Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Karl Geary, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Montpelier Parade

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 240 pages; 2017.

Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade was longlisted for the 2017 Desmond Elliot Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa First Novel Award and named as one of the Irish Times’ books of the year. It’s an unconventional story about forbidden love set in Dublin.

Working class life

Sonny is a 16-year-old schoolboy from a working class family. He nicks bikes, lacks self-esteem and his only friend is a girl, whom he sometimes dreams about kissing. He has a part-time job at the local butchers, where it’s expected he’ll become an apprentice when he leaves school.

But Sonny dreams of bigger things and wants to escape not only his family — four nameless older brothers, a nagging mother and a bullying father — but perhaps Ireland itself.

His world is opened up when he helps his father build a garden fence for a well-to-do English woman who lives on Montpelier Parade (hence the novel’s title). Her name is Vera. She’s beautiful, sophisticated and loves to read, but she’s also deeply troubled, and it’s only when Sonny rescues her after a failed suicide attempt that an unlikely friendship blossoms between them.

Melancholia and isolation

The deeply melancholic mood and feel of this novel is one that gets under the skin. The time period isn’t specified, but I suspect it’s the 1970s or 80s.

It’s written entirely in the second person, a “trick” that is very difficult to pull off without making the story too distant, but in Geary’s hands it works perfectly by highlighting Sonny’s sense of isolation. He is also excellent at conveying domestic settings and the eyes of a teenage boy being opened up to a new way of embracing the world.

As an example, here’s how he describes Sonny’s discovery of books and reading by borrowing tomes from Vera’s house without her knowledge:

You had never had a book before, and this one was a good one, you were sure of that, with its thumb-worn pages and old amber smell. The writer’s name in bold red print, T. S. Eliot, and the simple word Poems across the top. On the cover, cutting through the word, was a perfect circle, a dark stain.

You saw her then, Vera, at home one night on that blue couch, a blanket over her knees, maybe a fire burning in the grate. She looped a strand of hair behind her ear and reached across and set a half-finished glass of red wine onto the book she had fully emptied. It left a mark.

You sat at the kitchen table and boldly put the book out in front of you. Your mother was making the dinner, the news on the radio. The boys were in the next room, the television too. […]

“What’s that?” she says.

“It’s a book.”

“I can see it’s a book, what book is it?”

“Poems,” you say.

“Poems?” She forced air through her pursed lips, making a kind of pap sound.

Sonny’s new-found romance with literature is mirrored by his fondness for Vera, which develops into a sexual relationship that is both tender and troubling. While Geary refrains from offering any moral judgement, there is forever the hint that Sonny has got out of his depth but lacks the maturity to realise.

When I reached the end of this perfectly paced narrative, which works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax, I felt wrung out and devastated. Montpelier Parade is not only an unforgettable love story, it’s an exquisitely written novel about love, loss, sexual awakening and hope for a brighter future.

5 books, Book lists

5 books about forbidden love

5-books-200pixWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner I thought I’d put together a post about novels focussed on love — but with a twist. 

Instead of sweet, innocent romances, here are five novels that tell stories of forbidden love between people who should probably know better.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Skin lane‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

Set in the London fur trade in 1967, this book is narrated deadpan style by Mr F, a 46-year-old loner, who begins having weird dreams in which a young naked man, his face obscured by his hair, is found hanging upside down in his bathroom. When a new apprentice joins Mr F at work he begins to wonder whether he might, in fact, be the boy of his dreams… This is a dark and creepy tale, one that has parallels to Beauty and the Beast, about an older man falling for a younger colleague that he cannot have. I read it more than four years ago, but the story has stayed with me — it’s one that does, indeed, get under the skin.

the space between us‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna (2009)

It’s a bit difficult to summarise this novel by Irish writer John MacKenna without revealing a crucial plot spoiler, but let’s just say it’s about a widowed man who faces the challenge of raising his young daughter alone in ways that might not immediately spring to mind. Instead of being upset by his wife’s death, he’s relieved, perhaps because a married friend, Kate, has confessed she’s in love with him. This is an intriguing story about love in all its many facets — forbidden, unrequited, sexual and parental — death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters.

Lamb‘Lamb’ by Bonnie Nadzam (2011)

After David Lamb’s wife leaves him his life goes into a bit of a tailspin. Then, following his father’s funeral, he makes a spur of the moment decision to kidnap an 11-year-old girl, with whom he develops an unhealthy relationship. The book is not sexually explicit, but it is clear that Lamb is grooming young Tommie for his own perverse interests by building trust and making her feel special at every opportunity. When the two end up in a cabin in the woods you can’t help but fear for Tommie’s safety…

Tampa‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting (2013)

Meet Celeste Price, eighth grade English teacher, who has blond hair, a red corvette, an ultra-handsome husband — and an unusual sexual obsession with her 14-year-old male students. A novel about a pedophile might sound a bit repulsive  — it is, especially as the author makes the reader complicit in Celeste’s crimes— but it’s also a  compelling read thanks to the narrator’s engaging, often humorous, voice. But this isn’t just a titillating read: it throws up many questions about sexualisation of children, the lines between pupils and teachers, trust and betrayal.

A ship made of paper‘A Ship Made of Paper’ by Scott Spencer (2004)

This novel is very much in the vein of Anne Tyler in that it’s about ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations. It’s about a lawyer, Daniel Emerson, who flees New York after a messy trial has ruined his outlook on life. He takes his long-term girlfriend Kate and Kate’s four-year-old daughter, Ruby, back to his home town to start afresh. In the safety of the rural town, he settles into a comfortable, if somewhat easy, existence. But then life gets slightly more complicated when he notices that he is falling in love with Iris, the mother of Ruby’s best friend. This isn’t just a story about two people having an affair, risking everything in the process, but because Iris is black and Daniel is white it’s a fascinating exploration of race relations (without ever resorting to stereotypes or caricature) and societal expectations. It’s a truly compelling and utterly believable read.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another novel about forbidden love?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Love and Summer’ by William Trevor

Love and Summer by William Trevor
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 2009.

The oppressive nature of village life — in which privacy is virtually non-existent —  comes to the fore in William Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, which also explores guilt, forbidden love and the strength we all require to rise above our circumstances.

Set in Rathmoye, a small Irish town “some years after the middle of the last century”, it follows a handful of residents over the course of one fine summer.

Trevor takes his time to introduce them all, chapter by chapter, including: the former librarian Orpen Wren, who seems to have lost his marbles and only talks about people and events from the past as if he is stuck in a time warp; the troubled Miss Connulty, who has taken over running the town’s B&B with her “weasel faced” twin brother, Joseph, upon the death of their community-minded mother; and the hardworking widowed farmer Dillahan and his second wife, Ellie, a foundling who first moved to the farm as a housekeeper, an arrangement organised by the nuns who raised her.

But the equilibrium of Rathmoye — where “nothing happened, its people said” — is disturbed by the arrival of a tweed-clad stranger on a bicycle. He causes a bit of a stir when he turns up on the morning of Mrs Connulty’s funeral asking for directions to the ruins of the local cinema, which he wants to photograph.

His name is Florian Kilderry, “the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father”, who has inherited Shelhanagh, a large crumbling house, with its own lake, seven-and-a-half miles from Rathmoye. He cannot afford its upkeep, so his only option is to sell it:

“She’ll fetch a bit, I’d reckon,” the man from the estate agents’ office had said when he’d finished with his tape measure; and the Bank of Ireland thought so too. With the debts paid, there would be enough to live on, if not in splendour at least in comfort for a while. Enough to be a stranger somewhere else, although Florian didn’t yet know where. He had never been outside Ireland.

As Florian goes about getting the house ready for sale — disposing of its contents, including a car — he often travels into the village on photographic excursions (he’s dabbling with it as a potential occupation), and it is here that he strikes up a friendship with Ellie when she’s out and about on her errands. This friendship blossoms into something much deeper and it is this forbidden love affair which forms the heart of this rather genteel novel.

But to dismiss this book as merely a romance would be to do it a disservice.

Trevor is an economical writer, keeping both his prose and his narrative pared back to basics, but his characterisation is superb and the ways in which he draws such a diverse cast together is nothing short of genius. Every character has a back story — Dillahan’s first wife and young child died in a tragic farming accident for which he blames himself, Miss Connulty was “disowned” by her mother following an abortion 20 years earlier, Ellie was raised by nuns who taught her to be chaste and pure, Florian holds a torch for the Italian cousin he no longer keeps in touch with   — and it is these heartaches and desires which play a key role in giving Love and Summer such unexpected strength and power.

Trevor is also superb at capturing the tenets of rural life — the changing seasons, the day-to-day tasks that a farmer must carry out, the routine of keeping a house, the reliance on neighbours and community for help, amongst others — often bringing to mind some of my favourite rural Irish novels, such as John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun and Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn.

There’s no doubt that Love and Summer is a deftly written novel, one that unfolds gently to reveal what it is to be confronted with difficult, heart-rending choices. I loved its quiet beauty and its truthful depiction of rural life and romantic love.

For other takes on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and Lisa from ANZLitLovers review.

To see reviews of other William Trevor novels on Reading Matters, please visit my William Trevor page.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Joan London, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Good Parents’ by Joan London

GoodParents

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 369 pages; 2009.

Australian author Joan London is probably best known for her novel Gilgamesh, which was published in 2001 and garnered critical acclaim in Australia, the UK and USA. The Good Parents, published seven years later, is her second novel.

Missing teenager

When the story begins we see events unfold through the eyes of 18-year-old Maya, a naive country girl from Western Australia (WA), who is working as a personal assistant in Melbourne. She’s having an affair with her much older boss, Maynard,whose wife has cancer. When Maynard’s wife dies, he decides to shut up shop and head elsewhere, possibly to Asia, taking Maya with him.

But instead of following Maya’s storyline, the book dramatically switches to that of her parents, the beautiful Toni and the dreamy artistic Jacob, who arrive in Melbourne expecting to spend a couple of weeks with their teenage daughter. But she has gone and not even her flatmate seems to know where she might be.

Under the guise of searching for her, Toni and Jacob go sightseeing instead. But when Jacob injures his foot, he is confined indoors, and for some inexplicable reason Toni heads to a Buddhist retreat. This allows both to reflect on their lives, including their childhoods in WA and their subsequent meeting and fleeing city life together in the 1960s.

Their individual stories, which gently unfold in alternate chapters, reveal how both have never had the chance to live up to their full potential, except maybe as parents (hence the title).

Richly layered novel

This is a richly layered story of two people caught up in generational change, whomade poor decisions (either  by choice or circumstance) — Toni married the shady Cy Fisher, while Jacob never followed his dream to be a writer and distracted himself with unimportant work whenever crucial events occurred in his life in order not to think about them. Their own children seem just as perplexed about the real world.

** SPOILER ALERT **

Eventually, the novel returns to Maya, who is living in Brisbane with an increasingly distant and violent Maynard. The book’s resolution, in which Maya is rescued by Cy Fisher, does rely on a somewhat preposterous and unlikely series of coincidences.

** END OF SPOILER ALERT **

And if it wasn’t for this poor ending, I would have heartily recommended this book to all and sundry. But note, this is the only weak point in this rather beaut novel.

For another, much more intellectual, take on this novel, please see Lisa of ANZLitLover’s review.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

Lovesong

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 354 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alex Miller is a London-born Australian writer with nine novels to his name. Two of these — The Ancestor Game (1993) and Journey to the Stone Country (2003) — have earned him the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His most recent novel, Lovesong, was released in Australia in 2009 but has just been published in the UK for the first time.

Having never read any of Miller’s work before — I’ve got three of his novels in my always-growing To Be Read pile — I was anxious to see if this one would live up to the high praise I had heard about. The short answer is this: it did. The long answer is the review which follows.

Lovesong is a story within a story. It’s not exactly metafiction, but it comes close. An elderly novelist searching for a subject to write about meets a middle-aged man with a story to tell.

Ken is on the verge of retirement (“My last novel was always going to be my last novel”), who lives with his 38-year-old daughter, Clare. Their relationship isn’t exactly fraught, but there are clearly tensions between them. And it doesn’t help that Clare only moved in for a few weeks when she was newly separated from her husband — and that was five years ago!

One day Ken notices a new pastry shop in his local neighbourhood, run by an intriguing couple: a North African woman in her early 40s — beautiful and self-possessed, but with a deep sadness in her eyes — and her Australian school teacher husband. They have a pretty six-year-old daughter.

Ken becomes slightly obsessed with them and wants to find out how they met, “this Aussie bloke and his exotic bride”, and engineers a meeting with the husband, John Patterner. Over the course of many afternoons, lingering over coffee in a local cafe, John tells Ken his story.

The story of himself and his wife, Sabiha, the beautiful woman from Tunisia whom he had married in Paris when he was a young man and she was little more than a girl. And the beautiful and terrible story of their little daughter Houria.

Ken then spends his evenings secretly typing up what he has been told. He can’t help himself: he needs to write — “During my life I had acquired no skills for not working and I soon found that not writing a book was harder than writing one was” — and these form the bulk of the novel Lovesong. What he had initially predicted as a “simple love story” is far more complicated, and tragic, than he ever could imagine.

John and Sabiha’s tale begins beautifully — and romantically — and brims with optimism for the future. But the couple work so hard running a busy and successful cafe in a seedy suburb of Paris that there is little time for anything else in their lives. By the time they realise they want different things — for Sabiha, a much longed for child, and for John, a permanent return to Australia — years have passed and it might be too late.

Lovesong is, indeed, just that: a love song. But it’s also a story about regret, about thwarted dreams, about the ways in which love between two people can change over time. It is incredibly romantic, but authentic — Miller really gets inside the heads of his characters, both male and female, and presents either side of the gender divide with aplomb.

There’s something about the cool, limpid prose that keeps sentimentality at bay. But despite its emotional detachment, this is one of the most affecting love stories I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the most thought-provoking. That’s largely due to the device of Ken — whose intelligent, writerly voice, only interrupts the main narrative on an occasional basis. But his presence begs the question: is he authorised to tell this tale? Or does John and Sabiha’s love story remain their’s alone to keep?

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, H. E. Bates, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, war

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 255 pages; 2005.

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. (The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton.)

The story begins with John Franklin’s Royal Airforce plane crash-landing in Occupied France at the height of the Second World War. Franklin, who has been “actively operational” for almost a year and isn’t far off notching up his first 300-hours of flying time, is accompanied by a crew of four sergeants.

The five of them survive the plane going down in marshland, but Franklin’s left arm is badly injured. After walking for an entire day, they come to a small farm on the edge of a woods. Here, they are taken in by a mill-owner and his family, who hide them in an upstairs bedroom.

The men plan to escape to Spain, but Franklin’s injury has left him too weak to travel. A clandestine visit to a local doctor is arranged, but the only cure, it seems, is bed rest.

This does not go down well with his crew, who are anxious to head for the border. They are not sure whether to trust the mill owner and his family, and they are frightened to stay on French soil lest they be captured by German forces that patrol the local area.

Eventually, the crew are provided with fake travel papers, arranged by the mill owner, but Franklin decides to stay behind until his arm heals. During this time he is nursed by the mill-owner’s daughter, Françoise, a strangely quiet but observant and cool-headed customer, with whom he falls in love.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not your average sappy romance, however. Set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Bates is also very good at evoking time and place. Because much of the story occurs over the course of a hot summer, there are beautiful descriptions of the French countryside baking in the heat, which, in turn, makes Franklin homesick.

Of England, his other thoughts were simple. He wanted a cup of tea. Since it must be mid-afternoon he found himself alone in the room, listening for the encouraging, clean, beautiful sound of rattled tea-cups. But as he lay there he could hear nothing but the deep and audible silence of the full summer day, so strong and drowsy that it seemed to press both his mind and body deeply back into the bed. Diana [his “best girl”] and tea and England: all of them like small and faintly unreal clouds, far distant and at the point of evaporation, on the horizon of the present world. A long time before they come any nearer, he thought. Ah well!

There is much tenderness and quiet beauty in this story, but there is heart-ache, pain and death, too. As Franklin grapples with his predicament — should he stay, or should he go — the reader begins to fear for the pilot’s survival: no matter which he chooses, surely his life is in danger?

This a book about trust and intimacy, not only between two people, but between allies in war. It is gut-wrenchingly sad in places, but brims with optimism. And when I discovered, towards the end of the novel, that Franklin was just 22, I found myself reeling from the knowledge. His maturity, his insight, his care for others — not just Françoise, but his crewmen, who must have been younger still — made my heart lurch. I defy anyone to read this book and not get completely wrapped up in this lovely, occasionally daring, story.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not only destined to be on my list of favourite reads of 2011 at year’s end, but one of my favourite books of all time. Do beg, borrow or buy a copy if you can.

Aidan Higgins, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Langrishe, Go Down’ by Aidan Higgins

Langrishe, Go Down

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 320 pages; 2007.

First published in 1966, Aidan Higgins’ first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is regarded as an Irish classic. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was later made into a television movie based on a screenplay by the great Harold Pinter.

It is by no means an easy read — it features literary flourishes characteristic of high modernism and a narrative that switches between third person and first person seemingly on a whim — but it is a rich and rewarding one. I also found it profoundly moving.

The story is set in Ireland in the 1930s. Four middle-aged sisters live in a crumbling estate set on 72 acres in Celbridge, County Kildare. They are unusual in that they are landed Catholics, but their parents are dead and the money has long since run out. But their social standing remains, even if the only way they can pay their bills is to cut down a stately ash tree in the garden for two quid (a trend started by their late father, who felled trees and sold them for firewood when he was desperate for cash).

The book opens with the older sister, Helen, taking a crowded bus journey back home from an outing in Dublin. It is evening and the bus is awash with “circles of bilious light” and “warm gusts of sweetish nauseous air”, all brought incredibly alive by Higgins’ masterful writing. Without any mention of time or date, we get an immediate sense of period by the Evening Herald lying open on Helen’s knee:

Well muffled up against the elements, the passengers read that the Italians were arming, that Herr von Ribbentrop had made a provocative speech at the Leipzig Fair, that the Pope had graciously given audience to Monsignor Pisani, Archbishop of Tomi. General Franco had spoken on the destined march of free Spain. At Melbourne, in cool summer weather, Australia had retained the Ashes.

By the time Helen gets home, we know the world is in a dire situation, that the Spanish Civil War is in full swing and the trouble is brewing in Germany. But the home front isn’t much better. Helen’s younger sister, Imogen, is prone to hypochondria and spends her days in bed, not wanting to rise, and her diet, comprising thin omelets sprinkled with parsley, has left her pale and weak. But what led to this situation?

The answer is revealed in part II, when the story jumps back in time, to 1932. In just over 150 pages, Higgins details the secret affair Imogen leads with her German lover, Otto Beck, a mature-age student who lives on the Langrishe farm. Otto is an intellectual, well read, well travelled and prone to talking endlessly about himself and his studies. (He is working on a thesis entitled The Ossianic Problem and the Actual Folk Sagas and Customs in 17th Century Ireland with special reference to the work of Goethe and the Brothers Grimm: a sociological-philological-critical study, a title that Imogen so deftly points out is “a bit of a mouthful”.) Imogen, a 40-something virgin, sees him as her last chance to experience love.

They embark on a passionate affair — which lasts “two springs, two summers, three autumns and two winters” — and suddenly Imogen’s rather routine domestic life takes on a new exciting element. But when she begins to realise that self-absorbed Otto is taking her for granted, that he is only interested in her body and not her mind, the relationship hits rocky ground. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say it ends badly, but it is heart-rending to read.

The breakdown of their relationship is perhaps a metaphor for the tragic decline of the house in which Imogen was raised. As the property falls into ruin, so, too, does Imogen’s simple, chaste life. Similarly, the ties that bind the sisters together begin to fray until very little love or friendship between them remains. And we could take it even further and suggest it mirrors the demise of Ireland’s old order of power, too.

If this sounds like a terribly melancholy story, then you’d be right. It’s heart-breaking in places, particularly when you realise that much of Imogen’s behaviour is characterised by small acts of desperation in order to escape her dull, dreary life. But there’s other emotion here, too, including love, passion and sexual desire, which balances the despair.

While this novel won’t be to everyone’s tastes — too literary, too modernist, too experimental — I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because it took me right out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a novel regarded by so many as a masterpiece.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna

Thelastfinesummer

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 267 pages; 1999.

I read John MacKenna’s The Space Between Us, a novel bought on a whim when perusing the New Island Books website, late last year. I enjoyed it so much I decided to seek out more of his work, only to find his three previous novels are now out of print. And so thanks to Amazon marketplace I managed to secure a copy of The Last Fine Summer, first published in 1997, for the princely sum of a few pence.

The Last Fine Summer is set in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s. It is narrated by Tim, a 29-year-old school teacher, who is grieving over the loss of his much younger lover, Jean, whom he addresses directly in a series of letters. This narrative is undercut with the story of Tim’s previous love affair with his best friend, Kevin, ten years earlier.

From the very first page we are told that both Jean and Kevin are dead, but we do not know the circumstances of their death, only that they died before their time. This is a superb plot device, because the reader knows what’s coming, but isn’t exactly sure when it will arrive.

MacKenna builds on this momentum by adding forbidden love into the mix: Jean is a student at Tim’s school; Kevin is gay. And if that wasn’t enough, mid-way through the affair with Kevin, Tim, who is confused about his own sexuality, fixes his sights on Kevin’s older sister, Hannah, so that a tricky and delicate ménage à trois results.

All this probably sounds sordid and trashy, but in MacKenna’s restrained, almost limpid, writing style, it comes across as beautiful and tragic. Much of the story is about teenagers finding their feet, negotiating that “last summer” when school ends and the rest of their lives begin. And while The Last Fine Summer may revolve around sexual love, there’s something deeper at its core: the relationship between fathers and sons.

Both Tim and Kevin are motherless from a young age. But where Tim forges a strong relationship with his quietly spoken dad, Kevin rails against his father, a farmer who is way too loose and heavy with his fists. It is this abuse which inspires Kevin to study hard so that he can escape the farm and go to college.

The Last Fine Summer is a powerful novel about love and loss, death and remorse. It is McGahern-like in its depiction of the passing seasons, of rural life, close-knit communities and the ways in which education can help you rise above your circumstances. I thoroughly enjoyed it and cannot understand why it is no longer in print. The bring-back-John-MacKenna’s-novels-into-print campaign starts here!

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Peter Goldsworthy, Publisher, Setting

‘Three Dog Night’ by Peter Goldsworthy

Three Dog Night by Peter Goldsworthy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 360 pages; 2004.

Martin Blackman is a psychiatrist who returns to Adelaide, Australia, after a decade living and working in London. He brings his new wife, Lucy, also a psychiatrist, with him. The couple have several weeks to kill before their new posts start, and so it is that Martin and Lucy hook-up with Felix, one of Martin’s childhood friends, who lives on a farm in the hills outside of the city.

Felix is a brilliant surgeon and has spent a large amount of time living and working in the Australian outback, specifically helping aboriginal communities. But the experience has changed him:

An athlete at school, full-bodied and muscular, he has shrunk to skin and bone. But his manner shocks me most of all — this air of cool mockery, so unlike the Felix of old.

Within minutes of meeting Lucy for the first time Felix has been incredibly rude and scathing towards her, a pattern that is to follow every time the trio meet up. But later it becomes obvious that his obnoxious attitude is a shield for his true feelings: he has fallen in love with her. And so, without wishing to include any plot spoilers in this review, the story focuses on a very tricky, morally ambiguous ménage à trois that has drastic and long-lasting repercussions for all of the characters.

An unsettling read

Admittedly I found Three Dog Night to be quite an unsettling and disturbing book. As much as I enjoyed Goldsworthy’s lovely writing style, heavily influenced by the landscape and wildlife of Australia (I felt homesick reading his descriptions of the weather — “a luminous morning saturated with sunlight and parrots” and the landscape — “a geometric patchwork of orchard groves and vine rows and plush carpet-squares of lucerne and clover”), I found it difficult to like any of the characters. Martin, the narrator, comes across as particularly weak-willed and so in love with his wife that it becomes almost sickening to read.

If love is an obsessive-compulsive disorder […] then I have been ill for years. But never as sick with bliss, as diseased, as now.

And Lucy, subject to so much adulation from her husband and just about everyone else she meets, comes across as nothing more than a sexual object, albeit with a limp that all the men in this novel seem creepily obsessed by. Meanwhile Felix is so utterly detestable you really wish he’d either disappear out of the storyline or someone would throw the punch I so wanted to send his way!

As ever, I know that you shouldn’t judge a book merely on the basis of whether you like the characters or not. That Goldsworthy can craft such a highly entertaining and readable novel out of these occasionally snooty, high-browed and weak-willed people speaks volumes for his writing ability. I found all the characters to behave in inexplicable ways; they puzzled me, irritated me and sometimes made me angry. But I still wanted to find out what happened to them…

As much as I did not love the book, I did admire it and am glad I read it. It’s very much a story about love, friendship, betrayal, divided loyalties and alienation. But it also provides a fascinating glimpse into aboriginal culture and traditions, made all the more striking when the book largely revolves around characters whom generally inhabit the world of western medicine, with its white coats, doctors and reliance on science and technology.

About the author

For those who don’t know, Goldsworthy is an Australian GP who also happens to be an award-winning writer of novels, poetry and short stories. According to wikipedia, he also writes opera libretti and has been credited as a writer on three films. Last month he was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for service to literature as an author and poet, through arts administration, and to the community”.

Three Dog Night, first published in 2003, is his sixth novel. It won the the 2004 Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award and seems to have been shortlisted for every other award going including: the 2003 Colin Roderick Award; the 2004 Miles Franklin Award; the 2004 The Courier-Mail Book of the Year; the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; and the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, it made the longlist for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, too.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna

SpaceBetweenUs

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 282 pages; 2009.

At what point do you decide to abandon a book? I ask, because I came very close to abandoning this one by Irish writer John MacKenna. I struggled with the first 54 pages, not quite believing the dialogue (too verbose, too artificial) nor the characters (too one-dimensional, too false). But something convinced me to keep reading on, because who knows, maybe it would get better. And, thankfully, it did.

Reviewing this book proves somewhat problematic, however, because the plot has several key revelations which are best discovered by simply reading the book rather than reading this review. (And, whatever you do, don’t read the review or “product description” on Amazon, because they’re riddled with spoilers. I found this out the hard way, but even though I discovered what was going to happen, The Space Between Us still left me reeling at the end, part in shock, part in awe.)

The basic premise of the novel goes something like this.

A young architect opens the door to two police officers (or guards, as they are known in Ireland) who inform him that his wife, a solicitor, has been killed in a car crash. His reaction is not what one would expect. Instead of being overwhelmed with grief he’s overwhelmed by relief — their marriage had been floundering for a long time but neither party had had the courage to end it. Now, left alone to raise his two-year-old daughter, our unnamed narrator has been given a second chance to start afresh. When a married friend, Kate, confesses she’s in love with him, there seems only one road to take…

The book then jumps ahead 17 years and we discover the narrator living in the same house, but alone. His daughter, Jane, is studying classical music at university, but comes home to spend her weekends with him and their dog, the impossibly named Rostropovich. The story then follows our narrator for a year, and in that year, we find him being tested on very many levels.

“You need to stop letting things happen to you and make them happen for you,” his neighbour berates him one day.

“You need to be more passionate about life. And I’m not talking about shagging me. I’m talking about you and this way you have of sitting back and letting life wash over you. I’ve known you for twenty years and you’ve allowed yourself to just exist, you’ve lived without passion.”

This seems to mirror something Beth, his late wife, once told him when they were on holiday in Amsterdam almost 20 years earlier. She thought a permanent move to the Netherlands would be the impetus needed to kick-start his career to the next level, “the move that gives you the grand design”. But he’s content designing houses in small-town Ireland and the idea doesn’t interest him.

“I think you’re afraid of the world,” Beth said. I knew by her eyes she was serious. “I think you feel safe being the medium-sized fish in a tiny pond. But what happens if another fish appears in that pond?”

In essence this is a novel about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices. It’s also very much about unrequited love, death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters. And I defy anyone not to read this and be incredibly moved by the gentle prose and the emotional story that unfolds but most of all by the powerhouse ending that turns everything else on its head. This book isn’t what I expected, it’s far more shocking and disturbing than I could have possibly envisaged, and I rather suspect anyone who decides to give it a try will concur.

Oh, and if anyone does read this book, please come back and let me know: I’m dying to have a proper discussion about it, as it throws up so many interesting topics and issues.