Author, Belinda McKeon, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Tender’ by Belinda McKeon

Tender

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 448 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Several years ago I read Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, which explored the age-old (Irish) story of strained relationships between fathers and sons. In Tender, her second novel, she explores a different kind of relationship, that of friendship between men and women — in this case two young adults, Catherine and James — and the pressure brought to bear on it by competition with peers, academic life, sexual politics and obsession.

Girl meets boy

It is 1997 and Catherine, who comes from a rural farming community, moves to Dublin from Longford to begin her studies in art history and English. James is a photography assistant, who has a room in a flat he shares with two school friends, Amy and Lorraine. When he gets a job with a big-shot photographer in Berlin, he moves out — and Catherine moves in. The pair, however, don’t meet until James returns on a temporary basis a few months down the line.

From the very start their relationship is electric. Catherine doesn’t quite know how to take James, a street-wise drifter and struggling artist who has an air of mystery and the exotic about him. His often upfront, occasionally confrontational and extroverted attitude shocks and delights her in equal measure. Before long she’s rather infatuated with him.

And even though the story is told largely through Catherine’s eyes (albeit in the third person), it’s clear that James is equally enamoured of his new friend, and a kind of co-dependence kicks in.

That day in Dublin […] they had hugged goodbye at the station, and Catherine had wondered if she was meant to understand it, what was going on between them. Because something was going on. She felt so close to him already by that stage, and the phone calls that followed confirmed it; the way James spoke to her during the phone calls confirmed it. The directness. The openness. […] And now, during their phone calls, it was the same, and again, she felt herself wanting to scuttle away from it, somehow; from the way he told her he missed her, that he wanted to have her company again. Always she listened for the irony, for the trace of mockery, but it was never there; he was serious. He was saying aloud the stuff that, Catherine now realised, she had always thought you were meant to keep silent.

The book charts the relationship between James and Catherine over the course of a couple of intense years and then fast forwards to 2012 to explore the status of their friendship almost 15 years after their first meeting. Did it survive the ups and downs,  and incredible strains placed upon it, all those years ago when they were teenagers?

Of course, I’m not going to reveal that here, because you need to read the book to find out for yourself. But let’s just say this is more than a boy-meets-girl story, for Tender is very much about what happens when you try to turn a friend into someone they’re not, when you project on to them feelings that can never truly be reciprocated.

It’s mainly about a young woman not being quite honest with herself, for Catherine loves the fact that she has a “special” friend because of the attention it garners her, but her naivety is alarming, as is her needy attitude, which quickly morphs into a self-destructive obsession.

Brilliant and believable characters

The superb characterisation is what makes this novel truly come alive — we’ve all known larger-than-life characters like James, perhaps we’ve also known characters like Catherine, who is quiet and mousey but comes into her own in the company of someone else. The further you read the story, the more absorbed you become by their claustrophobic relationship — I often felt like a voyeur looking in, almost embarrassed to share such close company with them, for their friendship is so interdependent and inward-looking, yet it morphs and changes over time. It took me quite awhile to realise that Catherine is not a particularly nice person, however — her neediness, her selfishness, her desire to keep James to herself is cruel and heartbreaking to read about. She never truly allows James to be himself.

Catherine also lacks maturity, doesn’t know how to handle things, is out of her depth emotionally, and refuses to accept or acknowledge when she can’t have things her own way. It’s not that she’s a bad person, she has good intentions, but she lacks self-awareness and doesn’t realise the long-term repercussions of her behaviour.

The way in which McKeon gently exposes the cracks in their friendship is expertly paced. Indeed, this is the kind of book you sit down and get drawn in by — it’s hefty, weighing in at more than 400 pages, but I raced through it, completely absorbed by the story that unfolds in such beautiful, almost breathless, prose. It’s full of quietly powerful, often joyful, sometimes excruciatingly painful, moments, perfectly capturing what it is like to be young and free for the first time in your life. Two months after having reached the final page I’m still thinking about these wonderfully drawn characters, released into a world where you must learn to stand on your own two feet regardless of the company you keep…

Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fred Uhlman, Germany, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman

Reunion

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 98 pages; 2012.  

Fred Uhlman’s classic novella Reunion — first published in 1971 — is a universal story about the friendship between two teenage school boys. But this is no average story, no average friendship, for it is set in Germany in the early 1930s, just as Nazism is on the rise.

Teenage friendship

The story is narrated by middle-class Hans Schwarz, the son of a Jewish doctor and grandson of a rabbi, looking back on a special friendship he shared with the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfel, whose parents sided with Hitler, some 25 years after they lost contact with one another.

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. […] I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

The book charts the rise and fall of their friendship over the course of a year. Right from the start Hans, who is friendless and lonely at school, is enamoured by Konradin’s arrival in their classroom for the first time:

We stared at him as if we had seen a ghost. What struck me and probably all of us more than anything else, more than his self-assured bearing, his aristocratic air and slight, faintly supercilious smile, was his elegance. We were all, so far as our style of dress was concerned, a dreary lot. […] But with this boy it was different. He wore long trousers, beautifully cut and creased, obviously not off the peg like ours. His suit looked expensive: it was light grey with a herringbone pattern and almost certainly “Guaranteed English”. He wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie with small white polka-dots; in contrast our neckwear was dirty, greasy and rope-like. Even though we regarded any attempt at elegance as “sissy”, we couldn’t help looking enviously at this picture of ease and distinction.

It takes a concerted effort to “woo” Konradin by the shy Hans, but eventually they bond over a shared love of coin collecting. Konradin is welcomed into the Schwarz family home after school on a regular basis, but the favour takes a long time to be returned — and when it is, it doesn’t take Hans long to realise that he is only ever invited over when Konradin’s parents are away.

Tensions in the friendship become heightened — almost in tandem with the rise of anti-Semitism in German society — and things come to a head just as Hitler is about to be appointed Chancellor. I won’t say any more, but the book has a spine-tingling — and quite unexpected — final sentence that gives the story extra resonance and poignancy.

A portrait of an ideal friendship

Reunion is a beautiful depiction of an “ideal friendship” between two 16-year-old boys from different backgrounds. Though we largely experience it from Hans’ point of view, it perfectly captures the all-pervasive need to have that one special person in our lives — with whom we can share our interests, our troubles, our desires — when we are teens. It also highlights how loyalty can be tested, in this case to the extreme, by circumstances beyond our control.

I loved the mood of the book — it’s nostalgic and wistful without being sentimental — and it’s written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way but is done so eloquently the sentences feel as if they’ve been spun from silk. It’s a quick read, too, but it’s the kind of story that stays with you, not least because it shows how friendships can endure beyond the worst of human catastrophe.

My edition includes a short introduction written by French novelist Jean d’Ormesson in 1997, but the novella has also been championed by Arthur Koestler, who described it as a “minor masterpiece”, and Rachel Seiffert. It came to my attention via Armen, a member of my book group, who recommended it to me late last year.

Finally, I should point out that Uhlman wrote Reunion in English, not German. He emigrated to the UK in 1936 after stints in France and Spain. You can read more about his eventful life on his Wikipedia page.

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

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

Landscape-of-farewell

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2008.

Landscape of Farewell is Alex Miller‘s eighth novel. It was first published in 2007 and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008.

End of a life?

The story is told from the perspective of an elderly German academic, who is grieving over the death of his beloved wife, but finds new hope for his future in a rather unexpected way.

When the book opens, we meet Professor Max Otto as he prepares to die: he has the pills and the bottle of alcohol ready, but first he has to deliver his last public lecture entitled The Persistence of the Phenomenon of Massacre in Human Society from the Earliest Times to the Present — the title and subject matter is important — in front of his peers in the grand library at Warburg Haus.

After the applause has died down, he is challenged by a member of the audience — an Aboriginal Australian academic visiting Hamburg — who says: “How can this man presume to speak of massacre and not speak of my people?”

She was like a bright, exotic raptor spreading her gorgeous plumage in the midst of the ranks of these drab fowls. Her wild cry evidently called me to account. Once she had established an expectant silence, her voice rode upon it, her words filled with scorn and contempt. She was a woman in command of her audience and was clearly intent upon defending territory. In other words, she was young, intelligent and ambitious. With a touch of annoyance, I realised that I was not going to be permitted to slip away without being required to answer for my shoddy paper.

While Max is slightly stunned by the encounter, he’s not too worried by it — his suicide awaits. But on the walk home, his accuser, Vita McLelland (whom I suspect is a thinly veiled version of Dr Anita Heiss) confronts him again and the pair end up going for a drink, which distracts Max from his planned death.

The pair strike up a surprising friendship, and Max is invited to Australia to talk at a conference Vita is organising. During his visit he spends several weeks staying with Vita’s uncle, a cultural adviser and Aboriginal elder, in the Queensland bush, where he finally comes to terms with a past he has long sought to forget.

Sins of the fathers

The most surprising element of this book is the way in which it focuses on the “sins of the fathers” without ever once mentioning the word “Nazi” or term “Jewish holocaust” — and yet, clearly, this is what Max has been struggling with his whole life:

The subject of massacre, however, had obsessed me for a time in my youth, but I had found myself unable to make any headway in it owing to my emotional inhibitions, not least of which was a paralysing sense of guilt-by-association with the crimes of my father’s generation, and after several false starts I had abandoned the subject and fallen silent. It had remained an unexamined silence throughout my life and was my principal regret.

This keeping quiet about troubling events — or, as Vita puts it, “our inability to memorialise the deeds of our fathers” — is something shared by Vita’s uncle, the quiet and hard-working Dougald, whose great-grandfather, the warrior Gnapun, was responsible for the massacre of a white community in which 19 people died*.

When Dougald shares this story with Max, he asks Max to write it down for him so that it can be passed on to others and not die with him. This allows Max to see that there are ways to tell the truth about subjects that are hard to talk about and that shameful pasts are not unique to Germans unable to deal with what happened in the Second World War.

Common links

What I loved most about Landscape of Farewell is the way Miller takes two seemingly disparate cultures — Germans and Indigenous Australians — and shows their surprising similarities. Indeed, the message seems to be that we are all human, are all troubled by past wrongs but that it is up to successive generations to deal with that and to find their own truth in order to move forward.

But this is also very much a book about silence and the ways in which men find it difficult to open up to one another. It’s a significant turning point in the novel when Max and Dougald finally talk about important matters, because it is only then that the pair — and Max in particular — can reconcile their own individual pasts with the history of their respective countries.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to point out that the landscape of the Australian bush plays a strong role in the novel too, for it is the silence of these wide open spaces that gives Max room to think, which, in turn, aids his “recovery”.

Landscape of Farewell is a wise, knowing and intelligent novel, not only about grappling with history, but of growing old, forging friendships and being kind to one another. It makes me even more keen to read the rest of Miller’s prize-winning back catalogue.

* In his Acknowledgements, Miller says this is based on the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, supposedly the largest-ever massacre of white settlers by Indigenous Australians in Australia’s history. You can read more about this event at Wikipedia.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner

TheSpareRoom

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 180 pages; 2008.

Even before I started reading Helen Garner‘s The Spare Room I knew I was going to like it. It was the design of the book that convinced me, because surely a publisher wouldn’t go to all this trouble to make it look so beautiful if the content was rubbish? The cover image grabbed me initially when I ordered it online, but once I had it in my possession I loved the whole package: the gorgeous cover image (tulips are my favourite flowers); the dust jacket with its luxurious matt sheen; the pretty endpapers (tulip petals interspersed with green leaves); and a green bound bookmark.

But putting the sheer physical beauty of the book aside, The Spare Room is also rather special because it is Garner’s first novel in 16 years. Her last novel, Cosmo Comolino, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1992, but she then took a different writing path, concentrating on short stories and journalism. The first (and only) Garner I have read was The First Stone, a non-fiction account of a sexual harassment scandal at a residential college at the University of Melbourne, which caused much controversy upon publication in 1995. I ate that book up in the course of a day and closed the last page feeling dazed, slightly dirty and not quite sure whether the author was a genius or a traitor. Having now read The Spare Room my opinion lies toward the former rather than the latter.

That other great Australian author Peter Carey endorses Garner’s talent by describing her new book as a “perfect novel”.  Of course this is an oft overused trite phrase but, in this specific case, it’s a wholly appropriate one. In fact, I’d go so far as to describe it as a sublime novel, and one that works its way into your subconscious so that you find yourself thinking about it when you are doing other things.

Reviewing the book is difficult though, because the synopsis sounds terribly dull and depressing. A 60-something woman offers her spare room to a cancer-stricken friend of the same age and then finds their relationship tested to the core, doesn’t really grab you by the throat, does it? And yet, in Garner’s careful hands this story becomes a thoroughly engrossing one. The carefully measured prose, stripped of unnecessary clutter, serves to remove the claustrophobia of such a dark storyline, imbuing it with a light-hearted touch. Indeed, there were many times when I laughed out loud, not the least of when Nicola, the cancer sufferer, asks Helen, the friend caring for her, to buy some organic coffee for an enema.

When I saw her brewing the organic coffee in the kitchen after dinner, I said tentatively, ‘Do you need a hand to set it up? I can…
She shook her head, too busy to listen.
‘I wonder, though,’ I said, as she forged off to the bathroom with the equipment. ‘Is it a good idea to have a coffee enema at bedtime? You don’t think the caffeine might keep you awake?’
‘Why on earth would it do that, darling?’ she said breezily. ‘I won’t be drinking it — I’ll only be putting it up my bum.’

Supposedly based on Garner’s own experience of caring for a dying friend, The Spare Room has a genuine ring of authenticity about it. You can understand Helen’s anger, her fear, her inability to look after her dying friend, even if it is for just three weeks, because you know to be in a similar situation you’d probably feel the same way. Why should a friend do what a family member should be doing? And what happens if this friend dies in your spare room?

This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.

The Spare Room is one of those books that throws you in at the deep end and, to completely mix my metaphors, you either run with it or you don’t. I’m pleased to say I ran with it… and only wished it was longer than its brief 180 pages.