Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Greece, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton

The-Riders-2

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 377 pages; 2008.

Tim Winton is easily one of Australia’s most successful writers and yet I’ve only read one of his novels: the award-winning CloudStreet, which is pretty much compulsory reading if you are Australian. But earlier this month, having just joined my local library, I stumbled upon The Riders and decided to borrow it for a read. I did not expect to like it very much.

Boy, was I wrong. I bloody well couldn’t put this one down. I ate it up in a matter of days, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. And now that I’ve long finished it — about a month ago now — I’m still thinking about it and wondering about the characters and trying to figure out why they made the decisions they made and whether any of them genuinely knew what they were doing. The lives of Fred Scully, his wife Jennifer and their daughter Billie will be forever etched in my memory.

The story is set in the late 1980s. The time period is important, because this was the era before mobile phone technology, before the internet, before cheap overseas landline calls. This was the time in which moving to the other side of the world had huge implications because communications were so difficult, complicated — and slow. Indeed, for much of this novel, the prime method of communication is the telegram: a succinct typewritten note delivered by hand.

The Scully’s are somewhat typical young Australians in that they have done the “compulsory” overseas stint, living and working in London, Paris and Greece. But a long weekend to Ireland, to fill in a few days before their final return home to Perth, changes their lives in unimaginable ways. Jennifer falls in love with a dilapidated 18th century peasant’s cottage (or “bothy”) in County Offaly and they pretty much buy it on the spot. The idea is that Fred, a kind of Jack of all trades who’s funded their travels by working on building sites and the like, will stay behind and make the cottage habitable. Meanwhile Jennifer, who is pregnant, will take Billie back home to Australia, pack up their belongings and sell the family home.

This is all back story, because when the novel opens, Fred (everyone, including his daughter, calls him Scully) is holed up in Ireland, doing the hard graft. Some 12 weeks into the project he gets word, via telegram, that Jennifer has sold the house and will be arriving in Shannon Airport on December 13. The excitement of her imminent arrival is palpable.

But on the day of their much awaited reunion only Billie steps off the plane. Jennifer is nowhere to be seen. There is no note and Billie, who is just a child, is mute, so traumatised by the situation that she refuses to speak.

Scully put the bucket of chips and the orange juice in front of his daughter and tried to think calmly. She’d said not a word since arriving and it compounded his anxiety. They sat across the white laminex table from one another, and to strangers they looked equally pasty and stunned. Billie ate her chips without expression.
“Can you tell me?”
Billie looked at the buffet bar, the procession of travellers with red plastic trays in hand.
“Billie, I’ve got a big problem. I don’t know what’s happening. I expected two people and only one came.”
Billie chewed, her eyes meeting his for a moment before she looked down at her juice.
“Did Mum get hurt or sick or something at the airport in London?”
Billie chewed. […]
“Was she on the plane with you from Perth? She must have been. She had to be. Billie, you gotta help me. Can you help me?”
Scully looked at her and knew whatever it was, it wasn’t small, not when you saw the terrible stillness of her face. She was a chatterbox, you couldn’t shut her up usually, and she could handle a small hitch, ride out a bit of complication with some showy bravery, but this.

This is the start of an amazing, sometimes terrifying and quite thrilling (for the reader) adventure, in which Scully drags Billie across Europe looking for his missing wife. And, as he does so, retracing the family’s steps though Greece, France and, later, Amsterdam, he goes through every emotion in the book — rage, heartache, misery, depression — all the while trying to keep things in check for Billie’s sake.

But the hardest part for Scully is coming to terms with the fact that Jennifer may not be the woman he thought she was. While he knows that he has married above his station — he’s a “working-class boofhead” after all, and she’s a university-educated bureaucrat — he begins to wonder if he’s been well and truly duped.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, but I particularly appreciated the strength of the father-daughter relationship and the unconditional love between Scully and Billie. And how nice to read about a father who takes his parental responsibilities seriously, when so many modern novels feature absent, abusive or incapable fathers.

Winton’s prose is also hugely evocative. He is especially good at describing places, such as the streets of Paris or the landscapes of rural Ireland — and on more than one occasion I couldn’t help but think the book would make a wonderful movie, because the narrative is so filmic.

Of course the narrative pacing, and Scully’s rising panic and poor decision-making, makes The Riders a real page turner. The whole time I had my heart in my throat, my pulse racing as I itched to discover what really happened to Jennifer and whether Scully would ever track her down. Without giving away the ending, let me say it wasn’t what I expected — and I’m still thinking about it weeks afterwards.

The Riders, which was first published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995.

1001 books, Anne Michaels, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Greece, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels

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Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 304 pages; 1997.

Sometimes I find myself unexpectedly reading one novel after another that share similar themes. I think this is what you call serendipity. Or maybe it’s sheer coincidence. But whatever the case, I couldn’t help but compare Anne Michaels’ 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces with the book I’d just finished, Hugo Hamilton’s more recent Disguise.

Both books tell the stories of young Polish boys, orphaned during the Second World War, who start afresh but are haunted by events of the past. But where Hamilton’s novel fails to really pack any emotional punch, perhaps because of the understated writing style and his emphasis on telling not showing, Michaels delivers a hugely poignant story that reverberates long after you reach the final page.

There’s something exceptional about Michaels use of language, which conveys the precise mood of a particular moment using prose that reads like poetry, not surprising given she’s an award-winning poet. Here’s an example:

White aspens make black shadows, a photographic negative. The sky wavers between snow and rain. The light is a dull clang, old, an echo of light.

And so it goes. Admittedly, I found this lyrical use of language a little off-putting to begin with, but once I got used to the rhythms and the pacing and let it wash over me I was held in its sway. In fact, I had to do everything in my power not to underline every second passage because I’d end up spending more time vandalising my book than reading it.

But what about the story, I hear you say. Well, it’s just as beautiful and haunting, really. It’s divided into two parts.

The first is narrated by Jakob Beer, a seven-year-old Jewish boy, who witnesses the Nazis storming his house, killing his parents and older sister. He flees and hides himself in the boggy marshes of a nearby wood, where he is later discovered by a Greek geologist, Athos, who takes him back to the sun-filled Greek island of Zakynthos and brings him up as his own son. Here, Jakob is given unconditional love and is schooled in everything from the English language to archaeology. The horrors of the war are never far away though, particular as the island is under German occupation.

Later, the pair immigrate to Canada, and set up home in Toronto. Jakob goes to university, falls in love, gets married, becomes a poet and translator. But all the while he mourns the loss of his parents and, in particular, his sister, whose ghostly presence he feels long into his old age.

The second part is narrated by Ben, a 20-something married man, who has long admired Jakob’s poetry, and goes on a mission to find Jakob’s long lost personal journals. It is this second part that allows the reader to view Jakob from a different perspective, to see how a certain kind of sadness has permeated his life, and how he has long struggled to find his rightful place in the world.

In many ways this book is about Jakob’s desire to put the past behind him in order to move into the future. It’s a heartfelt tale about one man’s search for happiness in the face of such enormous personal loss.

Fugitive Pieces won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1996, the Trillium Book Award in 1996, the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997 and the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1997.

Arrow Books, Author, Book review, Corfu, Deborah Lawrenson, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Songs of Blue and Gold’ by Deborah Lawrenson

SongsOfBlueandGold

Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 384 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the author.

Songs of Blue and Gold is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Best described as a “literary romance” it has all the hallmarks of a great read: lively, engaging characters; an intriguing back story and mystery to unravel; a strong sense of place; and a solid, believable plot. It’s the kind of story you might imagine Maeve Binchy penning if she ditched the fluff for something decidedly more intelligent.

The book tells the story of 30-something Melissa, whose life is slowly falling apart in London. When Elizabeth, her ill mother, thrusts a book called Collected Poems by the famous writer Julian Adie into her hands, she does not understand the significance until she later discovers an inscription by the author:

“To Elizabeth, always remembering Corfu, what could have been and what we must both forget”.

When her mother unexpectedly dies, Melissa embarks on a voyage of discovery — literally and figuratively. Fleeing her own crumbling marriage, she visits Corfu for herself, hoping that some much-needed sun may brighten her outlook on life. But here, in the beautiful horseshoe bay of Kalami, she finds out more about her mother than she could have ever imagined.

It turns out Elizabeth had a clandestine and tumultuous romance almost 40 years earlier with the infamous womaniser that was Julian Adie.  And here, at the very heart of the affair, Melissa manages to discover a deadly secret that explains why her mother never mentioned Adie’s name in her presence…

Lawrenson said she wrote the book based on the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”.

Interwoven with this background were his many loves and four marriages. He seemed to pack so many different lives into one! And while he was a comet blazing, what of the women he collided with along the way, I wondered? How did their stories end? And what of those he met, whose lives he changed but who did not even rate a footnote in his biography? Soon I was busy inventing Julian Adie and Elizabeth.

But you don’t need to know anything about Durrell to appreciate this hugely beguiling novel — although I’m sure there is added meaning to be gained if you do.

I particularly enjoyed its exploration of biography and “truth” and how we present different images of ourself to different people. Lawrenson achieves this by breaking up the main narrative with various “texts” on Julian Adie’s life. This includes official biography, Melissa’s own “memoir” and an American academic’s exposé of Adie’s possible involvement in an unexplained death.

But what I liked most about Songs of Blue and Gold — aside from the confident narrative — was the rich, evocative descriptions of Corfu that fill the pages. Here’s one of my favourites:

Every hour seemed to make her eyes open wider, her senses more acute. Each time she walked the tiny main road, effectively barely more than a lane, she noticed more: the powerful scent of jasmine escaping over a wall; bright globes in orange and lemon trees; the violet trumpets of morning glory winding through wire fencing; and everywhere the ancient gnarled olive tree, each composites of several intertwining trunks, some so holed and intricately braided you could see right through them. From the balcony of her apartment, she watched the sun set. The mountains across the water, in a reverse of the morning’s display, burned red and peach, then pink to purple. Isolated wisps of cloud made brushstrokes of black on the evening canvas.

This is a thoughtful, entertaining read, and a much more literary book than the cover image or blurb conveys. I highly recommend it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Greece, Maeve Binchy, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘Nights of Rain and Stars’ by Maeve Binchy

NightsofRainandStars

Fiction – paperback; Orion; 400 pages; 2005.

Reading a book by Maeve Binchy is akin to sitting in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter’s day with a box of chocolates and a bottle of red wine: cosy and comforting. Maeve Binchy is one of my guilty pleasures, although it’s been about a decade since I last succumbed to temptation.

Night of Rain and Stars is not strictly typical Binchy fare, mainly because it’s set in Greece (not Ireland) in current times (not the 1950s or 60s). But it still has heart-warming characters, each of whom is struggling with personal issues. First, there’s David a young Englishman on the run from his parents who want him to work in the family business; Elsa, a beautiful and kind (there’s always one of these characters in a Binchy book) TV journalist from Germany on the run from a lover she cannot trust; Fiona, a naive nurse from Dublin who’s hooked up with a violent boyfriend her family can’t stand; and Thomas, a Californian academic on sabbatical who is still hurting from a divorce in which he lost custody of his young son.

These four characters are thrown together after a shipping disaster in the harbour of the idyllic Greek village they are all visiting for the summer holidays. Within days they have forged firm friendships with one another and discovered that they are all on the run from problems at home. Together, with the help of two local residents —  Andreas the elderly Greek taverna owner and Vonni the middle-aged expat Irishwoman who runs a craft shop — each person finds a solution they’d not ever anticipated.

Okay, it sounds a little soppy — and completely unrealistic (I mean, who makes instant friendships on a holiday?), but to be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely story which is about family relationships and the bonds of friendship. It’s an easy read, helped by ginormous-sized printing (perhaps indicating the “older” age group this book is likely to attract), but it’s a quick read too if you don’t mind stories without an obivous plot and a happy, relatively predictable, ending.

This book isn’t going to challenge you on any literary or intellectual level, but it doesn’t make any claims to do so. And sometimes it’s nice to read something completely escapist and “dependable”, isn’t it?