes to show where the idiom it’s a dog-eat-dog world comes from! But at other times it’s quite touching — the deep friendship that develops between Majnouin, a black poodle, and his human owner, Nira, for example.

Of course, I can’t dismiss Fifteen Dogs entirely. While fables aren’t my kind of thing, and I struggle with stories that demand that I suspend belief (even if it’s just for 150 or so pages), this novella does explore some interesting ideas around language (one of the dogs, for instance, composes poetry), cultural codes of conduct, emotion, individuality and morality. And if you’ve ever had a dog or own a dog (or commission training articles about them, like I do) there’s plenty of behaviours to recognise (and occasionally laugh about) in these pages.

But the book doesn’t just concentrate on canine behaviour: it also shines a light on (the absurdity of) human behaviour, as this quote, through the eyes of Benjy the beagle, shows:

And then there was the room where the humans bathed and applied chemicals to themselves. The bathroom was fascinating, it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that bought status? If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?

I can’t say that I’d like this deeply philosophical book to make the Giller Prize shortlist, which is announced on 5 October, but I can’t fault its originality or its ability to make you see the world in a slightly different way. It’s insightful and inventive, but not one for me…

Please note, Fifteen Dogs is not yet published in the UK. I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy, sent to me unsolicited. It will be published here on 5 November.

UPDATE 11 NOVEMBER 2015:
Congratulations to André Alexis, who was awarded the 2015 Giller Prize last night. You can read more about his win on the official Giller Prize website.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ by Magnus Mills

The-field-of-cloth-of-gold

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s no secret that I am a Magnus Mills fan, so I was naturally keen to read his latest book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, as soon as it came thudding through the door. It’s been almost four years since his last novel, but it turned out to be worth the wait, for this is another profound story characterised by Mills’ typical bare-boned prose, tongue-in-cheek humour and incisive commentary on the foibles of human beings.

A tented village

The story revolves around a large irregularly-shaped field — known as The Great Field — situated in the bend of a “broad, meandering river”.

Dotted across this lush, green field are several tents of various size, shape and description, but over time more and more tents appear as people arrive to take advantage of the beautiful views, fresh air and quietude. But as the population of this quiet backwater steadily increases, disputes over territory, views and resources arise.

When a trench is created under the guise of drainage control for the (always damp) south-east corner, it doesn’t take long for some inhabitants to realise it’s actually a wall — or a defensive rampart, depending on your point of view — designed to secure the best corner of the field for a select group: everyone else must simply move north.

If you think this sounds a little like a metaphor for Britain you’d probably be right. I read this surreal story trying to figure out its meaning — was it a fable about community? immigration? British history? — before I decided it could almost be anything you want it to be: it’s charm lies in its ability to be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It’s clever and smart and even if you don’t want to have to think about the points Mills might be making you can simply read the novel for what it is: a delightfully quirky and eccentric tale about a bunch of people living in a field and trying to get by the best they know how. I really loved it.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site — simply click on the book titles to read the review: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005), The Maintenance of Headway (2009) and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (2011).

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher

‘A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In’ by Magnus Mills

A-Cruel-Bird-Came-to-the-Nest-and-Looked-in

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 276 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If we ever needed a novel to satirise the current malaise of the British Empire — complete with unhappy public sector workers, crippling debt and politicos looking after their own interests — then who better than to offer it up than Magnus Mills? A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills’ seventh novel, and it’s typical Mills fare.

If you’ve never read anything by Mills before, you need to prepare yourself in advance. I promise that you will have never encountered anything quite like a Mills novel before.

He writes in a completely stripped back way, using short, simplistic sentences. On face value, these may seem dull and monotonous, but you can never accuse him of being boring. That’s because it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s going on — in many cases, it’s the things that Mills doesn’t say that make his stories so powerful.

Mills’ stories are also peopled entirely by men, there is little or no characterisation (although you will probably recognise people you know — officials and jobsworths primarily), little or no descriptions of people or places, and the plots are superficial.

But as allegories or fables, you can’t get any better. And as far as black comedies go, you’re in for a real treat.

Poking fun at the feudal system

In A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In Mills’ tackles the feudal system, which is not a topic you’d generally associate with humour. Yet in Mills’ hands it becomes the funniest thing since, well, the feudal system.

The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed character, who is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. Despite never having played a note in his life, he is “supreme leader” of the imperial orchestra. He clearly isn’t up for the job, but it doesn’t matter, because the conductor, a very talented musician, does all the work for which he can take credit.

The Principal Composer sits on an eight-member cabinet presided over by his Exalted Highness, The Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields.

Absentee king

Unfortunately, His Highness seems to have gone missing, and because he never turns up to the weekly cabinet meeting no decisions about the empire, which is bestridden by ongoing problems, can be made. So the officers-of-state, who are all equal in the hierarchy, muddle along as best they can.

Any form of cooperation between departments is ruled out, so the problems — an unreliable postal system, a lack of money in circulation (it’s all being “reserved for a rainy day” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and an imperial telescope that only works if the Astronomer Royal has a sixpence to put in the slot — are never sorted.

A series of idiotic decisions are made. Chief among these is an imperial edict that arrives via post from the absentee emperor. He orders that the sun must set at five o’clock all year round, but the only way to make that happen is to ensure all clocks within Greater Fallowfields are put forward by two minutes every day. This means a great deal of work for one particular cabinet member — who moans and groans about it  — but for several others it’s seen as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy tea — lemon curd and toasted soldiers — in the library to watch the sunset every day.

A crumbling empire

Mills paints a convincing portrait of an empire, a former maritime supremacy, now stuck in its ways, failing to modernise or make decisions with the best interests of its citizens in mind.

Typically, there’s a lot of deadpan humour (when one cabinet member points out that there’s “absolutely no kind of spiritual, theological or pastoral representative”, a colleague responds, “Thank God”) and bitter irony (the cabinet spends much of its time rehearsing a play which is an “example of the feudal system in perfect working order — until someone tampers with it”).

But it all comes to a head when a (literal) threat on the horizon is noted: foreigners are building a trainline to Greater Fallowfields and an immigration boom seems imminent — or does it?

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a seemingly impossible mix of the odd and endearing. It’s playful and fun, but with a serious undercurrent running between the lines. The characters are delightfully eccentric and the way in which the empire is run will, at times, remind you of the terrible bureaucracy and inflexibility of systems here in the UK.

All in all, it is a wonderful, comic read that is bound to appeal to new readers and Mills’ fans alike.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005) and The Maintenance of Headway (2009).