Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Philip Roth, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA, Vintage

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 280 pages; 2011.

Reading a novel about a polio epidemic while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic might seem like an odd thing to do. Aren’t we all scared enough? But I thought that Philip Roth’s Nemesis might offer some insights into how people behave during health scares and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Newark polio epidemic

The story is set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944. It’s a scary time. There’s a war raging in Europe and the Pacific, but closer to home there’s another threat, a contagious disease that largely targets children. It’s called polio and is known as the “summer disease” because it only appears during the warmer months.

It starts with a headache and a fever and then leads to paralysis of the body and limbs. In severe cases, patients are put in “iron lungs” — a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe on their own — for months at a time. Survivors can end up in wheelchairs or have to wear callipers to support withered limbs. Many die. There is no known cure.

The story is framed around 23-year-old Bucky Cantor whose poor eyesight means he hasn’t been able to enlist in the Army. His thoughts are never far away from the battlefield: two of his best friends signed up and are fighting somewhere in France. Bucky finds a good job as the director of a playground, in a Jewish part of town, where he teaches his young charges physical education and supervises their games.

He is well-liked and popular; never more so than when he stands up to a group of Italian teenagers who arrive in two cars to “spread polio” one sunny afternoon. “We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around,” says one of the guys, who then proceeds to spit all over the sidewalk.

Several days later two of Bucky’s students come down with polio; both eventually die. There is no proof the Italians spread the disease (after they spat on the sidewalk, Bucky washed it all down) but no one really knows how the contagion is passed on. Is it via human contact? Maybe it’s from food? Or is it the water? Why are some neighbourhoods more badly affected than others?

So little is known that rumours and conspiracies abound. People want the playground shut down, the Italian gang to be lynched, the local hotdog vendor to close and entire apartment blocks to be quarantined.

Bewilderment and fear

Bucky begins to feel the weight of people’s grief and fears, their panic and bewilderment, their pain and outrage. People on the street mistake him for a Health Department official and yell their fury at him. He is devoted to the playground, keeping it open and providing a safe place for boys to play, but he’s fearful of who might fall sick next. He begins to feel guilty that maybe he didn’t do enough to stop two of his charges from dying.

His girlfriend, a first grade teacher working at a summer camp in the hills, offers him a reprieve. There’s an opening at the camp for a waterfront director and Bucky, an accomplished diver and swimmer, would be ideal for the job.

He prevaricates for a week or two — he needs to stay in the city to keep an eye on the grandmother who raised him — but eventually succumbs to the idea of fresh air and a fresh start.

The second half of the book charts Bucky’s time at the India Hill camp and his romance with Marcia. But when a fellow camp instructor falls ill, Bucky can’t help but think he brought the poliovirus with him. How many children has he now put at risk? How many parents will suffer the loss of a loved one?

Surviving a contagion 

Nemesis is a gripping account of an epidemic from another time and place seen through the eyes of one man.

It’s eloquently written in Roth’s typical forthright style and is told in the third person. But midway through we discover it is being told through the eyes of one of Bucky’s former students looking back on the summer of 1944. The narrator, it turns out, caught polio but survived. It’s an unusual device, and perhaps not entirely necessary, but it does show that the disease was not always a death sentence.

This novel also shows how rumour and fear can spread almost as fast, if not faster, than the contagion itself, and looks at the responsibility that we all hold to behave with the good of others in mind. Washing your hands and the need for quarantine are frequently mentioned. Yes, I think there might be lessons in this book for us all.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book, but it first attracted my attention when the late KevinfromCanada reviewed it on his blog back in 2010.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London: This story is set in a children’s convalescent home in Perth, Western Australia during a polio outbreak in 1954.

This is my 9th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. The press release tucked into the cover of this book indicates that it was sent to me unsolicited in October 2011. I was obviously interested in reading it because it survived dozens of book culls over the years and was packed in my suitcase when I moved back to Australia in June last year. It may possibly be the oldest book I own here.

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth, first published in 2010, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “blasting, late novel about the terrors of contagion”, adding that the author “takes the American man further than ever before in his fiction; into the politics of his being, and to the limit of what might be possible for him”.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Setting, USA

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 272 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Kent Haruf’s Benediction is the final volume in the author’s Plainsong Trilogy, which also comprises Plainsong and Eventide, two of my favourite novels from the past couple of years. All three are set in the fictional rural town of Holt, Colorado, and each is just as lovely, heartbreaking and joyful as the one that precedes it.

One last summer

In Benediction, which was recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, we meet Dad Lewis, the owner of a local hardware store, who has terminal cancer. His last final summer is spent getting his affairs in order — making sure the business goes on without him, preferably with his somewhat reluctant adult daughter in charge — and catching up with old friends and loved ones, who visit him and his wife, offering prayers and assistance.

But as the story gently unfolds and Dad recalls incidents from his long life, we discover that he won’t be entirely at peace until he finds his son, Frank, who fled the family home as a teenager, more than 30 years ago.

Several other characters dance around the edges of this main narrative: an orphaned girl called Alice, who moves in next door to live with her grandmother; Alene and Willa, the elderly mother and adult daughter, who befriend Alice; and Reverend Rob Lyle, a new arrival in town, whose familial relationships are strained, along with the relationship he has with his congregation.

And, once again, the town of Holt, is also a character — in this case, melting in the heat of a long, hot summer, some time after 9/11, when America is mired in the “war on terror” and public suspicions are running high.

Ordinary people

There’s a telling scene about mid-way through this book, when Reverend Lyle, who has been accused of being a terrorist sympathiser, wanders around the streets observing the residents through the windows at nightfall. He’s not stalking them or doing anything deliberately creepy. He tells the police that he simply wants to witness people’s lives — he wants to capture the “precious ordinary”.

And that’s an apt description for what Haruf achieves in this novel: he captures the precious ordinary of people leading ordinary lives in ordinary small-town America. He makes no judgement about them. He simply shows us their struggles and their small joys, he gives us their backstories and highlights the various decisions — some bad, some good — they made along the way, and he lets the reader come to their own conclusions about them.

I read the book in a kind of hypnotised wonder, not just at the beautifully clear and concise prose, but at the way in which Haruf exposes the inner-most workings of the human heart — the lies we tell ourselves to get by, the shame, the pride, the desire for connection we all feel. But what I most admire is the way he manages to wring so much emotion out of the story without it ever tipping over into sugary mawkishness. It always feels genuine and real.

I think it’s largely to do with his under-stated, limpid prose style and the simple, to-the-point dialogue between characters (of which there is much) that puts you firmly in the thick of the “action”  in much the same way a good theatre production would do so.

But perhaps it is because he addresses universal themes — what it is to be a good person and to lead a good life; the importance of little kindnesses, acceptance, love and friendship; the sense of community between people and places; the need for connections, whether spiritual or sexual; what it is like to face death; and the struggle to achieve the “precious ordinary” — that makes Benediction such a wise, humane and powerful read.

And finally…

Please note, even though Benediction is part of a loose trilogy, it is very much a standalone book — you do not have to read the first two to appreciate it. There’s a whole new cast of characters and only one or two passing references to those who appear in the previous two novels, so you won’t be missing out on anything if you start with this one. That said, I must warn you: if this is your first Kent Haruf novel, I’m pretty sure it won’t be your last.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 328 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown TrilogyThe Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — is one of my favourite ever volumes, so I was falling over myself with excitement when I heard he had a new novel out that turned the “trilogy” into a “quartet”.

Back with the Rabbitte family

The Guts is set in modern-day Dublin — there are references to Whitney Houston’s death, boxer Katie Taylor‘s gold medal in the London Olympics, and Christy Moore, Sigur Ros and The Cure playing the Electric Picnic, which suggests the date is 2012.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who invented and managed the soul band The Commitments in The Commitments, is now 47. He’s married to the lovely Aoife and has four kids — all named after soul singers.

While he’s not rich, he has managed to survive the collapse of the Irish economy via an online business (, which he founded with his wife, selling long-lost Irish punk songs as downloads. After paying off the mortgage, he sold 75 per cent of the business to a partner, Noeleene, but keeps his hand in by managing reunion gigs and other associated projects.

But now things aren’t so great: Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He needs an operation and a series of chemotherapy treatments. And just when it’s all looking pretty grim he stumbles upon three things to distract him — the gorgeous Imelda Quirke, who was a singer in The Commitments he hasn’t seen in 20 or so years; trumpet lessons; and a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932.

Black comedy

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the company of the Rabbitte family — and I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew I was going to love this book when I got my first laugh on page 3. From then on, I pretty much tittered my way throughout it.

Occasionally Doyle does waver into sentimentality, especially where cancer is concerned, but he usually reigns it back in with a good dose of black humour —  I especially loved that Jimmy’s purple velour tracksuit bottoms, given to him as a Christmas present by his wife, are dubbed “cancer trousers” and that the book Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies sent to him as a joke actually becomes bedtime reading material.

There are some delightful set pieces involving the family that particularly tickled my fancy. For instance, when 10-year-old Brian, nicknamed Smoke (presumably after Smoky Robinson), requests a  sat nav for Christmas, his parents buy him one even though he “doesn’t have a fuckin’ car”. And this is what happens on Christmas morning:

He walked down the road with Brian and got excited with him when they came to the first corner, and there it was, on the sat nav.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
Here, Smoke, tell it where we’re goin’ and it’ll tell us where to go.
Brian impressed Jimmy, the way all his kids did, with his ability to negotiate the buttons, the confidence, the effortless speed. No grunting from this boy.
—Where we goin’? he asked.
—The Spar, said Smokey.
—It’s only over there.
—Drive forward, said the sat nav.
The voice was posh and reassuring, like an Aer Lingus pilot’s. […]
They found the Spar and were going on to Brian’s school. […] Brian turned right.
—The wrong way, Smoke.
—I know.
—Turn left, said the voice.
Brian kept going.
—Turn LEFT, said the voice.
Brian looked down at the sat nav.
—Fuck off, he said, and laughed.
He looked at Jimmy. And Jimmy laughed too.
—It’s brilliant, Dad, said Brian.

A musical project

The main story arc charts Jimmy coming to terms with his cancer treatment and reconnecting with the people he loves, including his long-lost brother, whom he manages to trackdown via Facebook. He also re-establishes contact with Outspan, another character from The Commitments, who has lung cancer and is in far worse shape than him.

But the real highlight is Jimmy’s musical project in which he hunts for tracks to include on a record of controversial Irish songs from 1932, the idea being to sell it during the 50th International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in the summer. As he hunts about in people’s attics, looking for old recordings, he can’t quite find the song he’s looking for — one that will sum up “the great escape”, one that will “say things that weren’t allowed” — and because of that he hits upon a rather radical idea: he will simply write one himself and find someone to record it.

What ensues is a kind of modern-day farce, involving YouTube and social media “buzz”, culminating in a very public, very surreal performance at the Electric Picnic music festival.

A heartfelt story

I think it’s clear from The Guts that Roddy Doyle has written this one from the guts: it’s frank and funny, it’s about things that matter (love and family and friendship), and it crackles with feisty Dublin dialect and richly comic exchanges. And the endless music references are just brilliant.

Despite the tragic illness at its core, the story is largely optimistic and upbeat, though it does stray into the saccharine every now and then.

But on the whole I loved spending time with Jimmy, a middle-aged man getting back in touch with his emotions and enjoying what he loves: women, family, pints and music, not necessarily in that order.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, England, Fiction, general, Jojo Moyes, Michael Joseph, Publisher, Setting

‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes


Fiction – paperback; Michael Joseph; 512 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jojo Moyes is a former newspaper journalist turned novelist. Her books tend to fall into the chick-lit category — she has won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Romantic Novel of the Year Award twice for Foreign Fruit (2004) and The Last Letter From Your Lover (2011). But Me Before You, her ninth novel, isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. I was looking for a light read to take away on holiday with me, and convinced by Simon’s recent review, I packed it in my suitcase.

Before I explain about the story, I must say that the pastel pink cover is truly terrible. It looks so girlie and twee, and if I saw it in a bookshop I would pass over it without a second thought. (I was reading a proof edition adorned in a plain, sunset-yellow jacket so I didn’t feel so self-conscious reading it.) Why do marketing departments insist on packaging “women’s fiction” in this clichéd, dare I say it, patronising way? Does it really shift copies?

Me Before You deserves better treatment, because this isn’t your average run-of-the-mill romance. Yes, I can see that it is probably aimed at 20-something women; yes, it’s not “literary”; and yes, it occasionally feels over-written and predictable. But the story deals with big issues — the class divide, quadriplegia, rape and the right to die, among others — and is handled with acute sensitivity and a good dollop of humour to lighten the load.

Waitress turned carer/companion

Louisa Clark is 26 and still living at home with her invalid grandfather, her parents, her younger sister and her sister’s young son. She has a dead end job working in a local cafe, but it’s hugely important to her, because she’s the breadwinner of the family. When she loses that job through no fault of her own — the cafe is closed down — she must hurriedly find something else to keep the family afloat. And that is how she ends up becoming a carer/companion to a local man, eight years her senior, who was paralysed from the neck down in a road accident several years earlier.

The job throws Lou in at the deep end. She has no experience as a professional carer, but she’s been employed because she has a bright personality and it is hoped her presence will lift Will Traynor out of the doldrums. What Lou doesn’t know is that she has six months to convince Will that life is worth living — he has already made an appointment with Dignitas to end his life through assisted suicide.

The narrative, told from Lou’s point of view, shows how her relationship with Will develops and changes over time. (There are also solo chapters from Will’s magistrate mother, Will’s adulterous father, Will’s New Zealand male nurse and Lou’s intelligent sister, which provide a three-dimensional view of the relationship.)

At first, the pair intensely dislike each other. Will was once the type of man who relished adventure sports such as mountain climbing, scuba diving and motorbiking. But now, stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he is bitter, angry and frustrated. He takes this out on Lou by snapping at her or making patronising comments. (In one scene, he pretends to drool and have a fit, just to scare her off.) But as time goes by and they spend more time in each other’s company a true friendship — and love — ensues.

Two people who change each other

The essence of the story is that these two people, from completely different backgrounds and mindsets, must find common ground to get along. Lou, who has settled for a quiet life living in the town of her birth, learns it’s okay to want to spread your wings and live a different kind of life. And Will, once a richly paid City worker with a beautiful girlfriend to match, discovers that small moments of joy can be found in unexpected places.

Moyes somehow manages to balance deep poignancy with black comedy — there’s one episode at a racecourse which is outright hilarious — so the narrative never feels heavy-handed or overly sentimental. And her depiction of life as a quadriplegic, including the detailed medical care required, is handled with compassion and dignity. She makes Will a flesh-and-blood real, three-dimensional character, when it would have been so easy to resort to cliché and stereotyping.

Despite the sadness at the heart of this novel, Me Before You is actually a life-affirming read about making the most of our lives and not taking anything for granted. The ending is hugely emotional — and not quite what I had expected — so if you decide to take the plunge and give this book a whirl, here’s one piece of advice to take on board: read the last 40 or so pages in the privacy of your home, unless you particularly like sobbing into your Kleenex in public.

Author, Book review, Granta, London, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tom Lubbock

‘Until Further Notice, I am Alive’ by Tom Lubbock


Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 128 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

One of my greatest fears is to lose the ability to use language, to no longer be able to speak, think, read or write. This is exactly what happened to writer and illustrator Tom Lubbock, who was chief art critic at The Independent and made his living from writing. (In the introduction to this book, his wife, artist Marion Coutts, describes their home as a “word factory” — a phrase that will resonate with anyone who churns out or edits copy for a living.)

A rare brain tumour

Lubbock’s condition was the result of a rare brain tumour situated in the left temporal lobe — the area of the brain responsible for speech and language. He was diagnosed in September 2008, told he had a year or two to live, and died in January 2011. He was 53.

This extraordinary memoir is not so much a day-to-day journal of his life after diagnosis but a philosophical account of what it is like to confront death. And it is also an illuminating account of how speech and language are central to our being — and how the loss of these skills can be puzzling, frustrating and frightening.

But this is not a glum book. Lubbock is suprisingly free of self-pity. The only times he ever expresses sadness is when he thinks of his young son, Eugene, who was 18 months old when he was diagnosed, and his wife, Marion. “All the future we won’t have,” he writes, “is utterly heartbreaking.”

A time to live and a time to die

Essentially Lubbock is resigned to his fate — in fact, he describes it as “interesting”, almost as if he is going on an adventure — and he understands that it is “not something I’m going to get through or over”.

On 21 October 2008, he writes:

Suppose I said: I can’t stand it — what would I do? This is not a marriage I can leave, a job I can resign, a country I can emigrate from, a prison I can try to escape. There are no terms to be come to. I could kill myself, so as to escape the intolerability of dying. Almost imaginable. I could try to get myself into a state where nothing that makes it matter to me does matter. Then I would be, in effect, already dead.

Perhaps his ready acceptance — or what sounds like ready acceptance — is helped in part by the lack of pain caused by the tumour (the brain has no pain receptors). For much of his illness he is in otherwise perfect health, apart from the occasional fit and the minor side-effects caused by his treatment.

But over time he begins to lose his language skills — and this, while not overly distressing nor unexpected, is obviously frustrating for one who relies on writing (and reading) to earn his living. He explains how he struggles to summon words when he writes and speaks, how sometimes the wrong words appear and his vocabularly gets mixed up and garbled.

On 7 July 2010, he writes:

Reading seems to have given up entirely. I listen to people on the radio, and I cannot repeat their words, nor can I grasp their points, but I can sort of recognise the articulations that are being made, they’re there, beneath the surface. And at some time, I suspect, my speech will simply fail. Or rather, it will fail first of all at one competence, and then at another.

A deeply profound life-affirming read

Strangely enough, reading a memoir about a man dying is a life affirming experience; it makes you see things in a slightly different light and shows how we often live our lives blind to our own mortality.

And yet Lubbock claims “my story doesn’t make a good story”.

A good story would either be a steady descent towards death, or a total recovery. But I have had, probably will have, a fluctuating plotline, with ups and downs, recoveries, declines, rallies, with some kind of final wreckage or fade.

I beg to differ. For such a slim book, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive is weighty with wisdom, insight and intelligence. It’s unflinchingly honest and candid, but it also exudes a beautiful sense of calm and dignity. And it’s certainly the most profound book I’ve read all year.

Author, Book review, England, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Giving up the Ghost’ by Hilary Mantel


Nonfiction – paperback; HarperPerennial; 252 pages; 2004.

Hilary Mantel is an award-winning British author with whom I only have a passing acquaintance. I read her last novel, Beyond Black, in early 2006 and very much enjoyed its dark inventiveness, especially her quirky characters and the descriptions of a rather dull and dreary suburban England populated by ghosts.

Giving up the Ghost is her much-lauded memoir, released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and how, having read it, I can see many aspects of her character in Beyond Black‘s narrator, Alison Hart, an overweight psychic. Mantel never goes into specifics, but it’s clear that she has some psychic tendencies, too. On the first page of her memoir, she claims to have seen her stepfather’s ghost. “I am not perturbed,” she writes. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there.”

The book is peppered with other unusual claims, including her sighting of an undefined “creature” in the back garden when she was seven that “has wrapped a strangling hand around my life, and I don’t know how, or what it was”.

There are large gaps in her life’s account, and the narrative, while largely chronological, does jump around a bit. “But in this book I didn’t aim to tell the story of my life,” she writes in the afterword, “just the story of two aspects of it, my childhood and my own childlessness. It was never meant to be the whole story. Stories are never whole.”

A tale of two halves

This is a good summation of Giving up the Ghost, which can, effectively, be broken into two halves: the first tells of her childhood growing up in a working-class Catholic family in the grim suburb of Hadfield in Manchester in the 1950s; the second of her rather traumatic adulthood filled with a string of misdiagnosed illnesses which render her unable to have children.

By turns the book is funny and sad; it’s often witty but never mawkish, and I came away from it feeling that Mantel had led a very tough but somehow inspirational life.

From the outset Mantel’s childhood was riddled with family secrets — her father disappeared; her mother moved her lover into the house and then moved suburbs to avoid a community scandal — that caused her to live in an “emotional labyrinth”. Even when she escaped the family home and moved to London to begin her university law course, the dark ghosts of the past would not let her go…

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander around my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

Candid writing

Written in a clear-eyed prose style, it is, at times, so honest as to be painful. Mantel admits that she struggles to write much of it. “Once you have learned the habits of secrecy, they aren’t so easy to give up,” she confesses mid-way through the book.

She is particularly frank about her various illnesses, which lead to her stacking on weight and “accumulating an anger that would rip a roof off”. And the ways in which she comes to terms with her infertility are also painfully candid, the hurt seemingly oozing off the page.

This is not a particularly cheerful read, but it is an inspirational one about chasing dreams, seeking answers and forging your own path in life. I loved it and now that I know more about Hilary Mantel’s life I hope to read more of her fiction very soon.

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

‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner


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.

Another 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 phrase but, in this 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.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 232 pages; 2000.

After years of freedom working as a nurse in war-torn London, Elizabeth Reegan returns to the remote Irish village of her childhood. Here she marries a widower and becomes stepmother to three young children.

The widower is the sergeant of a three-man barracks (station) who longs to escape the police force. Bitter about his job, he runs a nice side business growing and cutting turf and does not seem particularly worried about being caught by the ever-prowling superintendent Quirke, who keeps a watchful eye on him.

In the claustrophobic surrounds of the barracks in which the police live and work, Elizabeth busies herself with the small but vital (and often unnoticed) tasks that are necessary for the smooth running of the household: cooking, cleaning, gardening, stoking the fire and minding the children.

But when she discovers a cyst in her breast, she uses the importance of these tasks as an excuse not to see a doctor. When, at last, she is diagnosed with cancer she finds herself dwelling on the past, finding comfort in the present while trying to contain the “scream in her mouth”.

First published in 1963 (and banned from JohnMcGahern’s local library), The Barracks is a remarkably confident first novel by a man who went on to become a giant of modern Irish literature.

McGahern’s ability to write so effectively, authentically and eloquently about a middle-aged woman dying of breast cancer is quite stunning. Her interior monologues are heartfelt, swinging between joy and despair. And her metaphysical crisis seems all the more profound because she is unable to share it with anyone, not even the village priest whom she has never liked. As a result, she finds herself thinking more and more about a past lover, a young doctor in London, who constantly asked her: “What is all this living and dying about anyway?”

While The Barracks explores some serious themes — life, death and our search for meaning — McGahern is also a master at the minutiae of daily life, the tedium of housework, the ritual of nightly prayer, and how the changing seasons dictate the timeless rhythms of rural living.

He is also excellent at capturing the humour and banter between policemen, using rich and fiercely Irish dialogue that had me laughing out loud more than once or twice.

Overall this is a dark and depressing Catholic novel, but its poignancy and intelligence make it one of the most haunting reads you are ever likely to experience.

Author, Book review, Coronet, Fiction, general, Jodi Picoult, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘My Sister’s Keeper’ by Jodi Picoult


Fiction – paperback; Coronet Books; 448 pages; 2005.

Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper is an intriguing and intelligent book about a moral and ethical medical dilemma: is it OK to conceive a genetically matched child so that the baby’s cord blood cells can be donated to her older sister who is sick and dying from a rare blood disorder?  And if the “designer baby” is continually “used” to help her sister, should she be able to say no at any point?

After a lifetime of medical procedures to help her sister, 13-year-old Anna decides she has had enough and takes the drastic step of suing her parents for the rights to her own body. The outfall is, obviously, emotionally powerful: anger and heartbreak mixed with confusion, pain and disbelief. The mother’s initial reactions are particularly telling.

I found the subject of Picoult’s eleventh novel fascinating and her writing deft and free from cloying schmaltz. Each character in the novel takes it in turn to narrate chapters, which is a great device for being able to show the range and complexity of different conflicting viewpoints. However, I found that trying to tell everyone’s story only served to make an already complicated book even more complicated. And the love element between Anna’s lawyer and the woman appointed to look at Anna’s case just added to the confusion – I really couldn’t have cared less about them.

On the whole, while My Sister’s Keeper didn’t really grab me by the jugular, I thought it was an interesting and entertaining read. The twist at the end, which came right out of left field, almost reduced me to tears it had such a forceful impact: it made reading the book all the more worthwhile.